There are, God knows, enough things that governments ought not to do, but which they insist on doing. Helping themselves to too much of our pay, sticking their oar into markets which would function much better without their interference, spending taxpayers’ money like a drunken sailor on shore leave, often on huge vanity projects of dubious value. Above all, perhaps, always listening to the cries of “Something must be done!” when, in most instances, the wise course of action is not to do anything at all.
But nothing is quite as stupid as the pointless government gimmick. Into this category fall all sorts of wheezes, giveaways and schemes which provide only very trivial benefits, create all sorts of unintended consequences, and cost a bomb to implement.
Think, for example, of the universal winter fuel allowance for pensioners. There’s a perfectly good argument that a society with a sophisticated welfare system should ensure that very poor old folk don’t freeze to death. Handing out between £100 and £300 to everyone born before August 1953 (including paupers such as Tony Blair and Michael Portillo) doesn’t seem the best way of achieving that end – especially for well-heeled retirees on huge final salary pensions who spend it, as one bloke I know always does, on Piper Heidsieck.
Still, there’s always the prospect that this sort of straightforward bribe will elicit some gratitude from the electorate, which is presumably why political parties keep doing it.
The latest daft scheme of this sort, however, isn’t likely to do even that. I refer to the “millennial railcard”, which is officially launched tomorrow. This is designed to give people aged 26-30 up to 34 per cent off the cost of rail tickets, if they fork out £30 to get the card in the first place. (Though, in fact, there is no card involved since, as this wheeze is directed at millennials, it will be available only as a digital app, natch.)
There are several blazingly obvious reasons why this is a piece of blithering idiocy. The first, from the perspective of the customer, is that this card will be of very limited value. For a start, you might not be able to get one. Tomorrow, there will only be 10,000 available, which means that there is one for roughly one in 500 of the people in the eligible age bracket – though more may be issued as the scheme rolls out.
What’s more, it will not be valid for most peak time journeys, so it is of no use to most people who commute to work by rail. Indeed, there’s a further restriction which means that even off-peak and advance tickets for journeys between 4.30am and 10 am must cost at least £12.
The original purpose of the Young Person’s Railcard was to encourage leisure travel at off-peak times. But this card isn’t aimed at backpacking students. Though they may seem young to me, people aged 26-30 are, for the most part, gainfully employed. If they need help with rail fares, it’s because they are travelling to work – and they’re probably commuting because no one under 30 without a trust fund can afford to live in zones 1-6 of Greater London. And the rise in fares (3.4 per cent this year) is still well above average wage rises, which are more like two per cent.
In any case, there’s no particular case for flinging public money around to encourage people to travel by rail. The number of passengers has risen every year bar one for a decade. In 2007, there were 968,095,205; there are now more than 1.46 billion. Anyone who regularly takes a train (particularly at peak times) will tell you that the system is already stretched; plenty of commuters in the south-east of England are resigned to standing for an hour at either end of the day.
It’s also potentially quite expensive: the scheme is being rolled out in the Greater Anglia area, and the reported cost is in the region of £20 million. And it’s hard to see that this is the sort of bribe which will make millennials vote Conservative; if the government wants to win them round, it would be much better off spending the money on the things which are genuine concerns and priorities for them, the most obvious of which are student debt and the inability to find affordable property.
Buying up some of the considerable surplus land that Network Rail has, and which it is not using, and handing it over to housing developers would be a more sensible use of everyone’s time and money.
In short, this is a scheme which there was no demand for, and which no one is likely to be grateful for. It’s going to cost a lot of money, and not save much for anyone who already pays extortionate rates to travel to work. It might subsidise people travelling to football matches, I suppose, but it’s hard to see why that should be a priority for public spending.