17 July 2010

Bus passes (again!)

Did the then Chancellor Brown know exactly what he was unleashing when, as a seemingly off-the-cuff remark, on 16 March 2005 at the end of his Budget statement to the House of Commons, he announced free, off-peak local bus travel would be made available to anyone qualifying for a concessionary fare?

As soon as you genuinely offer something for nothing, there's no going back. Even a 10p flat fare is an immeasurably high percentage increase from zero.

Unlike Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the English scheme has never been administered in a manner that bus operators and local authorities have wanted. It's all been done at local authority level, though steps are being made for this to be moved up a notch to county council level. The cash each local authority receives is not ring-fenced either. Scores of judicial reviews have taken place with operators taking authorities to court over the level of reimbursement they receive compared to what they believe they ought to receive. Generally, operators win.

While the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish schemes operate on a much reduced scale to that of the English, they are all administered centrally with the same reimbursement percentage per journey offered across the board within each scheme.

None of this has ever made the national press since, to be honest, it wouldn't sell many papers. What did get the nationals excited today though was news that the Coalition Government is considering speeding up the process that will delay the age at which people are eligible for their free bus pass. Over the next ten years, the qualifying age will increase from 60 to 65, in line with the same increase women are to incur before they are able to receive the state pension.

Initial steps to delay the age of entitlement from 2020 had been put in motion by the outgoing Labour chancellor and this has been taking effect since April. In a bid to save cash - and not forgetting the Coalition said they wouldn't remove the free bus pass scheme in England (at a cost of £1 billion a year) nor make it means tested - the DfT has been asked to cost the savings likely to be made by bringing the 2020 date forward.

If the scheme is implemented, a scenario could exist where females eligible for their state pension are not entitled to a free bus pass, which would cause all manner of legal problems for the government on grounds of discrimination.

It's been suggested, though, that this plan, while being real and genuine, could simply be part of the DfT's attempts to show how it would save 40% of its budget in a worst-case scenario, rather than the likely 25% cut it's likely to face.

LEYTR Comment: Love it or loathe it, the free bus pass scheme really is a vote winner. Although the incumbents have a fixed parliament for five years, the removal of any part of the scheme will be sure to anger millions of travellers. Yes, millions. Forget whether they are morally entitled or not, the elderly are generally more likely to vote Tory and have very long memories!! It will have a direct impact on the way people vote - even in May 2015.

Our related blog entries

2010 bus pass age to change
The story of eventual free local bus travel
Free bus pass scheme from 1 April 2008
2008 bus pass loop holes
Bus-less Isle of Scilly receive reimbursement
DfT overhauls admin of bus pass scheme
2009 bus pass report issued

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