As the squeeze on public expenditure tightens, affecting benefits and entitlements across the board, attention has now turned to the free bus pass, with cries of “why do we give it to rich people?” The argument suggests that removing the bus pass from those who can afford a car will save the Treasury millions and prevent shelf stackers in Tescos subsidising the likes of Alan Sugar.
First of all, we need to look at what the bus pass is all about. Yes, it’s a great way to save pensioners the cost of travel, and we still recall the delight of one of our members whose elderly neighbour had bought a joint of beef for the first time in years from her savings on bus fares. But that’s not its only benefit.
We need more people to use the bus, if only to reduce car traffic and transport emissions. The free bus pass has encouraged people who hadn’t been on a bus for years to give it a try, often discovering that the experience was a lot better than they were expecting. Having ditched the hassle and expense of parking, particularly in town centres, many have stuck with the bus for all but a few journeys. This means fewer emissions, fewer cars on the road and an excellent alternative for people who fear their driving skills and confidence are diminishing.
The savings are overstated too. Those that have a car and don’t want to use the bus don’t usually bother to apply for a pass. Even if they do, it only costs the local authority anything appreciable if they actually use it as money is only paid out for journeys actually taken. As the terms of the scheme say that bus companies have to be left no better and no worse off, the loss of people who can afford to travel by other means will have to be compensated at a higher rate for those people still using their passes.
What is worrying is that means testing inevitably puts off people who are most in need of the benefit, and for them the loss of the bus pass means a lot more than saving money getting from A to B. There are proven health benefits for older people getting out more, they spend their money locally, access local amenities and it’s good for social inclusion.
So we do need to think about whether there would be any real benefit in excluding ‘rich’ people from the bus pass scheme: we could well lose a great societal benefit for no real financial gain.
Photo: Michael Kliokta