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Autism: Blue Badge Scheme

Volume 691: debated on Monday 23 April 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether new guidance for local authorities on the administration of the blue badge scheme will include provision to allow for the blue badge to be extended to people with autism.

My Lords, the new draft guidance, which is out to consultation, provides advice on the existing eligibility criteria and therefore does not include advice on autism. The Department for Transport is due to conduct a strategic review of the blue badge scheme, which will report this September. The review will consider whether the scheme should be extended to other disability groups.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply, but the wheels at the Department for Transport are grinding extremely slow. The review carried out by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee reported in 2002. That means that five years have now elapsed, and the department is conducting a strategic review over the next few months. What consideration has already been given to the needs of autistic people in these circumstances? Why have the Government been so slow to consider additional forms of eligibility for the blue badge scheme?

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Lord for his work on behalf of the educational needs of people with autism, in particular his work for TreeHouse, and I acknowledge his expertise in this field. There have been delays in the implementation of that first review, in light of which it is the department’s view that a further strategic review should be conducted. Its work should be completed this September so that we can more fully reflect on the needs of those who suffer from autism. We have been consulting charities that relate to autism as a disability. We have also recently received a final research project report on the needs of people with autism, which it is hoped we can feed into the strategic review so that a final policy on the matter can be determined by the beginning of next year.

My Lords, my noble friend referred to a review of the operation of the blue badge scheme. When that takes place, can it also encompass the differences between one local authority and another, even those in central London? They are confusing, to say the least, because there is not proper signage about the arrangements in each local authority, so if a disabled person in a car moves out of his or her own local authority, he or she can get into difficulties through not knowing what the regulations are.

My Lords, I accept that those difficulties can arise and it is useful that the noble Lord has raised this matter. I am aware that this issue has been raised before and, no doubt, it is one of the things that the strategic review will take on board.

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that, when the review takes place, it will have some built-in mechanism by which it can be expanded to cover any group that would seem to benefit from the scheme and who should benefit from it, because we do not want to go through this again with the next group?

My Lords, my understanding is that we will be casting the net wide in the process of consultation so that those who believe that they have a direct interest and an input into the strategic review can make their views well known to the department. The department works very closely with DPTAC, the disabled transport policy advisory group.

My Lords, can the Minister say why the department cannot apply basic common sense? Anybody who sees a mother struggling with an autistic child or a carer struggling with an autistic adult will know just how difficult it is to get an autistic person to the shops. They cannot travel on public transport and their carers cannot control them in order to walk long distances to the shops. Why can they not be given a blue badge?

My Lords, I entirely accept the views expressed by the noble Countess on this issue and I fully understand where she is coming from. It seems common sense if you approach it in that way. However, we have to understand where the blue badge scheme originated; it specifically and directly related to those with a profound physical disability. Time has moved on and that is why we need to review its operation so that we can have consistent and sensible application and recognition of newly discovered or newly understood and appreciated disabilities.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the growing problem of the theft of blue badges? Is he also aware that there is a thriving black market? Badges can be sold for money, which is sometimes subsequently used to fund the use of illegal drugs. I hope that that is being taken in as part of the review. Can he tell the House what steps the Government are taking to stop this theft and to work in partnership with the local authorities and the police to avoid it continuing?

My Lords, that was one of the issues raised and understood as part of the original review. The plan is to introduce holograms to both individual and organisational badges for security purposes so that they are not subject to the fraud to which the noble Lord makes reference.

My Lords, will my noble friend bear in mind the fact that people with autism can behave irrationally? They can run amok or they can sit in the middle of a busy road as they are unaware of the dangerous activity. On any reasonable criterion, that kind of behaviour qualifies them for a blue badge. Will the Government bear that in mind in this review?

My Lords, as I have said several times, the strategic review will take place in the summer. It is hoped that firm recommendations can be developed towards the end of the year, with a new policy and strategy to adapt the blue badge scheme at the beginning of next year.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that—as I was surprised to find in the forms and documents for my blue badge—the fundamental conditions for blue badges are now controlled by the commissioners in Brussels? Many of us with blue badges do not want to find that we have rights not merely to park in London and elsewhere but also in Dubrovnik and Vienna.

My Lords, the noble Lord approaches the issue from an interesting angle. We are trying to ensure some commonality in blue badge schemes across Europe. That informs part of our thinking.

My Lords, could not the autistic be given the blue badges now and the Government have their review afterwards?

My Lords, that sounds nice and tempting, but it is right that we should conduct a proper strategic review so that we can go through the various difficulties and exercise our minds on them. I am grateful for the noble Lord’s comment. I have great sympathy with him, but this considered approach with proper processes of consultation is the right way forward.