My Lords, the Department for Transport published a consultation document on 24 January 2008 on a number of proposals to improve the blue badge scheme. It includes proposals to extend the scheme to more people who genuinely need it together with better ways of administering and enforcing the scheme in order to cut down on levels of abuse.
My Lords, the Department for Transport, in its draft response to the independent review of the blue badge scheme, referred to research which suggested,
“the possible extension of the assessed eligibility criteria to include individuals with the most severe mental and behavioural disorders that require physical contact (‘attention’) to cross the road safely”.
What conditions specifically is the Department for Transport considering in addition to those that are currently included? Does it include the carers of those with severe autism?
My Lords, it may well be that the carers of those who suffer from severe autism will be included within the new scheme. For that very reason, we are conducting a more detailed consultation and working with interest groups to try to appraise the level of likely demand. We are open to suggestions. I hope we will be able to extend the scheme without extending the level of abuse, which I know is a concern for many people.
My Lords, as I understand the proposals, it is suggested that each applicant for a blue badge should be assessed by an independent assessor. The three central London boroughs of Camden, Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea already have a full medical or social assessment of every applicant. Will the Minister do what he can to see that those schemes, which have been working so well for so many years, are not interfered with even if a more general scheme is introduced?
My Lords, our intention is not to interfere with those schemes but to ensure the careful development of a coherent and understandable national scheme. At the moment you qualify for a blue badge if you get the higher rate of mobility allowance or the local authority assesses that you are in need. We are concerned to ensure that there is more comprehensive coverage for a range of disabilities, such as the one cited by the noble Lord, Lord Clement-Jones, and that the scheme is understandable and can be properly enforced.
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some local authorities, particularly some of the inner London boroughs, have different criteria for parking with a blue badge? Anyone with a blue badge coming in from outer London may be faced with a totally different situation of which he or she may know nothing. Will my noble friend lean on the inner London boroughs so that there are uniform standards across local government so that disabled people know where they are?
My Lords, the noble Lord makes a fair point. Clearly, there will be different restrictions in different areas due to the demands of different forms of traffic, and time restrictions will obviously vary if you are parking on a yellow line or double yellow lines in a bus lane or close to one, but he is right that we need to ensure that people have a common understanding of the system as it works across the country.
My Lords, at the same time as the Statement in January, the Government announced £500,000 for a blue badge centre of excellence scheme. Can the Minister explain exactly what that is and why the Government announced it before they had finished their consultation?
My Lords, it was a very sensible announcement designed to enable the Government to draw on good and effective practice in local government. I do not know whether the noble Lord’s local authority is best practice or not. If it is, we want to learn from it. It is for such reasons that we announced that £500,000 of funding, to ensure that we develop that good practice.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that the needs of various disabled people are very different? For instance, some do not need so much space if they are walking, whereas those who have wheelchairs and are heavily disabled, and their carers, need more space. Could there not be a two-tier system?
My Lords, I would not want to rule it out. I understand what the noble Baroness is saying, and perhaps it is one of the issues that can be picked up as part of the consultation. From what I have heard from noble Lords this morning, there is a desire for the eligibility criteria and the scheme to operate in a way which is coherent, nationwide in understanding and works well for people with different disabilities.
My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that if the system that operates in Westminster and the other central London boroughs were to apply right across the United Kingdom, it is probable that hundreds of thousands of current blue badge holders nationally would lose their entitlement?
My Lords, that is a hard judgment to make. Although I understand what the noble Lord is saying, we are trying to ensure that the criteria work well and are understandable and that those with a genuine disability can make proper use of them. We are trying to widen the eligibility criteria so that a wider range of people with disabilities are entitled.
My Lords, most of the discussion on my noble friend’s Question has centred on people who have access to cars, but many disabled people do not. The Government have legislated at great length and at great expense to the industry to make buses accessible to disabled people, and yet, as far as I know, nothing effective has been done to make it almost illegal to park a car in a bus stop and to back that up with sufficient penalties. All the equipment on buses enabling people to get on and off easily is being vitiated because buses cannot get to the kerb.
My Lords, the enforcement of parking restrictions and restrictions on motor vehicles parking in bus spaces is a matter for the local authority and local police, and some of the campaigns have been highly effective in shifting misplaced motor vehicles. Although I congratulate the noble Lord on raising the issue, I think it is one for local government to take up with local police services.
My Lords, is the Minister aware of a fact which I do not think is treated on in last month’s impact assessment—that if someone parks improperly in a disabled space adjacent to, for instance, a supermarket, there is a well attested statistical possibility that they will have a criminal record?
My Lords, the noble Lord has drawn attention to a significant point, that those found to have committed a traffic offence of some sort or other often have a criminal record. Simply finding someone who has committed a parking or similar offence can sometimes trigger a wider investigation into their criminal background.