Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the contribution of Reserve Forces and Cadets’ Associations to the work of the Reserve Forces and the cadets, to national defence and to the Armed Forces covenant.
My Lords, I start by declaring my interest as president of the Council of Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Associations. The forerunners of today’s Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Associations were established by Haldane in 1908 as County Territorial Associations. Through a series of Acts of Parliament they acquired a tri-service role, and in 1967 moved to their current regional structure, establishing a national council. In 1996 they gained their current name and in 2014 they were given the role of setting up an external scrutiny team to provide an annual independent report to Parliament on the state of the reserves. Today, the RFCAs also maintain and develop most reserve and cadet properties, other than those on regular bases, and sea cadet sites, which are charitably owned.
The RFCAs provide a voice for and a range of services to the Reserve Forces, the cadet movement and, more recently, wider defence. They are voluntary organisations, run by 13 regional committees representing their members, who are mostly unpaid volunteers from a wide range of backgrounds, including business, legal, education, local and national government, agriculture, banking, accountancy, property and military, both ex-regular and reserve. Collectively, they willingly give their time to further the interests of the reserves, the cadets and wider defence, and have considerable local influence networks. Each regional RFCA has a paid staff headed by a chief executive, appointed by its committee and reporting to it. The regional chairs sit on the national council, which is supported by its own chief executive and small staff. Because of their membership, RFCAs have critical links to business through regional business groups. They also have a range of equally important links to civic society through their membership and through 13 lords-lieutenant, who are their presidents.
As I mentioned earlier, the RFCAs maintain and develop most reserve and cadet properties—about 5,000 of them around the whole of the United Kingdom—and provide administrative support to the Army cadets. Recently, defence has given the RFCAs an additional, important role to deliver wider engagement with society and to encourage businesses and civic institutions to sign up to the Armed Forces covenant. This recognises that the RFCAs enjoy a degree of immersion in the civilian world which the MoD and Armed Forces lack. They do all this with an annual budget of about £112 million.
Perhaps partly because they are apolitical, the RFCAs have been especially successful in working with the devolved Administrations, managing to maintain consensus on matters where direct approach from the MoD could easily lead to friction. The RFCAs are currently unclassified, arm’s-length bodies, and Cabinet Office guidelines stipulate that it is good practice to apply a tailored review process to such bodies.
Accordingly, the RFCAs have undergone such a process. This review, the report of which is currently in draft, concludes that the RFCAs offer excellent value for money—a striking point, given the persistent weaknesses in the MoD’s own track record in managing property. It makes a number of detailed recommendations, many of which I accept, on matters such as updating service level agreements with the single services, the proper safeguarding of cadets, and so on. Its main concern appears to be the proper safeguarding of taxpayers’ money, something I also think is extremely important.
However, the report points out that the structure of the RFCAs, with no statutory basis for the council, is anomalous and—to tick the right boxes—suggests a fairly dramatic upheaval. Despite conceding the success of the RFCAs across their roles, the RFCA review proposes to put in place an arrangement under which an executive committee headed by the national chief executive would replace the council as the overall authority. National and regional councils would become purely advisory organisations. All appointments would be via an OCPA-compliant process—the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments—instead of election by the membership. In many cases, willing volunteers would be replaced by salaried individuals. The membership would be disenfranchised, though allowed to call themselves “associates”.
RFCAs are strictly non-party political, but there is an analogy here with a political party or a national charity. Suppose the national chief agent were put in charge, with regional agents reporting directly to him or her and the volunteer officers consigned to an advisory role. The loss of talent and commitment at all levels can easily be imagined. Yet, at a time when the Armed Forces are arguably more culturally isolated than ever before, this one strong defence bridgehead into civic society is threatened, critically risking damage to the delivery of the covenant.
Were the draft report’s proposals to go through, they would drive a coach and horses through valuable links to civic society which are at the heart of the Armed Forces covenant—one of the few remaining areas of policy where there is a broad consensus across Parliament and the devolved Administrations. It would also appear to typify the attitudes which the Prime Minister’s aide Dominic Cummings has firmly in his sights, as he says in his blog:
“The government system … is a combination of, inter alia: 1) extreme centralisation of power among ministers, ofﬁcials … 2) extremely powerful bureaucracy (closed to outside people and ideas) deﬁned by dysfunctional management incentivised to spew rules rather than solve problems”.
The draft report on the RFCA review proposes a solution to a purely bureaucratic issue by pulling down a successful structure and pulling up some of defence’s last remaining roots in the civilian world, which serve it so well. The perceived weaknesses can be addressed in a straightforward way without the wholesale change proposed, as has been explained to those driving the changes, with the council of the RFCAs being a legal entity under primary legislation. The RFCAs are happy to see the council put on a statutory footing; indeed, this would require much simpler amendment to primary legislation than the much more drastic surgery proposed under the review. The national and regional councils should remain volunteer-led, rather than a de facto extension of the MoD. The changes proposed in the review would, in my judgment, fatally undermine the very strengths that the report extols and seeks to preserve.
As Sir Roger Scruton, the philosopher who, so sadly, recently died and whose funeral took place on Friday, once said,
“good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created … the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation slow, laborious and dull.”
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, for bringing this issue to our attention and for having it debated this evening.
Although no final decisions have yet been made, it is quite clear that there is a head of steam building up to replace the current devolved structure of the RFCAs and the national council with a centralised system. As the noble Lord said, this would involve an executive committee with a chief executive, and the national and regional councils would become purely advisory. I find this somewhat surprising, bearing in mind the Government’s desire to devolve in most areas of their endeavour. As I understand it, the report mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, says that the current RFCAs offer excellent value for money. Can the Minister confirm that that aspect of the report is absolutely correct—that they provide very good value for money?
The phrase “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it”, rather jumps to mind. It is quite clear that the current arrangements do not fit neatly into the ordered, centralised organisational structures so beloved of our splendid Civil Service, but sometimes something unstructured is just what is needed. I believe this is one of those times.
One of the great strengths of the current system, as has been referred to, is that it is staffed by unpaid volunteers: local people from that region who love the military and know a great deal about local conditions. Headed by lords-lieutenant, they embrace people, as has been said, with a wide range of backgrounds: education, local government, banking, accounting, property, and so on, all brought together by their belief in the Reserve Forces and cadets, and love of the military. They feel that they can make important decisions—and indeed they can.
I am particularly nervous about the establishment of an all-powerful executive committee with appointees undergoing the OPCA-compliant process. I fear that those seeking these slots, as has been mentioned, would expect to be remunerated, and that it would become overpopulated by quango kings and queens with no deep love of reserves and cadets, and limited local links to vast swathes of the country.
It cannot be beyond the wit of man to find a way of resolving the bureaucratic problems of the present system without destroying the current structure that is so important in maintaining the crucial connections of the reserves and cadets to the societies that, in the final analysis, they serve. In particular, the north will not be pleased that, once again, London becomes the focus. Can the Minister please pass on these concerns to those conducting the review?
My Lords, I welcome this short debate on the health of the nation’s Reserve Forces. I declare a specific interest in reserve matters, based on my leadership of the 2011 independent commission that reviewed the country’s Reserve Forces as follow-on work to the 2010 defence review.
It is worth recalling that the context of the review that I led in 2011 was a set of Reserve Forces in accelerating institutional decline. Our reserves at that stage were primarily being used as individual operational augmentees for service in Iraq and Afghanistan. We were failing to make an attractive offer to encourage reserve service more generally. The reserves still had very much of a Cold War feel about them; they were still structured for supporting major intervention operations. The potential utility of the reserves for modern homeland security, UK resilience, cyber defence and stabilisation was not at that stage remotely recognised. Perhaps more seriously, at that stage we were not exploiting either reservist talent or the nation’s volunteer ethos to the full. We were failing to create a more cost-effective regular/reserve manpower balance, and we were actively contributing to the erosion of the vital links between our Armed Forces and wider society.
Why did this situation come about? To an extent at least, because, at a time of scarce resources and high operational demand, what I might call central authority saw the reserves as assets not to be sustained but plundered. Some might recall that reservist pay was taken as a savings measure. Alone among developed nations at that time, we viewed reserves as a quaint, historical, inefficient luxury, not the vital expression of society’s voluntary contribution to national security.
So, although I know little about the detail of the review that has stimulated this short debate, like other noble Lords I am instantaneously made anxious by it. I understand that, as others mentioned, the review concludes that the current devolved mechanism for the governance of reserves and cadets—the RFCAs—offers excellent value for money. Moreover, as we have heard, defence has entrusted the RFCAs with additional roles to deliver wider engagement with society and the business and civic worlds.
However, somewhat remarkably, the review also wants to neuter the local autonomy of the RFCAs. It wants to supplant the benefits of a regionalised, delegated model with a centralised system, or so I am led to believe. Why? As far as I can ascertain, as has been pointed out, it is purely to satisfy the bureaucratic requirement for the senior governing body of reserves and cadets to be put on a statutory basis. That is fine, but why does this need a dramatic upheaval of the entire decentralised model?
My fear is that a bureaucratic nicety involving a minor issue of governance is being used as a vehicle to centralise the governance of reserves and cadets. In doing so, it risks adopting a system devoid of localised sensitivity and insight, in turn risking a return to a mindset that, as I well remember, nearly brought about the collapse of reserve service 10 years ago. I therefore join other noble Lords in asking the Minister whether she can reassure the House that such a risk is not being contemplated.
My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, on securing time for this debate on our Reserve Forces, a subject that often gets overlooked when the focus of attention is elsewhere.
However, it is a simple fact that our Armed Forces—the Army in particular—could not have done all that they have done in recent years without a significant contribution from our Reserve Forces. During the course of the extended and very difficult campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, some 10% of the manpower of each successive brigade group that deployed for a six-month tour came from the Reserve Forces; in some deployments, the proportion was higher.
Moreover, some operational deployments that were hitherto conducted by regular units have been conducted by reserve units—something very much to the credit of, and demonstrative of the commitment of, our reservists. It is also worth remembering that, as our Regular Forces decrease in number and visibility, our Reserve Forces and cadets are the public face of the military. For example, in cities, towns and villages on Remembrance Sunday, it is invariably Reserve Forces and cadets that appear on parade.
The importance of our Reserve Forces up and down the country is at the heart of one of the major concerns that brought about this debate, as the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, and other noble Lords outlined. To those closely involved with the administration and organisation of our Reserve Forces, the current governance structure of the network of Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Associations—the RFCAs—up and down the country works well. There is a strong belief that, as the noble Lord, Lord West, said, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
However, it would appear that the Ministry of Defence believes that the RFCAs’ structure is not fit for purpose and wishes to make some quite fundamental changes. The so-called tailored review of the RFCAs which is looking into these matters has concluded that there are issues around the legal status of the Council of RFCAs, the financial arrangements and the classification of the RFCAs themselves. But like other noble Lords, I question whether these are real issues or simply a commentary on the way that our reserve forces are administered and organised—a bespoke and pragmatic process that has hitherto worked well but now does not appear to fit neatly into Cabinet Office, Treasury and Ministry of Defence templates.
On the issue of classification, as recently as 2007, the Cabinet Office concluded that the legal position of the Council of RFCAs and the RFCAs themselves was clear, stating they are properly established under the Reserve Forces Act 1996 and have Crown status. Moreover, the Cabinet Office stated that they were not a non-departmental public body with all that that entails; but now the MoD is arguing that the RFCAs should indeed become a non-departmental public body. What has changed in 12 years to cause this about turn? I would suggest that nothing has fundamentally changed about the RFCAs, although much has changed in terms of good practice. What has changed is the MoD’s desire to force the RFCAs into a convenient template.
However, one must assume that the MoD’s underlying concern is rooted in financial governance, as set out in the policy document entitled Managing Public Money. It would seem that the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Defence, as the overall accounting officer for defence money, does not believe that he has sufficient control over the RFCAs and so is arguing for—and perhaps even demanding—significant change. To my mind, the change being argued for is itself inappropriate and, if implemented in the manner envisaged in the tailored review, would do untold damage to the volunteer ethos of the RFCAs and weaken the sense of localism that underpins the support network of our reserve forces and cadets. That said, I can understand the Permanent Secretary’s desire to ensure that he can fully deliver on his accounting officer responsibilities. The National Audit Office rarely takes prisoners these days, especially where defence expenditure is concerned.
However, the solution to the Permanent Secretary’s problem is not the recommendations of the tailored review; instead, it should be a simple application of the MoD’s own budgetary hierarchy. Were the Council of RFCAs to become a higher-level budget within an appropriate top-level budget, and the RFCAs around the country to become intermediate higher-level budgets or basic-level budgets, accountability would be ensured, sensible delegation would remain in place and local initiative and enthusiasm encouraged. I have been a top-level budget holder as the Army commander, held a higher-level budget as a divisional commander, and held an intermediate higher-level budget as a brigade commander. The system is tried and tested, works well and is understood. Would the Minister be kind enough to explain in her closing remarks why this model is not being considered for our Reserve Forces?
There is another dimension to the tailored review recommendations which shows just how out of line with reality they are. The report states that, “Consideration should be given to remunerate RFCA Board and Regional Council members to attract applicants with a diverse mix of military and professional knowledge, skills and performance.” Such a recommendation is little short of downright insulting to the hundreds of volunteers in the existing RFCA structure and network who freely give of their time and expertise—
My Lords, perhaps I may remind the noble and gallant Lord that this is a timed debate and he has rather gone over his allocation.
Of course, and I shall move on to a conclusion.
The volunteer ethos is why hundreds of men and women up and down the country are willing to give of their time freely to run the Reserve Forces organisations and structure. Does the Minister really think that paying people is the answer to a question that, to my mind, does not even exist? I do not just fear for the future of our Reserve Forces; I know that untold damage will be done to their ethos and efficiency. I urge Her Majesty’s Government to think again.
I draw the attention of the House to my entries in the register of interests, and the whole House should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, for calling this debate at such a crucial time for the reserve forces and cadets in the light of the proposed changes to be made to the Council of the Reserve Forces and Cadets Associations.
I have two general points on defence which I hope the Minister will be able to deal with in her reply. First, there is a strategic defence review in the offing. Does she have a timetable for this, and what opportunities will noble Lords have to consider and debate the proposed review? Secondly, will the military covenant be given statutory force, and when will the necessary legislation be brought to the House?
On the main thrust of the debate, I am sure the whole House is united in support for the reserves and cadets, both of which link the Armed Forces with their parishes, villages, towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom. The House has heard from the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, explaining the structure of the RFCAs, whose personnel are largely unpaid volunteers from diverse walks of life. They also enhance and reinforce the important link between civilians and the Armed Forces. Given the shrinking manpower in the Armed Forces, this is more crucial than ever.
Service in the reserves and cadets is of great importance, not least because it gives an opportunity for individuals to serve their country in the Armed Forces, which they can do while concurrently pursuing their studies. The links that RFCA members have with the civilian population are invaluable, not least because they assist in the retention of the good will of employers who release their staff to serve. Reserves are vital for reinforcements in combat and, furthermore, service in the reserves enables individuals who have served in the regular Armed Forces to transfer to the reserves and to retain and hone their skills.
In a debate also called by the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, on 21 June 2018, I cited the case of two regular Royal Marines who left the corps and joined the reserves—namely Corporal Seth Stephens, a member of the Special Boat Service reserve, posthumously awarded the Conspicuous Gallantry Cross for outstanding bravery in Afghanistan; and Corporal Matt Croucher, awarded the George Cross for outstanding bravery while serving in a commando unit in Afghanistan.
Before I close my speech, I will say a few words about the Cadet Expansion Programme. This has been a great success, a combined operation with cross-party support. The Ministry of Defence, the Department for Education and the Treasury, which funded the programme partly through Libor fines, all deserve credit. The RFCAs played an active part in bringing about this success. It was launched in 2012, and by November 2019 the CEP 500 target was met five months early when the 500th cadet unit began parading. The vast bulk of the 258 new CEP schools are state-funded schools. It is already clear that there is overwhelming and compelling evidence demonstrating that cadet forces can make a huge and positive contribution to social inclusion, social mobility and the well-being of young people.
The Minister, in her comments on the draft report, is rightly extremely complimentary of the RFCAs. The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, has told the House that the RFCAs are happy to see the council put on a statutory footing and to take certain additional safeguarding and other measures, but that the national and regional councils should remain volunteer led. Drastic change, as envisaged, should be resisted. I remind the House of the changes made some years ago in the system of Army recruiting. The results have been disappointing, to say the least. This is not an isolated example of where drastic change has resulted in failure. I hope the Minister is able to reassure us that the councils will remain volunteer led and retain their responsibilities.
My Lords, I do not have the military experience of many other noble Lords who have spoken in this debate, but I do have a number of friends and contacts who play important roles in the Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Associations. I share—with all noble Lords, I am sure—a wish to preserve all that is best about the existing arrangements, while accepting that there may be some improvements that can be made. Inevitably, I will concentrate on legal and regulatory matters.
The draft tailored review highlights a number of strengths in the existing structure, in particular the extensive volunteer membership and community links. As the review concludes, at paragraph 2.2.4, the functions of the RFCAs
“remain relevant and valuable contributing to Defence objectives whilst building and maintaining vital links for the Defence community with the general public.”
Weaknesses in corporate governance are, however, identified. As the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, pointed out, these could be remedied without the creation of a single executive non-departmental body. The reason for the potential change is said to be because they are not “genuinely unique”—not a particularly happy expression—and thus unclassifiable, as they pass the three tests to be a non-departmental public body.
The Cabinet Office handbook, Classification of Public Bodies: Guidance for Departments, says:
“It is possible that for reasons associated with function or services, there may be a small number of ALBs”—
“that cannot be classified into one of the main categories without adversely impacting on the body’s ability to fulfil of those functions/deliver those services.”
It goes on to say that
“such unique and unclassifiable entities will be allowed to remain administratively unclassified, in exceptional circumstances, so long as they have appropriate governance and accountability structures in place.”
Yet there are several statements in the draft report which would lead one to conclude that they are unique, not least in the diversity and variety of their stated tasks. Indeed, in annexe C-5 of the draft report there is a clear statement that “the continuity of their tri-Service regional engagement is unique.”
We are potentially about to lose some really valuable aspects of the organisations of the RFCA based on a concept of uniformity and a rather uneasy concept of uniqueness. What is the reason behind this? One might look to the ministerial foreword—not always a good source. One paragraph from the Minister of State reads as follows:
“I fully support the recommendations the Review makes about how the RFCAs can develop their effectiveness, efficiency, and corporate governance to fully realise the latent potential. In particular, regularising the RFCAs as a single Non-Departmental Public Body … to best deliver an increased focus on financial resilience, facilitating Reserves and Cadets skills development, renewal and modernisation of the Volunteer Estate, and spearheading innovative tri-Service engagement practices.”
I am not sure that that would survive analysis by Mr Dominic Cummings. I am sure that the noble Baroness responding, whom we all much admire, will be able to be a great deal clearer than that foreword as to why this very valuable organisation suffers the possibility of being so sadly diminished.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, for this debate. I have a few declarations of interest that go beyond the register. I am the Lord Lieutenant for County Fermanagh, and therefore a vice-president of the Northern Ireland RFCA. We also host a veterans charity at home, which is eligible for government grants, and my wife is on the RFCA.
Northern Ireland, with 3% of the UK’s population and 7.7% of the reserve liability, is over 90% recruited. The reserves and cadets have survived and been recruited from both communities through 40 years of the Troubles. This has been enabled by the independence of the RFCA and the fact that it is an arm’s-length body.
The tailored review recognises the value in Northern Ireland. Against the background of the lack of devolved Administration support, the Northern Ireland RFCA delivers additional output: for example, it reaches places that the MoD simply could not get to, has employer engagement in both communities, and has links with youth. Additionally, the cadets benefit from not being entirely within the military circle in Northern Ireland; presenting a non-military face of defence is crucial in areas where regional sensitivities must be considered. The Northern Ireland RFCA has developed a youth outreach programme. Last year, 60,000 took part in it; it is the biggest such programme in Northern Ireland, in both communities. RFCAs have a role in relation to the Armed Forces covenant. In Northern Ireland, due to the position of some political parties that do not recognise it, that is even more important. In Northern Ireland, it is the RFCA, with its arm’s-length status and informal but extensive networks, that enables it to work where the MoD cannot.
There is also a unique partnership with the Department for the Economy and Invest Northern Ireland, which includes creating opportunities for the military community as a whole. Overt support by employers is difficult in the Province, but the RFCAs have bespoke arrangements with 700 employers, which is unusual at that level.
This leads on to one part of the tailored review that everybody else has spoken about that I disagree with: the appointments through OCPA. I disagree with this as far as the regional RFCAs go. Sometimes we lose sight of the real objective and get into a regulatory trail and that is all that matters. The objective is to facilitate the provision of Reserve Forces to back up the regular Army and other forces, and to do other tasks to support the cadet organisations, which are the vital recruiting base for all our armed services.
The associations are key to providing the right environment in the right communities. It is their task to do this by being involved and having links in all areas. I believe that the current system of appointment to the boards has achieved this, especially during the provision of reserves during the conflicts in the last 30 years, where the Army, or the Armed Forces, have been undermanned. In fact, the results, during a period of very poor manning, have been quite extraordinary.
The key to this has been, I believe, the quality and wide civil experience of the boards. In Northern Ireland, for instance, currently we have the pro-vice-chancellor of Ulster University, the head of Children in Northern Ireland, an ex-chief nursing officer, an ex-chief police officer, an ex-finance director of a food processing company in Londonderry, which is a divided place, and a senior member of HMRC. I believe that people with this seniority and experience cannot be gathered in any other way. I have some experience of OCPA and there appear to be serial applicants who apply for anything that comes up—a few days a month for a small remittance. This effectively will cut out and disfranchise the seriously able and senior volunteer membership that has enabled the success of the RFCAs to work in culturally and politically sensitive areas.
In addition and in particular, I ask the Minister where the lieutenancies will stand. Similar to the rest of the UK, the eight Lords Lieutenant in Northern Ireland, who are vice-presidents of the RFCAs, and more than 100 DLs in Northern Ireland all work to support the reserves and cadets as volunteers. Do we do away with this valuable network? We cannot afford to do that. With these changes in the composition of the RFCAs, I fear we will lose the quality and ethos of their service.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a former honorary colonel of a Royal Engineers reserve regiment. My comments are focused on the effect on the costs of what is proposed in the draft report.
Her Majesty’s Treasury’s publication Managing Public Money says in chapter 3, under “Accounting Officers” that
“the accounting officer should ensure that the organisation, and any ALBs it sponsors, operates effectively and to a high standard of probity. The organisation should … use its resources efficiently, economically and effectively, avoiding waste and extravagance”.
That is much in line with a common-sense approach to controlling costs properly and obtaining value for money. MPM also says that the accounting officer should
“avoid over defining detail and imposing undue compliance costs, either internally or on its customers and stakeholders”.
The draft report on the review is complimentary about the ability of RFCAs to control costs. It says at paragraph 4.0.3:
“The Review found that the RFCAs deliver a great deal on tight resources, proving strong value for money.”
Paragraph 2.10.6 says:
“The RFCAs are able to exploit synergies by combining their work across functions to deliver greater than the sum of the parts.”
Tellingly, and with masterly understatement, it says at paragraph 2.5.7:
“Evidence from customers is that efficiencies would be unlikely to be realised if the maintenance tasks were transferred to the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, which is responsible for the equivalent function for the regular forces estate.”
Paragraph 8 of annexe B to the draft report says that the review proposes to
“identify activities conducted across Defence that could be done by the RFCAs more effectively and/or at less cost.”
The report then comes up with quite a long list of new tasks that the RFCAs could be considered for taking on, apparently improving efficiency and value for money, such as managing small training areas, working on the injured servicemen’s living accommodation project and delivering elements of the MoD’s veterans’ strategy.
This all seems to imply not only that the RFCAs are highly competent at controlling costs and obtaining value for money but that the author thought so quite strongly. He is not beating about the bush. Yet recommendation 5.6a proposes that board chair and members should in future be OCPA-regulated and that regional board chairs should also be appointed on OCPA principles. It would be very unusual for those appointed to similar positions on other government bodies on OCPA principles not to be paid for their time. Indeed, recommendation 5.6d says that
“consideration should be given to remunerating RFCA board and regional council members.”
So here is the draft report recommending the introduction of a new and quite unnecessary cost, which would have to be funded by so-called savings elsewhere and would inevitably mean greater centralisation and less localism, going against what it is trying to achieve.
Currently, the chairs and board members work for the RFCAs for free. They live and breathe the volunteer ethos. They understand the Reserve Forces and the huge pressures that apply to members in reconciling the demands of family, civilian work and military responsibilities. Purely in terms of value for money, let alone the casting aside of the network of experienced volunteers, I suggest the need for a rethink.
My Lords, I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord De Mauley for tabling this Question for Short Debate and speaking to it with his usual clarity. Like all noble Lords, I strongly advise the Minister to exercise caution in this area. I remind the House that I have been a member of an RFCA in the past.
My fear is that yet again the MoD is being tempted to concentrate on form rather than function—a desire for a generic process rather than a recognition of the pragmatism and product that a bespoke design can and does generate. Time and again, the RFCAs’ structure and operating methods having been challenged, but it has always ultimately been conceded that their unquestionably unique character must be retained. This does not break the guidelines, but merely exploits the guideline provisions to recognise difference.
Defence needs what the RFCAs provide. When others, for example SaBRE, the DIO and the Recruiting Group, have tried to take over the role, the results have been at best suboptimal and at worst near catastrophic. As for Capita, why is it still involved in the Armed Forces at all? All noble Lords have heard the horror stories. Privately, I know of two cases of potential officers who have been rejected, or nearly rejected, for trifling sports injuries which servicepeople would likely incur during their career in any case and which certainly would not adversely affect their PULHHEEMS rating.
There is a very serious misconception about military recruiting. Whether regular or reserve, military service is not simply a job whereby the employer offers remuneration in return for a certain amount of work over an agreed number of hours. Military service is an unlimited commitment, for which no amount of remuneration could possibly compensate if that commitment is fully called in. My noble friend Lord Faulks made an exceptional point.
I draw the House’s attention to a further danger of centralising the function of the RFCAs. Suppose, God forbid, it becomes necessary to rapidly expand the volunteer reserves, especially the land forces. It would take time, knowledge and contacts to put the necessary infrastructure in place. This would not be difficult for the RFCAs as currently organised.
Indeed, an important activity of the RFCAs is property maintenance. The feedback I get from regular officers about the DIO is too vitriolic to repeat to your Lordships’ House. For instance, one complaint concerns keeping buildings on the defence estate unused when there is a use for them, simply because no funding is available for the statutory inspections—electricity and asbestos inspections, for example. Thus these buildings are allowed to deteriorate instead of being used for defence-related purposes The RFCAs manage a diverse estate comprising many relatively small properties. “Mega propman” contracts are completely unsuitable for this type of work. They result in high costs for trivial works, which also take a long time to complete.
I hope my noble friend the Minister will feel able to use her good offices to maintain the status quo with respect to the RFCAs.
My Lords, I add my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, for initiating this important debate. I declare my interests as an honorary officer in the Royal Naval Reserve and as a vice-president of the Marine Society and Sea Cadets. For a number of years I served on the City of London RFCA and was privileged to serve as president when Lord Mayor of London in 2015-16.
Almost 10 years after the start of the successful Future Reserves 2020 betterment and expansion programme, the Reserve Forces are now absolutely vital to defence. As we speak, reservists are delivering operational effect. Some are deployed on operations abroad; others, such as the hugely successful cyber reserves, are delivering vital capability here in the UK. The reserves are now well recruited and, most importantly, provide a vital link from defence into the wider community, including employers. We can all be justly proud of the great contribution of the reserves to our nation’s defence, and indeed also of our superb cadet organisations.
The draft report we have been hearing of has not been published—nor have I seen a copy—but I am hearing considerable concerns regarding some of the recommendations from both regulars and reservists. I do not need to go into them because we have heard them.
Reservists are remarkable people. We all know in our own lives how difficult it is to balance career, family and other commitments, but reservists take on additional demanding duties that require time, energy, commitment, physical fitness, additional organisational flair and more—and do not let us forget that they can also, like their colleagues in the regulars, be called upon to make the final sacrifice.
It is incredibly important that reservists know that they have the support, back-up and understanding of the RFCAs. They know that the RFCAs consist primarily of volunteers, who share the volunteer ethos with them and typically have served themselves in the regulars or the reserves. RFCA personnel know the challenges, difficulties and satisfactions that our reservists experience. The involvement of the lords lieutenant and the deputy lieutenants links directly to the Crown—which, again, the reservists totally relate to.
We have heard how the RFCAs are typically manned by individuals of high achievement and the highest integrity. This is critical also for the local businesses, large and small, local authorities, civic society, trade unions and other entities that support the reserves, the cadets and, importantly, the Armed Forces covenant, in this instance, particularly, building and maintaining relationships which the department and the Armed Forces lack—and they do this for neither reward nor recognition.
It is hardly controversial to suggest that the nation is very well served by the regional structure of the RFCAs. Independent and impartial, rooted in their communities, they are ideally located to develop and maintain relations with the local population and local businesses and interests. Given the calibre of individual involved and their local involvement, they work with sensitivity to address local needs and sentiment. As the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, noted, they have been especially successful in working with the devolved Administrations, managing to maintain consensus on matters where a direct approach from the MoD could easily lead to friction.
This regional footprint and close ties to their respective communities is seen by RFCA customers as a key strength, with regional variance and nuance in delivery and engagement. The regional approach works.
There is perhaps an understandable focus on the Army, but it is generally accepted that the services get a pretty good service from the RFCAs, and something which is not always remarked on is that the RFCAs also do a great deal to support the single services in their work to engage society in the most general sense. One example of this is the work they do on employer engagement for the purposes of supporting all the tenets of the Armed Forces covenant, not just the recruiting and retention of reserves.
Currently the chairs and board members work for the RFCAs pro bono. They are steeped in the volunteer ethos, and they understand the Reserve Forces and the huge pressures that apply to their members. Will someone who applies online, who is perhaps a regular applicant for paid government advisory appointments, who may have no experience of or particular previous interest in the Reserve Forces, do this better than an experienced volunteer who is already in post?
Why, at this time of financial challenge for the Armed Forces, would you pay new people to do something which is already being done to the highest standard, as is widely acknowledged, and unpaid? We should be genuinely concerned about whether those recruited under the OCPA guidelines would offer the same experience, commitment and independence of mind. There is a risk of “them and us” emerging as a factor.
All of this is not to suggest that improvements cannot be made, but the perceived weaknesses can be addressed in a straightforward way, without wholesale change. To echo the noble Lord, Lord West, surely it is not beyond the wit of man—for which read “government”—to put the council and the RFCAs on some sort of statutory footing.
My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord De Mauley on introducing this timely debate today. I should declare an interest as honorary air commodore of 600 (City of London) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force and my interest in the reserves and cadets as a deputy lieutenant of Hertfordshire and as a lieutenant of the City of London. I also have three years’ experience in the CCF and 10 years’ service in the TA.
I urge the Minister to be cautious in adopting a review which could be described as using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, with probable damaging consequences. As the draft review itself acknowledges, the RFCAs are actually working pretty well and it might be wise to heed the old maxim, already quoted by other noble Lords, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The draft review contains some important and sensible recommendations—for example, placing the Council of the RFCAs on a proper statutory footing, but surely such change could be achieved without the radical reorganisation presaged by the draft review. To change the 13 autonomous RFCAs into a single non-departmental public body would be to risk throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In 2007, the Cabinet Office took the view that the RFCAs did not fit into any of the classifications for arm’s-length bodies and that, in particular, they were not non-departmental public bodies. What has changed since 2007? The draft review offers no new evidence as to why the RFCAs should now be put into a Whitehall straitjacket.
The review claims that the RFCAs are not genuinely unique and unclassifiable and therefore, change is necessary: the status quo cannot be maintained. However, the Cabinet Office handbook Classification of Public Bodies: Guidance for Departments states:
“It is possible that for reasons associated with function or services, there may be a small number of ALBs that cannot be classified into one of the main categories without adversely impacting on the body’s ability to fulfil those functions/deliver those services.”
I do not think that anyone who has served in the Reserve Forces could hold the view that the RFCAs are not completely unique. There are no other bodies anything like them. I strongly believe that the unique nature of the RFCAs should permit them to continue to operate as unclassified ALBs. The Reserve Forces today play an increasingly important role as a fully integrated part of the Regular Armed Forces. The cadets provide opportunities for young people to serve their country, teach leadership and other skills to tens of thousands and provide a continuing source of recruits for the Regular Forces. They bridge the gap between the military and civilian communities. That gap has become much greater, given the much smaller numbers of personnel and establishments in the Armed Forces today.
The involvement of lord lieutenants would also diminish or even disappear if the RFCAs were to become mere advisory bodies to a centralised NDPB. I doubt that the application of OCPA appointments procedures would improve the leadership of the RFCAs. Paragraph 5.6.4 states that as the RFCAs are regularised into a single NDPB, future appointments should be fully compliant with OCPA procedures. However, I believe that the present system produces the right people to do this job. The proposed changes would result in increased costs, as many of those appointed under these procedures would expect to be remunerated.
I do not believe that many of the people who do this work on a voluntary basis at present would be willing to go through the OCPA process; nor would they be willing to give up their time for organisations shorn of most of their authority and independence. I consider it most unlikely that their replacements would have anything like the local connections that have ensured that our Reserve Forces and cadet organisations are today relatively well recruited and in such good shape. I ask the Minister to think again and take time to find a better way forward for the RFCAs to be brought up to date without condemning them to radical surgery of the kind which so severely damaged the St John Ambulance Brigade.
Lastly, the county fora, which provide a local focus with which many reservists identify, would wither on the vine, and other sub-associations, such as the City of London association, of which the lord mayor acts as president, would quickly lose their significance.
I too am grateful to my noble friend Lord De Mauley for arranging this short debate. I always feel humble when speaking in your Lordships’ House—particularly on this occasion, when practically everyone who has spoken before me has held a senior rank. I held the lowliest rank, both in the OTC and the CCF, and as a police special constable. However, the first two gave me the opportunity to see the value of RFCAs from the bottom up, so to speak, and I found a further perspective when visiting a number of them while performing my duties as high sheriff of Kent. This perspective, of course, is also shared by lord lieutenants and deputy lieutenants, as has been mentioned a number of times in this debate. On the back of those and other experiences, I should like to make a couple of quick points.
First, the experience of one particular high sheriff visit remains with me—to a couple, just one man and one woman, responsible for 70 young sea cadets. Almost all these young people were latch-key kids, with one or both parents working when they got home from school. As cadets, they were removed from the temptation of being on the streets as gang members, with crime and drugs an everyday occurrence, and were instead given membership of an organisation that provided them with companionship, structure and the chance to build their personal confidence as a member of a team.
The couple responsible had significant influence in the local community, which did its best to support them financially and in kind. Therefore, I suggest that any reclassification of the RFCAs must be mindful of the value provided by similar local communities, and that any restructuring should not disempower them, superimpose any further regulation at grass-roots level or alter their scheme of association.
Secondly, RFCAs currently enjoy critical links to business through regional business groups; the importance of these links cannot be overemphasised. The theory of asking for the employer and the employee to have trust and understanding that the role will be kept open, and remuneration and promotion opportunities sustained, when a senior manager is called up for a six-month tour of duty seems pretty straightforward. The actuality is far from it—a situation that could be worsened if there is any severance of the current regulations, which would impact on our RFCA functions and could be detrimental to the Armed Forces covenant.
Thirdly, I have had personal, professional and commercial experience of the MoD’s track record in managing property. For 15 years I was on the board of a company that provided short-term residential accommodation to MoD personnel, some seven and a half properties at any given time. I saw how a mixture of civil servants, civilian contractors and military personnel from all three services were being asked to make commercial decisions for which they had no training or qualification and to which they were not best suited. When we suggested embedding our staff in the department concerned to facilitate the process, we were rebuffed. The final act of this particular play was the invocation of a judicial review to ensure that a tender document could be reissued within a level commercial playing field and the MoD’s own terms of reference. So the suggestion that the MoD might become further involved in the volunteer and cadet estate, which I believe the report is suggesting, is something I would hesitate to recommend.
On the basis of the above examples, I ask the Minister to encourage the powers that be to leave the current RFCA structure and classification as it is.
My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, who is an unofficial noble friend from our days in the coalition Government, both for introducing this debate and for persuading me that I really did want to chair the cadet inspection team. In the short time that I have been doing it, I have found it both fascinating and rewarding. I have been really interested in the wide variety of contributions today, and regret that the pressure of time means that I will not be able to reference speakers.
My late husband went from air cadet to Air Marshal, having a gliding licence and a pilot’s licence while still at school. He was always a staunch champion of cadets, was a long-term president of the London and South-East Region Air Cadets, and was a rare airman to serve a term as president of the council of the Combined Cadet Force Association. I declare an interest as a council member of the Air League, which supports and funds air cadets, and I sponsor an annual Youth in Aviation event here in the Lords—an inspirational event where young people with an interest in aviation, often from very disadvantaged backgrounds and some very disabled, display their achievements in the air and their passion for aviation.
An additional interest is as vice-president of the War Widows’ Association. We are always grateful to the reserves and cadets who take part in our annual remembrance service at the Cenotaph on the Saturday before Remembrance Sunday. Their professionalism is always greatly appreciated as we remember the men that we see no more. They carry the standard, play in the band, march and wheel the wheelchairs with professionalism and friendliness. In the context of war widows, perhaps I might ask the Minister what provision is made for the care and support of the families of reservists who lose their lives or are injured in the course of their service.
I have another connection as a past master of the World Traders livery company. As a past Lord Mayor, the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, knows well that the Lord Mayor and the livery companies of London are staunch supporters of the cadets and the reserves. We award prizes and give financial support, and in return the cadets are frequently on show at livery and Mansion House events, where in these imposing and intimidating places they display courtesy and competence in carrying out their duties.
As we have heard, the cadets are of course dependent on the reserves, who supply many of the dedicated and hard-working staff who enable the young people to achieve so much. I hear the concerns over the review, although I was pleased to hear the continued commitment to provide a challenging and stimulating contemporary cadet experience that develops and inspires young people in a safe environment. Could the Minister say how the recruitment of those volunteers bearing up?
Our inspection team operates under the aegis of the council of the Reserve Forces and Cadets’ Associations, of which the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, is president. Our task is a gentle form of Ofsted: we visit cadet units at work and at camps to check on the welfare of the young people and to hear about any issues from the staff. We also keep an eye on the training programme, both for safety and for relevance, while being well aware that part of the value of cadets lies in managed risk. Swinging from ropes, shooting, sailing rafts across rivers and of course flying all carry hazards, but undertaking them under watchful expert eyes mitigates the risk and leaves the young people with a huge sense of achievement and self-respect.
It is really good news that the Government have launched the cadet expansion programme to introduce more cadet units into state-funded secondary schools and has committed £50 million from Libor fines to cover set-up costs, uniforms, equipment and training to grow the total number of cadet units in schools across the UK to 500 by 2020. I believe that number has been met; can the Minister say how it is set to increase? We know that some who join the cadets have only ever worn trainers and have never sat at a table for a meal. Exposure to hard shoes and table manners can come as a rude shock, but one which prepares them so much better with life and social skills for a more ambitious life.
It is a source of concern that air cadets have been woefully short of actual flying. There have been problems with both gliders and training aeroplanes, such that many air cadets have missed out on the air part of their cadetship. Can the Minister say if these problems have now been sorted? Are air cadets now able to gain glider and pilot licences, as my husband was?
Has further thought been given to the strange edict of a few years ago when an overnight ban was put in place for an age barrier for flying instructors? We know from this place that professional competence does not stop at 60, and very many highly experienced and utterly competent instructors were effectively sacked. Surely that policy needs to be reviewed. Has it been and, if not, will it be? Pilots tend to be a healthy breed who are well aware of safety requirements. They should be well able to decide themselves when they are no longer as effective as they should be and to choose their own time of retirement.
I am sure that all those speaking and many others in this House are acutely aware of the value of cadets and the importance of ensuring that they continue to be funded and supported. The opportunities they afford to enrich young lives are very significant. I look forward to the Minister’s reply and hope that she is as enthusiastic in her support as those who have spoken.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, for securing today’s debate, and join noble Lords in praising the work of the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association. Its 13 regional associations play an important role in local communities by recruiting cadets and volunteers, building close ties with different people and organisations and promoting the Armed Forces covenant. The tailored regional approach is a great asset and their popularity is clearly seen by a volunteer membership standing at around 8,000.
We know that the Government are currently conducting a review of the RFCAs. When will it be published? We understand the MoD must reconstitute the RFCAs’ schemes of association every five years, and with a March deadline this year, surely the report must be published soon. While associations have Crown status, I understand there is confusion about their administrative classification. Could the Minister explain how they are classified by the MoD?
Associations are closely involved in building up the cadets. Labour strongly supports this work, as cadets continue to offer new horizons for young people who learn teamwork, resilience, confidence and self-esteem through their involvement. Last year, I spoke in a debate about the important cadet expansion programme. How do associations operate in relation to that? I also stressed that there has been a 2% decrease in the number of young people involved with cadets, as well as a 7.5% decrease in the number of adult volunteers. Can the Minister give an update on what the Government are doing to reverse this trend? Will the review into associations also consider best practice for safeguarding?
I am sure the whole House would like to commend the associations’ work on the Armed Forces covenant. The covenant represents the solemn and enduring commitment that we owe to members of the Armed Forces community. Regional associations help different businesses and organisations fulfil their covenant pledges and, in 2019, the total number of signings of the covenant passed 4,000. It was great to see even large multinational companies, including Facebook, signing up and demonstrating their responsibility to communities.
Labour supports the covenant and the important guarantees that underlie it. Building on the Queen’s Speech, the Government have said they will
“progress proposals to further incorporate the Covenant into law to mitigate any disadvantage faced by the armed forces community due to the unique nature of military service.”
Are they consulting on these proposals and when will they be published? Importantly, will these proposals include a provision to place greater responsibility on public authorities to ensure greater consistency in the implementation of the covenant?
On the central point of the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, I am unable to make a Front-Bench judgment. However, it is clear from the debate that the present system works well. The Government should require change only if they can clearly show that there is real advantage. Should they introduce a new system and performance declines, we will certainly hold them to account. Change for change’s sake is a dangerously overrated policy.
My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend Lord De Mauley for initiating this debate and affording this House the opportunity to discuss the important work of the Reserve Forces and cadets’ associations. I am grateful to all noble Lords for their contributions.
I should perhaps declare an interest as a deputy lieutenant of the county of Renfrewshire. I say to the noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, and the noble Lord, Lord Mountevans, that there is no plan to end the role of the lieutenancies in this context.
A number of your Lordships referred to the review that the Ministry of Defence has been undertaking during the past 12 months. The review report is not yet in the public domain, which occasions me some discomfiture. I am not being evasive but, as your Lordships will understand, I am unable to discuss the report specifically. I do not propose to respond to questions about it, but I am happy to refer to the associations in general terms, more specifically to the valuable work they do, and to the identifiable issues that have emerged.
As the president of the Council of RFCAs, my noble friend is a strong advocate for the reserves and the cadets’ associations, as are many other Members of this House. I echo my noble friend’s points about the value of the work done by the RFCAs in three important areas: supporting and growing our cadets across the UK; ensuring that our reservists and cadets have safe and modern facilities where they can train and develop valuable life skills; and promoting the benefits that supportive employers and the Armed Forces family can enjoy together through the Armed Forces covenant and the employer recognition scheme. In the context of supporting and growing our cadets, the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, sought clarification about strength. As at 1 April 2019, there were 85,620 community cadets, an increase of 1,240, or 1.5%, since April 2018. A conjoined issue is safeguarding, which the noble Lord also raised. Safeguarding young people is our priority. We have robust procedures in place, including mandatory security and background checks for all adults who work with children, rigorous disclosure procedures and regular safeguarding training. The noble Lord also raised a point about the Armed Forces covenant; I shall write to him about that.
In the MoD, we are very grateful to the RFCAs for the work of the external scrutiny team, whose annual reports play a crucial role in ensuring that the reserves are not left to fall back into the relative decline evident in 2011. We are also grateful for the annual health check of the MoD-sponsored cadet forces. This is a valuable part of the cadet governance process, which provides senior management in the MoD with an independent view of the state of the cadet forces.
As our Armed Forces modernise and reform, especially through the Future Reserves 2020 programme, the RFCAs are a key partner to Defence—I repeat: a key partner—in maintaining and developing links with the communities in which they are based and with society at large. I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, and my noble friends Lord Attlee and Lord Colgrain about that. The noble Baroness, Lady Garden, referred to the important role—I think it is a great role—played by the cadets on ceremonial occasions, which is a manifestation of their worth and relevance.
The RFCAs’ evolution and growth since 1908, which has seen them taking on new tasks on a tri-service basis, has cemented their place as a key contributor to defence delivery. That is thanks in no small part to the commitment of their vibrant and active voluntary membership and executive staff, the regional networks, and the links that the RFCAs have within their communities. The noble Viscount, Lord Brookeborough, spoke eloquently about that aspect.
We recognise these important strengths and reaffirm Defence’s commitment to the RFCAs: they are, and should remain, a key and trusted partner. That message has been received loud and clear. However, there is also a recognition that, as our Armed Forces evolve with the modern world, so too must their key support mechanisms. When you believe in something, as Defence believes in the RFCAs, that should not blind you to areas where improvement is required. Because of that belief, and the desire to support and enhance, it is important to recognise that change may be necessary. I fear that some noble Lords see the MoD as the bogeyman in this. I will try to place the issue in context. The review of the RFCAs is due to be considered at the MoD executive committee in the coming days, and I do not intend to pre-empt or guide its considerations here, ahead of the report’s publication in the coming weeks. I will instead attempt to analyse and clarify some relevant issues for the House.
The Reserve Forces Act 1996 sets out how associations can be set up and what their roles are. The legislation outlines the flow of executive authority and allows the associations to convene a joint committee—in this case, the council of the RFCAs—for any purpose in respect of which they are jointly interested. Over time, the council has become the primary point of contact for Defence, through which all MoD funding for the RFCAs is channelled. However, in law, a joint committee, as constituted under the 1996 Act, does not have separate legal status—a point fairly acknowledged by my noble friend Lord De Mauley and the noble Lord, Lord West. However, in practice the council operates as though it is a separate legal body, employing staff and operating bank accounts. However, as it has not been incorporated or otherwise legally constituted, legal responsibility for any financial or public liability resulting from council activity falls to the council board members personally. That is an onerous and significant degree of risk to individuals. I am sure noble Lords will agree that this exposes those board members to an unacceptable level of personal liability.
The nub of the issue is this: it results in a situation whereby decisions on spending public money can be—and in some cases are being—taken by some persons who are not accountable to the MoD Permanent Secretary, who is the department’s principal accounting officer, with all the consequent legal responsibilities of that office. This model, and the practices that have developed in the 24 years since the Reserve Forces Act was passed, are therefore not compliant with Managing Public Money, because regularity and propriety cannot be assured. A number of noble Lords suggested we just amend the existing legislation to place the council on a statutory footing, but that would not solve the issue of financial compliance. The two issues go intrinsically hand in hand and need to be addressed together through classification. Having said all that, I listened with great care to what my noble friend Lord Faulks said. He raised some important points and I undertake that they will be explored.
My noble friend Lord De Mauley, who has had sight of a draft of the review report, has suggested that the proposals contained in it could have an adverse effect on the voluntary membership, causing the associations to suffer a loss of talented and committed people. Defence agrees that this is something to be avoided and I reassure noble Lords on that point. We stand by to work with the constructive and committed leadership of the RFCAs, over a generous period of time, to ensure that we create an environment where the volunteer ethos and value is celebrated and supported by Defence, in order that there is little or no impact on this vital function of the RFCAs.
The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton of Richmond, asked about reserve strengths. As at 1 October 2019, the trained strength of the FR20 volunteer reserve population was 32,760, an increase of 500— or 1.5%—since October 2018.
I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, who raised the broader defence and foreign affairs review. That is a No. 10 initiative and there is no further information available about it at the moment. He also raised putting the covenant on a statutory basis. I reassure him that that was in the Queen’s Speech, but there is no specific further information on it at present.
Anxieties have been expressed, and I hear them, but it is right that Defence seeks to manage natural anxieties around compliance, accountability and, importantly, diversity and representation, which were not very prominent in the debate. It is also true that Defence wishes to preserve and improve the RFCAs. We value them, we want them and we wish them to offer more, not fewer, opportunities to serve our nation. I think that seems both positive and creative.
The review process has facilitated an analysis and an understanding of what, in terms of compliance and acceptable practice, seems to be deficient. I do not think it is a weakness to identify such issues; it would be a weakness and a failure by the MoD to the RFCAs not to recognise these challenges and be prepared to deal with them, especially in an organisation which is so vital and so welcome to Defence. But I reassure your Lordships that the review process has certainly shone a beaming light on the great strength of the RFCAs—I think that has been universally acknowledged during the debate and it is acknowledged from this Dispatch Box.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord West, that this debate has provided an invaluable forum for comment, and it will be studied closely. I hope this House can further debate the review itself in due course, once it has been published. I look forward to the RFCAs and their champions engaging constructively with Defence throughout the process of consideration and implementation of the review, strengthening the relationship between Defence and the RFCAs and ensuring that the many mutual benefits that they can can deliver will continue enhanced long into the future. I hope that, if I have not served to reassure all noble Lords on every point on which reassurance was sought, I have managed to explain why I think there is a strong and good relationship that the MoD wants to nurture.
Will the Minister undertake to ensure that the executive committee gets a copy of this debate? It has been fairly unanimous in its opinion and would provide some bedside reading before it comes to a conclusion.
I imagine that it is a matter of fundamental importance that they would want to look at the debate and its conclusions, but I will certainly make sure that the debate is reported to the department and that all those with a relevant interest are made aware of its contents.
Will the noble Baroness undertake to write on the questions I posed which she has not been able to answer?
I did say at the beginning that for anything I did not answer, I would write.
House adjourned at 7.07 pm.