OAPs set for ticket to ride anywhere

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PENSIONERS will get a ticket to ride anywhere in Scotland under new plans to extend free bus travel.

Old folks’ groups complained bitterly when the much-trumpeted "national" free fares scheme introduced last year turned out to apply only to local services in each part of the country.

They said the elderly should be able to use their free off-peak passes to visit friends and relatives all over the country.

Now Labour will pledge in its manifesto for the May elections that it will expand the scheme to allow such journeys.

The idea has also won cross-party support, with the Liberal Democrats, who could well end up back in coalition with Labour, expected to make a similar promise.

The SNP said it would not oppose the move and the Tories said they would have "no problem with the principle". The extension of the scheme could cost up to 50 million on top of the 40m a year budgeted.

And today pensioners’ groups welcomed the move, arguing helping to keep older people active could save money in the long run.

From September last year, old folk in Edinburgh, East Lothian and Midlothian have been able to use their passes anywhere within these three areas but cannot cross the border into West Lothian on the same concessions except to go to St John’s Hospital in Livingston.

Transport Minister Iain Gray said: "Over the course of the next parliament, we will extend the concessionary travel scheme so it becomes a national scheme, which would mean you would be able to use the concession wherever you were in Scotland, even if you are not in your home region. But you would also be able to use it in going from one part of Scotland to another."

Negotiations have yet to take place with bus companies on how the scheme will work, but Mr Gray said the intention was pensioners would be able to use the free pass to travel with all bus operators.

"I don’t think we ever thought what we had was the be-all and end-all and we were always looking for ways we could improve it. Rather than wait until we could deliver a Rolls Royce scheme, the approach we have taken is to build on what is there."

A Liberal Democrat source said they would also promise to extend the scheme.

"Although we have made a great deal of progress with the current scheme, it is not perfect in every way and we are committed to improving it."

SNP transport spokesman Kenny MacAskill said the Scottish Executive had promised a national scheme and he welcomed the fact they planned to deliver it. "But I would be interested to know where they are going to get the money from."

A Tory spokesman said the party would have "no problem with the principle" of extending free fares. But he claimed: "There have already been difficulties in administering the system and this could end up as another broken promise."

Phyllis Herriot, chairwoman of the Scottish Pensioners Forum, said Labour’s pledge was "welcome news".

And she said pensioners were being urged to raise the issue with councillors, MSPs and candidates of all parties.

"Concessionary travel is a big thing for pensioners. It keeps them right at the hub of the community and it keeps them fit and active, which saves money in the long run.

"We were pleased when we got the original scheme to get a first step on the ladder. Now we want to get to the top."

And Ms Herriot said the next aim would be to extend the scheme to cover journeys anywhere in the UK.

"If we can get this established in Scotland, it will be like free personal care - we would support our friends in England and try to get it extended throughout the UK."