Friday 15 November 2019

Thomas Molloy: End of free travel perk would make cruel financial sense

When you stay in the Merrion Hotel and commute to the Department of Finance across the street, free travel is not important. Officials from the EU, ECB and the IMF cross Merrion Street to the Department of Finance earlier this year for the regular three-month check-up of Government finances
When you stay in the Merrion Hotel and commute to the Department of Finance across the street, free travel is not important. Officials from the EU, ECB and the IMF cross Merrion Street to the Department of Finance earlier this year for the regular three-month check-up of Government finances

THE troika has repeatedly demanded that the Government curtail the generous subsidies available to the elderly, so it should come as no surprise that the Department of Social Protection has set up a working party to examine the free travel scheme which currently allows a quarter of the population to take buses and trains at other people's expense.

We are often told there is no such thing as a free lunch, and there is certainly no such as thing as free travel, which has always been a misnomer. The scheme means it is the taxpayer who must pick up the tab for journeys made by some of our wealthiest citizens.

Less affordable

As the population ages, the perk which dates back to the 1960s becomes less and less affordable.

Despite this, restrictions on when the elderly can travel have been rolled back when the logical thing would have been to tighten the rules.

What the troika wants it gets, and the over-66s should prepare to start buying tickets like the rest of us after December's Budget.

While this all makes perfect sense from a financial point of view, it makes little sense from an emotional or social point of view.

Every country has eccentricities, and the scheme has long been something that made it worth living here.

The cost of this benefit is only €75m, or roughly the amount that Bank of Ireland managed to lose every two days in the first six months of the year.

Abolition of free travel, which means so much to 1.1 milion people, will be a black day for the elderly and everybody else. Free travel is a small luxury, but it is a luxury that we should easily be able to afford. It is hardly caviar; more like putting a Flake in your 99.

The fact that the Government has been forced to look at scrapping such a cost-effective present to the elderly and the handicapped is an unpleasant reminder that the loss of our economic sovereignty means we will have to implement many penny pinchingcost-saving measures as we get our house in order.

It is a small, squalid victim in an otherwise just war. On balance, it is essential for our economic well-being that the present coalition has to follow the bailout programme, but it can also lead to stupid cruelty at times.

Trichet's views on bank guarantee would be truly enlightening

WE are one of the few nations in Europe where the people cannot even visit their parliament without going cap-in-hand to an elected representative to gain access to the chamber and watch a handful of TDs debate the legislation that shapes our lives.

Few countries make less effort to operate transparent government than Ireland and few departments are less transparent than the Department of Finance.

It was therefore more than a little amusing to see Finance Minister Michael Noonan tell the 'Sunday Independent' this week that he would like to see the publication of correspondence between the late Brian Lenihan and former European Central Bank president Jean-Claude Trichet.

Mr Noonan claims he would like to publish letters sent in the lead-up to the bailout but cannot do so because the department's freedom of information unit has ruled that the letters should not be published.

He appears to have forgotten that TDs have granted themselves immunity from most laws and he could simply read the letters into the Dail record whenever he chooses. The question is not whether he can make the letters public. The question is only whether he should make them public and what purpose this would serve.

Speculation in some newspapers about Mr Trichet's letters has, until now, thrown up nothing illicit.

Continentals do not share our aversion to confrontation so we should hardly be surprised that any letters made Mr Trichet's concerns clear -- especially when the ECB had pumped billions into our banks. Any other approach would have been a serious dereliction of duty.

It is unlikely that publication of the letters will do much to solve the question of whether Mr Lenihan was somehow bounced into a bailout through dark and sinister threats.

Those who distrust the ECB will doubtless draw consolation from the wording of some parts of the letters while others will doubtless believe that Mr Trichet was doing his job by trying to protect the ECB's money and simply spelling out the blindingly obvious.

The entire issue is a canard anyway. In retrospect, there is no way the eurozone's most indebted country could have avoided a bailout. It was always just a matter of timing. The real question is: what was said by Mr Trichet and a dozen other actors in the lead-up to the bank guarantee in 2008?

There was nothing inevitable about that decision, although it ensured that the 2010 bailout was inevitable. It is this decision that needs thorough investigation because it sealed our fates.

A chink of light and this time no-one rushing to claim credit

THE reluctance of many investors and politicians to acknowledge that the economy is showing muted signs of stabilisation is, at first sight, curious.

The purchasing manager's index and a host of other indicators, from consumer confidence and retails sales to house prices and the national accounts, all indicate that the economy has finally found some sort of level.

With one in seven people out of work, thousands emigrating every month and hundreds of thousands living in houses where the mortgage is not being paid, there is no room for complacency but there is room for hope.

We have seen many false dawns and many spurious claims from Brian Lenihan's infamous corner to Michael Noonan's comical rocket but that does not mean that the very slow pick-up since the beginning of the year, is not real.

With so many clouds gathering abroad, this recovery may be short lived.

It may even be coming to an end already but it shows that austerity has worked despite the claims to the contrary from the left and some politicians inside Fianna Fail with exceptionally short memories or exceptionally cynical dispositions.

Even the Government appears unwilling to claim any credit, perhaps because it believes that playing the poor mouth will yield dividends at the Ecofin meeting in Cyprus next week.

It certainly makes a refreshing change after five years of false dawns, to see the odd chink of light and nobody queuing up to take the credit.

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