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Thursday 19 September 2019

'Over my dead body' - Ross slaps down talk of OAP bus pass ban at peak times

Transport Minister Shane Ross. Photo: Fergal Phillips
Transport Minister Shane Ross. Photo: Fergal Phillips

Kevin Doyle and Paul Melia

A top civil servant is under fire for suggesting OAPs should have their free travel passes restricted to off-peak times, with Transport Minister Shane Ross saying it would happen "over my dead body".

The head of the Department of Public Expenditure, Robert Watt, called for a debate on the issue because older people were adding to congestion while "mortgage slaves" were trying to get to work.

But his remarks have been slapped down by a string of ministers, including Finance and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe. A private meeting of Fine Gael TDs and senators last night heard calls for him to resign.

Mr Watt told a conference on Tuesday that there needed to be a discussion about how public transport is "priced" and "used". He said if he left for work between 7.45am and 8.25am, buses were "increasingly full".

Citing the example of his 82-year-old friend 'Paddy', he said that Paddy was travelling into the city before 8.30am to shop and meet a friend for brunch.

"He got on the bus for free, when all the mortgage slaves paid… this isn't a criticism of existing policies because I'm not allowed to criticise Government policy since I'm a civil servant, but there are issues about enabling people to access public transport for free at peak times."

Robert Watt
Robert Watt

Any attempt to put restrictions on the travel pass scheme used by 911,000 people would primarily hit pensioners.

Responding to the comments made by Mr Watt, Mr Ross told the Irish Independent he was "shocked".

"I thought it was an extraordinary assault on the rights of older people by a civil servant. I wouldn't countenance any suggestion that anything should be taken away from older people," he said. "I think it's without precedent."

The Independent Alliance minister added: "To think that older people who may have little means may be told they cannot travel at certain times is discrimination."

Fine Gael senator Jerry Buttimer told the parliamentary party meeting last night Mr Watt should be sacked for suggesting people who hold free bus passes should be banned from using public transport during rush hour.

It is understood Mr Donohoe defended Mr Watt, paying tribute to the service he has given to the State. But Mr Donohoe moved to reassure his colleagues, making it clear that it would be the Government that would decide on such issues, not civil servants.

Mr Donohoe, who works closely with Mr Watt, said that even through a period of "great economic difficulty", free travel was still afforded to OAPs.

"The free travel scheme will not be changing. It plays a very valuable role for our citizens, and in supporting our public transport companies.

"The way in which we are going to further improve public transport in and out of our city is by good bus projects and by delivering projects like the MetroLink," he said.

Irish Independent

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