Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee
New Clause 1
Use of fraudulent parking badge
‘Anyone found guilty of knowingly using a fraudulent parking badge will receive a minimum custodial sentence of three months.’.—(Philip Davies.)
Brought up, and read the First time.
With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 2—Misuse of parking badge—
‘Anyone found guilty of knowingly allowing another to use their disabled parking badge shall be liable on summary conviction to fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.’.
New clause 3—Use of stolen disabled parking badge—
‘Anyone found guilty of using a stolen disabled parking badge will receive a minimum custodial sentence of six months.’.
Amendment 1, in clause 2, page 2, line 18, at end insert ‘in writing’.
Amendment 4, page 2, line 18, at end insert
‘the written notification must be sent by registered post and signed for by the applicant or someone living at that address.’.
Amendment 2, in clause 3, page 2, line 34, at end insert—
‘(c) it is a defence to the offence in this section if a new valid parking badge has been issued that covers the time the badge was used or if the person being prosecuted has not received notification of the cancellation of the badge in question.’.
Amendment 3, page 2, line 35, at end insert
‘in subsection (4C), leave out the words after “on summary conviction to’ to end of line and insert “a custodial sentence not exceeding one month”.’.
Amendment 8, page 2, line 35, at end insert
‘after subsection (6) insert—
‘(6A) An issuing authority has a duty to send out badges that are being renewed no less than three weeks prior to the date of expiration of the badge in question provided the applicant has completed the necessary paperwork by the authority’s deadline for such paperwork.”.’.
Amendment 9, page 2, line 35, at end insert
‘after subsection (6) insert—
‘(6A) An issuing authority has a duty to invite members of the badge scheme in writing to renew their membership two months before the badge is due to lapse.”.’.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) on his great achievement in getting this far with his private Member’s Bill. He has steered it through with his customary charm and skill. I very much hope that it will find its way on to the statute book and that it will make further progress today, but I believe that the Bill could be improved in some areas, so my amendments are proposed in a spirit of constructiveness more than anything else. I have not given up hope that he may be persuaded that some, if not all, of my amendments would greatly enhance not just the Bill’s wording but the spirit of what he is trying to achieve.
I should make it clear from the start that this subject is very close to my heart. Members may know that before I entered Parliament I spent many a year working for Asda. During that time, I was delighted to have the role of trying to improve the facilities and services for our disabled customers. The biggest issue that they used to complain about, by a considerable distance and without any real competition, was disabled parking—the abuse of disabled parking spaces and the fact that they found it difficult to get them and that there was a lack of them.
I spent a great deal of time considering that particular issue and was very proud to be a member of a campaign called baywatch. Before anybody gets the wrong idea, it had nothing to do with Pamela Anderson or people dashing around in red swimsuits and bikinis. The campaign was set up to improve disabled parking. Its members were the four major supermarket chains, as well as disability groups such as the Disabled Drivers Motor Club, the Disabled Drivers Association and Scope, which used to host our monthly meetings; Disability Now magazine was also an active participant.
Parking badges were without doubt one of the biggest problems, and the solutions are not as easy as people may think. I will not go through all the problems but I want to touch on why we need to tread carefully. People have blue badges for good reason—they have them because they need them to park close to where they need to go—but complications arise when, for example, somebody has been on holiday and broken their leg. They would not qualify for a blue badge, because they are reserved for people with more permanent conditions, but that person is incapacitated, albeit temporarily, and might need a parking space close to the store. The issue is not always as black and white as people may want it to be; shades of grey and nuances have to be taken into consideration.
I have spoken to organisations that represent people with disabilities who are particularly exercised by the problem of disabled parking, and my amendments are based on some of their thoughts. They would strengthen my hon. Friend’s Bill, and I hope he will be persuaded of the need to do that.
New clause 1 is fairly straightforward and self-explanatory:
“Anyone found guilty of knowingly using a fraudulent parking badge will receive a minimum custodial sentence of three months.”
The Bill, although excellent, is rather silent on the penalties for people who break the rules. These are serious offences and they should be treated as such.
One reason why we needed the baywatch group in the first place and why many people with disabilities are so exercised about this matter is the scale of the problem. It is not something that happens on just a few occasions; it happens day in, day out. I urge hon. Members to go around places where there are disabled parking bays to see how many of the cars display a valid badge. I think that they will be staggered by the number of times they come across one or more cars where a proper badge is not displayed. In my opinion, that is the case because the penalties for not displaying the correct badge are insufficient. The purpose of the new clause is that if the penalties were more severe, they would reduce the abuse of disabled parking bays.
May I seek a little clarification? The new clause refers to
“a minimum custodial sentence of three months.”
Does that mean that three months would have to be served in prison or that the sentence passed by the court would be three months, which might mean that only a few days would be served in prison?
It would be the sentence passed by the court. My hon. Friend makes the good point that people who are sent to prison these days serve a maximum of only half their sentence. People with short sentences, such as three months, may serve considerably less than half their sentence. However, to reassure him that I am not going soft on crime in my old age, I still hope that one day we will have a Government who bring back honesty in sentencing so that the sentence handed down by the court is the one that is served. I obviously think that a person who is sentenced to three months in prison should serve three months in prison. Unfortunately, that is not the case under the current lax regime, but we should not give up hope that it may happen one day.
I have suggested this specific offence because my understanding is that there is currently no such offence. There are many people who are more qualified than I am, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown and my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who is a lawyer of considerable distinction, who will perhaps clarify whether that is correct. Currently, anybody who is found guilty of knowingly using a fraudulent parking badge would have to be pursued under the Fraud Act 2006. As far as I understand it, no other offence would have been committed. Under the 2006 Act, the maximum sentence is six months in prison. Hon. Members could argue that we have the relevant offence in the 2006 Act and that there is already a maximum sentence of six months in prison, and ask why we need the sentence of three months. What I am trying to get across is the need for a minimum sentence.
Most people with disabilities are under the impression that nothing ever happens to people who go around using fraudulent blue badges. I wonder whether the Minister can give us any figures on that. The feeling is that such people are rarely caught, that if they are caught, they are very rarely prosecuted, and that if they are prosecuted, nothing really happens to them. That is why the problem persists. A minimum custodial sentence of three months would not only send out a message about how seriously the House takes this problem, but would act as a useful deterrent—[Interruption.]
Order. I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but there is a lot of noisy wittering at the back of the Chamber. I am sure that hon. Members, whether Back Benchers or Ministers, will wish to listen to the speech of the hon. Gentleman and to show some courtesy. If they do not wish to do so, they are perfectly free to exit the Chamber. That might be a great relief, as it would allow the rest of us to focus on the hon. Gentleman’s speech.
I am very grateful, Mr Speaker. When you talked about wittering, I thought for a moment that you were referring to my speech. The people concerned have voted with their feet and left the Chamber, rather than listen to my speech, so they should at least be commended for good taste.
We need to make it clear that this is a serious issue. The new clause would send out the message that we take this issue seriously and it would act as a useful deterrent. We should make the point that this is not only something that is wrong and immoral, but something that has a negative impact on somebody’s life. Such people are knowingly taking up a space that they do not need and preventing somebody who does need it from taking it up. They should suffer a more severe consequence than just a financial penalty.
In expressing some reservations about this proposal, I say to my hon. Friend that setting a minimum sentence removes from the court any discretion. A rather dangerous precedent may be set by the European Union, which is thinking of passing a law that would mean that anybody who committed fraud against the European Union would be subject to a much higher minimum sentence than anybody who commits fraud against any other organisation. Is that not an example of a very bad precedent?
I understand my hon. Friend’s point and he is far more expert in matters of law than I am or ever will be. I bow to his superior knowledge in that regard and, in the matters that we are discussing, as a former Transport Minister.
We would all be happy to leave more discretion to the courts if we felt that they were treating certain offences with the seriousness with which they are treated by the public and the people who are affected by them. People with disabilities and people like me who are concerned about the impact on people who need disabled spaces simply do not feel that anybody, including the courts, takes this matter seriously enough. This proposal is a last resort. If there was any evidence that this matter was being treated more seriously, I would not have brought it forward. I am making the point that the matter is not being treated seriously enough. It seems to me that this is the only way of doing so.
I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch. There can be problems if discretion is taken away from the courts, but there are not many nuances at play in this issue. It is not as if there could be lots of mitigating factors. We are talking about somebody who is
“knowingly using a fraudulent parking badge”
Perhaps I am too strict on these matters, but I do not see that there could be much mitigation. I am sure that my hon. Friend, who was a distinguished barrister, could come up with some marvellous mitigation for one of his clients, but I cannot say that I would be greatly impressed by it. This is therefore the kind of offence where a minimum sentence would be useful.
Without getting into too much detail, I would say that members of the legal profession benefit from the fact that the court has discretion when they put forward arguments on behalf of their clients and seek mitigation. If the court had no discretion, it might remove the role of the lawyer.
My proposal would not end all discretion because, as I made clear, a court may send somebody to prison for up to six months. If my hon. Friend represented somebody as a barrister, and did so with great distinction, as he always used to in his previous life, I am sure that his client would be pleased to escape with just a three-month sentence. The point is that we must have lines in the sand to show that the offence is unacceptable.
I am interested by my hon. Friend’s new clause, which refers to people “knowingly using” a permit but does not say for what purpose. Would there be a three-month sentence for knowingly using a fraudulent permit as a Christmas decoration, or something like that, or would it have to be knowingly used for the purpose for which it was issued?
As ever, my hon. Friend comes up with an entertaining point, and no doubt a rather good one. He may well be criticising the wording of my new clause in his customary charming way, but I think it is safe to say that using a fraudulent badge as a Christmas decoration would not land somebody in prison for three months. The offence would be using it fraudulently for the purpose for which parking badges are designed.
New clause 2 is along similar lines and states:
“Anyone found guilty of knowingly allowing another to use their disabled parking badge shall be liable on summary conviction to fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.”
For the avoidance of doubt, I believe that means a fine of up to £5,000. One thing that particularly frustrates people with disabilities is when people who have a genuine blue badge hand it on to a family member, friend or whoever so that they can park in a convenient location where they would otherwise not be able to park. That undermines the rigour and fitness for purpose of the system, and it is a serious matter. It denies a space to someone who needs it and gives it to someone who does not. Again, I believe it deserves a more serious penalty.
I believe that the offence is currently covered by section 115 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown or the Minister will correct me if I am wrong. The new clause would make the offence specific to the Bill, and it would attract a higher fine than it currently does. We should punish not just people who steal blue badges or own them fraudulently but those who abuse badges that are handed out genuinely. I hope my hon. Friend will see that those are serious matters that need more serious penalties.
New clause 3 states:
“Anyone found guilty of using a stolen disabled parking badge will receive a minimum custodial sentence of six months.”
I suspect that, again, my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will be concerned about the lack of discretion that the new clause would give the courts, and some people may well be concerned that it sets out an even longer sentence than new clause 1 does for the use of a fraudulent disabled parking badge. The reason why I believe the offence of using a stolen badge needs a more serious sentence is the double whammy effect that it has. If somebody uses a fraudulent blue badge that they have cooked up and designed to look like the real thing, they effectively take away a space from somebody who needs it. If somebody steals a blue badge, however, the double whammy effect is that not only are they using a space that they do not need and denying it to somebody else, but they have taken the blue badge away from the person who genuinely needs it. That person is therefore also unable to find a space. The reason for the length of the sentences suggested in the new clause is that a stolen blue badge is twice as serious as a fraudulent one—the offender not only benefits but deprives somebody else.
I will not get distracted by going off piste and talking about other offences that should have minimum sentences, but they are not an unusual idea. In fact, earlier this year we passed the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, which included minimum sentences for threatening someone with a knife. The concept is not unusual, and the Government have been quite happy to use it.
My hon. Friend says that misusing a blue badge is only a parking offence, and he is clearly right, but I suggest to him that it causes a great deal of distress to many people. It not only causes inconvenience but can deprive people of the ability to go out and live their lives. I have spoken to many people who use blue badges, and sometimes they cannot go out because they know there will not be a parking space available to them, as they will all be clogged up by people who do not need them.
Planning regulations now set out a certain number of disabled parking spaces that should be available, so there should be an ample number, but we still find that people are abusing the system. I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from, but I do not see these offences as being just road traffic offences like not wearing a seat belt, which largely has an impact only on the person who does it. I see them as much more serious, because they deprive people of their freedom to go about their daily lives. It seems to me that when someone is found guilty of knowingly and recklessly denying others their freedoms, it is a reasonable punishment that their freedoms are taken away as well.
Is not the problem with the new clause that there is no requirement that a person found guilty of using a stolen disabled parking badge should have done so knowing that it was stolen? Introducing a minimum sentence higher than the standard sentence for handling stolen goods, for example, which requires knowledge or belief that the goods are stolen, is surely far too draconian.
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am quite happy to be found guilty of being draconian, and I seem to spend my life in Parliament asking for more draconian sentences for a range of offences. I do not mind his describing me in that way, because there are far worse things to be described as when it comes to law and order. I would sooner take the tag of being draconian than the tag of being soft on dealing with crime. However, he makes a perfectly valid point. As ever, his quick and insightful mind is a benefit to the House.
Amendment 1 suggests that when someone is given notice of the cancellation of a parking badge, it should be given in writing. It is simply intended to clarify what is expected of local authorities. Notification can be given in all sorts of forms, but it is important that everybody knows where they are and that there is a clear record that notice was given. If notice is given over the phone, a person who denies they ever received that phone call may well be on strong ground. Notification given in writing, however, is perfectly clear, so we should ensure that that is what happens.
Amendment 4 inserts in clause 2
“the written notification must be sent by registered post and signed for by the applicant or someone living at that address.”
Clause 2 concerns the cancellation of parking badges, and states that local authorities “may cancel a badge”. That is perfectly fair and I absolutely agree. However, if a badge has been cancelled by the local authority, but the person concerned denies knowing about that cancellation, we could be in a slightly tricky situation. Who knows whether the clause as currently constituted would be effective? It would therefore be extremely worthwhile to make it clear that written notification
“must be sent by registered post and signed for by the applicant or someone living at that address.”
The notification must be sent by registered post because the person who receives it will have to sign for it and there will be no doubt that they have received it. That would satisfy any test, and certainly a court test. I included
“someone living at that address”
because it might be difficult to ensure that the person in receipt of the notification actually signed for it at the door; that may not be possible given the nature of what we are discussing. However, if someone living at that address signs for the letter, we can reasonably expect that the person in question knows that their badge has been cancelled, and subsequent actions can therefore be taken accordingly. If these amendments are not included in the Bill, I fear we may get into needless dispute and argy-bargy about whether someone actually received their notification. It is not unheard of for things to go missing in the post, and given the serious matters under discussion, amendments 1 and 4 will help rather than hinder the situation.
Amendment 2 is to clause 3 on the use of parking badges that are no longer valid—a point my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown rightly tackles in his Bill. I have high hopes that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will support this amendments as it states that
“it is a defence to the offence in this section if a new valid parking badge has been issued that covers the time the badge was used or if the person being prosecuted has not received notification of the cancellation of the badge in question.”
In some respects that tackles the problem identified by amendments 1 and 4, but in a slightly different way. If somebody has not received or did not know about their cancellation letter, they should not be prosecuted or get into trouble. We should also protect people who are getting a new, valid, parking badge to cover the time in question. It would be pointless to prosecute somebody for using a badge that was no longer valid when a new badge covering the period in question was on its way. I hope my amendment will find favour; I have high hopes that my hon. Friend will be pleased with it as it seems to me the type of amendment that he would table.
I am not sure whether it is a compliment or an insult to say that I am no longer draconian, but I will take it as a compliment in the spirit in which I think it was intended.
Amendment 3 to clause 3 would insert in subsection (4C) of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970
“a custodial sentence not exceeding one month.”.
As I understand it, the existing penalty is a level 3 fine, which I believe is up to £1,000—I am sure the Minister or my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown will happily correct me if I am wrong. It would not be the first time I have been wrong, and it will not be the last time. The amendment would increase that penalty to one month’s imprisonment, meaning that anything up to that could be used as a punishment, including, for example, a community order or prison for repeat offenders. That would also allow the use of increased fines, as suggested by Disabled Motoring UK—one of the organisations I consulted in advance of this debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will be elated with this amendment. I have moved away from the principle of a minimum sentence, and the provision would simply allow the courts to increase the penalty to up to one month’s imprisonment, if they saw fit. It would place no more onerous obligations on them than that, but it would reflect how seriously these offences should be taken. It may be that for persistent offenders, a short prison sentence is the most appropriate penalty, and I commend the amendment to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown.
Amendments 8 and 9 also relate to clause 3. Amendment 8 would insert in subsection (6) of the 1970 Act:
“An issuing authority has a duty to send out badges that are being renewed no less than three weeks prior to the date of expiration of the badge in question provided the applicant has completed the necessary paperwork by the authority’s deadline for such paperwork.”
That was suggested to me by Disabled Motoring UK, and, if I may, I extend my thanks to that organisation for its help in considering the Bill and ways that it may be improved.
All local authorities should be required to send out badges in good time. Clause 3 is about the use of parking badges that are no longer valid. When a badge is being renewed—unless my earlier amendments regarding the defence that someone did not receive a letter or can still use their old badge in some circumstances are incorporated in the Bill—amendment 8 is a further defence mechanism. If we do not have such defences in the Bill, we must find some way to ensure that local authorities send out renewals in good time. We must ensure that people receive their badges on time and do not inadvertently fall foul of my hon. Friend’s Bill.
In terms of time scale, I am the first to concede that my choice of three weeks is somewhat arbitrary, and I accept criticism for that. It seems to me, however, that three weeks is a reasonable time for any delays in the post to be dealt with, and it should ensure that everybody receives their renewal before their previous badge has expired.
Will my hon. Friend clarify what he means by “renewal”? My understanding is that many disabled parking badges are issued indefinitely for people who are permanently disabled rather than limited to a period. If they were so limited, we might not have so many problems, but what does he mean by “renewal”?
I mean exactly what I say. My hon. Friend is right, but some badges have an expiry date and must therefore be renewed, and my proposal deals with that. Some renewals are automatic. I am in favour of expiry dates in some cases, because people’s disabilities change over time—people might not need a blue badge further down the line as the nature of their disability changes. However, people should expect to receive a renewal on time. If they do not, it makes a mockery of the system.
As I have said, amendment 8 would provide a further safeguard if my other proposals are not accepted, but I should make it clear that any one amendment is not dependent on the acceptance of the others. There is no reason why amendments 2, 3 and 8 should not be accepted—they are not contradictory, but in many respects complementary. However, if one or other is not accepted, we still need a safeguard in the Bill.
Amendment 9 is on a theme similar to amendment 8. It asks that an
“issuing authority has a duty to invite members of the badge scheme in writing to renew their membership two months before the badge is due to lapse.”
That, too, would be an additional safeguard. We need to ensure that the people who use badges are the people who need and are entitled to them, and we need to prevent people who do not need and are not entitled to them from using them. The problem we could end up with is that some people could fall foul of the law even if they genuinely need a blue badge and if they would have one in other circumstances.
Amendment 9 would ensure that issuing authorities have a duty to remind people that the expiry date is coming up and they need to renew, so that people are not caught out with an out-of-date badge. They would fall foul of clause 3, even though they are not the people whom the Bill chases. The amendment would ensure that we go after people only if we should be going after them, and that people do not inadvertently fall foul of the regulations.
My general theme is that the offences are serious, and hon. Members have a duty to tackle them. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown for introducing the Bill. He has picked a subject that is incredibly important to people around the country. I met many such people in my years at Asda when we tried to tackle this thorny problem, and many of my constituents are incredibly frustrated by it. The theme of my proposals is to stiffen the penalties for people who fall foul of the rules, abuse the blue badge scheme, and knowingly take places away from people who need them, and to treat such offences with the seriousness with which many constituents treat them. People are appalled by those who abuse disabled parking spaces and who use blue badges when they are not entitled to them. I seek to punish them properly, but I also want to ensure that the Bill does not catch people for whom the blue badge scheme was designed and who inadvertently fall foul of it.
I commend my proposals. I look forward to the Minister’s support and to my hon. Friend incorporating them in the Bill.
I had hoped that we would hear from the Minister and the promoter of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby), whether any of the proposals of my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) would be acceptable. I have set out in interventions why I am nervous about the introduction of more minimum custodial sentences, because it undermines the discretion that we should allow the courts in deciding the appropriate penalty, subject to a maximum penalty.
My hon. Friend is right in one sense. Instead of independent courts deciding sentences, the Government give sentencing guidelines, which inhibit courts’ ability to implement the sentences that they believe to be appropriate. I accept that that undermines the independence of the magistracy and the judiciary in deciding on the right sentence. The guidelines cross the line between the Executive and the judiciary, which leads to pressure on my hon. Friend to introduce measures such as new clause 1. He believes that introducing a legal minimum sentence is the only way to ensure that courts genuinely have the discretion to give a serious sentence if they believe it is merited, and are not undermined by the sentencing guidelines.
I am with my hon. Friend to that extent, but I am nervous, because as with so many things, introducing one constraint results in unforeseen consequences. In an intervention, I cited a current example. The Ministry of Justice is fighting the EU over the suggestion that a fraud against the EU is somehow much more serious than fraud against anybody else, even though for time immemorial the EU has not been able to get its accounts audited. That is the difficulty with proposals to introduce minimum custodial sentences, although I recognise that my hon. Friend’s proposal rightly takes account of the strength of public outrage at the abuse of the disabled parking badge system.
I understand my hon. Friend’s parallel, but I am not asking for a more severe sentence for disabled badge fraud than for any other kind of fraud. The maximum sentence under the relevant part of the Fraud Act is six months. I am asking merely for a minimum of three months. I am not treating the offence more seriously, but saying that the powers to deal with such offences should be invoked.
My hon. Friend is saying that if somebody is found guilty of knowingly using a fraudulent parking badge, the court should be limited to giving a sentence of anything between three and six months, but would have no discretion, for example, to issue a community sentence or a fine, and could not take account of a situation in which sending the offender to prison would be unthinkable. I am probably sounding rather soft compared with my hon. Friend, but that is an example of a court’s discretion. If the offence carries a maximum penalty of six months, why can we not leave it to the courts to decide what penalty should be imposed without requiring them to impose a minimum three-month sentence? That is my difficulty with new clause 1.
By contrast, in new clause 2 my hon. Friend is talking about a maximum fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, thereby ensuring that the sentencing authorities have discretion to decide the level of fine or whether indeed a fine would be appropriate.
The other points that my hon. Friend made are centred around the issue of renewal of disabled parking permits, and that fits in with his opening remarks. It is now some 20 years since I was the Minister responsible for this area of policy, and at that stage we still had the problem of people who were very disabled for a short period of time because of an accident, for example—they would make a recovery in due course, so they were not permanently disabled, but their mobility was just as lacking as that of someone who was permanently disabled. The fact that the disabled persons’ parking badges scheme has not accommodated the temporarily disabled has caused a lot of misunderstanding and resentment. I have had many constituency cases—I am sure that my hon. Friend has too—of people who thought that they were more disabled than someone living next door, but because their disability was not, or might not be, permanent, they were not entitled to a badge.
I think I made it clear in my speech that we had the same issue when I was working for Asda. Is my hon. Friend suggesting that, because of that anomaly, it would be acceptable for someone who has a blue badge to hand it over to someone with a temporary disability and that that should not be penalised?
Far from it; I am not suggesting that at all. I believe in the rule of law and at the moment that is unlawful. The point that I was trying to make is that, although the Bill was discussed briefly in Committee, it was never debated on Second Reading because it went through on the nod. When I read the Bill, I thought that one of the best things about it was that it would give discretion to local authorities to award disabled persons’ parking badges for a limited period. So if, for example, someone had a medical certificate saying that their disability was such that they would lack normal mobility for six months, the local authority would be able to issue a disabled parking permit for that period instead of being able only to issue an indefinite one. It is my understanding that the Bill would give local authorities that additional discretion—
Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot take the opportunity now to initiate a Second Reading debate, the absence of which he spent some moments lamenting. He must now focus his remarks on the new clause, accompanying new clauses and amendments. I feel sure that after that brief diversion that is precisely what he is now minded to do.
Absolutely, Mr Speaker. In commenting on my hon. Friend’s amendments relating to the notice period following the renewal of licence, I was speculating on the discretion that a local authority has to set a fixed period for a licence after which it would have to be renewed and notification would have to be given to the recipient. I may be wrong, but my understanding is that standard procedure at the moment is for local authorities to issue a licence for an indefinite period that is coterminous with the lifetime of the person to whom the licence has been issued. The Bill would give a new discretion to local authorities to set renewal periods, and it would be to the exercise of that discretion that the provisions in my hon. Friend’s amendments relating to the process of notification for renewals would be relevant. That is the background to the point that I was making.
You said that I lamented the lack of a Second Reading debate, Mr Speaker, although I did not use that word. The lack of such a debate means that speculation about the intent of the Bill in relation to local authority discretion is at large, and has perhaps been anticipated by several of my hon. Friend’s amendments.
If local authorities have discretion to renew licences and issue them for fixed periods of time, it is reasonable to say that there should be a specified period within which the local authority would send to the licence holder notification that it had to be renewed, giving the holder time in which to obtain the relevant documents to facilitate the renewal, should that be necessary.
There is much to commend some of my hon. Friend’s amendments, although I am sorry that I cannot go along with him on all of them—
I find amendment 9 quite appealing. It states:
“An issuing authority has a duty to invite members of the badge scheme in writing to renew their membership two months before the badge is due to lapse.”
That is a reasonable amendment, especially in the light of the draconian penalties for not having a licence in order. New clause 2 is also perfectly reasonable, as it states:
“Anyone found guilty of knowingly allowing another to use their disabled parking badge shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.”
However, new clause 3, for the reasons I have already put forward, goes too far. There is already an offence of handling stolen goods. If a disabled parking badge has been stolen, anyone using it would effectively be handling it and would be liable to the full force of the law, and the maximum penalty for handling stolen goods is several years in prison. Indeed, it is often said that without handlers there would be no thieves, and that is why the courts have always come down heavily on handlers.
I cannot disagree with my hon. Friend on that point, although courts and politicians have said over many years that we should not necessarily treat thieves with more severity than we do handlers. Anybody who handles a stolen disabled parking badge should be severely dealt with, but the problem with new clause 3 is that there is no requirement that the person found guilty of using a badge did so with mens rea—guilty intent.
My hon. Friend suggests that the person using the badge might not know that it was stolen, but by definition they would know that it was not theirs and that they were not entitled to use it. It is not as though they could be an innocent bystander in this scenario. They would know that they did not have the disability that qualified them for a blue badge. My hon. Friend might be splitting hairs on this point.
That is indeed the trade in which lawyers work—they do split hairs. As legislators, we need to try to anticipate how those hairs might be split, or what opportunities there are for splitting them, and thereby ensure that the laws that we pass in this House are clear beyond peradventure. That is what I am trying to ensure happens in this case.
That takes us back to the word “using” in my hon. Friend’s new clause 1, because it depends on whether, by a person using the badge, we mean that the person driving the vehicle does not know that the disabled person sitting next to him has a disabled permit or badge but is not entitled to it because he has stolen it, whether we mean that the person driving the car is using it, or whether the person sitting next to him is purporting to be disabled and is the person who is using it. There would therefore be scope for lawyers to be engaged in that, if the wording remains as it is.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I have the privilege of representing a constituency with, I think, the highest proportion of people aged over 85, I am familiar with one aspect of what he refers to: people sign postcards to which I respond by saying that I have sent their postcard to the Minister, but quite often I receive a letter back from the person denying that they have ever signed such a postcard. I then send a copy of the signed postcard to the constituent, who then writes back—people in the Christchurch constituency are ever so polite—full of apologies saying that, yes, they recognise that it is their signature and their handwriting and they must indeed have signed this postcard, but they could not recall having so done. My hon. Friend makes a perfectly valid point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley has tried to encourage me to expand on my concerns about his amendments, but I do not think that I need to do so any more. I look forward to hearing from the Minister and from my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby), the promoter of the Bill, who will have the first opportunity to discuss, in the presence of the whole House, the virtues of the Bill, not having had that opportunity on Second Reading.
I have listened carefully to the clearly thought out arguments of my hon. Friends. I admit to having some sympathy with the amendments, as the Bill is designed to stop the abuse of the blue badge scheme, but I would like to make some observations that I hope will be helpful.
My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) mentioned section 115 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984, but he did not mention the Fraud Act 2006 or the Theft Act 1968, which may also apply in some circumstances. The Bill is about enforcement, not sentencing, as that is properly dealt with elsewhere.
There was some concern about people not being notified. The proposed subsection 7AB to the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 states clearly that cancellation takes effect only when notice is given. Therefore, if a person has not received a notice, the badge is not cancelled. On that note, I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw his amendments so that we may proceed with some haste.
I have listened carefully to the contributions of the hon. Members for Shipley (Philip Davies) and for Christchurch (Mr Chope), and of course to my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby).
I understand why the amendments and new clauses have been tabled. They have been tabled, as the hon. Member for Shipley will appreciate, somewhat late in the day. Therefore, it has not been possible for us to give full consideration to the implications of what he has put forward. What I would say in general terms is that some of the measures he proposes do seem draconian, to use a word that was bandied around earlier today, and some of the measures that he wants to introduce may not be entirely necessary. For example, it is not necessary to have a separate offence of allowing another person to use a blue badge, as that conduct is already covered by section 115 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984. Sections of 44 and 45 of the Serious Crime Act 2007 also have a role to play. At this stage, I do not think there is a case for accepting any of his new clauses or amendments, but I will undertake to look at them carefully. If there is any merit to any of them, I will be prepared to look at them and so will the Lords.
The Minister will have heard my exchange with Mr Speaker. Can the Minister confirm that the wording of the Bill is such that local authorities will now have discretion to give disabled parking badges for limited periods of time to people who are temporarily disabled?
That matter is either reflected in the Bill or by the existing legislation, and it is one to which I, as a Minister, have given some consideration over time. I think we all have sympathy with those who have temporary impairments and might have a condition that may be similar to a permanent disability. However, the reality is that the administration costs of setting up such a system to deal with temporary impairments would be very high. With 2.5 million blue badge holders in this country, if that number were extended significantly, as would be the case if those with temporary impairments were able to have blue badges or something similar for a period of time, the consequences would be to put enormous pressure on existing parking space. Individuals with genuine but limited mobility problems could occupy spaces designed for those with much more serious conditions. The conclusion I have therefore reached is that this should be a matter for local discretion. There are opportunities for individual local authorities to take forward schemes in their own patches if they choose to do so, depending on the availability of road space. The likelihood is that some local authorities will do that.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response. Does he think that one way of reducing the large number of disabled parking badges would be to ensure that there has to be a renewal date for any disabled parking badge issued, so that they are not in effect issued for a lifetime?
I agree with that, and that is indeed the position. We require blue badges to be renewed on a regular basis—I think it is every three years—to take account of the possibility of improvement to people’s mobility and disabilities. We hope that there are such improvements, and in some cases that is true. Even for those with permanent disabilities—loss of a limb, for example —we still need to ensure that the photograph on the badge is up to date, the address information is correct and that the badge has not faded, which has been a factor in the past, though it is less so now with the new badge design. It is sensible to have badges renewed on a regular basis and that already happens. There are no indefinite badges; that problem has already been taken care of.
As I said to the hon. Member for Shipley, we have not had a huge amount of time to examine the new clauses and amendments. I am not convinced that they have merit, but I will undertake to ask officials to look at them. If there is any merit, we will deal with that in another place. On that basis, I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his new clause.
I am grateful to hon. Members who have contributed to the debate on my amendments, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope), who did not agree with them all but adopted his normal forensic approach and pointed out some flaws that I accept.
I am also grateful for the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) and the Minister. If I heard correctly, in his brief comments the Minister said that he would consider my amendments in more detail and, if there was any merit in them, would deal with them later. I will take that offer in the good faith in which I am sure it was intended. I will happily meet him to discuss some points in order to improve the Bill even further. That will be to the benefit of genuine blue badge holders. On the basis of his kind offer, for which I am genuinely grateful, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Clause, by leave, withdrawn.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
This is a small Bill but one that could make a big difference to the lives of disabled people. For that reason, I am most grateful to hon. Members from both sides of the House for their support so far.
The blue badge scheme is administered by local authorities and enables more than 2.6 million severely disabled people to retain their independence by allowing them to park close to where they need to go. There is widespread abuse of the scheme, however, as the substantial financial value of a badge is an incentive for some people to commit fraud and misuse badges. In particular, non-disabled people will often seek to use someone else’s badge for their own purposes, especially to avoid parking charges. Badge forgery is another serious form of abuse faced by local authorities. It affects the quality of life of disabled people by depriving them of the spaces allocated for their use near to the places and services they need to access. Furthermore, the National Fraud Authority estimates that abuse of the scheme costs local authorities £46 million per annum in lost parking revenue.
The Bill includes some important provisions to improve the ability of local authorities to tackle fraud on-street and make more parking spaces available to disabled people. Currently, if a local authority enforcement officer inspects a badge that is fake, cancelled, due for return or being misused, he is obliged to return it to the offender. This clearly makes no sense. The Bill will give those officers the necessary power to retain the badge, which will prevent continued abuse. The Bill will also enable an employee or contractor of a local authority, wearing plain clothes, to inspect badges. Currently, inspections must be carried out in uniform, which in effect denies local authorities the flexibility of using their specialist fraud teams who typically operate in plain clothes.
Local authorities will also be given the power to cancel a badge that is no longer in the holder’s possession—for example, when it has been lost or stolen—and this will ensure that the legal status of such a badge is never in doubt, facilitating the appropriate enforcement action. The Bill will also remove the requirement for the Secretary of State to prescribe the design of a parking badge on the face of regulations. This will protect the confidential high-security features of the badge from disclosure and so help to prevent forgery. In addition, it will make it certain that the existing offence of misusing a blue badge includes the use of a badge that should have been returned. This makes sense. It will also remove the very limited right of appeal to the Secretary of State, as the local government ombudsman has powers to consider complaints against local authorities and already does so.
Last, but by no means least, I am sure that hon. Members will be pleased to note that the Bill will enable disabled members of our armed forces resident on UK bases overseas to apply for a badge via the Ministry of Defence.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on getting the Bill this far. In particular, I congratulate him on the clause about looking after our disabled armed services members. I think that all our constituents will receive that news gratefully.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. It is a vital part of the Bill. We must do all we can for our brave armed services personnel.
In conclusion, the Bill is designed to protect the blue badge lifeline for the disabled people who rely on it for everyday living, and to help tackle fraud against the public sector amounting to millions. Disabled people and local authorities want these measures, and, judging by the Bill’s passage through the House, it seems that hon. Members do, too. I commend the Bill to the House and wish it a speedy journey through the other place.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) for the progress he has made with the Bill and the deft way in which he has mastered the Standing Orders to ensure that his Bill leapfrogged over others Bills into the first slot today. He is already an old hand at this. His Bill is in first place today because it went through Second Reading without a Division—without even any debate—and was agreed to unanimously by the House. It also had a short Committee stage, confirming that everybody thinks that it will improve matters and deserves to get on to the statute book.
The better controls over the abuse of the blue badge scheme will be welcomed in my constituency. A large number of my constituents have blue badges, and they resent the fact that the system is abused and that sometimes this means they cannot park close to where they want to be, because their parking space has been occupied by someone who purports to have a valid blue badge but whose badge is not valid or does not apply to them. The changes in the Bill are very good, therefore. It is desirable that we give local authorities greater discretion. It will, I hope, result in local authorities considering what is best in their own circumstances.
I remain concerned about the fact that people who are temporarily severely disabled cannot access disabled parking concessions. I hope that the Minister’s comments implied that local authorities will now have the discretion to decide that they can.
The Minister is nodding. That is very helpful. Dorset county council has always told me that it does not have the discretion to allow temporarily disabled people to access disabled parking permits. If we now have much tighter control over the abuse of those permits, greater flexibility for local authorities should flow from that. When given the appropriate medical evidence, they should be able to issue disabled parking permits to people with temporary disabilities. That is a really good benefit that could come from the Bill.
It is interesting that the Bill sets out why the form of the disabled badge should not be prescribed in detail—if it is set out in statute, the fraudsters will know exactly what is in it and can follow the same format. The Bill proposes that there should be some form of encryption, which will enable more effective enforcement to take place and make it much more difficult to forge the badges.
All in all, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown. I hope that, having got himself ahead of the queue, he can get the Bill into the other place and that before too long it will find its way on to the statute book.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby). Thus far he has steered his Bill through with great skill, like an old hand, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) said. Indeed, if he can introduce a private Member’s Bill that finds favour with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch, he is doing particularly well—certainly a lot better than what many others can hope to achieve—and I congratulate him on that.
Joking aside, this is an important Bill. As I have made clear, I spent an awful lot of time at Asda trying to improve the facilities and services for our disabled customers. The Bill deals with what I would say is by far and away the biggest issue facing people with disabilities who need a place to park close to where they need to go. It is not only immensely frustrating for them, but I think we all feel a sense of revulsion when people needlessly and thoughtlessly use a bay or abuse the badge system to park in a place to which they are not entitled. It is something we should be much stronger about. In concentrating on this issue, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown has found an issue on which we can all agree that something needs to be done.
My hon. Friend’s Bill finds the right balance. It will be a big step forward in ensuring that badges are not abused and will be a useful tool in ensuring that there are no unaccounted badges out there that should not be out there. It gives local authorities the appropriate powers they need to clamp down on the problem. If there is a big problem in an area, it is useful to give the local authority the flexibility to take the action they feel is necessary in their local community to tackle it. My hon. Friend’s Bill is excellent on all those points.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch about the issue of temporary disabilities, if I may describe it that way. It was an issue we tried to deal with in our “bay watch” meetings about disabled parking; indeed, what to do when somebody has a temporary disability, which may have been caused by an accident, was a big issue at Asda. The Bill may not be the final word on that matter, but it strikes the balance given what is possible at the moment.
To conclude, I am extremely grateful that the Minister is going to look again at my amendments. They are modest amendments, and the Bill could be improved in another place by adopting just one or two of them, even if he did not accept my new clauses. Some of the other amendments would strengthen the Bill by making the duties on local authorities much clearer, which is a help to them as much as the people they deal with. The Bill is excellent; making that change would be the cherry on top and would make it even more excellent, so I hope the Minister will look favourably on it. In the meantime, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown. I hope the Bill goes speedily through the House of Lords. Many of my constituents, along with many constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch and many others round the country, will think that today we have achieved something incredibly worth while.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby) on securing his place in the ballot for private Members’ Bills and on achieving such smooth and speedy progress for his Bill—certainly at least until today.
Clearly there is cross-party support for such legislation. We all recognise the vital role that the blue badge scheme plays in enabling disabled people to have better access to the places they want to go to and giving them greater independence. The need to reform the scheme to strengthen enforcement has long been recognised. The last Government published their independent strategic review as far back as 2007. The Select Committee on Transport published a report in 2008, and in 2009 the then Labour Government set out their timetable for implementing reforms. After the general election, it is good that the coalition Government have continued that work. The hon. Gentleman’s Bill, with its reference to improving enforcement of the scheme, is valuable, particularly in ensuring that the blue badge scheme’s public reputation is maintained.
I do not want to delay the House longer than is necessary; however, I want to place the Bill in its wider context and also seek clarification on one or two areas. First, the blue badge scheme is vital in promoting disabled people’s independence, and therefore continued Government support for it is welcome. Unfortunately, I am concerned that other Government transport policy is having the reverse effect. Under their comprehensive spending review, local transport budgets were cut by 28%, with support for bus services from the bus service operators grant reduced by 20%. As a result, one in five publicly supported bus services have been cut, with services removed, reduced or altered.
Those cuts have a disproportionate impact on passengers who cannot drive and for whom bus services are essential. They include the young, the old and, in particular, disabled people. Passenger Focus, the independent watchdog, produced a report in July on the impact on passengers of bus service reductions. One of those impacts was that “dependency on others increased”, which Passenger Focus found had led to
“a reduction in the quality of life.”
The report contained moving personal testimonies from older and disabled people illustrating how the loss of independence affected them. How will the Minister ensure consistency in Government policy on ensuring independence of travel for disabled people?
My second point about the wider context relates to my concern about how disabled people—of whom we know there are 10 million in the UK, a number that is set to rise as a result of our ageing population—will have a voice when it comes to decisions about transport, be it the blue badge scheme or other measures. The Government’s “bonfire of the quangos” recommended that the Department for Transport’s disabled persons transport advisory committee should close. However, it was not a very real bonfire, because at the same time the Government recognised that they needed a new group, so that they could still get advice on disabled people’s needs. It was a case of “one quango out, one quango in”. Two years on from that recommendation, we still do not know how the Department intends to ensure that disabled people have an effective voice to shape and influence Government policy. Perhaps the Minister can confirm when he expects to make further progress on that.
Finally, I want to return to the themes raised in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick). He sought reassurances that the Bill would not give rise to resourcing implications for local authorities, and also about the provisions for the right of appeal, which is effectively devolved from the Secretary of State. In Committee, the Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Wimbledon (Stephen Hammond)—it was not the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) on that occasion—stated that he did not believe there were any resourcing implications. However, I question whether that is still the case, when we consider the Bill in conjunction with the forthcoming changes to the arrangements for determining eligibility for a blue badge, which arise from the implementation of the personal independence payment.
The Government anticipate that fewer people will qualify for the personal independence payment than are currently in receipt of disability living allowance. I note that about 36% of blue badges are issued to people as a result of their receiving the higher rate of the mobility component of DLA. It is therefore possible that a proportion of those who are currently eligible for a blue badge might not be eligible under the new scheme, despite having no change in their condition. Will the Minister assure me that he has considered how that might impact on the implementation of the enforcement measures in the Bill, and the consequent level of appeals that might arise from that?
This is an excellent Bill. It will help to improve the acceptability of the blue badge scheme and ensure that disabled people are able to get where they need to go, as was intended when the Bill was introduced. Subject to the Minister’s responses to the points that I have just raised, I give the Bill my wholehearted support.
I am pleased that my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Simon Kirby), has introduced the Bill, and I congratulate him on its progress to date. It will help to tackle the abuse that seriously threatens the value of the blue badge scheme for disabled people. The Government have long understood the need to reform the disabled parking scheme. Very few changes have been made to it since it was established in the 1970s. It is a crucial service for promoting improved mobility for disabled people; 75% of badge holders say that, without it, they would go out less often.
Since this Government came to power, my officials and I have been working with badge holders, disability groups and local authorities to deliver improvements. To ensure that badges are issued more fairly and consistently across the country, I introduced independent mobility assessments to help to determine eligibility. The provision in my hon. Friend’s Bill enabling members of the armed forces overseas to apply for a badge is also about fairness, of course, and it complements the Department’s reforms.
More recently, on 1 January this year, I introduced on behalf of the Government the blue badge improvement service. This is a major initiative aimed at tackling rising levels of fraud and abuse, while helping to ensure that disabled people receive improved customer service. It provides for online applications and provides local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales with a single national database of all blue badge holders and their key details, thereby preventing multiple and fraudulent applications.
Importantly, enforcement officers can also run quick validity checks via their hand-held devices, before taking the appropriate enforcement action. This new tool is a major step forward in tackling fraud. The powers in the Bill to allow inspections in plain clothes and the recovery of badges mean that, when an enforcement officer has checked the status of a badge on the central system, he or she will be able to take it off the street immediately if it is being misused.
Furthermore, since the improvement service went live, we have added a facility for members of the public to report lost and stolen badges. The Bill enhances that facility by enabling local authorities legally to cancel badges that are no longer in the holder’s possession. That will put the status of such badges beyond doubt. To help to counteract fraud, we have also introduced a new badge design that is harder to copy, forge or alter. The old-style cardboard badges have been replaced by new ones made from a hard plastic material which contains a number of overt and covert security features, as used in banknotes and driving licences.
The Bill will enhance that development by removing the requirement to prescribe the badge details in regulations. To disclose the high-security features of the badge would play directly into the hands of those who seek to make forgeries for their own gain. That will happen, however. People are already attempting to make copies of the new badge. I am pleased to say they are bad copies, but even so, we do not want to help the criminals by publishing badge security details.
Public consultation has demonstrated widespread support for the measures contained in my hon. Friend’s Bill, which are long overdue. I know that the Bill has cross-party support. I am sure that hon. Members will have received representations from disabled constituents, as I have, complaining about abuse of the blue badge scheme and the impact that it has on their lives.
I want to deal with the points that have been raised. I should clarify that badge holders will still have recourse to an appeal and review procedure. That is not being taken away. The difference will be that it will involve the local authority and then the ombudsman. The ombudsman service is free to users and has the expertise to deal with more than 10,000 complaints a year.
The hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) referred to bus journeys, a subject that is some distance away from the Bill’s contents. I note, however, that the number of bus journeys undertaken over the past 12 months is on a par with the number undertaken in the previous year and in the year before that. There has not been the reduction in bus travel that she implied. We fully accept the importance of independence of travel. That is why my officials in the Department and I are taking forward a new accessibility strategy to enhance that need and right. We are consulting widely with disabled groups, which have been participating in the construction and formulation of that strategy. I can therefore assure the hon. Lady that they are fully involved in the Department’s processes.
In regard to the questions about disabled persons tax credit, the answer that I gave at the Dispatch Box recently was that a consultation has been initiated on what should or should not happen to DATAC and on any successor arrangements. We will make a statement in due course on what we conclude as a result of the responses to the consultation. I am sure that the hon. Lady would want us to give full weight to those responses and to analyse them properly, rather than rushing into a precipitate decision. I can assure her that the Bill will have no impact on local authority resources. I hope that that puts her mind at rest.
There is a consultation process under way on the personal independence payment, but the Government’s preferred option is one of minimum change. It is not in any way our intention to reduce the number of people who qualify for a badge. The consultation has been necessitated by the changes to the nature of benefits being brought in by the Department for Work and Pensions, but so far as the Department for Transport is concerned, we want the result of any consequential changes to stay as close as possible to the current arrangements. That is our preferred option, but obviously we will look at the responses to the consultation.
We believe that the Bill will help disabled people. It will help to fill the gaps and it will complement the Government’s own legislation. It will be an asset for those who rely on the scheme for independent living, and the Government fully support it.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.