Page last updated at 17:47 GMT, Saturday, 28 March 2009

Pensioners face bus rule change

Queue for a bus
Changes to the use of free bus passes for elderly people have been criticised

Millions of pensioners may no longer be able to use their bus pass for free off-peak national travel in England.

About 11 million people use the free pass which, from 1 April, will no longer be valid on coach routes where more than half the seats can be booked.

Pass holders will also be unable to travel free on park-and-ride routes and buses "intended primarily for tourism".

Help the Aged described the move as a "backward step", but the Department for Transport defended the decision.

A spokeswoman said the changes would "clarify" which services were not covered by the scheme, and would hit about 22,500 coach trips a year.

The changes were being introduced following a public consultation, she added.

Critics of the scheme said the policy of giving free national bus travel to elderly people had been implemented poorly by the government.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown first announced the £1bn national scheme giving pensioners a pass to use buses for free in 2005, ahead of a general election.

And, at first, the policy was only for routes within the local council area where the pensioner lived.

In April 2007 the scheme was extended to allow unlimited travel anywhere in England between 0930 and 2300 for pass holders.

Isolation and loneliness in our pensioner population is substantial and damaging. We want to encourage them to get out and have a life

Mervyn Cohler, Help the Aged

Some coach services, including National Express routes, were included in the schemes by local authorities, which meant pensioners could hop on buses and coaches.

Critics have complained the government's formula for funding the scheme is flawed.

The system involves money being channelled through local councils who get a set amount to pay the bus companies for the revenue they have lost through allowing the elderly to travel for free.

However, a number of councils have said this approach has created large disparities in the effect felt by different places.

Local authorities in seaside resorts and tourist destinations have complained about being inundated with pensioners.

They say they have to pay bus companies for free fares, but are not given enough money from the government to do it, leaving a shortfall.

It has been argued that council taxes may need to raided or services cut to bridge this shortfall.

Discretionary approach

Mervyn Cohler, of Help the Aged, said: "We want old age pensioners to have access to this service but the legislation is not capable of delivering that because we have not got the mechanism to allow provision to give compensation for bus companies to carry free passengers.

"We will fight for the government to provide it.

"Isolation and loneliness in our pensioner population is substantial and damaging.

"We want to encourage them to get out and have a life and not be stuck in their own homes."

Meanwhile, the Department for Transport spokeswoman said the free bus pass was "always intended for use on local bus services".

"Following a full public consultation, these changes will clarify which types of service are outside of the spirit of the national concession, reducing potential for any confusion over whether a service is eligible - e.g. tourist and sightseeing buses and rail replacement services," she said.

However, she added that local authorities could still offer concessionary travel on any service affected by the changes on a discretionary basis.

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