A VETERAN soldier 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.
Last Monday, Wirral Council’s ruling cabinet approved proposals set to save in excess of £2m by “transforming” its leisure services.
One of the proposals agreed is to alter the discount given to current and former members of the Armed Forces.
At present, all current serving and former armed service personnel receive free use of facilities at all leisure facilities at all times.
But the new plan is to allow only serving members of the Armed Forces – including the Territorial Army and Reservists – who are Wirral residents to have free use of the centres.
Former personnel who have suffered a disabling injury when in service, and are in receipt of disability benefit, continue not to have to pay.
Wallasey man Simon Johnston, who retired from the Army in 2004 after tours of Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, said the move is "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.”
Mr Johnston added: “It is a disgrace. It has taken discrimination to a new level which is quite sick. It is quite a low blow to be honest.”
Wallasey Tory Cllr Paul Hayes slammed the move last week, dubbing it a “cynical attempt at penny pinching on the backs of the brave” and called on the cabinet to reject the plan.
Following the cabinet’s meeting, Cllr Hayes said: “Wirral’s cabinet took less than five minutes to discuss this issue and ultimately chose to vote to cut this free facility from many of Wirral’s veterans.
“The brave men and women who have previously served this country so proudly in the uniforms of our Armed Forces deserve much better than this.
“I urge the cabinet to think again and will immediately look to ‘call-in’ this decision, ensuring that this matter is put before another council committee and examined in detail.”
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.
Councillor 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”.