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Friday, July 26, 2019

Will there be a backlash against Welsh Government changes to bus passes?

As the UK Government has found out with TV licences for the over 75s, it is harder to take a benefit away than it is to grant it in the first place. It is a lesson that the Welsh Government may also have to learn as they seek to rebalance their budget, by amending the terms of the many 'freebies' they have introduced over the last 20 years.

Amongst these benefits we can include free prescriptions, free entry to museums, free swimming for some age groups, free school breakfasts and of course free bus travel for the over-60s.

As this article makes clear, the cost of the free bus pass is rising, with 880,000 people expected to be eligible by 2021. According to a recent consultation, pass-holders represent about 47% of bus journeys in Wales and there were about 730,000 passes in circulation at the end of 2018.

Bus firms are reimbursed on the basis of an adult single fare, according to a White Paper published last year. Figures from 2016 showed the cost of providing free bus travel up to that point was in the region of £840m.

I suppose the cost could have been even higher if it were not for cuts in the availability of buses, especially on rural or uneconomic routes.

Now the Welsh Government are proposing to increase the age one becomes eligible for the pass to the state pension age. In doing so they will effectively disenfranchise many people who might have used this benefit.

There has already been some backlash against this proposal and it will be interesting to see whether that is reflected in responses to the consultation once the legislation is published. However, aren't Welsh Ministers just deferring the problem?

The numbers involved will remain the same, it is just that the recipients will have to wait a bit longer and that means that the projected costs will still apply, except in a different budget year. If the government really want to curtail costs they may also have to look at imposing an administration charge, or even insist on a small payment for each bus journey.

That is a debate that will need to be had. Either way, this announcement effectively ends the era of the freebie. How will the Welsh Government distinguish itself from the rest of the UK now?
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