Veteran broadcaster Dame Joan Bakewell today led a pensioners' revolt against calls to scrap free bus passes for millions of middle-class pensioners.
A report by town hall chiefs yesterday said too many people who own cars or can afford tickets are taking advantage of the scheme and only the poorest should get free travel.
It said spending £1billion a year of taxpayers' money on them was a waste and free bus passes should be only for the poor. It called for 'targeting' - or means-testing - to select those who deserve the privilege.
I'm afraid Dame Joan, for whom I usually have a lot of time, is rather naive here. This scheme didn't make sense from the moment some air-headed Labour policy-wonk cribbed it from his sixth form ideology class textbook.
It is a scheme which belongs to pre-deregulation days, at which time Labour may well have gotten away with it (although it would still have been expensive and unwise, just not such a transparent mess).
However, bus services are now run by businesses who recharge the cost of journeys to councils on a monthly basis. The total amount of free journeys is multiplied by the average journey cost and a deduction made for 'generation factor', which isn't a Bruce Forsyth game show, but a figure designed to reflect the increased usage due to the service being free, which wouldn't occur were passengers made to pay for it.
Whatever figure was used for generation factor prior to April 2008 would not have been adequate to cope with the extra usage by generally more sprightly 60-65 year olds who, if it's free, will use it and use it more extensively. More prohibitive deductions may have been attempted, but transport operators would have resisted them strongly, or may even have agreements which prevent such decreases. Since local bus service registrations are granted without a finite curtailment date, and can't be cancelled by anyone but the Traffic Commissioner with very good cause (bad repute, safety, poor finance), local authorities are somewhat screwed. They simply have to cough up.
As Dame Joan's comments illustrate perfectly, Labour have now created a problem for themselves, just as they did when they introduced the 10% tax band. Namely, now people are used to saving outlay they previously wouldn't have missed, they want to keep it.
However, it is simply too expensive to operate as it is currently. Especially since the 60-65 age range is incredibly more healthy than they were 10 or 20 years ago and a vast proportion in that age bracket have no real vital need for free travel. If they are physically fit and of ample means or perfectly able to travel by an alternative, their free bus pass is merely giving taxpayers' money away unnecessarily.
Labour should have foreseen all this a long time ago, but since dogma is their sole driving factor, and they are functionally innumerate into the bargain, it's no surprise that they didn't.
Now Labour have check mated themselves once again, one wonders who will have to suffer for them to save face. Here are the likeliest candidates:
1) The taxpayer (via increased subsidies to local authorities to cover the free bus pass scheme which will only ever increase over time as numbers of over 60s burgeon)
2) Local authorities (via being told to find the costs by savings or increased revenue elsewhere - thereby inevitably punishing the taxpayer)
3) The transport industry (via legislating to change the way concessionary fares are reimbursed, thereby reducing profitability and inevitably leading to closure of uneconomic routes)**
This is truly a government of all the incompetents, is it not?
** There is, of course, the highly unlikely option of re-regulation. The proposal of which would have even Mr Puddlecote Sr reaching for his torch and pitchfork.