herald

Monday 16 July 2018

'Over my dead body' - Ross slams civil servant over OAP bus ban suggestion

Transport Minister Shane Ross
Transport Minister Shane Ross

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 will 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.

And a private meeting of Fine Gael TDs and senators heard calls for him to resign.

Slaves

Mr Watt told a conference on Tuesday that there needs 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 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,"he said.

Any attempt to put restrictions on the travel pass scheme used by 911,00 people would primarily hit pensioners.

Responding to the comment, Mr Ross told the Herald he was "shocked".

"I thought it was an extraordinary assault on the rights of older people. I wouldn't countenance any suggestion that anything should be taken away from older people," he said.

"I think it's without precedent. I cannot remember an occasion where there was a similar intervention."

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

The minister stopped short of calling for Mr Watt's resignation - but warned that such public statements should not be repeated as it was "crossing a line".

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

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