Thursday, 30 July 2009

End of free bus passes for the elderly?

Posted on This is My Truth on 30 July

After all the fuss to get it published little attention has been paid to the report of the Ministerial Advisory Group on transport.

The Western Mail picks up on some of the recommendations today but there is much that has yet to be highlighted. It is an intellectually self-confident report and among its bold recommendations is the abolition of the new Regional Transport Consortia and the seizing by WAG of transport responsibilities from Local Authorities. Ieuan Wyn Jones had already rejected this.

But one suggestion that is being taken seriously is the ending of the free bus pass scheme for all pensioners in Wales.

Though popular with politicians the concessionary fares scheme worries civil servants. At a cost of more than £60 Million in revenue funding last year, the demand led scheme is thought to be unaffordable in its current form.

Officials are particularly worried at the poor controls in place to keep spending under control. For example, pensioners report that they are not able to buy return tickets with their free pass, only the more expensive single tickets; and some say they cannot get a ticket for just one stop but the taxpayer is charged for the whole journey made by the bus.

The Ministerial Advisory Group say this is "rapidly becoming unaffordable and should be reviewed as a matter of urgency". They want free fares to be available "only to those that need it".

In response the Assembly Government have told their advisers that they are "currently reviewing the reimbursement arrangements for the concessionary fares scheme"; and bus operators are up in arms that they are being kept in the dark about the review.

The Advisory Group are instead urging WAG to use new Smartcard technology to target free bus passes "on certain groups of people (for example, jobseekers) or people living in a particular area (for example, through the fares structure for the Valleys Lines network)".

With sharp spending cuts pending this is, perhaps, inevitable. But with the concessionary fares scheme widely seen by politicians as one of the Assembly's notable successes they will be reluctant to interfere too much with this much loved subsidy.

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