Royal British Legion defends closure of respite centre Bennet House – veterans express anger

Veterans who protested in support of Bennet House, Portrush on Saturday December 28.
Veterans who protested in support of Bennet House, Portrush on Saturday December 28.

The Royal British Legion has formally announced that it is to close its respite centre in Portrush – causing a wave of anger among some veterans in Northern Ireland who campaigned for its retention.

The decision was taken by Royal British Legion (RBL) trustees on Thursday and leaked to the News Letter by angry veterans who claimed that there was no meaningful consultation – something the RBL rejected. Three other centres in England are also to close.

Bennet House in Portrush is to close. Pic Steven McAuley/McAuley Multimedia

Bennet House in Portrush is to close. Pic Steven McAuley/McAuley Multimedia

Campaigners said the Portrush centre was unique because it helped address the rising numbers of Troubles veterans coming forward for help – a group which to date has been ill served by the Armed Forces Covenant and other health services compared to uptake in Great Britain. It is understood it will close in July.

The RBL has engaged in a widespread modernisation in recent years, taking a determined and business like-strategic review of its resources, aims and the changing needs of veterans, something that has brought it into conflict with some supporters.

The RBL itself only formally made the centre closure announcement today.

In a statement, it said: “Following a period of consultation, The Royal British Legion’s Board of Trustees has confirmed that the charity will cease to operate its four break centres and home maintenance service. Proposals to close the services were put forward in November 2019 as part of a wider programme of work. The Legion is creating a new strategy that will ensure it is having the greatest impact, making the most of its resources, and evolving in line with changes in the Armed Forces community.

“The new direction is being developed to address the changes in the Armed Forces community, as the type of support needed is growing increasingly complex with people requiring help across multiple issues. Since 2016 the charity has seen a 20% increase in people needing basic support with housing, financial issues, mental health and well-being and mobility. In this time, the average expenditure per household through the Legion’s immediate needs funding has risen 45% from £900 to £1330.

“People are coming to the Legion with multiple needs where a holistic approach providing ongoing support is required. The charity is seeing people at their lowest ebb, at risk of homelessness, and in dire financial situations where they can’t afford to feed their families. Ceasing to operate the break centres and handy van service will provide £5.8 million annually which will be diverted to address the urgent needs people are coming to the charity with. By refocusing its resource, the Legion can invest more in on the ground, personalised support across its network.”

Regarding Northern Ireland, it said that as part of the charity’s strategic review, the Board of Trustees has established a Northern Ireland Advisory Committee to continue to review how best to meet needs in the area.

“There is a unique situation for the Armed Forces community in Northern Ireland, because of historic issues, current challenges and lower levels of statutory support, which make it difficult for veterans to find the support they need. The committee, made up of Legion staff and key external stakeholders, will co-ordinate with the recently reconvened Northern Ireland Assembly and liaise with the newly created Veterans’ Commissioner.

“Although the break services will no longer operate across the Legion, the Board of Trustees have made the decision to temporarily utilise the break centre building, Bennet House, in Portrush for use by the charity’s Poppy Club, local community and other charities to help continue supporting beneficiaries in the area. The building will be available for nonresidential activity until July 2020, when the Legion’s service provision in Northern Ireland will be re-evaluated using existing research and a new report due to be published by Queen’s University Belfast.”

Some veterans have privately expressed concerns that the Portrush centre will be made available to the general public for the remainder of its time in service, and that this will negate the sense of security the veterans had felt in a post-Troubles context.

The Royal British Legion’s Director General, Charles Byrne, said:

“The modern day needs of the Armed Forces community are changing and it is our duty to change in response. We have closely considered all options for our organisation, and I believe the path we have chosen is the right one to make the greatest difference to those tackling the toughest challenges.

“The decision to close our break centres and handy van service has not been taken lightly, and we are extremely sad it will ultimately lead to some of our colleagues leaving the charity. The affected staff have all contributed greatly to our work, they are part of our community, and we are doing all we can to support them in their next steps.

“I would like to thank everyone who contributed to the consultation process, and we will use the feedback to help sculpt our work moving forward.”

However some veterans voiced anger and strong disappointment with the decision.

Richard Scott MBE, chairman of Military and Police Support (MAPS) of West Tyrone, said: “This is sad news for us all and I know that there is a hunger out there for information which to date has not been fed. It is unfortunate that the membership, beneficiaries and supporters have not been kept updated so we feel duty bound to speak again now.”

“Organisations like MAPS all over the country are seeing an increase in veterans coming forward for assistance. The RBL’s failure to properly consult with veterans and organisations has resulted in us losing this facility. The Break Centre was a vital facility for veterans to seek respite, to talk and meet with others and to get away from it all for a while.

“Unlike those in London, I work day and daily with veterans needing support. I truly regret this decision. We believe that Bennet House will remain open until this summer for community use but there will be no breaks and all the staff will be gone. On the face of it this is nothing other than a sop from the Trustees.”

Fellow campaigner George Black MBE rejected the logic of the Trustees’ decision. “We dissected their arguments and totally reject their logic concerning Bennet House,” he said.

“We have repeatedly explained to them that the vast majority of our veteran population are of the Operation Banner demographic and whose mental and physical health needs are primarily age related, compounded by the fact that we live in a region where the British Armed Forces and those who served in them are openly condemned and demonised in the public sphere. That fact alone justifies the existence and upkeep of the one respite centre where they were safe to discuss their ex-military status without fear or consequence.

“The RBL and the Trustees, in particular, have chosen to ignore the logic behind our argument at a time when more and more veterans are coming forward to seek help. The RBL has made changes with no transparent back up plan. This has angered members like me, beneficiaries and the general public who part with their hard-earned cash every year. I fear for the future of the RBL, but I am willing to await what the Trustees plans are post closure.”

Regarding the future action, another protestor, Mark McLaughlin, reflected the anger he had sensed at grass roots level.

“We want to keep up our campaign and keep the pressure on the Trustees to show the veterans of Ireland due respect,” he said. “We have felt the palpable anger within the community to the decision however we ask the membership in NI, beneficiaries and public not to have a knee jerk reaction in their attitude to the RBL.

“Please allow us to carry on the campaign and see what comes out. To date communication from the RBL with those affected has been poor but, we promise that we will continue to do what we can to ensure this fine institution remains intact.”

Veterans have noted that British forces ex-service personnel from across the island of Ireland regularly use Bennet House, including those from the Republic of Ireland.