My Lords, this Bill is a vital step in the fight against the fraudulent use of the much-prized blue badge. It will give local authorities some clear powers of enforcement and provide a welcome extension of the blue badge scheme to Armed Forces personnel and their families posted overseas on UK bases. I congratulate Simon Kirby MP on steering the Bill through the sometimes choppy waters of the other place, although it did have cross-party support, and making sure that it landed safely on the firmer ground for Private Member’s Bills of this House. I am extremely grateful for the help I have had from officials in my noble friend’s department. Also, before I go any further, I must declare my interest in that I am a blue badge holder.
The disabled parking scheme administered by local authorities has existed since 1971 and has enabled over 2.5 million disabled people to park close to where they need to be if they display a valid blue badge. It was originally introduced in the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, the late Lord Morris of Manchester’s pioneering Act which has done so much for disabled people since that date, and who we have been remembering a lot since his death in August this year. There is no doubt that the blue badge scheme has transformed the lives of those of us who rely on it on a daily basis for our independence. We rely on it for where we live and how we live, and for our ability to travel the length and breadth of the country, knowing that we can nearly always park somewhere suitable to our needs.
However, as time goes on, the value of the badge becomes ever higher, sadly leading to an incentive to fraudsters to abuse the scheme. The National Fraud Authority estimates that abuse of the scheme is now costing local authorities up to £46 million per annum in lost parking revenue, added to which is the deprivation of suitable parking places for genuinely disabled people. Examples of abuse include copying and forging badges, changing the expiry date on the badge, failing to return expired badges, or the misuse of genuine badges by those who are not disabled in any way and who are often, I fear, family members. We all know about the families who take granny and her blue badge out and leave her in the car parked in the disabled bay while they go shopping. No one can do anything about that kind of abuse.
Reform is clearly necessary to try to stop the growing tide of real blue badge fraud. The Government have already introduced important non-regulatory improvements to the scheme, including a new fraud-resistant badge design and a common, shared database across the UK that will prevent multiple and fraudulent applications and enable quick and easy validity checks. It is now time for the law to be clarified to strengthen powers against fraud even further.
Before describing the clauses of the Bill in a bit more detail, I should spell out what the Bill is not about. It is not about the detail of eligibility for a blue badge; or about the exact details of where and when a person can park with a badge; and it is not about the admittedly rigorous application process or the equally rigorous renewal process. I am sure that my noble friend the Minister is prepared to answer questions about those aspects if necessary, but they do not come within the parameters of this Bill.
I turn now to the Bill. Clause 1 removes the requirement for the Secretary of State to prescribe the exact design of the badge in regulations. This will protect the high security features of new blue badges from disclosure, thus helping to prevent forgery. Clause 2 gives local authorities the power to cancel a badge that has been lost or stolen. Up to 25,000 badges come into this category each year. This means that if enforcement officers come across such a badge, they can check its validity on the national database quickly and, if appropriate, can recover it. The person who has lost the badge or has had it stolen will still be able to be issued with a replacement in the knowledge that the original badge has been cancelled and the thief will not be able to use it. Clause 3 clarifies the existing offences relating to the wrongful use of a badge. Existing legislation is ambiguous about whether it is an offence to use a badge which should have been returned to the issuing authority, and this clause makes it clear that it is an offence. However, it is important to point out that, under the Bill, it will not be an offence not to return a badge that should have been returned to the local authority, for example, on the death of a badge holder, because it might just have been overlooked. However, it will be an offence for another person to use the badge.
Clause 4 gives a power to enforcement officers in plain clothes but with appropriate identification to retain a badge which appears to be fake, which has been cancelled and due for return, or is being misused. I must make it clear that enforcement officers will not be empowered to use force to seize a badge and they will not, contrary to some reports, be able to make a value judgment as to the mobility of the blue badge holder. They will be able to check immediately on a national database and discover whether the blue badge holder is on that database, because of the number on the badge that is displayed on the windscreen. At present, a local authority can only recover a badge if a police officer is summoned. This clause brings the law up to date with the current practice of parking enforcement being largely a civil matter. If an enforcement officer finds that someone is misusing another person’s valid badge, regulations will require that the local authority returns it to the legitimate badge holder. A growing number of local authorities are establishing dedicated fraud teams to undertake blue badge enforcement, thus recognising the seriousness of fraud and misuse. This Bill will greatly facilitate this practice.
Clause 5 removes, in England, a very limited right of appeal to the Secretary of State. This right of appeal does not apply to badge applications or eligibility —it applies only to cases relating to the misuse of badges, such as where an authority may require the return of a badge following a conviction. There are only one or two such appeals each year. Currently, the Local Government Ombudsman resolves most complaints against local authorities about blue badges; in future the ombudsman will also review complaints in the circumstances I have described.
Finally, Clause 6 extends the blue badge scheme to UK military bases overseas. This extension will be widely welcomed and will allow disabled members of the Armed Forces community who are resident on UK military bases abroad to apply for a badge.
The provisions in the Bill have been widely consulted on and guidance will be given to local authorities about their enhanced powers of enforcement. To sum up, this Bill is vital to bring the invaluable blue badge scheme up to date and, in particular, to help tackle fraud. Those involved in both using and administering the scheme are eager to see these measures implemented. I commend the Bill to the House.
My Lords, first, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, on this Bill and the opportunity it gives us all to debate a pretty important issue. We do this having had the most successful Paralympics in history, so that the country as a whole is more conscious of the situation and needs of disabled people. I hope that the tendency to abuse the blue badge scheme will itself be lessened through a greater awareness of the situation of disabled people.
I have some experience of the blue badge scheme, because a member of my family has one. It is amazing how, if one is closely involved with a scheme, one is so much more conscious of its use and misuse. Even if I am not with that disabled person, when I drive somewhere I look at every blue badge parking space to see whether it is being used properly or not. I look into the windscreens to see whether the car has the blue badge there. One is much more aware of these things, as one is if one is pushing a wheelchair around. In theory we all know about kerbstones and all the other impediments, but if you get behind a wheelchair and push, you know just what it is like when you are in a local authority area that does not have the kerbstones adjusted so that one can push the wheelchair up. However, I have digressed from the Bill.
I am aware of the fraud and misuse of blue badges. It is extremely upsetting when this happens for people who have a blue badge and want to park but cannot find anywhere to do it. There is also the misuse of spaces that are designated for blue badge holders by other people, thereby denying the blue badge holder ease of access to the building, home or whatever it is. I will say a little more about that in a minute.
Some years ago, when I was a junior Minister in the Northern Ireland Office, this particular area was one of my responsibilities. The disability organisations in Belfast came to me saying that far too few spaces were designated for blue badge holders in Belfast city centre—I realise that the Bill is for England only, but the example applies—so that people with a blue badge could not find anywhere to park, as the spaces were all taken up by other motorists. One of the beauties of being a direct rule Minister was that I could change things very quickly, and I got a few more spaces installed right away. I am not even sure we had to do any consultation, and it happened within a short period of time. Sometimes there is a case for not having too much consultation if you want to get something done. It made me much more aware of the difficulties and the situations.
I understand that even ahead of this Bill, arrangements for the renewal of blue badges have been tightened up. The blue badge must now be collected in person by the holder within a six-week period, otherwise the badge is revoked. However, getting to the place where the blue badges are issued can sometimes be a problem, and one should be aware that these are extra burdens imposed on people who do not have the ease of access and mobility that the rest of us have.
There is one issue about enforcement that I will just mention. I once drove a disabled person and dropped him near a shop that he wanted to go to. I then drove the car to a parking space and put the blue badge up, but thought to myself that if someone sees me doing that and hopping out of the car, they will say I am abusing it. I thought I might have to explain this, so was ready with my explanation; which was that it was too far to get the disabled person from the space to the shop he wanted to go to, so I left him at the edge of the kerb with somebody else. If one is being tough on enforcement—as one should be—there are certain sensitivities about the way other people help disabled people. Although the Bill does not apply to supermarket and other private car parks, there is still a problem of enforcement there. I only hope that, as a result of this measure, the owners of supermarkets and other private car parks will enforce the blue badge parking bays. There are blue badge parking bays at my local Sainsbury’s, and I think they are being properly used—because I tend to look at them to see—but enforcement is sometimes not carried out as well in some supermarkets as it might be.
One key point is that there is still a lot of confusion and uncertainty about the scheme and the entitlements of blue badge holders. There is a very good website, which is clear, but you cannot always say to people when they get a blue badge, “Look at the website and go through it all before you go out in the vehicle”. I understand that these Explanatory Notes have been prepared by the government department, but there is at least one mistake in them. In paragraph 4, the notes say that the Bill,
“provides parking concessions for certain severely disabled people to enable them to park without charge or time limit”.
Unfortunately, in the four central London boroughs—Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, part of Camden and the City of London—there is a three-hour time limit. That may be necessary because of the enormous pressure on parking in the central London boroughs; on the other hand, if you do not know about it and come from outer London, you can be caught. Even a three-hour time limit can be difficult, because a lot of the hospitals that people with blue badges may need to visit for appointments are in the three-hour time limit area. One cannot always predict that one will be seen within the three-hour period and therefore it is hard to know how to manage the parking to make a hospital appointment. My point is that there is some confusion and uncertainly about it. It is fair enough in one’s own local area, because the blue badge holder gets to know what the conditions are there, but that does not apply if one goes outside one’s local authority area. All I can do is plead for more sensitivity and more information, because if a blue badge holder goes outside their own area, or is driven outside it, there are not always signs up saying what the conditions are.
One thing I did not know, which I checked with the carer for a blue badge holder, and which is also in the Explanatory Notes, is that there is permission to park on yellow lines in England for up to three hours. The carer did not know that; she had no idea one could park on yellow lines. Did your Lordships all know that? Maybe I am the only one who did not, but I certainly did not. However, it is not quite as simple as that, because it also applies to double yellow lines—but there are exceptions, such as where there are the vertical kerbstone markings, although that does not always apply in all local authorities, so the advice is to phone up the local authority and check. That is a bit of a performance but I understand that is how the system works. Confusion and uncertainty are a problem for those with blue badges.
Another problem is that some local authorities have bays that are designated for named persons. That is fair enough. Others do not. If one has a blue badge bay outside one’s house, which is not designated to the person in the house, and somebody else parks there it can be very difficult getting into one’s home because there is not a parking bay there. That designation of parking spaces for individual blue badge holders varies from local authority to local authority. I understand that Westminster does it, but others do not, so there can be a real problem there.
I will quote an example that I have quoted once before. The carer of a blue badge holder parked in the blue badge space outside the home. Life can be pretty stressful and she did not put the blue badge up, although she also had a resident’s parking permit for the borough. The wheelchair was perfectly visible in the back of the car. The car was towed away within minutes and that cost her £250. I thought that the insensitivity of the local authority to tow away a disabled person’s car with a wheelchair in it, without any notice, took some beating.
I very much welcome this Bill. Obviously, we would all like to go a bit further but Private Members’ Bills can only go so far and so quickly. The noble Baroness is nodding; she understands that. I welcome the tougher enforcement that is going to happen; that is a good thing, but there also needs to be greater clarity so that legitimate holders of blue badges are not caught by the tougher enforcement.
My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as the holder of a disabled person’s parking badge. This Bill is an essential tool for the prevention and reduction of fraud and is long overdue, for many of the reasons that have been outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, and my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester.
Picking up on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, on the abuse of space—which I have mentioned before in your Lordships’ House—there is a cultural issue in this country where people do not think that it is particularly upsetting, if there are lots of disabled spaces, to just nip into one briefly for a while. Compare that with France, where the major supermarket chain Leclerc has a little sign below each blue badge that says, “You take my space, you can take my handicap”. There is very little abuse of the system in France, and it is that cultural change that forces people to think about what they are doing that we need to get to in this country. In the mean time, we need to make sure that fraud and abuse of the system are reduced.
I, too, have looked at the web guide. In the main, I found it extremely helpful but I wondered if I needed to print out some of the 20-odd pages, particularly those on when you can and cannot use your badge on a yellow line. Having looked at it, I certainly could not memorise all the different strands. Perhaps there is a way of simplifying that, perhaps into a handy little pocket thing that might go out with the new badge when it is reissued that would give users and their carers an easy aide-memoire.
I note that the Bill does not tackle the highly contentious issue of eligibility for a badge, although I suspect that eligibility is the area that many people with disabilities are more concerned about.
Most of this short Bill is very sensible, and helpful to local authorities and the police in terms of setting out formal processes for the cancelling of badges when they are no longer held by the person to whom they were issued, and to increase the number of people able to inspect badges.
I am sure that it is right and helpful to permit authorised enforcement officers in plain clothes to inspect badges. It is also right for them to be able to confiscate a badge which they believe to have been cancelled, due for return, or because it is a fake. However, I have slight concerns about the wording in Clause 3(4)(a), which could be interpreted as a very sweeping statement. It says,
“should have been returned to the issuing authority in compliance with regulations under subsection (6) of that section or a notice under subsection (7A)(b) of that section”.
My noble friend Lady Thomas has helpfully clarified that these powers are limited and do not give an enforcement officer the right to confiscate a badge should they believe the holder is no longer displaying a level of disability that would entitle them to a badge. If so, I am reassured. It would be very worrying if untrained officers, who know nothing about the wide range of disabilities and how they manifest themselves, took it upon themselves to seize a badge. For example, someone with an invisible heart condition might appear well, might even be able to walk to the shop that they are trying to get to, and to all intents and purposes look fit and healthy to an untrained eye.
This raises the more general issue about the training of enforcement officers. Will my noble friend Lady Thomas or the Minister tell the House what training there is for those police or enforcement officers who have the power to confiscate? Do they have training to understand and recognise disabilities and how to work with people with disabilities? For example, what skills are they given in communicating with people with disabilities such as severe hearing loss, who may be unable to discuss the matter easily with an officer? Perhaps this is an area that local authorities could look at with their staff and enforcement officers.
I have a minor concern about Clause 5, which concerns appeals. I absolutely agree that it should not be necessary for a badge holder to appeal to the Secretary of State should they be refused a badge, but I am worried that it appears there is no recourse to appeal against the decision of a local authority. Can the Minister confirm that this is the case? If so, is it right or fair that there is no appeal? For example, can a sub-committee be set up in a local authority to review that initial decision? That seems to be against natural justice.
Finally, I am pleased with the proposals for the Secretary of State to be responsible for issuing blue badges to members of the Armed Forces and persons employed in their support who are resident overseas. This is eminently sensible, given the movement of service personnel and the European nature of the current badge.
I thank my noble friend Lady Thomas of Winchester for bringing forward this Bill to your Lordships’ House. With those very minor concerns, I absolutely support the Bill.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, for giving us this opportunity to support her Bill.
As Minister for Transport between 1999 and 2001, I was aware of the widespread concern about the misuse of blue badges and had hoped to act to reduce fraud and abuse. Unfortunately, in those years the Department for Transport was preoccupied with a series of crises, particularly regarding the safety of our railways, which understandably took priority.
The noble Earl, Lord Attlee, will remember that difficult period very well since he was even then the opposition spokesman for transport in your Lordships’ House. His knowledge of transport legislation is very extensive. His open mind and his direct but courteous manner as a Minister are also much admired, and I am sure that he will make every effort to get this Bill passed and implemented as soon as possible.
As has been mentioned, it is also reassuring that this Private Member’s Bill has come to us from the House of Common with cross-party support. Let us now ensure that it passes through its remaining stages in this House quickly and intact.
The blue badge system was introduced in 1970 but despite growing concern over the decades about the increase in its abuse, government in general have been very slow to act. However, in 2007 the then Labour Government at long last reviewed the blue badge regime. The following year the Department for Transport published its Comprehensive Blue Badge (Disabled Parking) Reform Strategy.
The consultation process that followed was certainly comprehensive. Indeed, it was not concluded until 2010 —just in time to be picked up by the incoming coalition Government. After such a long wait, it is good to see that some overdue reforms are already in place. We now have the Blue Badge Improvement Service, which will offer more secure printing, supply and distribution of blue badges. Its database will also enable verification checks to be made quickly and easily. The responsible local authorities will now share access to a BBIS management information system, which should make blue badge schemes more consistent across the county and help reduce abuse. Most importantly, since the start of this year, new blue badges are being issued which have been redesigned to make them harder to alter, copy or forge. In addition, badge holders are now able to report lost or stolen badges online, which, combined with the measures proposed in this Bill, should also reduce fraud.
Let us hope that these reforms lead to a greater commitment at local authority level. At present, regrettably, it is estimated that about 80% of councils are not actively enforcing existing rules. These inactive councils should be made aware that tighter enforcement in large cities has significantly reduced offending rates. This has been most effective in London boroughs where, of course, with high parking charges and the Transport for London congestion charge in the centre of town, abusers can save large sums of money. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, said, the National Fraud Authority estimates that abuse of the blue badge scheme might be costing around £50 million a year, although we cannot be sure of that figure because detection and prosecution rates at present are so low. But that, too, might now change. What we do know is that half of all blue badge holders blame the widespread abuse of the scheme by able-bodied drivers for the difficulties that they often find in parking.
However, our concern should not just be about the cost of fraud or even the inconvenience caused to the disabled; it must also be about the cynicism bred by the old, ineffective regime which contributes to the general disillusionment about government’s inability at local and national level to sort out such common problems. With 2.5 million badges in circulation and subject to widespread fraud, those motorists who play by the rules become increasingly, and quite understandably, frustrated and angry about our failure to act. Sadly, disabled badge holders have also been increasingly embarrassed by resentment of their parking privileges, fuelled by suspicion that they, too, might somehow be abusing the system.
Therefore, if and when the overdue but very welcome reform proposed in the Bill becomes law, I hope that the Minister, the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, will encourage the transport department and local authorities to make a special effort to publicise their improved security measures and enforcement powers. Such a campaign would not only act as a deterrent by warning of the increased likelihood of getting caught and punished for misuse and abuse of the scheme but it might also reassure all those law-abiding motorists who do not have a blue badge that government, at local and national level, is now as keen as they are to combat fraud and abuse on our roads.
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, for agreeing to pilot this Bill through your Lordships’ House. I should begin by declaring an interest: I am president of Access, a campaigning group working for the benefit of people with disabilities. I certainly welcome this Bill. It will ensure that people who genuinely need the blue badge are better protected and will help clamp down on the abuse of this very worthwhile scheme.
I know from talking to public officials in my own part of Wales that they are often frustrated by the lack of opportunity to act against those who abuse the present scheme. They welcome amendments to inspection powers so that officers in plain clothes may inspect badges. This, coupled with provision to allow councils to cancel badges which are not held by the person to whom they have been issued, will go a long way to improving the governance and management of the scheme.
They tell me that demand for blue badges is constantly increasing, yet there is no incentive for people to hand back a blue badge if and when they are no longer required. Among the commonplace scams are using a blue badge without the badge holder’s knowledge, keeping the blue badge when the person to whom it was awarded has died, photocopying genuine badges and acquiring stolen ones. I remember reading an article in the Daily Telegraph more than two years ago which stated that in Leeds, it was estimated that 60% of badges were misused; that in Newcastle around half the 4,000 issued badges were used illegally; and that in Edinburgh the figure jumped to 70%. I know that in south-east Wales, close to the English border, misuse of the blue badge is popular because possession of it allows motorists to cross the Severn bridges without paying. I therefore commend the Welsh Government on having launched a new blue badge scheme in March this year with many additional security features which make them harder to forge.
However, more than one in three people in Wales do not understand the eligibility rules for blue badge disability parking. In some cases, this has led to unpleasant remarks being aimed at legitimate users of the blue badge scheme in accessing parking spaces. Thirty-five per cent of people questioned in a survey said that they believed that disabled persons' parking spaces were provided only for vehicles carrying a wheelchair user. In fact, they are reserved for a wide range of people with mobility problems, including those with less obvious disabilities such as severe sight impairment, heart or lung conditions, or a prosthetic limb that may make it difficult for them to walk even short distances.
The misconceptions about the blue badge parking system emerged in a survey of more than a thousand people conducted for the Welsh Government as part of their drive to encourage greater respect for the parking rights of disabled vehicle users. The Welsh Government released the survey figures as part of their “space invaders” campaign to promote the new-style, more secure blue badge and to deter ineligible motorists being tempted to abuse the scheme. An earlier survey across Wales showed that one in 10 motorists admitted using blue badge spaces illegally and, in some areas, the figure was as high as one in four. Recently, on a very wet Saturday while driving out of the car park at my local Sainsbury’s at Pontllanfraith, I saw a motorist drive in, park in a disabled person’s parking space, get out of the car and run into the store. I am only sorry that the Bill does not give the police powers to seize and to crush the cars of motorists who take a disabled person’s parking space. Frankly, for me, whether they remove the driver first is an option for them. If they had such powers, it would certainly help deter these space invaders.
Another misunderstanding about the scheme was revealed in the Welsh survey, with 10% of respondents believing that anyone using a blue badge holder’s vehicle could park in the restricted spaces even if the eligible person was not with them. Former Royal Welch Fusilier Paul Davies, of Bargoed, who was paralysed from the waist down after being injured in a military rugby game, said that he regularly encountered these space invaders. Mr Davies helped launch the Welsh Government’s blue badge scheme and was quoted as saying:
“Drivers take no notice of the signs, either because of laziness or ignorance of how difficult it really is for a disabled person to park in a normal space”.
Finally, I welcome Clause 6, covering the provision of badges for disabled service personnel. This is a well intentioned move to bolster the Armed Forces covenant. As a former Veterans Minister, I believe that any new commitment to improve the quality of life of those who have served our country and to whom we owe a debt that we can never fully repay is right and just.
People who take a disabled person’s parking space and who abuse the blue badge scheme do a considerable disservice to disabled people and harm their quality of life. The Government are right to do something about this, and I certainly welcome this Bill.
My Lords, as has been indicated by a number of speakers in the debate, we all owe a real debt to the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas of Winchester, for sponsoring this Bill and introducing it into the House. We also appreciate the accuracy with which she took us through each clause, hoping, I think, to ward off too many contributions which might stray a little far from its direct content. That is in the nature of Private Member’s Bills. This House always has a large number of noble Lords with experience in the field of any particular Private Member’s Bill. They will make their major issues part of the debate. Therefore, I hope the Minister will not be too upset by the fact that several contributions already have ranged quite widely in advocacy of the interests of the disabled. I hope, too, that I may be forgiven in that respect.
As my noble friend Lord Macdonald indicated, this Bill clearly has cross-party support. We from the opposition Front Bench wish it every success. We appreciate of course that the Bill is also derivative of the seminal work of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970, which our great friend Lord Morris of Manchester introduced at that time. He of course succeeded subsequently in developing many areas of work of great help to the disabled. I am pleased that this is my first opportunity to put that on record. I knew Alf for nearly 40 years. There was no one I held in greater respect in terms of his contribution. This issue with regard to the blue badge is a small tribute to his work. The blue badge scheme is of course of immense value to the disabled, but because of that it also incurs the tendency to a great deal of fraud and illegitimate use. That is why we welcome the fact that the Bill tightens up areas in significant ways that will aid the direct purposes of the blue badge concept—that is, service to the disabled.
I hope that the Minister is able to reassure us that there are no extra demands upon the resources of local authorities as a consequence of the Bill because we are all too well aware that our local authority budgets are greatly stretched at present. I want some reassurance on that front. Also, have the Government addressed this question of enforcement? We all recognise the very different concepts of civil enforcement and the operation of the police with regard to criminal enforcement. The police are able pretty much instantaneously to have access to the police databank on vehicles and their misuse. I am not at all sure that the enforcement officers envisaged in this Bill would have anything like that access to the resources necessary for them to carry out the role.
Let me say how very difficult this can be. On this occasion, an authority acted in my view entirely properly but it was of great distress to a dear neighbour of mine who is safely into her 90s. First, she found that in order to renew her badge there was a six-week period and she was late with that so the new badge was not issued in time. She got a ticket for the car parked outside her house in her reserved space because the old badge was out of date. Credit is due to those carrying out enforcement, except that they might have regarded the situation of a ratepayer of the local authority perched on a space correctly created for her with a little more understanding and consideration. Worse, she went straight to the local authority to complain about this and parked in a disabled spot. When she came out, a second ticket had appeared on her car. We need to recognise that as far as the disabled are concerned some understanding needs to be employed. I am therefore interested in this question of enforcement. We all want rigorous enforcement against those who misuse badges but we also want to make sure that the interests of those who legitimately use badges are safeguarded.
The Minister will also want to comment on the issue raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. We recognise how limited appeals were to the Secretary of State and there is no great loss in the withdrawal of that particular aspect but we want to be reassured about the question of appeals against the withdrawal of a badge. We all know how significant a badge is to a disabled person. It would be a significant loss, which can only be justified if every conceivable angle on the issue has been considered. That is why we need some kind of consideration on the question of scope for appeals.
I also appreciated the contribution by my noble friend Lord Dubs, who pressed the case for consistency with regard to application. Life is complex enough for all of us who cope with the myriad problems of parking. For the disabled to have the additional difficulties of the complexity and uncertainty of application is something we must take very seriously. I want reassurances from the Minister that the points that my noble friend Lord Dubs made will be taken fully into account.
This has been an extraordinarily constructive debate. It has shown the House at its best in circumstances where we seek to aid a very important part of our community—the disabled—and particularly to protect them in areas where the existence of fraud in the use of badges has been a clear abuse and very much to their detriment and the effectiveness of the scheme. I very much welcome the extent to which the Bill advances the interests of the scheme and gives great help to the disabled.
My Lords, today’s Second Reading marks an important step in the reform of the blue badge disabled parking scheme and I thank my noble friend Lady Thomas for the excellent way in which she introduced her Bill. It has the full support of the Government.
As the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, observed, Governments have long understood the need to reform the blue badge scheme. Until last year, very few changes had been made to the scheme since its establishment in the 1970s. I had an office near to that of Lord Morris of Manchester and I much enjoyed his company and wise counsel. Since coming to power, this Government have continued to work with disabled people’s groups and local authorities to develop improvements. The changes we have introduced are neatly complemented by the contents of my noble friend’s Bill, which in essence completes the reform package which has obviously been in gestation for many years. The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, suggested that cars involved in abuse should be crushed. That might be a bit draconian for this Government but if we did go down that route, I think the power should be invested in a Minister in the Government Whips Office.
Last year, the Government announced plans for reforming the scheme. Those plans were two-fold: first, to tackle rising levels of fraud and abuse; secondly, to ensure that badges are issued more fairly and consistently across the country. This would thereby ensure the scheme remains sustainable in the long term for those who rely upon it most. Given my background as a Territorial Army officer, I am delighted to see the provision in my noble friend’s Bill enabling the Armed Forces on UK bases overseas to apply for a badge, as this is about fairness and complements the Government’s aims.
The Government have made great strides in delivering reforms. Last year we amended regulations so that a badge can be withdrawn by a local authority following a relevant conviction for misuse. Previously, a local authority was obliged to obtain three relevant convictions before a badge could be withdrawn. That was unduly cumbersome. We have reduced that to one conviction to support local authorities in their attempts to stamp out abuse. In this context, the provision in my noble friend’s Bill to clarify existing offences relating to the wrongful use of parking badges is extremely important. Local authorities need to be clear about what constitutes an offence and what behaviour may be prosecuted.
More recently, on 1 January this year the Government introduced 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. I am delighted to say that every local authority in England has signed up to use it. It is a service that provides for online applications and, since it went live, over 800,000 badges have been issued. The local authorities use a central, secure print facility to supply and distribute badges and are able to make administrative savings by sharing services.
I am grateful for the kind words of the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, when he described the system, which provides local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales with a single, national database of all blue badge holders and their key details, therefore preventing multiple and fraudulent applications. This new tool is a major step forwards in tackling fraud and the powers being proposed in this Bill—specifically, allowing inspections by officers in plain clothes and enabling on-street recovery of badges that are fake, cancelled or being misused—will enhance its value. Enforcement officers can run quick validity checks of badges on the street via their handheld devices and if a badge is forged, stolen, expired or being misused they will be able to take it off the offender to prevent further abuse.
The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, touched on the possibility of photocopying a badge. I assure him that the new badge is completely resistant to this type of fraud. Furthermore, since the new system went live the Government have built on the functionality available in the online form and members of the public can now report lost and stolen badges and any changes of circumstances online. This function will be enhanced by the new power proposed in the Bill enabling local authorities to cancel badges that are no longer in the holder’s possession, which means that on-street enforcement officers will have access to the most up-to-date information when interrogating the database.
To help counteract fraud, the Government have also introduced a new badge design that is harder to copy, forge or alter. The old-style cardboard badge has been replaced by a superb new badge made from a hard plastic material, which contains a number of overt and covert security features as used in banknotes and driving licences. As my noble friend Lady Thomas explained, the Bill has an important role here too by removing the need to prescribe the badge details in regulations. Already, people are attempting to make copies of the new badge and I am pleased to say that they are bad copies. However, we do not want to help those criminals by publishing the badge security details.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, talked about misuse of the blue badge. It is important to understand that there is a limitation on how much we can do. If we have too many badges in use, too many parking spaces will be used and we will devalue the badge itself. Of course, the same arguments apply to abuse. He also talked about the need to collect badges in person within six weeks. There is no requirement for this practice. It is for local authorities to decide their own arrangements. Some ask people to collect them to help ensure that they are delivered to the right people; some also take payment at that time. The noble Lord referred to signs and parking on yellow lines; my noble friend Lady Brinton also touched on this. Local authorities are required to put signs up explaining who can park there. All badge holders receive a rights and responsibilities leaflet, explaining about yellow lines. I am afraid that they may have to check the rules in their local area because local authorities have to manage their own traffic situation.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, also talked about towing and clamping. A vehicle displaying a blue badge must not be clamped but if the vehicle avoids clamping in circumstances where the badge was being misused, an offence is committed and the badge user could be prosecuted. The department advises local authorities that vehicles displaying blue badges should be removed only for emergency, security or ceremonial reasons, where the vehicle is a serious safety hazard or obstruction. However, local authorities may remove a vehicle displaying a blue badge if it is in contravention of a parking prohibition and a penalty charge notice has been appropriately issued. Depending upon the terms of the parking orders, contraventions could include circumstances where a blue badge is not valid or is being misused by a third party.
The noble Lord, Lord Dubs, also talked about parking bays. Broadly speaking, there are two types of on-street disabled persons’ parking bay. The first type is installed by local authorities who have powers under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to designate by order a parking place reserved for a disabled badge holder. If a disabled persons’ parking bay has been designated, it would be an offence for a non-disabled person to use the space. Contraventions can be enforced with penalty charges; the offender may also be prosecuted and be liable for a fine of up to £1,000. Disabled bays that are backed by an order take longer to implement, as their provision requires public consultation and objections need to be considered before they can be implemented. It can therefore take some considerable time for such bays to be installed, unlike advisory bays which can be given quick consideration. Their use, however, cannot be enforced by parking authorities. Such bays are marked out on the road surface and are often installed by local authorities in residential areas, where it is expected that neighbours will respect them.
Many noble Lords talked about off-street parking. There are no plans to apply the scheme to off-street parking or private land. The Government do not believe that they should impose a prescriptive regulatory scheme on car parks, which are very often privately owned. Where car parks are on private land and owned, for example, by a supermarket it is entirely a matter for the landowner to determine the terms and conditions by which that land may be used and how parking spaces may be allocated. However, I am sure that supermarkets would pay attention to the presence of a blue badge. The Equality Act already places a broad duty on providers of services, including car parks, to take reasonable steps to ensure that disabled people are not substantially disadvantaged compared to nondisabled people when accessing a service. This has implications for car park owners, who may have to demonstrate that as well as marking out disabled persons’ parking spaces they have taken reasonable steps to ensure that they are made available to disabled people. My noble friend Mr Norman Baker, the Transport Minister, wrote to the main supermarkets in March and September last year to encourage them to actively monitor and enforce their disabled bays.
The noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Tradeston, asked about local publicity campaigns. The Government issue guidelines to local authorities recommending that they enforce a scheme and publicise activity locally, but it is of course a matter for local authorities as to how they do that.
The noble Lord, Lord Touhig, suggested that there is no incentive to hand back a badge if no longer needed. This is required in the legislation; local authorities can take action to recover a badge and the Bill would make it an offence to use a badge that should have been returned. Of course, the badge will have limited utility because if an enforcement officer uses his scanner, he will straightaway be able to see that the badge is no longer in effect.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Oldham, touched on public expenditure. The Bill is expected to have no impact on public service manpower and will impose no significant additional public expenditure. Use of the new powers by local authorities will be voluntary and badges could be recovered in the course of current routine enforcement patrols. Local authorities choosing to use the new powers could benefit from a reduction in lost parking revenue through better enforcement—and with the security features in the new badge, it will be much more efficient for local authorities to police it. There may be a minimal cost to the Government in issuing badges to eligible members of the Armed Forces resident overseas, but this could be offset by charging applicants the £10 fee payable by other badge holders.
The noble Lord, Lord Davies, touched on the problem of when a badge holder’s badge becomes out of date. The Blue Badge Improvement Service automatically notifies badge holders when their badge is due for renewal. The noble Lord also talked about parking tickets for expired badges. It is the responsibility of the holder not to display an expired badge. I have already touched on the benefits of the Blue Badge Improvement Service.
The noble Lord asked about appeals, and this is quite an important point. There is no formal appeal route to the Secretary of State when a local authority determines that an applicant is not eligible for a badge. However, local authorities may have their own appeal procedures. In addition, if the applicant believes that the regulations have not been applied properly, he may ask the Local Government Ombudsman to review his complaint. The Bill, as my noble friend explained when she introduced it, removes in England the limited right of appeal to the Secretary of State in cases where, for example, an authority requires the return of a badge or for reasons relating to the misuse of badges. Only one or two such appeals are made each year. It is an anomaly that, while local authorities administer the blue badge scheme, the Secretary of State for Transport is required to consider these appeals. The department is not best placed to consider these. In future the Local Government Ombudsman will review these complaints under existing powers. The ombudsman has the expertise of dealing with over 10,000 complaints per year.
During Questions last month I was asked by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, about an appeal process for people who might lose their right to a badge following the introduction of the personal independence payment. If someone did not qualify for a badge via the PIP, they would be free to make a separate application to the local authority for a blue badge. If the authority assessed that the individual met the eligibility requirements set down in the regulations, they would still qualify for a badge. If the individual did not meet the eligibility criteria, it would be correct for the local authority to refuse to issue a badge. There is no formal right of appeal against a decision not to issue a badge but, if an individual feels that he has been treated unfairly or that the local authority has not properly applied the regulations, he may ask the local authority to reconsider and/or take his complaint to the Local Government Ombudsman.
If I have missed any important points, I will of course write in the usual way, as I am sure will my noble friend Lady Thomas. To conclude, the Department for Transport undertook a full consultation on the reform measures introduced by the Government and those in my noble friend’s Bill. The consultation showed widespread support for the changes, which are long overdue. I hope that the House will recognise the considerable benefits that the Bill will bring to disabled people who rely upon the blue badge scheme and to local authorities in their efforts to reduce fraud against public sector. To that end, I join my noble friend Lady Thomas in commending it to the House.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to the debate, which I have enjoyed very much and I hope that other noble Lords have as well. It has ranged much wider than the Bill, as I thought it probably would. I was hoping that my noble friend would answer all the non-Bill questions, and I think that he probably has.
I have a lot of sympathy with the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Dubs; he lives in London, as do I, where there are completely different rules all over the place and you have to be pretty sharp to know what they are in each borough. I agree with him that it is a problem when someone drops off a very disabled person by a shop, then parks the car himself or herself in a disabled bay and gets out of the car but is an able-bodied person. Strictly speaking, the driver should not use that bay, but I understand that it is tempting to do that because then they are near to pick the person up again. However, that is one of those problems to which I do not think there is a solution.
My noble friend Lady Brinton talked about the training of enforcement officers, and that is a very good point. In one sense, their job will be much easier than it might have been because all they have to do is look at the number on a badge if they are in doubt about it and ring up the national database to check that that number is on it. That will stop them having to decide whether a person’s car is in the wrong place. On the other hand, it is important that they have training so that they are not tempted to make any sort of value judgment about people who may have hidden disabilities.
The speech by the noble Lord, Lord Touhig, was extremely valuable in telling us about the scale of abuse. I take his point about crushing cars belonging to people who park in the wrong places; so many of us have seen people park in disabled bays at the supermarket, saying, “I’m just going to rush in and out”. You feel like saying, “It’s all very well for you; some of us can’t rush in and out”. The noble Lord, Lord Davies, talked about resources, but I think that this is very much up to the local authority. Other noble Lords have talked about some of the problems with renewing badges and so on. I have used my local councillor to press my cause if I feel that I have been badly let down by a local authority. I was once given a ticket because the badge was on upside down; it had dropped off, and someone had kindly put it back on the windscreen but the wrong way up, and I had a penalty charge. That was ludicrous, and the councillor made quite sure that it did not go any further. Local authorities have to be aware that there are such problems.
I am pleased that there is support all around the House for the Bill.
Bill read a second time and committed to Committee of the Whole House.