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“tough” new enforcement powers, including the right to cancel badges that have been lost, stolen, have expired or been withdrawn due to misuse, and on-the-spot powers to confiscate such badges.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

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com

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Parking victory signals hope for fight against spending cuts

Disabled motorists who have won victories over two local authorities that scrapped free parking could inspire other campaigners fighting council spending cuts, says one leading activist.

City of Lincoln Council and Norwich City Council both removed free parking for holders of blue parking badges in some of their council-run carparks in 2009.

But disabled people complained that the councils had ignored the extra time it can take disabled people to park and shop.

Five disabled motorists from Norfolk have now forced Norwich council to rethink its decision, after threatening legal action under disability discrimination laws.

Last month, the council bowed to the pressure and introduced new reduced rates for disabled drivers, with an hour’s free parking for every hour they buy in the seven carparks at which charges apply.

The changes were seen as “reasonable adjustments” under the new Equality Act, which replaced the Disability Discrimination Act in October 2010.

The victory followed that of Matt Smith, who took Lincoln council to court over its decision to scrap free parking for blue badge-holders. Lincoln council agreed to introduce a similar “buy one, get one free” concession.

The Norwich action was sparked by Helen Smith, who lives in the city and is director of policy and campaigns for the disabled motorists’ charity Mobilise.

She said: “I am hoping that other councils up and down the land will now look at their policies.”

Smith described their success as “a small but notable victory” that she hoped would “set a precedent” in disabled people’s battle against spending cuts.

She said: “They may want to cut spending but a discriminatory policy is not the way to go. Parking or cutting people’s care, it all comes under the same banner as far as I am concerned.

“It is about time people realised that you cannot just stamp all over disabled people.”

She believes many other councils have carried out similar policies, and encouraged disabled people whose local authorities have scrapped free parking to contact Wake Smith and Tofields, the legal firm that acted for her and the other claimants in both Norwich and Lincoln.

The Norwich campaigners are now liaising with the council over possible compensation.

A Norwich council spokeswoman claimed the decision to change its parking fees last month was unconnected with the threat of legal action, and that the council altered them because of the new Equality Act.

She said the council had “consulted widely” with disabled residents and disabled groups before introducing the original changes to charges in 2009.

News provided by John Pring at www.disabilitynewsservice.com