I am pleased to discuss the proposal this evening and I fully support the protection of the free travel pass scheme introduced by Fianna Fáil in 1967. I was a teenager at the time. This means that I should be looking forward to my free travel pass if it is still available – I hope it is. There was a good deal of opposition in 1967 from the Civil Service but it is great that we held onto it and we won the day. The scheme has ensured that generations of elderly people in Ireland have been able to stay connected to their communities. It has helped isolated individuals play an active role in their areas. Combined with the rural transport scheme, services for people with disabilities and essential services it is a welcome measure. In particular, it helps people to attend medical and other personal appointments and, for this reason, it should be user-friendly. I have always fought for suitable timetables for people who use the travel pass. I have in mind Woodlawn station, near where I live. People there have seen services cut, including the services to Dublin and Galway. We have to get the timetable and the cost right. Parking is an issue that has reared its head again in some of the small stations. We have to get all these things together.
Helping the elderly travel around the country has been the greatest benefit of the scheme. When I hear the word “review” I think of cutbacks, like the cutbacks to the household benefit package. Furthermore, the telephone allowance went, there was a reduction in free electricity units and the respite care grant, while the bereavement grant is gone. There has been an increase in prescription charges and reductions in the fuel allowance and housing aid supports.
I have heard people refer to a small charge for the free travel scheme. Of course if we bring in a small charge it will soon become a big charge. We need only think of the prescription charges going from 50 cent to €2.50. This is something I am not keen to see, nor am I keen to see restrictions on the use of the travel pass at peak travel time.
Deputy Sean Fleming received an interesting reply on the criteria and terms of reference during Question Time today. The first issue was eligibility. Government Deputies seem to have a difference of opinion tonight about who should be eligible. The reply also referred to an examination of the extent of the service provided, data on the usage of the scheme, fraud and control measures and the interaction between stakeholders and the scheme. All these issues are being examined.
Age Action Ireland is right to say that any attempt to meddle with the scheme or water it down would create a whole new set of problems for Ireland’s ageing population. The group is right to warn of any negative changes to the scheme. Any changes will be vehemently opposed by older people.
If there is an effort to limit the times when the pass can be used, introduce an annual charge or restrict the forms of transport that it can be used on, there will be strong opposition. Age Action Ireland produced a survey highlighting the importance of travel passes to elderly people for carrying out everyday tasks. We do not want a repeat of last year’s budget when the Government abolished the telephone allowance for older people without realising that many older people use the telephone as part of a pendant alarm service. There is always the danger of knock-on issues which perhaps we have not considered.
The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar, said that taking away the free travel pass is simply not on the agenda. Certainly there are issues surrounding the travel pass that must be addressed. Reference was made to fraud and identification but we can examine fraud without a major review of eligibility. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív raised the issue of online booking. Elderly people are used to simply getting on the train at their local station and therefore if we are going to bring in online booking then we are going down the wrong road. There should be a way of getting on the train in the traditional way, as it were. There are other changes, including direct debit payments for all elderly people, whether they are paying an ESB or gas bill through the post office or the credit union. Nowadays, it appears the utility companies seek deposits from anyone who chooses to pay by cash. It is the same as online booking; obstacles are being placed in people’s way.
Not every county has a railway service although those of us in Galway are fortunate to have one. Naturally, it should be improved. Anyway, one of the greatest benefits in rural areas is the rural transport scheme. If we had a good timetable for buses in places where we do not have trains then we would be in a better position in the west of Ireland. I hope that the House can accept the motion so ably proposed by Deputy O’Dea.