Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Free bus pass value for money. Keep your hands off Mr Clegg.

Free bus passes for the elderly are under threat with funding reduced by more than a quarter. Some transport bosses have warned that the scheme will become unaffordable.

Nick Clegg wants to restrict eligibility, arguing it is unfair that wealthy pensioners should also get the  concession. But does Mr Clegg really understand the value of the bus pass scheme for the elderly? And what of the consequences of means testing? Would it really be fair that one pensioner who judiciously saved for retirement should be denied a bus pass, while another who did not do so receives it?

Not long ago I met a lady coming off the train laden with several bags which I offered to help carry. "I'm only going to the bus stop." She explained, which was handy because I was catching a bus too.

I had daily gone to the station by car but now I was using my free bus pass. There was an hourly service that passed through my village and stopped at Leighton Buzzard station.

 "Are you going far?" I asked.
"I'm visiting my daughter" She explained. "She lives in Nottingham."
"Nottingham?"
"Yes."
"But how are you getting to Nottingham from here?" Nottingham was a long distance.
"I'm  getting the bus to Milton Keynes."

She would get another bus, and then another. She had planned it out, and she had done it before.
It took a long time but she could travel free, and that made all the difference.

We were united by our bus passes. I was saving fuel and she was saving money. We were both keeping fit. Or at least she was.

Bus passes do more than simply giving free travel. They enable people to get out and about, to maintain friendships and links with the community. They can prevent loneliness and isolation. They can bring people together; keep people in touch.

A recent study by researchers at Imperial College, London, found that free bus passes encourage the over 60s to be more active. They examined data from the National Travel Survey from 2005 to 2008. The free bus pass was introduced in 2006. They found that free bus passes had encouraged holders to walk more, at least three or four times a week; good for health and ultimately the health budget. A small amount of regular exercise such as walking reduces the risk of disability in older people. 

Postscript

A principal argument against the universality of the bus pass is the apparent unfairness: why should millionaires get one free too, surely that is unfair. Well it might be if indeed many millionaires applied for one.  But this kind of argument seeks to make a general case by example of an extreme. When I ask what threshold of 'wealth' there should be I rarely get an answer that makes much sense, or that wouldn't create more unfairness at the margin.  I have yet to see any flesh on the bones of Mr Clegg's position.

We should make no mistake that the real agenda here is cuts. The cost to the exchequer of free bus passes is around £1bn, that of the winter fuel allowance is £3bn.  Once again it is easy for politicians to divide the community on the issue of 'fairness'; what they won't yet do is to say what their real policy would be.

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