Page last updated at 05:45 GMT, Wednesday, 5 August 2009 06:45 UK

Call to end all OAPs' free buses

Bus travel
Free bus passes for all pensioners were introduced in Wales in 2002

Free bus travel for all pensioners in Wales should be scrapped because of the cost, an advisory group has urged.

The independent ministerial advisory group on transport wants the assembly government to begin an urgent review, arguing it is becoming unaffordable.

Instead, the group suggests a more targeted approach for certain areas or social groups to save £25m a year.

But ministers say there are "no plans whatsoever" to scrap the scheme and they wanted to reassure the public.

One pensioners' group said ending free bus travel for all older people would "not be justifiable" and would place a "considerable burden" on their incomes.

Free bus travel for 600,000 elderly and disabled people in Wales was introduced in 2002 under a scheme which was priced at the time at £17.7m.

Karen Morris and Joan Evans
Karen Morris and Joan Evans, both 63 and from Newport, have had free bus passes for three years

Mrs Evans:
I use my bus pass every day, whether it's going shopping in Cardiff or just popping back and forth around Newport where I live visiting family and friends. I even go to Cribbs Causeway in Bristol. It's great.

I don't drive so it really gives me freedom. Today we've just met with some friends. One came from Caerphilly and the other from Swansea and we all used our free bus passes. We meet every month in Cardiff for lunch. That would have to stop if they took away our free passes.

To be honest, the best thing about turning 60 is getting your bus pass. It's the only thing we get for nothing! Most of the people we mix with use them all the time. I think a lot of people would be quite sad if they stopped

Mrs Morris: I use the bus all the time. I can drive but with the cost of petrol these days it can get quite expensive. Plus you can't drive into Newport or Cardiff because it's so expensive to park in the car parks.

My dad, who's 87, goes all over the place with his pass, going on day trips. They've spent a couple of days in mid Wales before using it. It's good because it gives elderly people a bit of freedom

I think it would be a really bad move to stop the passes. You work hard all your life and you finally get something for free and then it gets taken away. If you're elderly and on a pension, it could make a difference as a lot of people don't have money to spare.

The advisory group estimate that today, as an example, about £25m a year could be saved by restricting free travel on local buses to pensioners with below average incomes.

It said: "The current approach to subsidising public transport (at a cost of some £230m in 2008-09) is rapidly becoming unaffordable.

"There is an urgent need for a review to consider how to target the subsidies in the most efficient and effective way...

"It should also examine whether there is scope to bring public transport fares more into line with market rates and then target support on particular social groups, perhaps using new technology."

The advisory group acknowledged policies such as concessionary fares had proved popular and were securing "beneficial social outcomes".

It also agreed there had been important spin-off benefits for the transport network, for example by sustaining marginal bus services which would otherwise have been withdrawn.

But the advisers said these policies were expensive and they concluded that "with limited resources, the current approach is rapidly becoming unaffordable."

National Old Age Pensioners Association of Wales Assistant Secretary Emlyn Lloyd warned older people currently benefitting from free bus passes would be "very very concerned" by suggestions they should be scrapped.

He said: "They do recognise the fact that it has been of tremendous use to them in being able to travel, meet people, do their shopping.

We would like to reassure these people that there will be no change to the scheme
Welsh Assembly government statement

"If it was to be removed then there is no doubt that the cost of present day transport would be a considerable burden on (their income)."

Mr Lloyd added that, far from removing the bus passes, ministers should seek to go much further in extending 'free' services to older people.

He said: "The provision of bus passes is seen by many of our European members as an essential element in improving the welfare and mobility of elderly people.

Value for money

"In the case of Cyprus it even goes further, where they give not only a bus pass but also a social card which allows access for elderly people to concerts and other venues."

Mr Lloyd said removing the passes would not be justifiable and that pensioners would find such a change "quite onerous" given that state pensions here "are well below many of the European averages."

In a statement, an assembly government spokesman said ministers "had made it absolutely clear that we have no plans whatsoever to scrap the highly successful and popular concessionary travel scheme".

"Neither are there any plans to change the entitlement or eligibility criteria for the half a million people in Wales who currently benefit from the scheme," he added.

"We would like to reassure these people that there will be no change to the scheme - we are simply running an audit of the reimbursement mechanism between the Assembly Government, local authorities and bus operators."

Conservative transport spokesman David Melding AM said: "We've been advising the assembly government for some time to review this scheme.

"The best way of making public transport spending more efficient would be to make the pensioner bus travel scheme apply at off peak times only. The danger of the current policy is that it is eating up far too much of the transport budget and not allowing us to develop other public transport networks."

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