Today the Royal Society of Edinburgh (RSE) weighed into the political debate with a plea for the SNP government to re-think its generous policies towards the people of Scotland. In the firing line were a number of planks that constructed the popular policy platform that, among other things, did so well for the SNP in May, including:
- Council tax freeze
- Free university tuition for Scots residents
- Low prescription charges
- Free personal care for the elderly
- Free eye testing
- Free bus travel for over-60s
Such policies, according to the RSE should receive “far more independent and rigorous assessment”. In submitting its opinion to Holyrood’s Finance Committee, they have brought a more neutral voice to the political clamour that normally surrounds this. With the Spending Review imminent and another round of cuts coming from the UK Treasury next year—and the one after—perhaps this is a time to examine these options.
Pretty much all of those listed above are popular and most agree that we should do well by our elderly. But, of those listed above, the one that comes under most questioning is the free bus travel. Originally conceived to allow the elderly and infirm who most likely also did not have a car to have easier access to shopping and socialising, this will have grown into a £1bn monster by 2015. Tales abound of older people travelling all round Scotland on a regular basis, simply because it’s free. Bus companies love it because it boosts their income for no outlay or effort on their part.
But, rather than scrapping it wholesale, are there ways of retaining the original intent while reducing the degree of abuse that appears to be happening now? There certainly are, especially when you consider the degree to which it favours those who live in towns (where buses are frequent and the network dense) over those who live rural lives, sometimes without any buses at all.
- Firstly, this was introduced from age 60 simply because women had retired at 60 and equality demanded that men could not be made to wait until 65. Simply raising the age at which it becomes valid to 65 for either would, at a stroke, save £279m or 1/4 of the policy’s cost and still allow the original intent of more elderly and infirm benefitting.
- Secondly, it seems unreasonable that no off-peak restriction applies because those using their bus pass compound the problems of rush-hour. Banning its use between 9am and 4pm or after 6pm on work days, as most discount fares do, would not only ease congestion but save another £23m.
- Thirdly, those still in full-time jobs could be reasonably expected to still pay their bus fares while the perk could be restricted to those already retired and generally not capable of bringing in a wage any more. Excluding full-time workers, irrespective of age would save another £42m.
Taken together, these three limitations should not disadvantage the great bulk of people for whom the original policy was conceived. And yet they would cut the actual cost of the policy by 38%, freeing up £344m for use in these tough times and perhaps retaining other policies that most people would generally agree have a higher priority.