As clear as I can remember it, this is a fragment of conversation between two elderly ladies I overheard last week on the number 737 bus, which runs from Bradford Interchange through Shipley, Guiseley and Yeadon to terminate at Leeds-Bradford Airport.
“They’re coming after your bus pass next.”
“The Tories. They want to end free buses for all old folks. They’re saying it costs too much. I read it somewhere.”
“Well, I certainly won’t vote for them if that’s their game. It’s getting terrible. They don’t want pensioners any more.”
The women were not on their way to the airport to jet off to the sun. They were just using their bus passes to get to the nearest supermarket. The 737 is a vital lifeline for them, since more and more small shops keep closing. As far as I know, however, the Conservatives have not said they intend to withdraw or cut back on the English National Concessionary Travel Scheme. At least, not officially.
The scheme gives free off-peak, weekend and bank holiday journeys to anyone of pensionable age, as well as eligible disabled people. But in their eternal, sleepless quest to cut back on government spending the Conservatives are clearly discussing the possibility of undoing what even Tony Blair’s harshest critics grudgingly admit was one of the great achievements of his last government.
It was introduced in 2008 and currently costs around £1.2 billion a year to fund. There are just under 10 million users and the average cost per person each year is £120. Four-fifths of those people who are eligible actually use a pass, and the scheme is credited with keeping many bus routes viable. If travel pass eligibility were to cease or be restricted, it would lead to bus timetable cutbacks.
Since the election in 2015 some Conservative MPs have begun muttering about the need to reduce the amount of money it costs. Andrew Mitchell, he of the Plebgate affair – which saw him allegedly engage in a foul-mouthed altercation with police guarding the gates to Downing Street – told a TV interviewer at last year’s Tory conference that the passes should be means tested. It raised eyebrows at the time, because no one in the Conservative Party was talking openly about restricting pensioners’ benefits.
Things have moved on since then. Or to put it another way, the Labour Party’s slump in opinion polls and chances of winning the election are in free fall, and even that legendary weather vane of political opinion, the man on the Clapham omnibus, knows that free bus passes and other benefits for pensioners are likely to be looked at harshly if this right-wing Tory Party get the predicted 100-plus majority.
The Conservatives are already saying that the so-called triple lock protection of the value of state pensions will be reviewed. It’s probably just the start of a raid on state pensions and benefits that the Tories claim the country can no longer afford. Anyone with political sense can read the smoke signals rising from Westminster, and it’s obvious to me that the Conservatives will be coming after pensioners when the election’s over. The women on the number 737 bus certainly know that. I hope they raise their voices a little higher in coming weeks.