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article imageOp-Ed: Nick Clegg and the fear of a free ride

By Alexander Baron     Dec 27, 2012 in Politics
In this age of manufactured austerity, Nick Clegg has come up with yet another asinine money saving scheme: withdrawing the free travel passes of "wealthy" pensioners.
Nick Clegg was reported early this month to be spouting the suggestion that the elderly should be making a "sacrifice" to help the Government balance its books - read take it in the wallet for the benefit of the banksters. He was at it again shortly before Christmas.
Actually, this suggestion is far from new, similar penny pinching ideas were mooted in July of 2010, only at that time the suggestion was to raise the age of eligibility for pensioners from 60 to 65. According to the BBC, the Department of Transport was then spending £1 billion a year on free travel for the elderly. This is undoubtedly true, but the big question is why was it spending anything at all?
No, this is not a suggestion that the elderly should not be entitled to free travel, entirely the opposite, in fact. Consider the proposition again, how much does it cost to run an empty bus or train? The answer is not much more than a full bus or train. The majority of the elderly travel relatively little by public transport, primarily because they don't have to go out to work. And if they had to pay for the privilege, even fewer of them would.
Now consider this, how much would you expect to pay for a theatre ticket? Currently, tickets in the West End of London are going from about £26 (heavily discounted) to £65 up. What about people who can't afford those prices? Would it surprise you to learn that sometimes major theatres comp tickets for charitable organisations, hostels for the homeless, etc? How much do they lose by doing that?
Got a Yahoo! or Gmail account? The answer is most probably, but do you have a paid Yahoo! account? If not, how does your free ride hurt the person with a paid account?
Public transport is, or should be, precisely that, public. At the moment, most people pay at the point of travel, but this is not necessary. Even more, it is not necessary for the Government to "reimburse" bus (or train) companies for the cost of free travel, when a simple Act of Parliament would do, especially as the taxpayer and in some cases the ratepayer is paying the private railway companies a heavy subsidy for providing this supposedly public service.
The Government, all governments, are obsessed with this sort of accounting, even internal accounting when all that is involved is its taking money out of its right hand pocket and putting it in its left.
Travel companies would "lose" next to nothing if they were obliged to allow the elderly as well as schoolkids to travel free. A taxi service or an airline is a different proposition. For the amount of money supposedly saved by scrapping this "perk" the Government may as well not bother, and the benefits of free travel not simply to the elderly but to the community as a whole far outweigh the negligible cost. For one thing, this sort of concession mobilises the elderly, which means they are less likely to sit at home all day and vegetate, which means fewer trips to the doctor, the hospital, and so on.
The Government's obsession with balancing the books, "paying down the deficit", negates common sense. Less than eighteen months ago, our major cities were engulfed in riots. The courts were working overtime including sitting at night. No one asked can we afford to do this? Necessity demanded that it be done, and it was. At the current time there is major flooding in many parts of the country; local authorities and emergency services are pulling out all the stops to contain the disaster and to rehouse people at once. A government is not like an individual or even a company, it need not be constrained by finance - ie figures in a book - but only by the resources it can marshall, which is why no country ever lost a war because it ran out of money.
In the grand scheme of things, a free ride here and there for the elderly is something no one in a position of power should worry about or even notice.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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