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Thursday, 6 October 2011

Free Bus Passes and Free Medication

I have never applied for my Free Bus Pass. It's not just that I can't think of a good reason why I should be thus subsidised and, indeed, am offended by the idea. I also have this suspicion that thus encouraged to hop on a (privately-owned) bus, I would end up walking less.

I walk quite a lot and as briskly as I can for at least Nanny's recommended 30 minutes. Mostly I walk into town, most often along the bus route. It helps keep me off medication for raised blood pressure, though I may have to give in one day.

I accept my over - 60 Free Prescriptions, but I know they can also do harm. According to the College of Pharmacists, people in their 60s start to accumulate these freebies and end up popping more pills than they need to and sometimes with unwanted side-effects.

When I read that, I recalled the day back in 1978 when I called out a GP to visit my 71 year old mother who had turned yellow. He asked her to produce her medication. Methodically, she lined up what I now imagine to be a dozen bottles and packets on the dining table. He looked through them and told her to stop taking all of them, immediately. True, it didn't help. She had cancer of the pancreas and was dead within weeks. But the image of those bottles and packets has been a caution to me.

It probably sounds a bit extreme to say that Free Bus Passes and Free Prescriptions are health hazards. And not everyone spends their Winter Fuel Allowance on booze. But the whole principle of these things is wrong.

It's not only that they kick in before people retire. More importantly, they feel good to those on low (and not so low) incomes - so good, that they often feel grateful to the government for its generosity. They are vote winners. Electoral bribes, if you will.

The serious alternative is to ensure that those who have retired from work have adequate pensions. This the UK has singularly failed to do, with pensions as a fraction of earnings much lower than in other European countries. The freebies are then a bit like MPs expenses, which Margaret Thatcher intended should compensate for low salaries.

An adequate pension would mean that older people would be free, like younger people, to choose how to travel and to pay for it. Maybe a daily bus ride to the shops but maybe a weekly taxi for one big shop. A fee for prescriptions might also discourage the kind of freebie pill-popping the College of Pharmacists describes.

There are two obstacles to be overcome. First, removing the idea that governments are there to give handouts. Second, and much harder, creating a fiscal and economic environment in which adequate pensions can be funded. Pensions don't drop from the skies. Someone has to save, someone has to invest. In the UK, it is going to be a huge challenge to get people to accept that if they are going to live in retirement for twenty years or more, then they had better start saving for it now - and adequately. With all the tax breaks and encouragement in the world, it is a massive demand to make. Some people, looking at the costs, might well decide that they will go on working until they can work no longer. From the point of view of cash-strapped governments, it would be sensible at least to encourage that option.

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