Offering free travel to the over 60s is unfair on the younger generations

The then transport minister Conor Murphy  in autumn 2008 launches free travel on public transport in NI for people aged 60 to 64, with new passholders in the background.
 Photo by Aaron McCracken/Harrison Photography
The then transport minister Conor Murphy in autumn 2008 launches free travel on public transport in NI for people aged 60 to 64, with new passholders in the background. Photo by Aaron McCracken/Harrison Photography

This piece by Ben Lowry generated some controversy and is being discussed on BBC Talkback on November 30:

To get a sense of the financial challenges that the so-called millennial generation is going to face in coming decades, consider a Translink statement issued this week.

The transport company announced a scheme to “promote social inclusion and make travel to Dublin more affordable”.

Was this a plan to bring groups of children from deprived and divided nationalist and loyalist communities on trips to the Irish capital?

Or a subsidy for journeys by young disabled people who struggle to make friends or find employment?

No, it was new £10 return fare to Dublin for the elderly.

How noble you might think. Translink revealed the scheme with a picture of an elderly couple beside a train.

But the couple in the photo were probably already eligible for free return train tickets to Dublin, because they seemed to be 65+, which is the age at which you get free travel to the Republic.

The new lower fare was aimed at those aged between 60 and 65. Such people are entitled to free public transport within Northern Ireland, but not cross-border.

Claire Vaux, Brand Manager at Translink, explained that the organisation does not “want cost to be a barrier for passengers 60+ when it comes to travelling to Dublin”. In other words, Translink feels 60 to 65-year-olds are a vulnerable group that it should demonstrate a commitment to helping.

No wonder it feels so. Our politicians have set the template for such misguided thinking.

In one of its long list of populist measures, funded by GB taxpayers (such as free prescriptions, see here), Stormont cut the age at which people get free transport within NI from 65 to 60 in 2008.

This happened at the height of a financial crisis in which Britain’s national debt ballooned, and amid soaring life expectancy in which young people are going to have to work until their 70s.

No suggestion of lifting the age of free travel above 65 in line with the state pension, in a responsible bid to cope with the increased financial burden on the state of this perk.

Not even an attempt to keep the perk at 65, which itself costs ever more money to the state as lifespans soar.

No, they actually cut the age of entitlement.

Did a single MLA out of 108 raise a doubt about the wisdom of this, and the possible implications of the policy on young people?

If so, let us know. They deserve credit.

The policy was introduced by Conor Murphy, the then Sinn Fein transport minister. When Danny Kennedy, the later Ulster Unionist minister, raised fears about the ability to continue to fund the perk in 2014, he made clear that he was a big supporter of the scheme – as were all the main parties.

The current demographic that benefits from free travel from 65 to 60 was born between 1951 and 1956. This is probably the most privileged demographic in history.

They missed the wars, and indeed post-war rationing.

They benefitted from low house prices and high inflation, which wiped out their debts, no matter how profligate they had been.

They are benefitting from pensions designed for a time age when people retired at 65 and died at 70 (not retire at 60 and die in the 90s).

They benefitted from modern medicine that has ushered in the huge rise in longevity.

They are young enough to benefit from modern technology and easy overseas travel.

They are the tail end of a generation that mostly had children aged in their 20s or early 30s, and so are financially free of children by the age of 60.

And those of them that got a university education paid nothing towards it but have enjoyed earnings twice the national average, if not more.

Now Stormont has allocated precious cash to this age group in free travel.

It is no fault of that generation, or criticism of them, that they were so lucky in so many respects. I think it is wonderful that those baby boomers have lived so well.

But policy makers need to be aware of the needs of all generations.

Ultimately, you might say, free travel at 60 will benefit future generations who are going to struggle in the aforementioned areas such as getting on the housing ladder and having a decent pension, when they too reach 60.

But those future generations will not benefit from it. Because the maths is such that a coming generation of politicians will have to pull back from the commitments of the profligate current one and scrap free travel at 60.

Even if free travel had been kept at 65, the cost to taxpayers would have grown as an ever higher percentage of the population consists of people above that age.

It would have made sense to increase the age at which people get free travel gently so the loss of the perk was barely perceptible – perhaps a rise in eligibility by a year in age every five years.

But Stormont went the other way. Free travel at 60 was presented as a policy of enlightenment and generosity – in much the same way that this week’s Translink press release refers in concerned tones to the “cost barrier for the over 60s” before saying “with the holidays coming up, there’s no better time to enjoy a fun day out in Dublin” (not exactly an image of hardship).

I often travel to Bangor on the train. The trains are heavily used by affluent over 60s. If the over 60 perk was ended the £8.60 return fare could be cut for everyone, including young people who struggle to find work.

I know well paid professionals who travel to full-time jobs for free. I know of retired people who have taken low-paid media work (journalism is poorly paid these days), to which they travel back and forth for free – pay which for a young person is barely worthwhile after transport costs.

I realise that some of these people have paid a lot of tax over the years, but even so I think free transport at 60 is an unwise use of public funds. Stormont needs to have a debate about it.

Such discussion might reassure powerful people such as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who penned the following faintly menacing line in the News Letter this week: “I look forward to seeing the steps the Executive is taking to meet its commitment to set Northern Ireland’s finances on a sustainable footing for the longer term.”

• Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

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