Ken Skates, Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure
I have previously committed to keeping Members updated on the programme of work that is being taken forward in respect of the Blue Badge Scheme, following the Blue Badge Ministerial Task and Finish Group’s recommendations which were published in December 2015.
While local authorities are responsible for administering the scheme in Wales, the Task and Finish group identified inconsistencies in the approach to administering the scheme, the approach to assessment and to enforcement. The differences they observed effectively meant that the 22 authorities were delivering the scheme in different ways resulting in a “postcode lottery”. This is in nobody’s interest.
You will be aware from previous updates, many of the Taskforce’s recommendations have been delivered, we have introduced including the extension of eligibility to those who have a temporary impairment to their mobility which lasts for at least a year, making it easier for them to access services and facilities, support their recovery, and continue to live independently during this period.
In addition to extending the eligibility criteria to include people with cognitive impairments Wales is now leading the way, and our approach is under active consideration by the other administrations of the UK.
My officials have been working closely with local government officers to seek to, finding ways to support local authority staff in their duties and deliver a fair, robust scheme which sees timely decisions on blue badge applications and delivers both consistency and continuity of delivery. Together they have conducted a periodic review of cases across Wales which has demonstrated that whilst the toolkit worked well in the majority of cases there was room for improvement. As a result of this work, the verification toolkit that we have produced to assist local authorities in their decision making has been improved. This ensures that applicants who have chosen not to accept benefits or social services support which would otherwise see them “passported” to receiving a blue badge are not placed at a disadvantage when applying for a badge under the scheme.
I have been clear that using GPs to assess applicants for a Blue Badge is inappropriate. GPs are expert clinicians who advise on diagnosis and treatment. They are generally not experts in the impact a condition has on someone’s mobility, which is the basis for awarding a Blue Badge, and it is a poor use of GPs’ considerable skills and expertise to ask them to act in this way. With the support of the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners, we have therefore changed the toolkit to remove GPs from the assessment process. This will reduce the burden on the GPs, allowing them to focus on patient care. This will also remove the necessity for applicants who are not “passported” to receiving a blue badge to spend money and time in sourcing a GP report, which was a feature of the previous scheme. This is a key measure that makes the system fairer to all applicants
The toolkit has been piloted and tested with local authorities to ensure that it is robust, workable and practical with a lower threshold for referring cases to the Independent Advisory Service (IAS) for independent assessment by qualified occupational therapists, funded by the Welsh Government and available to local authorities free of charge. This means that reliance on GPs is reducing, people are receiving a better, more consistent service and the more robust arrangements have saved an estimated £600,000 annually to the public purse.
My officials have also worked closely with local authorities to enable local authorities to improve the customer journey, save money, time and make better decisions through the Blue Badge Improvement Service. This will deliver a more customer focused service, ensuring for instance that the renewal processes are proportionate and do not require a full reassessment where an applicant has had a robust assessment.
To date the work programme has focussed on delivering the Task and Finish group’s recommendations associated with making the scheme fairer, more robust, and more customer focussed. I want to thank the Task and Finish group for their contribution, and their diligence in overseeing the implementation of their recommendations. I also want to thank all the individuals and groups who have supported the Task and Finish Group by providing evidence and working with the group to deliver change.
As a result of the progress of the work programme, I am taking the advice of the Task and Finish group and its chair to disband the group ahead of moving into phase two. I thank the group for their offer of continued support while we work with local authorities and others to tackle abuse and fraud.
We are now concentrating on how the badges are used, to crack down on misuse, abuse and fraud. Already we have facilitated workshops across Wales for local authority fraud teams and parking enforcement teams, drawing on best practice elsewhere in the UK. We are also looking at parking for disabled people more broadly, and considering whether regulations can be amended to provide better access.
I want to thank members for their support for this work. It is of vital importance because of the contribution the Blue Badge scheme makes to independent living for those who face the most difficult barriers in our society. I will continue to bring forward measures to ensure access for all. The accessible transport group are working to build on the good work that is been done here to shape the future transport sector. I trust to members to continue to support this work, making our society more inclusive and accessible to all.