Belfast leisure centre users charged for child discount cards advertised as free

Avoniel Leisure Centre. -Credit:Justin Kernoghan/Belfast Live
Avoniel Leisure Centre. -Credit:Justin Kernoghan/Belfast Live

Hundreds of children were charged for a card which enables them to get discounted access to Belfast council leisure services – despite such cards being advertised as free.

The card management is operated by Greenwich Leisure Limited (GLL) which runs 16 facilities under the Better brand for Belfast City Council.

SDLP councillor Gary McKeown raised this issue with the council after discovering the error, which meant families were being charged £5.75 for the 'Junior Pay and Play' card. The cards allow children living in Belfast to access discounts of up to 30% off leisure activities , including swimming, junior gym sessions, football, badminton and tennis.

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The cards were supposed to be offered free of charge under the scheme which was first launched in 2021. Around 60,000 children in the Belfast area are eligible to receive the card.

In the past year, GLL said 450 people were charged for the cards due to an "IT error." GLL said it is now working through its database to issue refunds to those affected.

Cllr McKeown said: "It's really important that the city's leisure facilities such as swimming pools are as open and accessible as possible, and the whole point of this free card is to support this by offering discounted entry for kids, so it's very disappointing that families have been charged for it.

"This means that during a cost of living crisis, many households have been left with the choice of paying for a Junior Pay and Play Card or paying full price for children to enjoy sporting activities – this is a choice they shouldn't have had to make. With around 60,000 children apparently eligible for this card, this is concerning.

Cllr Gary McKeown brought the issue to Belfast City Council
Cllr Gary McKeown brought the issue to Belfast City Council -Credit:SDLP

"I have sought reassurance that steps will be taken to address this, and am pleased that the system has been updated to remove the charge after I discovered it, but what we will never know is how many people didn't avail of the card because they were going to be charged for it, and how many ended up paying full price because they didn't register for a card as a result of the fee that was being levied for it.

"Now that the error has been corrected, I would encourage families to sign their kids up for the free card and enjoy the fantastic sporting and leisure facilities across the city at a discounted rate."

A spokesperson for GLL said all those impacted will have their accounts credited by the end of today, Friday, May 3. They also apologised for any "confusion and inconvenience" this may have caused.

In a statement, they said: "GLL was alerted to the situation of children being erroneously charged £5.75 for the Junior Pay and Play Cards. Following an internal investigation, we have confirmed this was due to an IT error which has now been rectified.

"We take full responsibility for this error and are now working through our database to ensure that the accounts of every user charged will be credited with that amount. All users affected in five of our leisure centres have had their accounts credited and our intention is that all those impacted will have their accounts credited by the end of today (Friday, May 3). We are sorry for the confusion and inconvenience this may have caused.

"GLL is committed to the provision of leisure facilities for all across Belfast, especially the youth of the city. This commitment is borne out through our offer of free swimming for all under 5s in the city, the 5,500 members of our swim school, our subsidised holiday schemes, and the significant family savings offered through our family membership schemes.

"We will continue to deliver at reduced cost to our 37,000 members and Belfast residents to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to access health and leisure facilities."

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