SmartPass scheme must be defended

It is scandalous that ordinary people in all sections of our society are facing massive financial pressures without any support whatsoever from the non-functioning Stormont administration.

One of the very few official benefits available to our struggling citizens is the free public transport scheme provided to all over 60s, to alleviate the major problems associated with social exclusion.

At a stage when the economic crisis is steadily growing, it is deeply disturbing that Stormont's department for infrastructure has announced a public consultation which raises doubts over the future of the SmartPass programme.

The annual bill for the service is running at just over £44m, which amounts to roughly £20 per head of the population and by any standards represents outstanding value for money.

While this total has increased from the £22m figure when it was first introduced 15 years ago, it needs to be pointed out that every other aspect of the cost of living has also jumped significantly during the same period.

The main advantage of the project is the way it allows the over 60s to be socially mobile, maintaining contact with family and friends and significantly improving their physical and mental health.

If it was withdrawn, there can be no doubt that our health service, which is already on the brink of collapse, would have enormous difficulty in coping with the inevitable sharp rise in related cases.

The initiative also encourages the over 60s to be economically active, travelling to part-time or full-time jobs and bringing additional trade to the entire commercial sector as well as assisting charities.

It will also be noted that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK and Ireland which does not already provide free public transport for those suffering from disabilities.

While disabled SmartPass holders get discounts, they still have to pay half their fares on buses and trains, and, if they need a companion to look after them on public transport, Translink charges a full fare for a carer.

There is an overwhelming argument to be made for not only maintaining free public transport for the over 60s but extending it to include the disabled of all ages.

The Defend Free Travel Passes Campaign, which staged a rally in Belfast at the weekend, was launched following a meeting of trade unionists, transport workers, environmentalists, disability and political activists. It has a vital role to play and it is essential that it is widely supported.