A FORMER member of the Army has hit out at plans to cut back on a scheme allowing past and serving members of the Armed Forces free access to council-run leisure facilities.
A report to Wirral’s ruling cabinet on Monday outlines how the authority plans to save in excess of £2m by “transforming” its leisure services.
At present, all current serving and former armed service personnel receive free use of facilities at all leisure facilities, at all times, with 2,400 individuals registered for what the council deems a “generous concession”.
But the proposal is to target the free use benefit to current serving members of the Armed Forces – including the Territorial Army and Reservists – who are from Wirral and former service personnel who have suffered a disabling injury when in the services and are in receipt of a disability benefit.
Wallasey man Simon Johnston, who retired from the Army in 2004 after tours of Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, and suffered from Post Traumatic Stress disorder, said he felt the proposals were taking discrimination of veterans to “a new level”.
Mr Johnston was part responsible for the current system after lobbying the council five years ago to change the policy from serving personnel to include veterans and members of the TA.
“I feel very betrayed by this change of heart,” he said.
“It took a number of years to bring the change about and at the same time the council helped my wife and myself set up Wirral Veterans.”
Wallasey Tory Cllr Paul Hayes slammed the move earlier this week, dubbing it a “cynical attempt at penny pinching on the backs of the brave”.
He said: “This move is outrageous, coming just days after the people of Wirral celebrated the contribution of our Armed Forces during Armed Forces Day.
“The courageous men, women and veterans of our Armed Forces are deserving of our continued gratitude and support.
“The cabinet report calls this scheme a ‘generous concession’ – I say it is the least we can do for those to who are prepared, or have been prepared, to make the ultimate sacrifice for us all. I call upon cabinet to immediately reject this plan.”
Wallasey man Simon Johnston - who retired from the Army in 2004 - has described the proposals as a "low blow".
Mr Johnston added: “It is a disgrace. It has taken discrimination to a new level which is quite sick in a way.
“It is quite a low blow to be honest.”
Under the proposals, a new programme will be made available for serving members and injured or disabled former service personnel which will include one-on-one gym instruction.
The report sets out that those who currently have the benefit of free use but would not qualify under the new policy will be given access to a discount of up to 25% on the corporate Invigor8 membership.
Cllr Chris Meaden, cabinet member for leisure, sport and culture, defended the move and said it was part of a £2m scheme to “improve our leisure centres and make them more attractive to customers” while making sure “facilities remain accessible and affordable for the most vulnerable members of our community”.
She said: “If the report is backed by cabinet, serving armed forces personnel from Wirral will still be able to access our leisure facilities free of charge, as will any former serving officers living locally who have suffered a disabling injury or receive disability benefits.
“Indeed, the plan is to improve our offer in this area by offering them one-to-one gym instruction and, working with other departments, a wider package of support.”
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