Tuesday, 26 February 2013
Free Travel Scheme Eligibility
I thank the Minister of State for taking this matter on the Adjournment. I have raised it because a replacement bus service for west Cavan has recently discovered that it cannot accept free bus passes, as the service will be considered a new applicant. Local representatives and residents are arguing that the route does not necessarily constitute a new application, as a different company is providing a rural community with the same route that was recently removed by Bus Éireann due to cuts. The Department of Social Protection has stated that it is not in a position to consider applications for additional routes to the free travel scheme, as the scheme's expenditure has been frozen at 2010 levels in line with the National Recovery Plan 2011-14.
What provision is being made for people who had been availing of the free travel scheme under Bus Éireann, but who cannot avail of the free travel scheme following the removal of the route and the subsequent replacement of same by alternative providers? I have discussed the matter with many of the people in west Cavan and elsewhere who have been affected by such a scenario, in that they are no longer able to use their bus passes because spending on the scheme has been capped at 2010 levels.
Entitlements to free travel have been whittled down by cutbacks. The ability of people in rural Ireland to travel affordably is being diminished. Considerable relief was expressed in the communities of west Cavan when the removed bus services started to be offered through an alternative arrangement. However, that the free travel scheme will not extend to them is a harrowing blow. The company that has stepped in to provide this vital rural service in west Cavan is a part of a group and is a reputable provider of rural and interurban services that are no longer offered by Bus Éireann. In many areas, such companies are often the only suppliers of public transport.
Given the fact that the services in question are licensed, the company should be empowered to operate the free travel scheme on the same basis as Bus Éireann. The routes are the same but the operators are different. In many parts of the country, including along these routes, people would not have effective access to free travel without the services of such companies.
I wish to highlight the problem of rural isolation, which could easily stem from this issue if transport is not affordable. People can be dependent on others to get them to neighbouring towns to avail of services, an occurrence that has become increasingly common since the removal of services from towns. People, particularly in rural, isolated communities like west Cavan, must travel longer distances.
The removal of the free travel scheme for people on the routes in question could further reduce access to services for people in rural Ireland. For this reason, will the Department of Social Protection consider an amnesty or the like for the service providers who take up the mantle of rural services dropped by Bus Éireann so that they can access the free travel scheme?
I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Social Protection. When spousal and companion passes are taken into account, there are more than 1.1 million customers with some free travel eligibility and in excess of 745,000 customers with direct eligibility.
Expenditure on the scheme was frozen at 2010 levels by the last Government, leaving a provision for the scheme in 2013 of ¤77 million.
The free travel scheme is currently available to all people living in the State aged 66 years or over and to carers and to customers under 66 who are in receipt of certain disability-type payments. Customers can travel for free on most CIE public transport services, Luas and a range of services offered by up to 90 private operators in various parts of the country. Given the challenging budgetary context, however, it is timely to review the current operation, future direction and efficiency of the scheme and to ensure it is consistent with other travel schemes funded by the Exchequer.
In this regard, an interdepartmental committee commenced a review of the scheme last year. One of the aspects being examined is the extent of the service provided, and this will involve an assessment of the need to adjust the service having regard to its coverage to ensure it is consistent with current and anticipated future needs. This committee comprises representatives of the Department of Social Protection, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the National Transport Authority. It is expected to conclude its work by the end of the third quarter of 2013. The report will feed into future policy development and the forthcoming budgetary process.