Most people are surprised when they hear that there are more than 2000 armed forces charities. It is therefore perfectly understandable to assume that there must be huge amounts of overlap and duplication, and that the sector would benefit from a programme of enforced consolidation.
Thus, the comments by Lord Ashcroft in his Veterans' Transition Review did not really come as a surprise to those striving to help the armed forces through charitable endeavour. However, an informed review of the service charity sector would reveal that an intense programme of consolidation would not benefit those that the sector strives to help.
The first thing to realise is that the sector really is extremely diverse. Some 369 of the 2000 charities are actually detachments of the Sea, Army and Air Cadets. Consolidating these detachments into tri-service units would lessen their effectiveness, and organising them into regions would reduce the number of young boys and girls able to attend. No doubt these moves would make sense from a business perspective, but they certainly would not help the intended beneficiaries.
There is a similar issue over museums and memorials, which account for 230 service charities. I am sure that my fellow trustees at the highly successful Tank Museum would have something to say if they were forced to move from the military base at Bovington and become part of a consolidated regional structure. The heritage of many museums lies in the areas from which their soldiers came.
Even for charities that deal specifically with welfare and benevolence, there is a strong advantage in sustaining diversity. The Army is organised into regiments and corps, all of which have a different culture, raise funds to support their colleagues, and serve the needs of their beneficiaries through regimental associations. There are nearly 700 separate branches of military associations registered as service charities, and more than 100 regimental trusts. Once again, forced consolidation would dramatically weaken their effectiveness.
Major nationwide service charities such as the Service Benevolent Funds, The Royal British Legion, SSAFA, Combat Stress and Help for Heroes provide outstanding support to the Armed Forces Community. However, sometimes the support offered can be more effective if it is delivered in a personal way. I would cite the example of Holidays for Heroes Jersey, who arrange for service and ex-service men and women and their families to take free holidays on their beautiful island. Each visitor is met personally at the airport by the founders of the charity; many restaurants and attractions lay on free meals and entertainment; even the local Harley Davison club takes visitors on a conducted pillion tour around the Island. The personal nature of the offering is what makes it special, and this applies to a whole range of other charities from Military Gardeners to Combat Surfers and Scotty's Little Soldiers.
The armed forces community makes diverse demands on the service charities, including enhancing quality of life of serving servicemen and women and their families; assisting forces personnel to make an effective transition to civilian life; supporting veterans and their families who have fallen on hard times and assisting the wounded, injured and sick to lead as normal a life as possible. These needs cannot be met by a handful of very large nationwide organisations, and so the diversity of the sector is a strength and not a weakness.
However, the sector is not against consolidation on principle. People believe that there has been an increase in service charities in recent years due to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan –one of my colleagues recently commented that she is waiting to hear that Hamsters for Heroes has been registered as a charity, thereby completing the set. However, we have actually seen a decrease of about 7 per cent, as a result of charities coming to the end of their useful life and an ongoing programme of voluntary consolidation.
A far more significant issue than consolidation is the continuing need for collaboration and cooperation. Encouraging this is a key activity of Cobseo – the Confederation of Service Charities. Where there is overlap in provision we encourage rationalisation; where there are gaps we attempt to fill them; and where best practice can be identified we encourage its adoption. This process is far from perfect and we have recently launched a strategic review to improve its effectiveness, but it does demonstrate that the sector is determined to deliver support to its beneficiaries in the most effective way.
We agree wholeheartedly with most of the recommendations in the Ashcroft Review and, indeed, have many of them already in hand. The report recommended the production of a directory of accredited Armed Forces charities: we are working on one and it is due to be completed before the end of the year. We also have a cluster group working on the rationalisation of our current diverse call centre operations.
The public has a right to expect that their money is spent in as efficient and effective a way as possible. This demands ever-increasing levels of collaboration and cooperation. We will, however, always judge the success of our member organisations on the extent to which they meet the needs of their beneficiaries, and not just on the extent to which they mirror the practices of the business community.
Lieutenant General Sir Andrew Ridgway is executive chairman of Cobseo