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Means Testing Pensioners’ Benefits

25 May

My gut reaction to the phasing out of free travel passes for pensioners and the disabled was that this suggestion was outrageous. Mainly because fares in the UK are astronomical compared to most other countries. The full fare to go one stop on a London bus is now over £2 which is quite ridiculous, so if pensioners didn’t have free travel passes many would feel trapped in their own homes, finding it difficult to even find the money to go shopping or attend hospital appointments.

True there are other options, such as Oyster cards in London which reduce the cost of travel, but for pensioners on a limited income phasing out the free travel card will hit them hard.

However there are also suggestions to means test the annual Winter Fuel Payment (£200 for those over 60, £300 for those over 80), and I’ve always been in favor of that, also the free TV license for those over 75.

All these means tests depend on how stringent the testing is. On reflection maybe the free travel pass should be included in means testing along with the Winter Fuel Payment and free TV license. It is offensive to think of The Queen and other millionaire pensioners having all these benefits (whether they use them or not). I always thought it was silly to pay a £200 Winter Fuel Allowance to people who were still working and earning good money. Others whose heating costs are included in their rents all year round also get this allowance, but never face big fuel bills in the Winter months.

As to free travel passes, these were extended to cover the whole of England and Wales. While very useful when away from home, this concession could be discontinued without much hardship. Pensioners on holiday or visiting friends and relations, having afforded the costs of getting away from home, can probably afford to pay local bus fares as well in the area they are visiting.

I see no problem at all in means testing the Winter Fuel Allowance and the free TV license. However means testing the free travel pass for use in the region where they live could cause serious problems if the testing is too strict. It should certainly disqualify millionaires like Peter Stringfellow from traveling free on the Tube and London buses, but what about the old lady who would be trapped in her home if it cost her several pounds just to get down to her local shopping center, lunch club or community center?

Fares are far too high generally in the UK compared to many other countries, which subsidize their public transport systems to a greater extent than we do.

On balance, I could tolerate means testing the free travel pass for pensioners if other concessions were offered instead. In the absence of lower fares generally, the prepaid Oyster card in London, for instance, could give pensioners and the disabled an added reduction, so perhaps a special pensioners’/disabled Oyster or Travel card. What is certainly out of the question is expecting ordinary pensioners to pay over £4 to visit their doctor or local lunch club, which would rise to over £9 if they have to take two bus routes to get there and back again. This is another thing which should be brought in – transferable tickets like other countries have so one ticket covers an entire journey how ever many buses have to be taken to complete it.

The whole question of means testing benefits, and especially fares which are so high, needs to be very carefully considered and the qualifying limit set at the right level. Otherwise there will be real hardship caused, and I can see rebellious pensioners used to traveling free on buses simply getting on them and refusing point blank to pay, so holding up fare-paying passengers.

We need a bit of common sense here, and expecting ordinary pensioners to pay several pounds just to visit their daily lunch club, community center, etc. is just not on. I suggest, if means testing is brought in, an upper limit is set on what ordinary pensioners need to pay in fares weekly. So if this was set at say £10 per week this would be all they had to pay however many journeys/buses they traveled on during this week. At the moment, without an Oyster card, London pensioners could well find themselves paying nearly £10 for one return journey to their lunch club if it involved two bus routes to get there and back – £2.30 x 4 + £9.20. If they go five times a week, plus other journeys to shops, church, doctors, etc. they could well end up paying £50 a week out of their meager pension, which would be untenable. Even with an Oyster card they’d be paying nearly £30 a week, and how many would be able to understand how an Oyster card worked and when/how to top it up?

No, if means testing is introduced for pensioners’ travel passes a simple option of drastically reduced fares needs to be brought in – the Pensioners’ Reduced Travel pass perhaps, which would cost a fixed rate per week or month and then allow unlimited bus travel in their region. This could possibly exclude the London Underground and Overground, which many pensioners and disabled find difficult to negotiate anyway due to the steps and escalators involved.



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