In defence of the Freedom Pass

Leaving a question mark over the future of the Freedom Pass will strike a blow to Labour’s electabil

Of all the things conceived and delivered by the London Labour movement, it is the work to implement the Freedom Pass that makes me most proud.

The future of the Freedom Pass has given Labour members in London an important decision to make about the future direction of policy in the city.

An honest difference of view between myself and Oona King has opened up over this issue at members' debates in Croydon and Brent. Asked if the Freedom Pass should be means-tested, Oona has argued that "If there is a choice, then I want the money to go to the poorest, not to pay for the richest like Prince Charles to go free" and "If you are the mayor and you have got less money coming in, you need to ensure the average pensioner can have the same experience or better than those richer ones . . . you need to accept means testing."

I disagree. On such a fundamental question, it is necessary to give a clear answer: that the Freedom Pass is safe. If I am selected as Labour's candidate and then elected as mayor, I will oppose any attempt to means-test the Freedom Pass. I will defend the concessionary schemes.

I never expected to hear in a Labour mayoral selection that we should consider means-testing the Freedom Pass. It is a catastrophic mistake, a gift to our opponents, including Boris Johnson. We must have a clear bottom line -- and a universal Freedom Pass should be part of it.

This strikes at the heart of electability. A London Labour candidate going into an election with a question mark over the Freedom Pass, such as being open to the idea of means-testing it, would damage Labour. Either Boris Johnson will use it as a stick with which to beat Labour, posing to the "left" of the Labour candidate, or it will open up territory that assists those who want to erode travel concessions.

In both circumstances, it is a direct blow against Londoners and would make it harder to win.

I will oppose any attempt to means-test the Freedom Pass and defend the Freedom Pass.

The Freedom Pass unites people across London. It is particularly crucial in the outer boroughs, one of the areas where its take-up is greatest. The latest figures show 51,691 Freedom Passes issued in Barnet for older Londoners and 5,903 for disabled people, for example. Another 43,791 in total have been issued in Bexley, 63,671 in Bromley and 48,827 in Havering.

Older people make up a significantly high proportion of voters and are therefore vital to our support.

There is already concern that the national bus concessionary scheme may be under threat from government cuts.

It is not the super-rich who would be affected by means testing. You are unlikely to find billionaires or members of the royal family taking advantage of the Freedom Pass. To save any meaningful amount of money, the cut-off point for the means test would not be for multimillionaires, but for individuals on much lower levels of subsistence.

The cost of administering means testing could only be offset by placing the cut-off way below the richest. The question for anyone toying with the notion of means-testing something like the Freedom Pass is: where would you draw the line?

And why stop at the Freedom Pass? There are many universal services and benefits that could also be threatened, such as free bus and tram travel for under-18s -- which the Tories have already previously tried to remove.

It is a more profound issue even than that. Some services are best delivered universally or with universal concessions for key groups. That ensures broad support for services -- such as public transport -- that would otherwise be much easier to cut by right-wing governments.

The more widely people use public transport and see the benefits, the more the city moves freely and the biggest number of people possible will have a stake in maintaining those services.

The Freedom Pass is so popular with older and disabled Londoners and their families that Boris Johnson was forced to adopt our plan to extend the Freedom Pass to 24-hour operation (though he has failed to secure its 24-hour operation on many rail services).

For Labour to succeed in 2012, it must have a strategy for winning based on protecting Londoners from the combined assault of the economic situation and a government whose policies will worsen its impact.

That is why I will not toy with ideas like means-testing the Freedom Pass, and why I will support other universal services and benefits that make our society fairer and stronger.

Ken Livingstone was mayor of London between 2000 and 2008, and is currently campaigning to be Labour's candidate in the 2012 London mayoral election.

Ken Livingstone is the former Mayor of London.
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It's a stab in the dark: the myth of predicting your student loan repayments

Even the company responsible for collecting repayments admits that it can't tell students what they'll be.

In response to renewed calls to overhaul the student finance system, the universities minister Jo Johnson insisted last week that the "current system works". He pointed out that a university degree boosts "lifetime income by between £170,000 and £250,000".

What he failed to mention is that not even the people administering the loan system can tell students what they will be expected to pay back each month, because they can't work out what they'll earn. 

When asked by the New Statesman why it had pulled an online calculator designed to tell students what their repayments would be, the Student Loans Company (SLC) said it wasn't "possible to answer customers' questions about how long it will take to repay their loan or how much they will owe at a point in the future because there is no accurate way of predicting their future earning".

The confusion around student loans stems from the fact that, unlike loans from banks, their repayment is income contingent.

Until May last year, the SLC had a calculator on its website which students and parents could use to predict how much they may have to repay in the future. But after Andrew McGettigan, a higher education journalist, emailed the SLC noting that the calculator did not take into account gender inequality in future salaries, it was swiftly taken down. 

It was in response to queries about this calculator from the New Statesman that the SLC admitted that there was no accurate way to predict future repayments. The organisation added that it was "exploring new and better ways to present information" to its customers. 

This admission appears to undermine Johnson’s “fair and equitable” description of the student finance system. If even SLC can't say what repayments could look like, how do we know? 

Further controversy around student loan repayments is expected when a report is published later this year by the Department for Education on student finance and expenditure. This is expected to highlight the discrepancy between the maintenance loans students receive and rising rent costs. 

There are still a range of unofficial student loan calculators on the internet, but many use overly optimistic projections for future earnings. McGettigan says this is because they are based on salary trends from the 1980s to the 2010s. He also adds that these unofficial calculators are all based on the official one that was removed – and that they also do not take into account the impact of Brexit. It's a stab in the dark.

The SLC notes that "every student who applies for their student finance online must navigate a page of key repayment information that outlines six points". Student loans are inherently complicated by design, but as Amatey Doku, NUS vice president (higher education), makes clear, this has consequences for fair access to higher education. “We know that BME and poorer students are more worried about high levels of debt than any other group, but the current system does not provide adequate support for those about to enter it.”

Students seeking advice from an independent body will be hard-pressed to find one. The independent Student Finance Taskforce set up by the coalition government in 2011, which sought “to reassure potential students about what they can expect when applying for university and beyond”, was quietly discontinued and never replaced. 

Read more: Jeremy Corbyn's opponents are going down a blind alley on tuition fees

Further confusion surrounds the government’s framing of student finance to sixth formers. Beyond the debate surrounding tuition fees, there is the assumption that has never been made explicit by either political party, which is that students who have a household income of more than £25,000 are expected to have some form of financial support from their families for living costs.

Are parents made aware of this before their children apply to university? Unlike in America, where parents are encouraged to put money away into a “college fund”, the British government never openly encourages parents to save specifically to send their children to university. 

Although there is “no specific date” for its publishing, the Department for Education's report is is believed to argue that, much like the NUS’s debt report did in 2015, that the current system results in poorer students having to take excessive part-time work during the university term. Some also have to take on commercial loans. The stress of both can have an adverse effect on students' mental health.

All this, and not even the organisation responsible for collecting repayments can tell students how much they will be paying back.