Breaking the bus pass promise?
“They’re trying to frighten old people by saying we’ll take away bus passes, or winter fuel payments. Well I can tell you we’re going to keep those things, and Labour have got to stop telling lies about what the Conservative party would do.”
David Cameron on the campaign trail in Loughborough, 13 April 2010
Cathy Newman checks it out:
I’ve never seen David Cameron so angry. When Labour claimed the Tories planned to axe free bus passes, he accused his opponents of lying. He responded with a clear promise – repeated several times – that pensioners would get to keep their free bus travel. It’s a pledge that many ministers wish he’d never made. Free pensioner bus passes cost the taxpayer £1bn a year in England – and with the transport department looking for cuts of up to 40 per cent, that money would come in handy. The perk isn’t means-tested, so the millionaire pensioner gets it too. So now it’s come to the spending crunch, is the government looking for a way to wriggle out of its commitment?
Today it emerged that the coalition is considering speeding up Labour plans to increase the age at which pensioners qualify for a free pass age – from 60 to 65 by 2020.
The Department for Transport presented the Treasury today with proposals for spending cuts of between 25 and 40 per cent. It told the Treasury that to slash spending by 40 per cent – the worst-case scenario – it would have to raise the qualifying age much sooner than Labour had planned.
Most Whitehall insiders reckon the spending cuts will be closer to 25 per cent than 40. So government spinners were frantically briefing that more rapid changes to the qualifying age were “extremely unlikely”.
But changes to other travel freebies are more likely. FactCheck has learned that the government has been putting pressure on the London mayor, Boris Johnson, to restrict the concessionary bus fares he offers in the capital.
In London, it’s not just the elderly who get free bus travel, but children under 16, injured war veterans and people looking for work too. In fact, 40 per cent of London bus passengers travel free or at a heavily reduced rate.
The government believes that’s too generous. There was a bit of a row at a meeting this week between the transport secretary Philip Hammond and the Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson. In an interview with Channel 4 News, Mr Johnson told us he was “forcefully” resisting pressure to curb the free bus passes.
Cathy Newman’s verdict:
If transport spending gets slashed by 40 per cent, people turning 60 would have to wait five more years for their free bus pass. Cameron’s promise would be severely compromised. But few believe the spending cuts will be quite that drastic. All departments have been asked to prepare two different scenarios – cuts of 25 per cent on the one hand, and 40 per cent on the other. The likelihood is that the axe will fall somewhere in between. If that’s the case, the PM would justifiably argue he’s kept his word. But the machinations behind-the-scenes – and the pressure being brought to bear on Boris Johnson – reveal just how hard that will be.