Ben Lowry: No wonder government is short of cash, given the hostility to any reform

The free travel pass for people aged 60 to 64 seems to be here to stay.
Photo by Aaron McCracken/Harrison Photography
The free travel pass for people aged 60 to 64 seems to be here to stay. Photo by Aaron McCracken/Harrison Photography
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Last week this column queried travel passes for under 65s.

It didn’t go down well, either among readers or on BBC Talkback this week, where I tried to explain my view.

I had made clear in the original article that (obviously) I support free travel for old people – ‘obvious’ because I know of no-one who opposes that.

But nor do I know anyone who says public transport should be free for everyone.

The only debate, therefore, is the age at which it should be offered free: 70? 68? 65? 63?

I think 60 too young given rising life expectancy, and the urgent need to figure out how to help young people match previous generations in terms of employment levels, home ownership and pensions.

My view is that entitlement to free travel should gradually rise with the state pension age. But it is clear from the furious reaction to that idea that free travel at 60 is here to stay.

Fine. But it is another burden on the public purse, like Stormont’s free prescriptions.

The cost of free travel for people aged 60 to 65 is relatively small. But other aspects of public expenditure in Northern Ireland are not minor, such as the higher number of hospitals per capita than Great Britain and, perhaps most dramatic of all, Disability Living Allowance (DLA).

The cost of DLA spirals ever upwards. We reported this week that nearly 12%of the population (214,000 people) get it – one person in eight.

When, on BBC Nolan this week, I queried if quite so many people needed to be on DLA, that too met with fury.

All these costs together put serious strain on the national finances. The next time you are caught behind a tractor on the Belfast-Londonderry road, or in a traffic jam at York Street junction, or waiting eight months for an NHS appointment, and wondering why, think about all these other costs to the Treasury.

The mere suggestion that some of them could be trimmed sparks such anger that no wonder politicians avoid discussion of them.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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