Why ARE so many veterans gunning for the British Legion? It’s one of Britain’s best loved charities, but despite £70m cash reserves, it is closing down hotels for ex-servicemen and is accused of letting bureaucracy stifle cries for help, writes SUE REID
Byng House is a handsome seaside hotel near the promenade and a short stroll to the sands of Southport.
It has offered free holidays to forces veterans and their families since a grand opening a decade ago by Prince Andrew.
Hundreds have enjoyed good times at the hotel, which is funded by the Royal British Legion. But these may be over.
For the future of Byng House and three other hotels run by the ‘poppy’ charity — in Bridlington, East Yorkshire; Weston- super-Mare, Somerset; and Portrush in Northern Ireland — are in the balance.
All face being closed next month as part of a ‘cost-cutting’ exercise. This week the hotels’ websites say they have stopped taking future bookings.
Of course, the work of the Legion is legendary and admired throughout the military and civilian world. Not only does it play a major role in the nation’s commemoration of our war dead, but in helping those veterans who have served our country in the Armed Services.
As the Legion told the Mail: ‘Our aim is to help those who come to us for support to live fulfilled and independent lives, and we will ensure an individual is given all they need to reach this outcome.’
Left to right: War veterans Alec Willis, Steve Scudder and Graham Cosham. Steve, who was in the Territorial Army for 34 years and is now an NHS learning adviser, says: ‘More of the charities’ money should filter down to veterans’
Steve Scudder, pictured centre in his younger years, has set up a drop-in centre for veterans. It is called the Blue Van — after a popular NAAFI van in Germany which provided hot food and drink to troops — and provides legal and financial advice with the support of military charities including Combat Stress
But when we visited Byng House, the Legion’s flag still fluttered, but its windows were shuttered, and an uncollected Amazon parcel dating from December was propped by the entrance.
Today, there is growing anger over the threat to these hotels by the Legion, which was set up to help World War I veterans nearly a century ago.
A recent visitor to Byng House, Sheila Smith, wrote on Facebook: ‘As a carer for my husband, the break away at Byng House was fabulous for us both.
‘We shared a dream of returning, but sadly that is not to be.’
Veteran Alan Crussell also visited. ‘If the poppy break hotels close. I will discontinue my membership of the British Legion,’ he warned. ‘I stayed at Byng House for a fortnight in 2018. I was at a low ebb. It saved my life.’
Roland Sutton, 64, in the Artillery and Royal Logistics’ Corps for 46 years, contacted the Legion’s head office to object. ‘They said they had done a feasibility study and staying at Byng House only gave a “short-term fix”. Most people go on holiday each year, and isn’t that a short-term fix? It gives you a pick-up and helps you on.’
Veterans in Portrush have been waving banners and protesting at their hotel’s demise. In Bridlington, there is equal dismay. ‘Our hotel was renovated by the Legion last year at a cost of tens of thousands,’ says Mike Rubery, a former RBL official in Bridlington. ‘It was a total waste of charity donations when closure was the intention.’
Mr Rubery spoke to two men from the Legion’s London headquarters — neither of whom, he claims, had military backgrounds — when they arrived in November to break the news about the closure of the hotel.
Graham Cosham, pictured recently and during his career in the military. He suffers from PTSD and uses the Blue Van centre. He served in Northern Ireland, Berlin, Belize and worked in bomb disposal in Kuwait after the first Gulf War
Left to right: Ex servicemen James Brooks, Andy Price and Wayne Ingram at the Veterans Hub in Weymouth, Dorset. In 2017, Andy could no longer work because of PTSD after seeing a colleague killed in Afghanistan
‘They said there had been research showing that the hotels . . . are not cost-effective.’ Mr Rubery explains. ‘Yet the hotels help veterans who are lonely, have combat stress, are in hard times financially, even terminally ill . . . the list goes on.’ This rebellion by veterans is fuelled by one question: why must their precious hotels, which cost £6.5 million a year to run, be shut down when the poppy charity and others like it sit on vast sums of unspent money?
In 2018, the Legion recorded an income of £163.2 million and had reserves of £70 million, according to its last annual report.
Each year, its nationwide poppy appeal reaps some £50 million. Recent anniversaries of both world wars brought an upsurge in donations as the commemorations pricked the national conscience and the public dug deep.
The RBL is the wealthiest of Britain’s ten biggest military charities. Between them, these ten have combined assets of £1.4 billion, plus reserves of £277 million, prompting increasingly angry accusations of ‘cash hoarding’.
In all, the 1,500 armed forces charities have a total worth of £3.1 billion — £1 billion more than the annual cost to the Military of Defence of running the Trident nuclear submarine programme.
Yet despite these vast sums, 6,000 military veterans remain homeless, 10,000 have had serious brushes with the law or are in prison, and as many as 50,000 suffer mental health problems caused by experiences of conflict or their struggles to cope with ‘civvy street’ when their military careers finish.
The future of Byng House and three other hotels run by the ‘poppy’ charity are in the balance
Veterans in Portrush have been waving banners and protesting at their hotel’s demise
It was five years ago — when operations in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, came to an end — that Britain last had regular troops deployed on the ground overseas in a combat mission.
Since then, the combined assets of the top ten military charities have increased by more than a third, according to Iain Overton, executive director of Action On Armed Violence, which seeks to stop conflicts worldwide. ‘Yet a lot don’t use this money,’ he says.
‘Now is the time to push the boat out, not for cost-cutting. It is important these charities spend and find out who needs the cash.’
He adds: ‘There are veterans with age-related illness, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and the young ones home from wars on terror who need help right now.
‘The public are uncomfortable about scrutinising these charities.
‘They think it means they are criticising veterans. I have been called a traitor for saying that we could be sleepwalking into a major scandal about the military charities hoarding money.’ Former defence secretary Michael Fallon has also expressed concern. ‘There are too many military charities, if I can be brutal,’ he said recently.
‘They were founded with the greatest intentions but all involve administration and fund-raise in the same area. They need to pull together . . . putting resources into helping veterans who might otherwise be left on the streets.’
A third voice — from a senior military charity co-ordinator who asked to remain anonymous because he feared retaliation for breaking ranks — told the Mail: ‘Some wealthy charities have become slick marketing outfits.
‘They are into merchandising and have websites selling everything from ‘poppy’ dog collars, umbrellas and cushions, to rose-gold petal cufflinks at £749.99 a pair. They advertise and sell products aggressively and this eats away at profits from donations.
‘All the time I hear from disillusioned ex-military and their families begging for help with housing and health problems. They bang on the door of the charities and don’t seem to get it.’
Given the mounting anger among veterans, the Mail decided to investigate why so many of our ex-military have, somehow, slipped through the net when their charities are so well resourced.
Andy Price, 41, a former rifleman in the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment lives in Weymouth, Dorset. In 2017, Andy could no longer work because of PTSD after seeing a colleague killed in Afghanistan. He needed help paying his council tax bills.
‘At first I contacted Combat Stress [a mental health charity for veterans] to find they had a 10-month waiting list,’ he says.
Pictured: Royal British Legion Somerset House, Weston-super-Mare. Today, there is growing anger over the threat to these hotels by the Legion, which was set up to help World War I veterans nearly a century ago
He then turned to the Royal British Legion, and ended up in a lengthy fight with them. He says he was asked to prove his council tax case was genuine by the charity and, at his lowest point, even planned his own suicide because the process was taking so long.
‘There was so much form-filling it was unbelievable,’ he says. ‘They told me to wait six months until I was summoned to court for non-payment of council tax before they would consider help. It was very stressful. It was only when it got to court that they helped me by making a contribution so the matter got settled. I went through a lot.’
So desperate did Andy become, and so concerned about the absence of immediate help, that he set up his own support service for veterans who are struggling, calling it The Veterans Hub. ‘We should not exist,’ he says with feeling. ‘We should not be needed.’
Andy’s hub offers a relaxed social environment where veterans can have a hot drink, cake and a chat. It now has 150 regular users, aged between 20 and 96.
Six volunteer staff rely on donations and grants to cover overheads of up to £15,000 a year. The hub also gives financial advice on benefits and housing to ex-servicemen. One man who sought help is Lee Fudge, 52, an ammunition technician with the Royal Logistics Corps in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Kosovo where he was injured in a blast before being medically discharged in 2004.
One man who sought help is Lee Fudge, 52, an ammunition technician with the Royal Logistics Corps in Northern Ireland
Lee worked as a sales rep until his military injuries led to such severe arthritis that he had to leave the job in 2017. He told me he ‘navigated’ the benefits’ system to top up his army pension.
‘I contacted SSAFA, the Armed Forces Charity,’ he says ‘and they had only one representative in their office for one day a week. So that was no good.’ More recently, he turned to the RBL, applying for an emergency grant to cover the cost of moving into a housing association flat at short notice after being on the waiting list for seven years.
Though it was an application for ‘emergency help’, the RBL process was ‘painfully slow’, he says.
‘Once you actually speak to someone at the Legion, your request for money is passed up the line. An outreach worker came to see me and went over my service record and the forms I needed to fill in. I got a call many days later asking me for more information and to photocopy extra paperwork and send it over.’
The trouble was he was about to lose his new flat. ‘I had to accept it [the offer of the flat] within 28 hours — and move in ten days.
‘In the end I successfully pleaded with the Legion. We all know how rich it is. You can see they throw money at Remembrance events.
‘But they don’t seem to offer a process to help veterans. It is a minefield of bureaucracy. I may be wrong, but the money men seem to have taken over the Legion which has lost its caring side.’
His story is similar to others we heard. In the seaside resort of Eastbourne, East Sussex, Steve Scudder, 57, has set up a drop-in centre for veterans. It is called the Blue Van — after a popular NAAFI van in Germany which provided hot food and drink to troops — and provides legal and financial advice with the support of military charities including Combat Stress.
Pictured: Alderson House, Bridlington, East Yorkshire. In 2018, the Legion recorded an income of £163.2 million and had reserves of £70 million, according to its last annual report
Steve, who was in the Territorial Army for 34 years and is now an NHS learning adviser, says: ‘More of the charities’ money should filter down to veterans. In the U.S. and Australia there is one centralised point of access which allows them to go to one organisation for help. There are so many different UK charities which are not co-ordinated. The lack of money at grassroots level is costing dozens of lives every year.’
Graham Cosham, 62, suffers from PTSD and uses the Blue Van centre. He served in Northern Ireland, Berlin, Belize and worked in bomb disposal in Kuwait after the first Gulf War. He saw colleagues blown up there, one just four feet away from him. He, too, feels the big charities hold on to money. ‘Instead of stockpiling cash, ’ he says, ‘they need to adopt a more “can-do” attitude to veterans.’
In truth, the Government is taking action. Last summer, in one of his first acts as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson announced an Office for Veterans’ Affairs to marshal life-long support for the estimated 2.5 million ex-military personnel in Britain.
It will not save the hotels, however. The RBL argues that closure is the best option and that the resources are better directed elsewhere. ‘We are now consulting with staff about our proposals to close the charity’s four hotels . . . as support is available [to veterans] through other providers or more cost-effective means,’ it told the Mail.
Hotel occupancy rates, which are good, did not influence the decision, according to the Legion. ‘We have a duty to spend funds on activity that will have the greatest impact on the toughest challenges faced by our veteran community.
‘Since 2016, the charity has seen a 20 per cent increase in people needing basic support with housing, financial issues, mental health and mobility,’ a spokesman told the Mail.
‘The average expenditure per household through our immediate needs funding has risen 45 per cent to £1,330 in that time.’
It added that in 2018, the last year figures are available, it spent £56 million on welfare services and helped 42,871 veterans.
But why are there so many complaints about the time veterans have to wait to get help, when they often need immediate assistance?
The Legion said: ‘We are reviewing how we work and aim to be a more agile and responsive organisation, prioritising our support to tackle the tough challenges faced by our community today.’
This will be scant comfort for the hotels’ supporters.
In Southport, Tim Petford, 78, who served in the artillery and is the town’s poppy appeal co-ordinator, told us: ‘We are furious.
‘Why has Byng House to shut when it costs a pittance to run compared to the money the Legion raises? I think I’ll lose a lot of poppy appeal collectors next November over this. My deputy is refusing to help any more.’
The unfortunate timing of the Legion’s announcement about the hotels, a few days after the 2019 Poppy Appeal ended last November, left a nasty taste.
Thousands of veteran volunteers had just finished trawling the streets in all weathers selling poppies to raise funds for the charity.
Perhaps the most damning comment of all comes from Mike Rubery in Bridlington, who says: ‘We feel the Royal British Legion has treated us with disrespect.’
Source: Read Full Article