Transport for London's decision to ban cash fares hits the vulnerable hardest

Those most likely to be affected will be the very young, the very poor and the very recently arrived – those, in other words, who are least likely to have alternative options.

I'm not altogether sure that Transport for London (TfL) has entirely thought through its plans to ban cash fares on its 7,500-odd buses. For most of us, most of the time, they’ll be marvellous. Just occasionally, though, it’s going to cause a bloody big headache. This would be bad enough, except that those most likely to be affected will be the very young, the very poor and the very recently arrived – those, in other words, who are least likely to have alternative options.

Once upon a time, pretty much all bus fares were bought on board the vehicle from a cheery sort in a hat. Today, though, except for the bored-looking cost-centres whose job it is to stop you falling out of the back of Boris buses, we don't bother with conductors any more. Most people use Oyster, TfL's automated ticketing system, either to show they've got a Travelcard or to pay as they go. There are other cards you can use to pay for your bus fares, too: bank cards fitted with the newfangled contactless payment systems. Today, TfL reckons, there are around 60,000 cash journeys made each day on its buses. That sounds like a lot, but it's only 1% of the total.

Forcing these stragglers to go cashless would have a number of advantages. It'd speed up boarding times (no more fiddling for small change). It'd cut crime (no point holding up a bus that doesn't carry money). It'd allow "operational flexibility" (no chance of working out what that even means).

It'd save TfL £24 million a year by 2019-20, it reckons, but it'd save passengers money too, because single fares are cheaper on Oyster than by cash. This is a bit of a cheat – TfL, after all, is the one that sets the bloody fares – but nonetheless, as things stand, you're better off paying for your bus through a medium that doesn’t have the Queen’s face on it.

Alongside all these advantages, though, the plan brings with it two obvious problems. One is relatively minor. The other isn’t.

One problem is that going cashless will confuse the hell out of anyone who doesn't live in London. Bus drivers will be lumbered with the unenviable task of explaining to tourists why they're not allowed on a large chunk of London's transport network without a strange lump of blue plastic. It’s a bit like hanging up a big sign reading, "London – open for business as soon as you've filled in the requisite form".

That, though, is the smaller problem. The bigger one concerns those who do use Oyster, but pay for their travel as they go. At some point, they’re going to run out of credit and need to top up, only to find they can't because it's the middle of the night and they're in Barking. TfL claims to have thought of this, and says it's considering letting you make one extra journey after you run out of credit. This is sweet of them, but ignores the fact you might have inadvertently used that journey to get you to Barking in the first place.

At that point, you’re dependent on one last safety net. TfL doesn’t tend to publicise this, but its drivers have discretionary powers to allow vulnerable people to travel for free. Exactly who this covers, though, is not entirely clear. A raucously drunk teenage girl is, by any sensible definition, vulnerable. They’re also exactly the kind of person you probably don’t want on your bus.

The upshot of all somebody, some time, is going to find themselves drunk, in the middle of nowhere, and unexpectedly unable to get home. A TfL spokesman told me this situation was “hypothetical”, which is fair comment, but given that there are 6 million bus journeys made every day in London, it’s nonetheless likely to happen quite a lot. Not all of the people thus affected will be burly men.

For most of us, none of this should be a problem. There are contactless payment cards. There's automatic top-up. Either of these will make it damned near impossible to get into this mess. But what both these solutions have in common is that they require you to have a bank account. Certain groups of people don’t generally have bank accounts. These include children, bankrupts and asylum seekers. These, of course, are exactly the people you want to leave dependent on the good will of a night bus driver.

No final decision has yet been made on this plan – TfL is consulting until 11 October – but it's hard to escape the feeling that this is one of those consultations that's softening us up for the inevitable, rather than genuinely asking what we think. The chair of TfL, after all, is one Boris Johnson, and since he became mayor single bus fares, most likely to be paid by the poor, have shot up by 50%. He’s also made it clear, through his expensive pseudo-Routemasters, that he sees buses less as a means of conveyance than as set decoration for a Richard Curtis movie. Another policy in which TfL privileges its own administrative convenience over the needs of those at the bottom of the pile would be rather in keeping.

A London bus. Image: Getty

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage