Are 'cosy' links between Help for Heroes and the MoD harming other charities that help injured servicemen?
Many people will, I am sure, be surprised at veterans' criticism of the incredibly high profile charity Help for Heroes.
Help for Heroes has put millions of pounds into improving rehabilitation facilities for injured servicemen, but this has prompted suggestions that the charity's relationship with the MoD is 'too cosy'.
For those of us who have been involved in the sector, this comes as no shock.
But as Help for Heroes' relationship with the MoD has grown stronger, other charities have found themselves squeezed out and forgotten. These are charities that have been in existence for years without making tabloid headlines. Their line has always been, generally speaking: ‘we work with Help for Heroes and are very grateful for the work they have done in raising the profile of injured soldiers.’ But in the background, they are fuming.
Working for the Royal British Legion and the Army Benevolent Fund, I've seen how many charities face a continual struggle to get their voices heard and to provide services to injured soldiers and their families. It took years to get permission for an information desk at Selly Oak hospital, informing families of the assistance and care offered by a range of charities. Meanwhile, Help for Heroes was free to distribute care packs with flip flops and t-shirts emblazoned with their logos.
I have even been witness to cases where Help for Heroes have opposed other charities using the word ‘heroes’ in any of their PR or marketing materials.
Indeed, it's easy to get the impression that Help for Heroes enjoys preferential access to and treatment from the MoD. I’ve fought with MoD press officers for the right to have serving soldiers who have been helped by the charities I’ve worked for attend events and assist with press coverage to increase awareness and donations. Yet the same day that one charity were refused permission for a beneficiary to appear on the media, Help for Heroes was able to do a stunt with a serving double amputee on the steps of Downing Street.
This close relationship is understandable; the MoD must have wondered at their good fortune at having a charity which helps provide the facilities they should be providing, without the inconvenience of raising taxes or cutting other services. But many veterans argue the money would be better spent on more urgent individual requirements.
Indeed, many people working in armed forces welfare charities feel it is not the job of a charity to fund building programmes which should be undertaken by the government, especially when it is taking money and profile away from the charities who have been doing the unsung, less glamorous work with individuals which the government does not fund.
To clarify, while a soldier is serving in the Army he is part of the rehabilitation programme, which means that he gets the best care available and the latest technologies. It’s only when he leaves the armed forces and becomes reliant on the NHS and local community services that the problems tend to start, and the charities step in. In many cases, these charities are the ones being squeezed out by Help for Heroes.
Last year I worked with a veteran and his young family trying to get him council accommodation on the ground floor because his injuries made walking up flights of stairs difficult. In the end it was Haig Homes who came to his rescue. Not the local authority and not Help for Heroes.
Many soldiers have been injured from Iraq and Afghanistan but most of the money these days is still spent on assistance such as rent payments, white goods, training programmes or building adjustments. It’s far less glamorous than a shiny, new building with brave soldiers - and my goodness they are brave and determined - pictured outside cheering.
Personally, I raise money for a little known charity called Pilgrim Bandits. I was told about it by Ben Parkinson, one of Britain’s most seriously injured soldiers, who is one of their patrons. I asked him why he is so involved in this charity rather than one of the more well -known ones to which he replied: 'Everyone thought I’d never do physical stuff again because I needed a carer and didn’t think I could, but Pilgrim Bandits say everyone can do everything that they can and all they do is let you make it happen.'
I’d never tell people which charity to give or raise money for, but in the case of the Armed Forces, I’d advise people to look for the charities where the injured soldiers are most involved.