HC Deb 28 February 2000 vol 345 cc131-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.[Mr. Jamieson.]

10.40 pm
Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

I bring to the attention of the House a subject that is scarcely controversial. It is not my intention either to berate or to tease the Government beyond a very small degree, because it is not a subject on which party feelings run high. I wish to probe a little further what the Government intend to do to assist disabled people to enjoy the right that they have acquired to park in places that are barred to the rest of the public.

For many disabled people, this is a precious right. Disability, particularly severe disability, often means that the disabled person cannot walk far. Local authorities throughout the country have provided disabled parking spaces with the intention of making it much easier for disabled people to go about their business. There is a strong sense among disabled people that many of those spaces are wrongly used. They are taken by people who have no disability and unscrupulously park in their place, thus causing them to travel long distances, which they cannot easily do.

To some extent, that is more perception than reality. My local authority, for example, carried out a survey with the assistance of the police and found that, on the whole, the misuse of disabled parking spaces was not as bad as disabled people perceived it to be. That was encouraging. However, a significant numberof the people who were found using those spaces had an orange badge, but were using them improperly because they were carrying out functions for a disabled person, not themselves. The rules have changed. They should not do that any more. It is clear—I hope that the Government will remember it—that the message that carrying out a function on behalf of a disabled person does not allow people to use a disabled parking space is not well understood.

My next point, which is where the Government need to show their colours, is that my local authority has discovered that the law does not allow either the police or, in our case, parking attendants—wrong parking there has been decriminalised, so the supervision of parking spaces is carried out by parking attendants—to insist on being shown details of the orange badge. That is absurd. We provide disabled people with a special privilege, but anyone who abuses it can refuse to show the badge. That is clearly a failure of the law.

The Government know this. In May, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) secured a debate on a different aspect of disabled people's parking. The Minister at the time, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), said:

The badge design already has a photograph of the holder, but we have not yet been able to introduce the legislative changes to provide the enforcement authorities with the powers to inspect badges. I should very much like the Minister, in his reply, to tell us whether the Government have found time in the legislative timetable to give that necessary power. Without it, the orange badge scheme is really deeply flawed.

The Minister went on to say: we have made it clear that we shall introduce the necessary legislation to allow inspection of badges as soon as parliamentary time allows.—[Official Report, 5 May 1999; Vol. 330, c. 919.] One of the principal purposes of this debate is to discover whether the Government will now—please—introduce that particular legislation. We desperately need it.

On 1 January 2000. a blue badge was introduced. The badge is a tribute to the European Union, in that it will entitle disabled people who are eligible to privileged parking right across the European Union. It is another thoroughly good example of the value of the European Union.

My disabled friends in Maidstone and elsewhere are entirely right to complain that, now that they have been given the privilege, it is not open to anyone to challenge someone who is abusing it. Nevertheless, in the legislation—this is rather curious—there is a provision that, if someone commits an offence, he or she can be fined £1,000. However, to be fined £1,000, it has to be proved that that person has committed an offence three times. As one is not allowed to inspect an orange badge, it is quite difficult to see how one could prove that someone has broken the law. I believe that it would be very much better—I should be interested to hear what the Minister has to say—if we had a much smaller penalty that could be enforced on the first offence.

I have just suffered from the fact that I committed a parking offence in my local authority, in London. Subsequently, I was away on parliamentary business, and suddenly realised that, rather than being able to pay half the fine within 10 days, I now have to pay double the fine. Although the figure is not colossal, it is sufficiently large to make me wish that I had not incurred it. Nevertheless, I think that it would be very much better, instead of having a notional £1,000 fine for those who have committed three offences, to have a £100 fine that could be levied on the spot. I think that it would discourage people from abusing these privileges.

This is a very simple debate. We are only asking for the Government, if they have not already found time in the legislative timetable, to commit themselves to providing powers for both the police and anyone else empowered by the local authority to police parking arrangements to inspect the badges. The Government should also make it possible for the local authority or police to levy on the spot a small fine if people are found to be breaking the rules.

I should like the Minister also to say that the Government will encourage an education campaign among those who care for disabled people, so that they realise that they cannot use the orange badge to go collecting prescriptions or whatever. Although that is a perfectly benign reason for breaking the law, if we allow such a loophole, it will be too easy to cheat. Moreover, ultimately, it would be disabled people who suffered.

I very much look forward to hearing the Minister's reply.

10.49 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Mr. Keith Hill)

I begin, as is usual, by congratulating the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) on securing this debate. I should also like to express my gratitude, and that of the House, to him for giving us an opportunity to debate this important subject.

Parking for disabled people, particularly the orange badge scheme, is certainly one of the most controversial matters that I have to deal with as Minister with responsibility for mobility issues. It seems that everyone has a view on how the scheme should work, on who should have a badge, and, indeed, on who should not have one. Too often, in arguing about the detail, we tend to forget the enormously important purpose of the scheme: to enable severely disabled people to be independently mobile.

For many severely disabled people, the private car is the only viable transport option, but its value would be greatly reduced, if not lost entirely, if disabled motorists were unable to park as close to their destination as possible. Research demonstrates very clearly that the mobility range of severely disabled people can be as little as 50 m, so even having to park 100 m or so away from a workplace or shops may make the journey extremely difficult, and in some cases impossible.

The orange badge scheme is vital to people with severe disabilities, enabling them to participate in the day-to-day activities that non-disabled people take for granted. My concern is to ensure that the scheme operates efficiently and effectively to deliver real benefit to those disabled people to whom mobility it is essential.

Before I turn to the specific concern raised by the hon. Gentleman, it may be useful to remind the House of the background and scope of the orange badge scheme. The scheme was first introduced in 1971 and it has been reviewed twice since then, most recently in 1992. Eligibility for an orange badge is governed by regulations that have been subject to wide public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny.

To qualify for a badge, a person must be in receipt of the higher rate mobility component of disability living allowance or a war pensioner's mobility supplement; use a motor vehicle supplied by a United Kingdom Health Department; be registered blind; have a severe disability in both upper limbs, driving regularly but being unable to turn a steering wheel by hand, even if that wheel is fitted with a steering knob; or have a permanent and substantial disability that means being unable to walk or having considerable difficulty in walking. That last category is known as the discretionary criterion.

From that list, it will be evident that eligibility is, in principle, fairly tightly controlled. Despite that, there has been a dramatic rise in the number of badges on issue over the past decade, from 929,000 to 1.7 million: an increase of more than 80 per cent. That total bears no relation at all to the proportion of the population who are disabled—about 10 to 12 per cent.—nor is the growth supported by a corresponding increase in the number of cars over the same period, although I recognise, of course, that not all badge holders will be drivers.

It is also worth noting that two thirds of the badges issued fall under the discretionary criterion. Generally, that means that a general practitioner or other medical adviser will have supported an application.

With such an increase in the number of badges, it is important that eligibility continues to be tightly controlled to ensure that the scheme does not become so oversubscribed as to minimise or even negate the parking benefits to badge holders. At present, orange badge holders may park free of charge and without time limit at parking meters and pay-and-display on-street parking; may be exempt from limits on parking times imposed on other users; and may park on single or double yellow lines for up to three hours in England and Wales and without time limit in Scotland.

The increase in the number of orange badges in circulation has prompted much concern, not least from our statutory advisers, the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee—DPTAC—the majority of whose members are disabled people. It submitted a report to me, recommending that we review the scope of the scheme with a view to tightening eligibility and revising administration.

I recognise that DPTAC's recommendations have arisen from genuine concern about the effectiveness of the scheme. After careful consideration of the recommendations and the results of a survey of local authorities administering the scheme, I announced on 18 November 1999 that a full review will take place this year. I agreed that a review was necessary to ensure that the scheme continues to serve its fundamental purpose: to enable severely disabled people to park close to their destinations.

Mr. Rowe

I understand the Minister's concern about the number of badges, but my more limited concern is that, even with the new badges with photographs, there is no obligation to show whose photograph it is. I hope that the review will take that point into account.

Mr. Hill

As I shall explain, the review will certainly deal with enforcement. I shall address some specific remarks to the right of inspection of photographic evidence, but I think that it will be for the convenience of the hon. Gentleman and the House for me to put the enforcement considerations into the wider context of the imminent important review.

The review process will be wide ranging. We shall look at the eligibility criteria as well as the administration and enforcement of the scheme. I have already mentioned the high proportion of badges issued under the discretionary criterion, often with the support of GPs. This is a particularly difficult area and there is no doubt that practice varies widely on who will be given a badge and who will not. One area that the review will consider is whether the use of the discretionary criterion is a fair and appropriate process.

At the other end of the spectrum, I get a great deal of correspondence on behalf of people who have been refused a badge, for example because their disability is not permanent or because they fall just short of the eligibility criteria. It is right for the review to look at the whole issue of eligibility. We need to see whether we have got the balance right between ensuring that the scheme is available to those who need it most and stopping it becoming totally oversubscribed with people for whom it is an undoubted convenience but perhaps not a necessity.

The administration of the scheme also varies widely across the country. The majority of local authorities operate the scheme through their social services departments, while others use their highways department. The number of badges issued in different authorities also varies much more widely than demographic or geographical factors could explain. It is important to examine how local authorities run the scheme and whether there are any alternative ways in which it might be administered.

The third major element of the review will be to look at enforcement. As the hon. Gentleman recognised, it is a controversial and difficult issue. Resources will always be an issue, but we must aim to give the enforcement authorities the best possible tools at their disposal to enable them to do an effective job. Without good enforcement, the temptation to abuse the scheme is great and the reputation of the scheme as a whole suffers. Most importantly, the consequence of abuse may be that the parking spaces that severely disabled people need will not be available to them. The review will be carried out in close consultation with all the parties concerned in the scheme and, crucially, with disabled people.

The abuse of the scheme and the powers available to deal with it are the hon. Gentleman's specific concerns. Abuse of the system continues to be a concern for local authorities. Under the existing system, enforcement officers can issue penalty charge notices to non-disabled people who park in disabled spaces designated by a local authority order or give a fixed penalty notice to offenders at on-street parking places. The police or local authority may even decide to prosecute. Those powers apply only to on-street parking. In private car parks, it is for individual operators to safeguard the use of orange badge spaces.

I appreciate that there is no guarantee that there will always be someone available to deal with each instance of abuse, but it is open to members of the public to report vehicles not displaying an orange badge when parked in an orange badge bay to the police, local traffic wardens or parking attendants. The hon. Gentleman is right to observe that there is no specific power for enforcement officers to require badge holders to produce their badges for inspection so that the photograph can be checked. However, some police officers and traffic wardens ask to see badges to check the photograph or verify that the details have not been tampered with. We are aware of a series of roadside checks that were carried out by the local police in Rochdale to establish the validity of orange badges being used. We have also been notified more recently about an exercise being undertaken by the local police in Weston-super-Mare to clamp down on the misuse of orange badges.

Disabled people have made it very clear to us that they welcome being asked to verify that they are the legitimate user of a badge. The vast majority of badge holders will willingly allow their badge to be inspected. However, we recognise that there is a case for all enforcement officers to have the power under the law to demand this, particularly in cases where it is suspected that the badge is being misused. We are therefore seeking a suitable legislative opportunity to make this change. I confess to the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent that we are still seeking that opportunity, but the effect of the review has rendered the search for that opportunity more compelling.

Mr. Rowe

Would not the Transport Bill, which is a huge portmanteau measure, provide just such an opportunity?

Mr. Hill

I still bear the wounds of the castigations that I suffered—rightly or wrongly—in connection with the Greater London Authority Act 1999. I understand that that is the largest piece of legislation passed by the House since the Government of India Act 1935. There was great discontent at the level of amendment to that measure, and I think that there would be a certain hesitation—to put it no more strongly—to add significantly to measures that are already large. However, I shall bear the suggestion in mind.

In the meantime, if the police, traffic wardens or local authority parking attendants suspect that an offence is being committed, they can take down the details on the front of the badge, such as the serial number, and contact the issuing authority concerned. The maximum fine on conviction for misuse of the orange badge by a non-disabled person is £1,000. That is in addition to whatever penalty may be imposed for the parking offence.

I have noted with interest the suggestion from the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent of a graduated system of penalties. I shall study that very seriously.

The orange badge scheme is, without doubt, a key element in the independent mobility of many severely disabled people. Without the badge, many people would be unable to go about their day-to-day business. It is therefore vital that the eligibility criteria, administration and enforcement of the orange badge scheme are tightly controlled so that adequate parking is available to those disabled people for whom it is an essential part of daily living.

I am therefore most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to explain the Government's position.

Mr. Andrew George (St. Ives)

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Many of the disabled people to whom I speak are responsible users of the orange badge system, and they want the problem resolved as quickly as possible. I am sure that the experience of the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) is the same. The problem gives them a bad name because it brings the system into disrepute. Does the Minister therefore agree that speed is of the essence?

Mr. Hill

I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman, and all hon. Members will know, from constituency experience, the strength of feeling on this issue. It is interesting to note that the driving force behind the review, which offers an opportunity to examine the arrangements relating to orange badges globally but in a timely fashion, is DPTAC, the statutory disabled body. There is no doubt about the commitment of people with disabilities to get the system right, in terms of eligibility, administration and enforcement.

I shall conclude by thanking the hon. Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent for this opportunity to reaffirm the Government's commitment to ensuring that the needs of severely disabled people for appropriate and convenient parking are properly safeguarded.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes past Eleven o'clock.