Alf Young: Free travel is far from just the ticket

Nicola Sturgeon launches the new travel smartcard. Picture: Stuart Nicol
Nicola Sturgeon launches the new travel smartcard. Picture: Stuart Nicol
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ENTITLEMENTS for Scottish voters are now open to public debate which offers a reality check on public spending, writes Alf Young

I HAVE just received my national entitlement card. That’s what it says in bold letters at the top of the single sheet of A4 to which the card was attached. Your National Entitlement Card. It has my picture, my name, a 16-digit number, and a “valid to” date in 2016. All against the backdrop of a stylised saltire. At the bottom, beside a second, smaller saltire logo, is the heartwarming message One Scotland. It also carries the emblem and name of my council. It makes you wonder what all that fuss about national identity cards was about.

This “multi-application smartcard” is, among other things, now that I am in my 60s, my pass to free bus travel anywhere in Scotland. Were I to live anywhere in the former Strathclyde Region, it would also serve to give me concessionary travel on suburban train services, on the Glasgow subway and, for certain island and peninsula dwellers, cheaper ferry tickets too.

From my nearest station, Milngavie, the return rail fare to central Glasgow under this scheme is currently just £1.20. Train and subway concessions do not apply before nine on weekday mornings. From May this year, such tickets are also invalid between 16:30 and 18:00 Monday-to-Friday, presumably to try and ease the rush-hour congestion on trains. Concession holders travelling to hospital appointments can still access the cheaper fares at these times, if they produce written proof of where they are going.

Shortly after the new restrictions were introduced, I was travelling into Glasgow by train one early evening. Three prosperous-looking men of my age got on at Bearsden, already anticipating the fun to come with their pals. All three asked for concession returns to Glasgow. Told they could no longer have the cheaper fare on that particular service, their mood changed. They got stroppy. They would check at Queen Street and heaven help the train attendant if her account of the new restrictions proved inaccurate!

Once you call a concession an entitlement, you are asking for trouble. Strathclyde Region is long gone. But some of its entitlements endure. Its full rail concession only applies for journeys up to ten miles. Beyond that holders can still travel for half the standard fare. But even that’s not enough for some folk. I remember watching amazed as another well-heeled old gent, who wanted to get from Milngavie to Helensbugh, tried to persuade another train attendant he could divide up his journey into sub-ten-mile segments and shave a pound or so off the cost!

Last week when the Scottish Labour leader Johann Lamont first dared question the sustainability, even the legitimacy, of some of the entitlements showered on my generation, regardless of means, some in the political commentariat wrote it off as a colossal error of judgement. An open goal for Alex Salmond and the SNP. Worse, a savage attack on the ties that bind any civilised society.

Now that Scotland’s first Auditor General, Robert Black, has entered the fray, spelling out the mounting cost of these sectional entitlements, against the backdrop of an unprecedented ongoing squeeze on the public finances, he is already being portrayed as a Labour stooge and unionist lackey in the bile-laden reaches of what passes for digital debate in pre-referendum Scotland.

Scrap Trident now and we can enjoy all the universal entitlements we can dream up seems to sum up the prevailing wisdom there. If only it were that easy. As the SNP is discovering with the leadership’s conversion to Nato membership causing strains with sections of its membership, while some in the Westminster coalition are inching towards the conclusion that a full Trident replacement is now looking like an hugely expensive answer to one of yesterday’s problems.

I once spent quite a lot of time with Bob Black. In the late 1990s we were both members of FIAG, one of those impenetrably-named bodies in pre-devolution Scotland, that were supposed to come up with guidelines on how, practically, a devolved government in Scotland could be made to work. FIAG, the Financial Issues Advisory Group, reported to CSG, the Consultative Steering Group.

Most of our group were either finance experts, senior civil servants or former civil servants. I was never quite sure why I was asked to join. I think I was a grain of fourth estate grit in the oyster. But, from memory, our debates were lively and critical. We agreed the way successive governments at Westminster had chosen to budget for their programmes lacked sustained, informed scrutiny from parliament. Transparency was sorely missing from the process.

There was one metaphor we banded about quite a lot that rather summed up where we were coming from. Price tags. Politicians, whatever their stripe, when they come up with promises and priorities for spending public money, should be required to attach detailed price tags, both at the outset and over time, to their choices and to the consequences of choosing this option over that. Only then can the rest of us see the choices for what they really are.

That was what Bob Black was spelling out this week in his David Hume Institute lecture and in the piece he wrote on these pages yesterday. He’s been issuing similar warnings ever since the years of plenty gave way to the sad state we are all now in. But the evidence that warnings like his are falling on deaf ears is everywhere.

Just in the past few days look at the fiasco at Westminster over the new west coast rail franchise, costing tens of unanticipated millions in compensation payments alone. Or at the Scottish government’s covert cuts to bursaries for students from poor and middle income families, offset by access to bigger loans. Where was that price tag displayed in all the political rhetoric about no tuition fees here?

All political choices, including free-or-subsidised-at-point-of-use choices get paid for somewhere else. The three men on that train from Bearsden were quibbling over a concession the worth of which would be consumed several times over later that evening. Its cost, in terms of subsidies to ScotRail from already cash-strapped and council-tax-frozen local authorities, means less money to spend on other public goods, perhaps goods on which they, or someone in their family circle, depend.

All budgets, even budgets in an independent Scotland, are finite. All political rhetoric carries its price tag. One mark of a mature democracy is to ensure all these promises come with price tags transparently attached. Whether that is best done by the kind of standing commission suggested by Bob Black is clearly a matter for ongoing debate. Some kind of super-charged Audit Scotland would lack democratic legitimacy. But, equally, allowing governments to bluff and spin their way around the numbers demeans democracy too.