Freedom Pass holders don’t deserve to be a political football

Mayors and would-be Mayors love talking about the Freedom Pass and you can see why – it’s a popular benefit of living in the capital with an appreciative user base of older and disabled Londoners who might be persuaded to vote for the Mayoral candidate who makes the most noise about ‘defending’ and extending the scheme.

There is however a small problem: the Freedom Pass isn’t a Mayoral scheme and neither the Mayor or Transport for London administer or fund it. Most of the scheme’s funding comes from London’s boroughs and it’s administered by London Councils, the body which represents all boroughs in the capital.

According to figures provided to me by London Councils, the total cost of the Freedom Pass for the financial year 2010/11 is £265,987,000 of which “£28,090,000 is from a government grant and the rest is paid for by the boroughs.”

The issue of funding and entitlement to concessionary travel has a topical importance because concerns over the future of the pass have apparently been raised at Labour’s hustings – I’m told this is why Oona King’s transport document includes a promise to defend the pass despite there being no obvious threat to it.

Meanwhile King’s rival, former Mayor Ken Livingstone, is making much of his opposition to means testing the pass – his team’s tweets contain the claim that King is open to the idea – even though it’s also not on the agenda outside the hustings.

Londoners will be understandably bemused at the notion of two candidates campaigning against things which no-one in power is proposing.

Having established that the Mayor doesn’t control funding for the scheme let’s acknowledge another fact, namely that “the right to free bus travel for older and disabled people is enshrined in Primary Legislation.”

At least twice this year Labour’s own Transport Secretary told Parliament that:

“The right to free bus travel for older and disabled people is enshrined in Primary Legislation. This includes the Freedom Pass scheme in London, which is operated by London Councils on behalf of the London Boroughs and is the largest and most generous concessionary travel scheme in the country.

“Some of the scheme’s characteristics are at the discretion of the London Boroughs, and London Councils is able to change these providing there is unanimous agreement amongst the Boroughs and the changes do not contravene the statutory minimum required by legislation. However, as a minimum, the scheme in London must provide free travel on the London Local Transport Network between 9.30am and midnight and the period from midnight to 4.30am on weekdays, and at any time at weekends and on Bank Holidays.”

These comments were made in response to petitions from non-Labour MPs after Labour ministers decided to re-open a previously agreed three-year deal which determined how much the Government would contribute to the London scheme.

Note the clear statement that any changes to the London scheme require “unanimous agreement amongst the Boroughs”.

With the majority of London’s boroughs controlled by Labour why aren’t the party’s two Mayoral hopefuls – both backed by large numbers of councillors – simply able to rule out their party agreeing to any dilution of the scheme?

Even if the boroughs wanted to reduce the level of funding they provide, the Mayor has a reserve power to set the amount of money they pay TfL (though Boris did once promise to give those powers away).

And is anyone really expecting the coalition – especially the Conservatives – to hand Labour an electoral boost in 2012 by amending or revoking the legislation which guarantees concessionary travel?

As the name implies, the Freedom Pass saves thousands of the most deserving Londoners from the misery of a housebound life, allowing them to enjoy our city.

Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead of playing to the gallery, London’s politicians took time to explain why fears and concerns might not be well founded and ensured those who rely on this vital service weren’t caused any unnecessary worry?