Minister picks PIP link option for blue badge scheme

The government has decided not to widen automatic entitlement to the disabled person’s blue parking badge when disability living allowance (DLA) is replaced by a new benefit.

The decision was announced by the Liberal Democrat transport minister, Norman Baker, as he published the government’s response to a consultation on future eligibility for the blue badge scheme.

The consultation asked for views on which disabled people should be automatically eligible for a blue badge when working-age DLA is replaced by the new personal independence payment (PIP).

Baker said the government had decided that automatic eligibility should be linked to PIP, in a similar way to its current link to DLA.

Only about one third of all blue badges are currently issued automatically to people who receive the higher rate of the mobility component of DLA, with most applying instead to their local authority.

Baker said there would be automatic eligibility for a blue badge for anyone who scored at least eight points when tested on the “moving around” activity of the PIP assessment, which should be awarded for claimants who cannot walk further than about 50 metres.

This will mean that some people who are not awarded the PIP enhanced mobility rate will still qualify automatically for a badge, while others who have major problems planning and following a journey and are therefore awarded the enhanced rate – such as many people with autism or mental health conditions – will not automatically be entitled to a blue badge.

Ministers decided that it was “not possible” to extend the scheme to such groups, “given the costs that would be involved and the impact on existing badge holders”.

Those who do not qualify automatically for a blue badge will still be able to apply to their local authority under the “further assessment” procedure, although new guidance for councils has not yet been published.

The Department for Transport (DfT) has so far been unable to say how many disabled people currently hold a blue badge, and what is likely to happen to that number after the proposed changes.

But Baker told MPs in a written statement that the changes would ensure blue badge eligibility was “as similar to the current scheme as possible”.

Most councils that took part in the consultation said they thought the badge should not be available to people with mental health conditions or learning difficulties who were able to walk (69 per cent), while most disability groups (80 per cent) who responded to the consultation said they should be eligible.

But a majority of disability groups (64 per cent) also said they believed the scheme should be “targeted” at people who were “unable to walk or have very considerable difficulty walking”.

Disabled Motoring UK said it was “very pleased” with Baker’s decision, which it said “mirrored” its own response to the consultation.

But the mental health charity Mind said it was “disappointed” with the decision not to extend automatic eligibility to people with mental health conditions.

Tom Pollard, Mind’s senior policy and campaigns officer, said: “Mind believes that people who have severe issues getting around due to mental health problems could benefit from access to blue badges.”

31 January 2013

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Minister wants eight-year delay in new rights for disabled passengers

The government is seeking to delay major parts of a new European regulation that would have given powerful rights to disabled bus and coach passengers.

The European Union regulation on bus and coach passenger rights is due to come into force on 1 March 2013.

It includes a right to full compensation for lost or damaged wheelchairs, non-discrimination in booking tickets and boarding vehicles, and disability awareness training for all staff who deal with customers.

But EU states have the right to seek lengthy exemptions from other key parts of the regulation, and a consultation document published this week by Liberal Democrat transport minister Norman Baker says the coalition wants to “make use of all available exemptions in order to delay costs to industry and give them more time to prepare”.

These other rights for disabled passengers only apply to journeys over 155 miles, but EU member states can still exempt their regular domestic bus and coach services from these rights for up to eight years.

The rights the UK government wants to delay include the right to compensation if a passenger has a reservation and has explained their need for assistance in advance but is still prevented from boarding the coach or bus.

The government also wants to delay a disabled passenger’s right to free assistance at major coach terminals and on board coaches, if they have notified the provider at least 36 hours before departure; and the right to be accompanied by their own assistant at no extra charge if the transport provider is unable to provide suitable support.

The Department for Transport said the eight-year delay would mean “significant monetised benefits” – of more than £8 million – for bus and coach operators and the bodies that run major coach terminals such as London Victoria and Birmingham.

But it admitted that the delay would cause “costs to passengers, including disabled people and people with reduced mobility” of more than £1 million.

The government also wants to take advantage of another exemption, delaying compulsory disability awareness training for bus and coach drivers by five years.

The consultation document points out that disabled people in the UK will still have the protection of the Equality Act.

Baker said: “We want people taking coach trips and long-distance bus journeys to get a fair deal. However, we also want to avoid tying operators up in expensive and unnecessary burdens.

“I believe that the approach outlined in this consultation finds the right balance between passenger protection and operator competitiveness and I hope that groups likely to be affected by these changes will agree when they respond to our proposals.”

The consultation closes on 11 October.

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Sir Bert warns of threat to accessible transport if DPTAC is scrapped

One of the original architects of a pioneering government advice body has warned that coalition plans to scrap it would see accessible transport “disappear off the agenda”.

Sir Bert Massie drafted the amendment to the transport bill in 1984 that led to the setting up of a statutory Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC), and was a DPTAC member for more than 15 years.

But the Liberal Democrat transport minister Norman Baker wants to push ahead with plans to abolish DPTAC, and has launched another consultation to help him decide how it should be replaced.

Sir Bert, former chair of the Disability Rights Commission, said it was possible to trace nearly every major improvement in accessible transport since the 1980s back to DPTAC.

He said the move to scrap it was further evidence that the coalition did not believe in “properly involving disabled people in decision-making”, and added: “They are reducing opportunities for disabled people to influence policy across government.”

He said the idea that there were accessible transport experts already within the Department for Transport (DfT) was “absolutely laughable”.

He said: “The effect would be that current progress would be slowed down even further and there would be precious few new initiatives. It would simply disappear off the agenda.”

Sir Bert spoke out as both Alan Norton, a DPTAC member – although speaking in a personal capacity – and Labour’s shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle, also called for Baker to think again.

The renewed threat to DPTAC comes as the government plans massive cuts to spending on disability living allowance (DLA).

Norton said this could lead to a “substantial number” of users of the Motability car scheme having to give up their vehicles if and when they lose their DLA mobility support.

He believes this would come at a time when the public transport system was “not in a position to be able to cope” with all those disabled people who would still need to get to work.

Plans to scrap DPTAC were first announced in October 2010, as part of the coalition’s so-called “bonfire of the quangos”.

Now, after listening to advice from disabled experts, disabled people’s organisations – nearly all of which appear to want to retain DPTAC – and other groups, the DfT has published six options for how it can obtain “consensual, pan-disability advice” in the future.

Although one of the options is to retain DPTAC – the only option that would continue to see disabled experts being paid for their advice – Baker has told parliament he wants to scrap it.

Norton, chief executive of Assist UK, a charity which promotes independent living, said he believed DPTAC’s role was “absolutely crucial” at a “turning point” for disabled people, and called on disabled people to respond to the consultation.

But he warned that DPTAC had to be properly resourced.

The consultation document shows DPTAC’s budget for 2010-11 was less than £500,000, with 19 paid members and just six civil servants. Since 1 January 2011, this has been cut to 12 members and two civil servants, with the budget set to fall to £363,000 in 2014-15.

DPTAC members’ payments are often used to support the organisations they work for, and they frequently donate many extra hours to meet the workload demands, said Norton.

He said he believed it was “tokenistic” to ask disabled people to “offer their services without payment”, and added: “This can make them feel worthless and not recognised.  Many people on DPTAC are professionals and their contributions need to be recognised.”

Sir Bert said the government appeared to believe that improvements to society can only be made by paying million-pound bonuses, except with disabled people “who are the only people in society who work for free”.

Eagle, Labour’s former minister for disabled people, pledged this week that a Labour government would “restore DPTAC to its rightful place at the heart of decision-making” if it was abolished by the coalition.

She said: “The abolition of DPTAC is not only a backwards step in itself, but it is also symbolically extremely bad because DPTAC was a pioneer in the involvement of disabled people.”

Norton said she was “absolutely right”, and added: “It was a real model of what could be done and where disabled people were listened to, respected and actually saw some action.”

Baker’s preferred option is to set up a new “wide-ranging” panel of experts from which members could be drawn when specific advice was needed, combining this with input from Equality 2025, the government’s existing high-level advisory body of disabled people.

Other possible options include setting up a “stakeholder forum”, which again could be asked for advice when needed.

Baker told MPs: “I am seeking to ensure that any successor arrangement will continue to provide my department with consensual, pan-disability advice in a flexible way, and that any arrangement represents value for money.”

Minister steps back from new scooter laws

The government appears to have backed away from introducing new laws that could have forced users of mobility scooters and powered wheelchair to take out insurance, undergo training and take proficiency tests.

Two years ago, the previous government launched a consultation on possible reforms aimed at modernising the law on mobility vehicles.

The consultation document pointed to a “growing concern” about safety – particularly with scooters – although it said evidence suggested a “very low” number of injuries.

Responding to the subsequent consultation – which ended in May 2010 – Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat transport minister, said he would be meeting with “interested parties” to review the evidence on insurance, training, and the possibility of mandatory eye tests for users of class three scooters – those that travel at up to eight mph.

He said: “I am conscious of the crucial role such vehicles play in some people’s lives and that will be an important factor in deciding what further actions, if any, to take.”

Helen Dolphin, director of policy and campaigns for Disabled Motoring UK, said: “Our policy is that insurance should be compulsory because of the kind of problems people get into when they do not have insurance, such as injuring other people.”

But she said it would not be easy to introduce compulsory insurance, as there would probably also need to be some kind of driving test and licensing system for scooter-users.

She added: “We are very much in favour of training. People need to take responsibility for themselves and should seek training if they feel they need it.”

Dolphin said Disabled Motoring UK would continue to call on the government to introduce compulsory insurance.

Baker also said he had decided to make no changes to maximum permitted speeds or the current minimum age of 14 for using a class three vehicle.

But he did announce that the government would replace the outdated term “invalid carriage” in legislation.

And following recommendations by the transport select committee, Baker said the Department for Transport was now working with the industry to develop a kite-marking scheme that would let disabled people know in advance if they would be able to use their scooters on buses and trains.

Dolphin said she would be in favour of a kite-marking scheme if it helped cut the large number of scooter-users who are unfairly refused entry onto public transport.

Baker also announced the publication of new guidance for users of mobility scooters and powered wheelchairs on the road.

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Minister calls for council action on dangerous pavement parking

Campaigners have welcomed new measures that should make it easier for councils to stop motorists risking the safety of disabled pedestrians by parking on pavements.

Vehicles parked on pavements can force wheelchair-users, people with visual impairments and other disabled people into busy roads. They also damage pavements, making it more likely that people with visual and mobility impairments will trip and fall.

Liberal Democrat transport minister Norman Baker has now written to local authorities to ask them to use their powers to stop pavement parking where it is a problem.

The Department for Transport has also given permission to all councils in England to use traffic signs to indicate a local ban on pavement parking, rather than having to seek permission every time they want to do so. Parking on pavements is already banned across London.

Baker said: “Parking on the pavement can be selfish and dangerous, putting pedestrians – especially those with disabilities or using pushchairs – in danger.

“If a vehicle is blocking the pavement then people often have no choice but to walk in the road where they are at much greater risk of being involved in an accident.”

Jill Allen-King, public relations officer for the National Federation of the Blind of the UK, said the announcement was “really good news” as the federation had been campaigning on the issue since 1979, when it launched its Give Us Back Our Pavements campaign.

Her mother-in-law died in hospital following a fall she sustained tripping on a pavement damaged by a lorry continually parking on it, she said.

She added: “It is not only the hazard it creates, you also can’t get past with your guide dog and have to go out into the road.”

Helen Dolphin, director of policy and campaigns at the charity Mobilise, also welcomed the government’s announcement.

She said cars parking on pavements can block the path of wheelchair-users, who have to put themselves in danger by using the road instead.

And she said councils could do far more to use the enforcement powers they already have to keep pavements clear of all obstructions.

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Minister defends decision to abolish ‘different era’ DPTAC

A transport minister has described the government’s accessible transport advice body as “a creature from another era”, as he tried to justify the decision to abolish it.

Liberal Democrat Norman Baker was speaking as two members of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC) were in north London to help him launch government reform of the blue badge parking scheme.

Four months ago, the government announced that DPTAC would be abolished, as part of its so-called “bonfire of the quangos”.

Baker accepted that DPTAC had played an important role in advising on the reforms, and he said: “We also listen very carefully to DPTAC.”

But when asked by Disability News Service why the government was scrapping the advisory body, he said: “They were created in a time when legislation did not mainstream disability issues. They are a creature from a different era.”

He said the government would “still have access to the expertise” but would “just arrange it in a different way”.

Dai Powell, chair of DPTAC, replied: “I am a creature from a different era and hopefully for the future as well.”

He said the government had worked “very closely” with DPTAC on its blue badge reforms.

When asked whether he was happy that the government was abolishing DPTAC, he said: “It is important for us that the views of disabled people are heard at the highest level.”

Helen Dolphin, a DPTAC member and director of policy and campaigns for the charity Mobilise, who was also at the launch, added: “We also have to recognise that although there have been improvements it is still very, very difficult for disabled people to get around.

“There has been progress but it is still a very inaccessible transport system for disabled people.”

She said later: “I sincerely hope there will be a successor body.”

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Blue badge reforms are ‘huge step forward’

The government has announced major reforms of the blue badge parking scheme for disabled people – the first on such a scale since its launch 40 years ago.

Councils will be forced to use more independent mobility assessments – instead of asking GPs to assess applicants – of those who do not qualify automatically for a badge.

How this will work has not yet been finalised, with new guidance for councils expected in May or June.

Included in the reforms is a long-awaited plan for a national database of the 2.5 million badge-holders, which should make it easier for councils to enforce the scheme. The database could include badges issued in Wales and Scotland.

Councils will be given “tough” new enforcement powers, including the right to cancel badges that have been lost, stolen, have expired or been withdrawn due to misuse, and on-the-spot powers to confiscate such badges.

The government also plans to contract a company to design, print and supply all blue badges across England – with a new electronic badge that will be harder to forge and alter – although councils will still process applications.

The maximum fee a council can charge will rise from £2 to £10, the first increase in nearly 30 years.

It will also be possible to renew badges online through the government’s directgov website.

The government says faster renewals and less abuse could save £20 million a year.

The National Fraud Authority’s latest estimate is that blue badge fraud costs the UK about £46 million a year.

Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat transport minister, said at the launch of the new plans in Camden, north London, that they would ensure the badge was “fit for purpose” and that “people who need blue badges can get them and use them”.

He also promised to write to supermarkets to encourage them to tackle abuse of accessible parking bays in their own carparks.

Dai Powell, chair of the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee (DPTAC), said the plans were “a huge step forward” but it was vital that they delivered “integrity” to the scheme.

Helen Dolphin, a DPTAC member and director of policy and campaigns at the charity Mobilise, said: “I am pleased that at last we have some reforms that are hopefully going to make a difference to the tremendous abuse the scheme is still suffering from.”

She said too many local authorities were issuing badges to people who do not need them.

Eligibility for the badge will also be extended to more disabled children aged between two and three, with automatic entitlement given to disabled service personnel and veterans with high support needs.

Many of the changes announced will be introduced within a year.

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