Annual Poppy appeal helps those struggling with money worries

Cash raised helps military and ex-service people escape from a debt crisis.

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The Independent Online

Ever wonder what happens to the cash used to buy a Poppy? Part of it funds crucial help and advice for those in debt. The Royal British Legion's Benefits & Money Advice service helps serving members of the armed forces as well ex-service folk who have fallen into money difficulties.

It was launched four years ago and in its first year helped around 2,500 people. But, tellingly, last year the figure increased four-fold to more than 10,000 and the service expects the number to climb further this year. However, the biggest problem is sometimes getting people to come forward for help.

"We want to encourage people to come forward to help but the hardest people to engage with are those in the serving community," says Alison Wyman, manager of the Benefits and Money Advice Service.

"The majority of our cases involve debt but those serving in the forces don't want to talk about their problems. They are worried that if it's found out they're in debt, it will hit their career." For that reason all people who use the service are dealt with confidentially.

However, the biggest money problems can hit those who leave the service. Around 20,000 people leave every year and many find the transition to life outside the military a difficult one. Even those that find decent jobs can find it hard to adjust to having to take control of their own finances for the first time.

"Many of our clients say they felt it hard when they came out of the forces and went to civilian life," says Wyman. "They find it difficult to get a job or to cope with a drop in income. Many have existing credit card debts and discoverthey don't really know how to manage their money."

The service – in conjunction with Citizens Advice and the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund – gives confidential assistance to any members or ex-members of the forces. Typical is Robert Jarman, a former member of the Coldstream Guards, who agreed to tell The Independent his story.

After a six month tour of Afghanistan the 22-year old (pictured right) got a head injury and ended up with a hearing aid. As a result he was medically discharged from active service but was given no advice on adjusting to civilian life. "I didn't get any real help from the army," says Robert.

He now lives in Devon with his girlfriend and nine-month-old baby but after leaving the army he couldn't find a job and money got very tight. In desperation he turned to Citizens Advice. "I went to their bureau in Barnstaple and they put me in touch with the Royal British Legion. I was surprised because I thought you still had to be in active service to get their help," Robert says.

The Legion's adviser negotiated a disability living allowance for Robert as well as telling him about other benefits, and helped him clear his council tax arrears. "They've also offered to help with finding a better home and have given me more confidence about the future," says Robert.

"Once the doctor's giving me the all clear, I'm hoping to go to college on a course and get my career back on track. I wouldn't be as well as I am today without the help the Legion gave me."

He's not alone. The service has so far helped around 25,000 people and last year helped 8,200 people struggling with unmanageable debt. It was able to write off £18.3m of debt as well as giving financial assistance to 3,240 households to help deal with shortfalls in income.

"We do step in and help people financially in some cases, with a grant, for instance, to cover arrears if they may be about to be evicted," explains Alison Wyman. "We tend to find that the cases are quite complex but it's very rare that we can't help with a solution."

The service helps people with money worries sort out their budgets and prioritise debt repayments. It checks people's benefit entitlements and advises them on ways to cut down costs and maximise income. In other words, it gives crucial financial advice to those who really need it, when they need it.

As Robert Jarman says: "It was nice to find out that there is someone who cares enough to help."

This year marks a landmark for the Legion: it celebrates its 90th year. It says the the need for its help is as great as it was 90 years ago and hopes to raise £90m in 2011 for service and former service staff. The Legion spends £1.4m a week on health and welfare support to service people and their families.

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