THE age at which Scots qualify for a free bus pass is to rise, The Sunday Post can reveal.
In the face of soaring costs, SNP ministers are planning to increase the eligibility age for the popular concessionary travel scheme from 60.
A public consultation on the move will get under way later this year but it is understood current holders of the free bus pass will be unaffected.
The move was meant to have been launched this month but has now been put off until after May’s council elections.
The plan would leave Scots worse off than many parts of England, such as London, where the concessionary travel scheme starts at 60.
Around 200,000 people between the ages of 60 and 65 currently hold a free bus pass with many people who have retired early enjoying the benefits of the card.
Last month a £10 million black hole in the funding for the bus pass scheme was revealed in the Scottish Government’s draft budget.
Grilled by MSPs on whether entitlement for bus pass holders would remain unchanged in the wake of this cash shortfall, a top Transport Scotland official pointedly said: “For those who have the card, yes, absolutely.”
Neil Bibby, Labour’s transport spokesperson, said: “The SNP should come clean about these plans now – keeping older people in the dark about the future of the bus pass would be an insult.
“The free bus pass was introduced by the last Labour-led Scottish Government and it is a lifeline for many older people. If the SNP are planning changes to it, then they should say so before the elections in May.”
The SNP’s 2016 Holyrood manifesto said free travel would continue for older people but didn’t mention anything about the eligibility age.
However, the SNP’s programme for Government unveiled last year stated it would “examine options to safeguard the longer-term sustainability of the concessionary travel scheme.”
It is understood that a consultation on raising the minimum age for the bus pass was due to be launched early this year but has been put off until after the local government elections in May.
The Scottish Government’s draft budget document showed plans to cut concessionary travel cash from £207.8m in 2016/17 to £198.3m in 2017/18.
Bus firms had warned the gap would mean fare rises and service cuts, but it’s understood a deal has now been reached in principal that will plug this gap for the next year.
At a meeting of Holyrood’s connectivity committee earlier this month, Mike Baxter – Transport Scotland’s finance director – was quizzed by SNP MSP Stewart Stevenson on the bus pass scheme.
Mr Stevenson said: “Just to be concise, can you confirm that the budget provision leaves the entitlement for card holders unchanged?”
Mr Baxter replied, “For those who have the card, yes, absolutely.”
The free bus pass scheme for the over-60s and disabled costs around £200m a year – nearly a third more than it did when it was launched 11 years ago.
In Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, a free bus pass is currently available to everyone at 60.
South of the Border it varies from region to region.
The Lib Dems’ transport spokesman, Mike Rumbles, said: “Free bus travel for the over-60s has been a great success since it was introduced by us as part of the previous coalition government as it has encouraged greater use of public transport, which helps us all.”
It is understood the main players in the bus industry are relaxed about the age changes as long as they are not out of pocket.
However, this remains a moot point as it’s not clear how many journeys those between 60 and 65 actually take.
What is known is that 131,604 male free bus pass holders in Scotland are aged 60 to 65, while there are 99,501 female pass holders between the age of 60 and 63.
The Sunday Post asked Transport Scotland for a statement which specifically addressed the point about the eligibility age increasing.
Instead a spokesman said: “Free travel for Scotland’s older people and disabled people on local or Scottish long-distance buses will continue, through the National Entitlement Card, which we remain absolutely committed to.
“We will be consulting with stakeholders soon on ways to protect the long-term sustainability of the National Concessionary Travel Scheme.”