Don’t take away our free travel passes, say NI pensioners

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Northern Ireland pensioners have hit out at threats to take away their free travel passes – saying the move will cause them to be more isolated and less active and healthy.

The Northern Ireland Pensioners Parliament – meeting on Thursday and Friday at the Clayton Hotel in Belfast – warned that any future Stormont Executive that chooses to cut or means-test the bus pass will fail to recognise its true value.

Their comments come from a draft manifesto which is due to be agreed over the coming days by older people from across the Province.

The call has already been supported by the findings of a survey conducted by the parliament, which found that 91 per cent of older people are against means testing the Smartpass scheme in Northern Ireland.

The survey also revealed:

• Three-quarters of older people believe the Smartpass keeps them more mobile and active;

• More than two-thirds (69 per cent) said the Smartpass helps them keep in touch with friends and family;

• More than half (56 per cent) agreed that the Smartpass prevents them from feeling lonely/isolated;

• Activities older people use their Smartpass for the most are shopping, visiting friends/family, leisure, day trips and attending health appointments.

Chair of Northern Ireland Pensioners Parliament, Michael Monaghan, said: “It seems only right that protecting the bus pass will be the first demand to appear in our manifesto, because it’s undoubtedly one of the most cherished benefits received by older people in Northern Ireland.

“Free travel allows the older population to have a more active and healthy lifestyle, but ensures it isn’t a financial burden. It also means older people are able to spend their money in more places, which clearly is of benefit to the local economy.”

In recent years, some have suggested means-testing the Smartpass or withdrawing it from certain age groups, he said.

But he added: “Instead of talking about who deserves the Smartpass, or what money could be saved from cutting it, we should be praising what the Smartpass enables older people to do. These activities actually save money, help the economy and secure a better public transport system for everyone.”

All motions being passed by the parliament will be used in a manifesto to lobby MLAs in the forthcoming Assembly election.

Smartpass facts

• There are 228,882 Senior Smartpasses and 62,754 60+ Smartpasses in circulation

• In 2014/15, subsidies paid to Translink and other transport providers for the Smartpass scheme totalled £33.5m

• In 2014/15, there were 12.2m journeys taken

• Average of 42 journeys per Smartpass in 2014/15