I am in a bit of a quandary. The time has come when I am finally eligible for a free bus pass. Thanks to the generosity of the Scottish taxpayer, I could, if I wished, travel across our glorious city every day, for nothing.
I could venture across the bridge to Fife. Take a bus up the east coast to Aberdeen. I could even spend the day in Glasgow if the fancy takes me. All I have to do join Scotland’s 1.3 million free bus pass holders is to pop into my local library with proof of my age, sign on the dotted line, and within days I will get my golden ticket.
But I am very reluctant to take up this generous offer. Not because I am loath to admit my age. I am rather proud of the fact that I have made it this far and still have (most) of my own teeth. And anyway, is 60 not the new 40?
My reluctance to join the free bus army is motivated by a sense of fairness. Call me sanctimonious, but I really don’t think it is right that I am entitled to a free ride, while hard-pressed working families, single parents on benefits and young people looking for a job have to stump up £1.60 every time they get on a number 26. Don’t get me wrong, I am not rich. I don’t have a full-time job and I shop in discount supermarkets, as much through necessity as choice. And I don’t – can’t – drive, so buses are my default travel option.
Many of my peers think I am unnecessarily pious. They carry their concessionary travel card with pride, while picking up a handsome salary from their full-time, well-paid job.
“We’re entitled to it,” they grin. “Benefits should be universal, that is socialism,” they lecture. Not in my little red book it ain’t.
In these hard times, when every public penny counts, those with least should benefit most from generous government schemes like concessionary travel. Age alone should not be the deciding factor in whether someone gets a freebie worth around £250 a year, particularly now that 60-year-olds are no longer pensioners, but workers. Recent figures suggest that there are 200,000 Scots between 60 and 65 entitled to a free bus pass.
That is £50 million a year of our hard-earned cash spent subsidising leisure travel for civil servants and bankers when it could – or should – be invested in our struggling NHS and schools. A few years ago, when the then leader of Scottish Labour Johann Lamont – one of the most “socialist” thinkers I know – ordered a policy review of Scotland’s free universal benefits such as prescriptions, tuition fees and, yes, the bus pass, she was greeted with howls of derision.
And that was just from her own side. The current transport minister, the affable Humza Yousaf, met the same stubborn resistance when he announced the Scottish Government’s recent consultation on the future of concessionary travel.
That listening exercise ended a few weeks ago, and we have yet to hear of Mr Yousaf’s future plans for the bus pass, but I would be surprised if the Government that bribes middle-class families with “higher education student support” worth more than £200m a year will make any significant changes to the scheme.
In the end, it all comes down to politics. Governments rarely make spending decisions based on what is right for the country, preferring instead to do what is best for their poll numbers. As for my personal quandary. Well, I have decided, foolishly or not, to continue with my one-woman campaign and I will not be claiming my free bus pass for a few years yet. Now if only I could work out how to use Lothian Buses ticket app!