Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Charlie Elphicke.)
I first raised this topic during business questions some weeks ago, when I asked the Leader of the House to arrange a debate. Through you, Mr Deputy Speaker, I thank Mr Speaker for giving me an opportunity to raise it again this evening. I want to discuss two issues on this occasion: the abuse of disabled parking permits, which is obviously a scourge, and the fact that Harrow has introduced a system that is preventing a large number of my disabled constituents from receiving permits when they should be receiving them.
The blue badge scheme was created to give
“free and dedicated parking close to amenities for drivers and passengers with mobility-related disabilities, or who are blind.”
Those with such permits are able to park on yellow lines for up to three hours, and are also exempt from the central London congestion charge. Passes are valid for a maximum of three years, after which passholders must reapply. Let me stress at this point that the various individual cases that I shall cite later in my speech are those of people who were in receipt of disabled badges, but have had them taken away.
I am sure that we all feel annoyed when we witness abuses of the system by, for instance, individuals who, although they are perfectly able-bodied, borrow blue badges and then park unlawfully in controlled parking zones. We must condemn the people who take such action, which is particularly common in the vicinity of football grounds, in supermarket car parks, and in other areas where parking is at a premium. Abuses of that kind have been a problem in Harrow.
The general misuse of a blue badge can carry a fine of up to £1,000, and stolen or fake badges involving the use of a pass from a deceased person can result in a sentence of up to 12 months in prison and/or a £5,000 fine. I congratulate Harrow’s fraud team on its numerous operations to tackle the issue. In June 2010, under Operation Cactus, 15 badges were seized. In July of that year, under Operation Daffodil, 16 were seized, and a further 16 were seized in December, under Operation Elderflower. In May 2011, 13 badges were seized under Operation Foxglove. You may note, Mr Deputy Speaker, that a theme is emerging here. In July 2011, under Operation Gentian, another 16 badges were seized. Over that period, a total of 76 badges were seized, and there were two prosecutions, 32 cautions and one warning. Operations continued in 2013, when more than 60 badges were seized.
It is clear that there have been a number of abuses of the system, which have taken place over many years. When relatives “borrow” a pass, they are taking away a space that should be used by a genuinely disabled person, so there is no doubt that a crackdown was necessary, and it is no surprise that Harrow Council made efforts—which I applaud—to toughen up the entire system. Spot checks have continued, and the council is still finding people who are abusing the system. However, the problem is that this has gone too far the other way, with genuine blue badge applications suddenly being denied and the process for getting one made intentionally far too difficult.
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Charlie Elphicke.)
I have the privilege of representing the area of London that has the longest-lived people. As we all know, life expectancy increases as one goes up the Jubilee line from east London to north-west London, so the people of Stanmore in particular have the longest lives in London, and I therefore represent many people who apply for, and have, blue badges. The drawback of that is that getting around my constituency is often very difficult for those elderly people on public transport.
In the past two years alone, 82 residents have come to me with problems related to the system of renewing their blue badges. Every single one of those cases represents someone with a genuine need for a badge due to mobility issues related to age or disabilities. Because Harrow Council has outsourced the process, there is now no oversight and it is very difficult for councillors or for me and my MP colleagues to bring genuine cases forward and complain when an obvious injustice has occurred.
The current application process is as follows. A resident makes an application to Harrow Council either to renew the blue badge or for a new one, and a decision is made. If refused, there is a right of appeal, but if the resident pursues the appeal process, they often meet with an external company, Access Independent, and undergo a medical and a final binding decision is made. There is no further appeal. If there is another refusal, the resident cannot apply again for a set period of time. This means that disabled people are left high and dry without the ability to put their case forward until they have waited six to nine months before lodging another application.
When my office submits concerns on behalf of residents, we receive what is frankly a cut-and-paste answer: a one-paragraph, copy-and-paste reply saying basically, “It’s nothing to do with Harrow Council. It is to do with the Department for Transport and the guidelines that are issued. We have outsourced the process of assessing the applications and therefore we can’t do anything about it.” Councillors face the same problem and receive the same messages. That leaves us in the difficult situation of not being able to highlight and resolve these genuine cases where appropriate blue badges should be received.
The testing and appeal process is usually handled by Access Independent, as I have mentioned. It is an occupational therapy firm based in Cambridge. It operates a cut-throat process. More often than not, no doctor or medical expert is consulted and medical professionals see their diagnoses completely ignored.
One of the tests is that the applicant is made to walk for as far as possible, either down a hallway or in the main car park. This creates the following problems. Neither of those surfaces is representative of the pavements, roads and so on that people walk down, thus creating an illusion that they can walk fine; they are often walking on imperfect surfaces when they need to park close to facilities, whereas when they are tested they are walking on much better surfaces. Also, the method itself is fairly corrupt. Forcing people with mobility issues to walk as far as possible feels almost like a “Hunger Games” approach to testing eligibility. Often applicants I meet are very proud people who try and walk even when they are in severe pain, and I think that is unfair on them as individuals.
I have a range of individual cases that I am going to quote to give an illustration of where the system does not seem to work. In all these cases, I have sought and obtained the permission of each of the individuals to quote their details.
My first example is that of Mrs Suzanne Bard. I believe that the Minister has a copy of the local press coverage of her case. Suzanne lives in Bentley Priory, which was the headquarters of the RAF fighter command during the battle of Britain. The development is nearly a mile away from any form of public transport. She took her case to the Harrow Times, and hers is probably the strongest case I have seen. She is an 83-year-old widow who has held a blue badge since 2006. She suffers from severe arthritis, cervical spondylosis, obliterated joints—on which she has had multiple operations—and depression, and her application included no fewer than eight supporting letters from medical professionals. Mrs Bard witnessed various council officials and contractors completely disregarding advice from the best medical professionals she had been able to identify. The removal of Mrs Bard’s blue badge has effectively left her stranded up in Bentley Priory, which is grossly unfair on this widow.
I should also like to highlight the case of Joyce Richiardi from Stanmore. She is 93 years old, has a complex medical history and is severely restricted in what she can do without a blue badge. Her GP supported her application, but the case was rejected on the basis that she was deemed not to be “immobile enough”, even though she had previously suffered a heart attack and had two blocked arteries and severe breathing difficulties which restrict how far she can walk.
A further example is Caterina Gargano, an 80-year-old woman who lives with her husband Giuseppe in Stanmore. She suffers from dementia, with cognitive decline, and chronic lower back pain. She suffers from intermittent confusion as a result of both conditions. Giuseppe struggles to look after her, and Mrs Gargano can walk a maximum of only 20 to 30 metres. My staff have spoken with Giuseppe on numerous occasions and he gets very upset, almost tearful, when he tries to speak about it. The entire affair has angered him immensely, and he has every right to be upset.
We can draw a number of conclusions from these issues. Yes, there is abuse of the system when people use badges that are not their own, but it is not being carried out by the obviously elderly and frail applicants who need them. It is often carried out by relatives who abuse their position. In tackling the people using blue badges when they have no need of them, the answer cannot be simply to deny them to people with genuine needs. Harrow Council should not be penalising innocent users for the actions of a few.
I have some questions for the Minister, and I would be pleased if he could answer them in responding to the debate. What changes, if any, have been made to the rules relating to the issue of blue badges that were instituted by the Department, and which Harrow Council may be highlighting? Is the council taking far too restricted a view on who should be eligible for a blue badge? Given that the decision making is outsourced, has the council made the decision making too restrictive? Should there be an appropriate appeals process that involves Harrow Council, rather than the company that it has outsourced decision making to? What consideration should be made of the detailed medical evidence submitted on behalf of applicants, which at present seems to be being completely ignored?
I raise these questions on behalf of the large number of residents who have contacted me about this matter. I hope and trust that we can get some movement on it, so that the genuinely disabled, elderly and frail people of Harrow can have the badges they deserve, and the opportunity to visit shops and other amenities without fear of being penalised in such a way.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman) on securing this debate about the assessment of applications for a blue badge. Let there be no doubt that I share his concerns about the wellbeing of people with disabilities, especially when it comes to ensuring that the impact of their condition on their quality of life is minimised. Although it would not be appropriate for me to comment on individual cases, I would like to outline some aspects of the operation of the scheme.
The blue badge scheme has been in place since 1971, and its primary focus has always been on helping those people with permanent and severe mobility problems. The scheme enables about 2.5 million people with disabilities to retain their independence by allowing them to park close to where they need to go, providing access to jobs, shops and other services. Approximately 75% of blue badge holders have said that they would go out less frequently if they did not have a badge, and about 64% would be more reliant on friends and other family members. The Government are committed to the blue badge scheme and want to protect it for those who rely on it.
The Government are responsible for the legislation that sets out eligibility, the terms of the concession itself, the design of the badge and the enforcement framework. Badges are generally valid for three years, and the badge is for the holder’s use and benefit only. Local authorities can charge a fee of up to £10 for a blue badge. The scheme primarily improves accessibility for people with disabilities, but it has become increasingly advantageous financially. In return for the £10 fee, the scheme provides a generous package of benefits for people with severe disabilities. It enables parking on single or double yellow lines for up to three hours. Badge holders may also park for free for as long as they need to at on-street parking meters and pay and display machines. They can park for free in on-street disabled parking bays, and, unless signs say otherwise, this is also without time limit. Blue badge holders also receive other benefits—for example, no congestion charge in London. It is estimated that the annual benefit of the scheme to people with disabilities is about £250 million—nearly £100 per annum on average for each badge holder. The benefit per person ranges from £35 for people living in rural areas who make one trip a week to more than £5,000 for those who use a badge to travel to work in London every day.
Not surprisingly, the financial benefit of a badge could lead to abuse in a variety of forms. Therefore, in 2011, following a review of the scheme, the Government set out their proposals for improving the administration and enforcement of the scheme. Our aim was to ensure that the scheme was administered efficiently, consistently and fairly. In 2012, our reform strategy delivered the most comprehensive changes to the scheme for 40 years, helping to tackle widespread abuse of the scheme and ensuring that badges go to those with the greatest need. The reforms supported the Government’s agenda of promoting freedom and fairness, and meeting the needs of older and disabled people. The improvements to the scheme included: the use of independent mobility assessors to make assessment fairer and more consistent; and new legislation so that local authorities can now withdraw a badge following one criminal conviction for misuse, rather than three, as previously.
Some time ago, I spent time in Leeds with the enforcement officers checking up on the correct use of badges, and I am pleased that similar operations have been ongoing in Harrow. Indeed, a number of operations have taken place—I think they could be described as a bouquet—to make sure that abuse is minimised. Other improvements included: new powers for local authorities to seize badges that are being misused on-street, where previously only the police could do this; a new high-security, fraud-resistant badge designed to make it harder to copy or alter; and the launch of a single national database of all badge holders and their details in order to help prevent multiple and fraudulent applications. That also enables quick and easy validity checks by on-street enforcement officers from anywhere in the country.
Eligibility for a blue badge is not based on the type of disability. People with physical, mental or cognitive conditions can receive a badge if their walking is sufficiently affected. In order to qualify for a badge, a person needs to meet one of the eligibility criteria set out in the regulations that govern the scheme. They can be eligible either “without further assessment” or “subject to further assessment” by the local authority. People are eligible for the “without further assessment” category if they are over the age of two and receive the higher rate of the mobility component of the disability living allowance; or receive eight points or more under the “moving around” activity of the mobility component of personal independence payment; or are registered blind or severely sight impaired; or receive a war pensioner’s mobility supplement; or have been both awarded a lump sum benefit at tariffs 1 to 8 of the armed forces compensation scheme and are certified as having a permanent and substantial disability which causes inability to walk or very considerable difficulty in walking.
People who do not qualify without further assessment may still be eligible subject to further assessment if they are over the age of two and are unable to walk or have very considerable difficulty in walking because of a permanent and substantial difficulty; regularly drive a car but are unable to operate, or have considerable difficulty in operating, a parking meter on account of a severe disability in both arms; under the age of two and have a condition that requires that they always be accompanied by bulky medical equipment or that they be kept near a motor vehicle in case of need for emergency medical treatment.
On 1 April 2012, the Government introduced a change, which may be at the heart of my hon. Friend’s concerns. Evidence was showing that the badge issue rates vary significantly between local authorities. That could not be fully explained by population characteristics. Indeed, assessment procedures also varied. We introduced new legislation to require that where a person’s eligibility is not self-evident, the local authority must use an independent mobility assessor such as an occupational therapist or physiotherapist to help determine eligibility. That means that unless the local authority determines that an applicant’s eligibility or otherwise is clear cut, their eligibility will need to be confirmed by an independent mobility assessor. For badge eligibility decisions to be fairer and more objective, assessments should be undertaken by professionals who are independent of the applicant rather than referring to the applicant’s GP.
There was a lot of evidence to support that change. The Department of Health’s care services efficiency delivery programme noted that the involvement of GPs had only been at the discretion of the council and that a GP might not examine a person but instead rely on records. It indicated that it was rare for a GP not to support an application and that the GP-patient relationship could be compromised. It reported that the use of on-site occupational therapists allowed for a speedier and more effective decision.
Furthermore, independent research commissioned by my Department concluded that there was concern that some people who might not have had a clear and compelling need for a badge could still receive them. A majority of local authorities also believed that that was the case. The new assessment was supported by disability-represented organisations, including the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, and by the Transport Committee, which reported that using an applicant’s GP to assess eligibility was likely to produce a bias in favour of approving the application. These groups agreed that greater use of independent mobility assessments was needed to determine eligibility fairly and robustly. Indeed, a consultation showed 84% of respondents in favour of greater prescription from central Government on eligibility assessments. Focus group discussions with badge holders also revealed support for that approach provided it was delivered by an appropriately qualified healthcare professional.
An independent review commissioned by my Department in 2011 found compelling evidence that intelligently combined desk-based assessment and independent mobility assessments offered a substantially more robust assessment procedure. It concluded that mobility assessments achieve more efficient badge issuing; improved fairness for applicants; greater assurance that assessment is thorough and objective; and high level of confidence that those applicants intended by legislation to be eligible actually receive badges.
Let me make it clear that this change was introduced not to deprive anybody of a badge but to ensure that the scheme focused better on those whom it was intended to benefit. In introducing this change, we enshrined it in legislation that the independent assessor must be professionally qualified and trained in the assessment of a person’s ability to walk and have the expertise necessary to assess on behalf of the local authority the ability to walk of the applicant in question.
Although local authorities are required to determine eligibility through an independent mobility assessment, in cases where it is not clear whether an applicant may qualify for a badge, a local authority is able to make use of factual information from the GP or from other medical professionals regarding an applicant’s condition and treatment as evidence to support the eligibility decision-making process. If the new procedures are working properly, I would indeed expect some people who may previously have received a badge to find that they are now refused. Unsuccessful applicants who have had their application refused have no right of appeal to my Department against the local authority decision not to issue a badge. However, we recommend in our guidance that local authorities establish an internal procedure to deal with appeals against a local authority’s decision not to issue a badge. Appeals may not be heard where a case is clear cut, but our experience indicates that local authorities will review cases if there is any doubt about eligibility. If a qualified mobility assessor has advised the council, we see no reason for a further appeal beyond that.
We also state that local authorities must let the applicant know in writing why their application was refused, and strongly recommend that they provide a detailed explanation of the grounds for refusal. We feel that this transparency can avoid complaints being made and upheld. An unsuccessful applicant can also ask the authority to reconsider the case at a later date if they feel that their mobility problems have become more serious over time or if they think that all the relevant facts were not taken into consideration at the time of assessment. In the case of local government maladministration, there is also recourse to the ombudsman. Indeed, if any council was systematically committing procedural irregularities, it would leave itself open to judicial review. I should make it clear that I have seen no evidence of this type of practice.
As I have mentioned, local authorities are ultimately responsible for the administration of the scheme so it remains the responsibility of each local authority to determine their own assessment procedures and ensure that their procedures are in line with the legislation that governs the blue badge scheme.
I hope that I have been able to demonstrate that the Government are committed to promoting equal opportunities and achieving a fairer society by meeting the needs of the elderly and people with disabilities. It is important that we ensure that the blue badge scheme remains sustainable and protects preferential parking facilities for those with the greatest need. I believe that the introduction of independent mobility assessments means that a fairer, more robust and more effective process is in place to do this.
Question put and agreed to.