HC Deb 16 March 2004 vol 419 cc175-81

  1. "(1) Section 21 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 (c. 44) (badges for display on motor vehicles used by disabled persons) is amended as follows.
  2. (2) In subsection (4B) after "a badge" there is inserted -purporting to be".
  3. (3) After subsection (4B) there is inserted—
  4. "(4BA) Where it appears to a constable or enforcement officer that there is displayed on any motor vehicle a badge purporting to be of a form prescribed under this section, he may require any person who—
    1. (a) is in the vehicle, or
    2. (b) appears to have been in, or to be about to get into, the vehicle, to produce the badge for inspection.
  5. (4BB) In subsection (4BA) "enforcement officer" means— (a) a traffic warden;
    1. (b) a civil enforcement officer (within the meaning of section 73 of the Traffic Management Act 2004);
    2. (c) a parking attendant (within the meaning of section 63A of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984).
  6. (4BC) The power conferred on an enforcement officer by subsection (4BA) is exercisable only for purposes connected with the discharge of his functions in relation to a stationary vehicle.
  7. (4BD) A person who without reasonable excuse fails to produce a badge when required to do so under subsection (4BA) shall be guilty of an offence."
  8. (4) In subsection (4C) after "(4B)" there is inserted "or (4BD)—[Mr. McNulty.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

1.38 pm
T he Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Tony McNulty)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The new clause introduces a power for parking enforcement authorities to inspect disabled persons' parking badges, which we know as blue badges, to ensure that they are being used by those who are entitled to do so. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) tabled an amendment intended to cover this ground in Committee, where we undertook to consider how to introduce such a provision. I am delighted that we have been able to do so. Perhaps unusually, the measure had the acclamation of the entire Committee, which is why I am even more delighted, creature of consensus that I am, that we have been able to table this new clause.

The new clause addresses an issue that has been of great concern not only to those responsible for parking controls, who obviously have a particular interest in this area; significantly, it has also been of concern to many organisations of disabled people. Badge holders themselves want the disabled persons parking scheme to work effectively for those who need the concessions that it provides for their day-to-day mobility. Abuse of the scheme by those who are not entitled to its concessions undermines its credibility, but such abuse can also have a direct and immediate impact on the mobility of disabled people. Car parking places reserved for bona fide badge holders could be blocked by those who display a blue badge but are not entitled to do so. As the House will understand, such abuse can virtually destroy the entire daily schedule of the disabled person concerned.

The new clause will provide all those involved in the enforcement of parking controls with a power to require the driver or passenger—or anyone who they consider is returning to, or leaving, the car—to produce the badge for inspection. It restricts their exercising of that power to times when they are exercising their other functions. If a vehicle is displaying a parking badge but is not using the concessions that the scheme offers—for example, if it is parked in an area without parking restrictions—an enforcement officer will not be empowered to ask that the badge be produced for inspection. That is important to protect genuine badge holders from being targeted when they may have inadvertently left their badge on display.

Those required to produce the badge include the driver, the passenger or anyone who is seen to be leaving, or who is about to return to, the vehicle. So even when the disabled badge holder is not in the vehicle but the concessions are clearly being used, an enforcement officer will still be able to ask the vehicle's occupant to produce the badge for inspection.

In cases where someone unreasonably refuses to produce a badge for inspection, the clause creates an offence. Subject to conviction, a fine will be imposed not exceeding level 3, or £1,000. Guidance will be issued to enforcement officers and responsible authorities, advising them on the appropriate means of involving the police, so as to pursue a prosecution. We also intend that where a badge is not produced for inspection, the enforcement officer will treat that as a prima facie case of unlawful parking and issue a fixed penalty notice or a penalty charge, as appropriate. We do not need to provide for such circumstances in the Bill; the intention is that they will be covered in the guidance that we will produce for enforcement authorities and badge holders.

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con)

A number of disabled people are concerned about what happens when the badge becomes partly obscured, perhaps because it moved while it was left in the vehicle; indeed, as a result of such an incident, many are given a ticket. If the badge is inspected and found to be in order and the disabled person is entitled to park where the car is parked, will the guidance make it clear that a ticket will not be issued if there is any possibility that such an incident might have been a mere accident?

Mr. McNulty

I undertake to make sure that, if need be, the guidance will make that clear. When it is clear that a perfectly legitimate badge has been obscured, my authority—and doubtless many others— rescinds such parking notices. But if guidance is needed I shall certainly take this issue on board.

On the subject of guidance, we will consult the relevant bodies representing local authorities, enforcement authorities and disability organisations, including our statutory advisers, the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee. The guidance will be published before the power is brought into force. This is an important issue that DPTAC has brought to our attention before, and we said that we would seek to legislate at the earliest opportunity.

I am pleased that the Bill allows us to legislate on this narrow enforcement issue, and I anticipate that it will enjoy the support of the whole House. I hope that the House agrees that the new clause addresses a fundamental gap in the enforcement of the blue badge scheme, and that Members will support the Government in its introduction. It seeks to restore the scheme's legitimacy without allowing abuses, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) and other members of the Committee for the way in which this issue was dealt in Committee. Although this measure is a small step in the wider scheme of things, in the context of making a substantive difference to the lives of disabled people, it has a significance far beyond that which we can grant it today. In that context of spirit, harmony and consensus, I commend the new clause to the House and hope to receive the House's acclamation for it, if not for myself.

1.45 pm
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con)

We welcome the new clause; indeed, in Committee we supported the previous new clause—new clause 23—when it was discussed. However, I have a couple of questions for the Minister. He mentions the recommendations of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, of which the provision before us is a key example. Another issue of equal concern is when the Government will legislate to allow the issuing of blue badges for children aged under two who require the transporting of bulky medical equipment. That is a key issue—albeit for a small group of people—and I should be interested to know when the Minister will legislate on that recommendation.

Secondly, what happens when a person is asked to produce a badge for inspection by a traffic warden, civil enforcement officer or parking attendant, rather than a police officer, and the person of whom the request is made refuses to comply with it? According to the Minister's press release, such officials will have the power to inspect, but surely that is dependent on consent being given to inspection in the first place. How will it be possible to identify a person who refuses to allow the badge to be inspected, and what procedures for enforcement and penalties will flow from such a refusal?

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North) (Lab)

I am very pleased that the Government have accepted this recommendation, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) on introducing this new clause in Committee. I declare an interest as the honorary president of the Blue Badge Network, which is based in Dudley town centre. As my hon. Friend the Minister said, the validity and credibility of the blue badge system, which is so important to disabled people, needs to be reinforced. As he rightly said, DPTAC made 47 recommendations, of which this is one. The fact that the police and enforcement officers will be able to call on those thought to be using such vehicles to produce badges for inspection is a very welcome move.

That, however, is only part of the jigsaw, and I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to say when the guidance will take effect. The DPTAC report rightly points out that powers already exist in respect of the illegal use of badges, and that penalty notices can already be issued to badge holders parked illegally on the street, and to vehicle owners parked in spaces designated for badge holders. However, enforcement is absolutely crucial, and as the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) said, we should consider the important issue of children aged under two. Some indication as to when the guidance will be introduced would be very welcome.

Unfortunately, there seems to be widespread fraudulent use of badges. According to one estimate, there are some 700,000 fraudulent abuses of the badge system. The chief superintendent of the Dudley, North operational command unit says that the number of badges, and the number of abuses of badges, are increasing at an alarming rate, so enforcement is absolutely crucial. An assurance from my hon. Friend the Minister on the implementation of the guidance would also be very welcome.

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD)

I, too, am pleased to welcome the new clause, which allows for the inspection of blue badges. It will be greeted warmly by all those who hold blue badges and will make a considerable difference to their lives, enabling them to avoid the frustration they often feel at being unable to use the parking spaces provided for them. It also has the benefit of making the law in England and Wales consistent with that in Scotland, which already benefits from such regulations. We supported the provision in Committee and I am pleased to confirm that we will support it today.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab)

As the Minister said, I moved a similar amendment in Committee, and other hon. Members have already mentioned several of the points that I intended to raise. However, it is important for the Government to introduce the guidance as quickly as possible. I am sure that my hon. Friend will seek to do so, but it would be helpful if we had some indication of how quickly it is likely to happen.

Local authorities and the police already have a wide range of powers, and the disabled community will welcome the additional powers of inspection. Just yesterday I exchanged e-mails with one of my regular correspondents, Clive Bailey, who describes himself as a rebellious disabled member of the community. He pointed out the various problems that arise when people misuse parking bays. The power to inspect will make a major difference to the lives of people like him.

As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Ross Cranston) pointed out, there is further work to do on other elements of the blue badge scheme, and I seek the Minister's assurance that the Bill will be the vehicle through which the Government will seek to make the necessary additional changes to improve the blue badge scheme—the extension to under-twos, for example. The Bill is welcome and I congratulate the Minister on following up my original amendment.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con)

To complete the harmony of the occasion, I, too, welcome the Government new clause, and I also urge the Minister to produce carefully worded and timely guidance and advice. The guidance needs to be tough in some parts and kind in others. The House would surely agree with me that we should be tough on the low sort of life that tries to cheat on the use of these badges. It is particularly low and dirty to try to gain a badge on false pretences or to seek to use a vehicle carrying a badge when the person using that vehicle is not disabled and is not transporting a disabled person with him. We can all agree on that, and I hope that the guidelines will be tough on such people and that the maximum penalties will be imposed where it has been clearly established that the person fraudulently obtained a badge or fraudulently used a legitimate badge for another user or driver.

I also agree with the important point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Yorkshire (Mr. Knight) about dealing with disabled people themselves. There will be times when the authorities will challenge a disabled person in order to check up on legitimate use or concerning the appearance of the badge. In those cases, I hope that it will be done kindly and carefully with the assumption that what really matters is the fact that the proper person was trying to use the facility in the correct way. If some mistakes in how or whether a badge is displayed are made, we should not take a dim view if the right person was seeking to use it for the right purposes.

Anyone who has suffered from temporary disabilities—broken limbs or other accidents—has just a small insight into what it must be like to have to live with even bigger hazards all one's life. We must all have enormous sympathy for such people and I hope that the measure that we are debating today will not make their lives more difficult. I do not want them to be hectored by the authorities trying to enforce the regulations against other people.

Mr. McNulty

I thank hon. Members for their kind words and their welcome for the new clause. I should like to deal with some of the points that were raised.

It was right to point out that the provision by no means exhausts all the DPTAC recommendations, and we are still reflecting on how best to deal with other outstanding matters. There are many different ways of proceeding. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, North-East (Brian White) alluded to primary legislation, but there may be other vehicles for achieving what may appear to be only minor changes, which can be enormously important for people with disabilities. For example, we could attempt to rid the legislation of the overladen value judgment in the term "institution", in preference for "organisation". It is beyond the scope of this particular Bill, but it would also be good if we could implement a degree of reciprocity across the EU— if I may say that without provoking the current consensus—and a degree of mutual recognition of the system.

The eligibility for the scheme of children under two could be the subject of secondary legislation. We have accepted DPTAC's recommendation to extend the scheme to certain groups of children under two—not least those who constantly require bulky or life-sustaining equipment to be carried around. Draft regulations are being prepared in that regard and we will consult on them later this year—as early as we possibly can. More generally, we are seeking to issue guidance for consultation at the earliest possible juncture. We want to reach a stage where enforcement officers and disabled badge holders are able to understand the full breadth of the guidance before the new powers are introduced. Assuming that the Bill receives royal assent we hope to introduce the powers at the earliest opportunity.

The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) raised an important point about enforcement officers and interplay with the police. We shall seek to ensure that enforcement officers and the responsible authorities advise on the most appropriate means of involving the police in order to pursue a prosecution. The interface with the police is highly important and we want the guidance to make clear, after consultation with the enforcement authorities and the relevant police authorities, the system that will prevail to achieve that. I repeat my undertaking to try to ensure that any guidance should make it clear that, where the badge of an entirely legitimate badge holder has somehow been obscured, the provisions can be revoked.

There are other dimensions of the scheme that we need to reflect on further. We are examining the feasibility of establishing a national database of badge holders, specifying precisely who is entitled to use a badge throughout the country. We shall do some further research on that during the next couple of months. In the longer term, the advent and development of smartcard technology might provide an appropriate way to proceed.

Brian White

On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that the role of carers is crucial?

Mr. McNulty

The eligibility of carers and of people with a clear temporary but debilitating disability—the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) referred to them—will require further examination in some detail. Both in the House and beyond, people have broadly welcomed the provisions. The Bill provides a substantive advance, which should be made, but I fully accept that DPTAC's recommendations and a range of other suggestions show that there is further to go before the blue badge scheme will be fully operative in the way we all want. Abuses certainly have a profound impact.

Mr. Chope

In the press release issued today, the Minister says police and parking enforcement officers would have new powers to inspect blue badges", but my understanding is that the new clause will confer powers to ask to inspect. It does not give the enforcement officer the power to put his hand inside the car and seize the blue badge. If my interpretation is correct, will the Minister ensure that his press release is amended accordingly?

Mr. McNulty

I do not think I will—not least because it has gone! The release states that seeking the leave of people to inspect is the start of the process. The other end of it, assuming that co-operation is not forthcoming, is, as I have said, a prima facie case of abuse or contravention of the parking rules. In the context of both aspects, calling it a right to inspect is perfectly valid.

Ross Cranston

It may help the House to note that proposed new subsection (4BD) states: A person who without reasonable excuse fails to produce a badge when required to do . . . shall be guilty of an offence. I think that the press release is therefore accurate, and that there is no need to try to retract it.

2 pm

Mr. McNulty

My hon. and learned Friend has said in elegant legal terms what I was clumsily trying to express in my own way. I think we will leave the press release as it is.

The right hon. Member for Wokingham spoke about the balance between cruelty and kindness, and called for a degree of flexibility in the guidance so that we focus on the people who transgress. Abuse in this area needs to be regarded as almost as taboo as transgressions such as drink driving. That is absolutely abhorred across the piece now, but only 10 or 20 years ago it was regarded as a bit of laugh. If a person got away with it, that was fine. It is not an overstatement to say that abuse of the blue badge scheme is an outright abuse of the civil rights and liberties of legitimate badge holders. If such people cannot park where they are lawfully entitled to, that can have a profound effect on their entire day.

With the caveat that there is still a way to go on this matter, in the sense that there are more improvements to be made through the incorporation of recommendations from DPTAC and other bodies, I commend the new clause to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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