Edwina Hart, Minister for Economy, Science and Transport
In May 2015, I updated Members on the Blue Badge Scheme and announced the establishment of a Blue Badge Task and Finish Group to review the scheme and provide advice on changes to the scheme.
The Group’s report and recommendations, along with the Welsh Government response to the report, were published in December 2015. I circulated the report ahead of publication to Members to allow them to comment. I have accepted the Group’s 13 recommendations in full. I have now established a Blue Badge Implementation Group, which will take forward the recommendations of the Task and Finish Group.
Blue Badges are a very important tool that can enable those who require a Badge to be able to live independently. They also provide support to many people who rely on the assistance of carers to access services and facilities. These are the most vulnerable people in our society and no one will disagree with the benefits of supporting them to lead full and independent lives.
Local authorities are responsible for administering the scheme in Wales. I know that many Members have received complaints from their constituents on various Blue Badge issues.
The Task Force found that the 22 authorities are delivering the scheme in different ways resulting in a “postcode lottery” and identified inconsistencies in the approach to administering the scheme, the approach to assessment and to enforcement.
While the process needs to be robust, those who need a Badge should not be subjected to unnecessary bureaucracy. I am keen for the Blue Badge application process to be carefully managed to identify those in need of a Badge through a fit for purpose assessment. I am clear that once Blue Badge holders have been properly assessed, they should not undergo an unnecessary assessment again.
While the group have told me that local authorities are processing applications which fall under the automatic eligibility criteria consistently and effectively, the same is not true for applications under the discretionary mobility criteria.
To provide continuity, we have provided guidance to assist local authorities in their duties in administering the scheme in Wales. The verification toolkit was introduced in August 2014 and will be kept under review to ensure that it best meets requirements. I urge all local authorities to use the verification toolkit in order to provide a consistent approach across Wales.
I have written to local authorities about working with them, with assistance from the Independent Advisory Service, to assess those who applied for a renewal of their Blue Badge under the discretionary criteria in 2015 and were turned down. I am also asking local authorities to assist us in refining the toolkit, so that it supports them to consistently deliver a high quality service to applicants under the discretionary criteria, as the task and finish group recommended.
Wales is leading the way, having extended eligibility criteria to include people with cognitive impairments who are unable to travel safely and independently, and which is being considered for adoption in the other parts of the UK.
A number of Members have raised with me the issue of removing GP support for applications. The group has received evidence that using GPs in this way is inappropriate, placing an unfair burden on the doctor and patient relationship. Statistics received show that in Wales, over 1100 Badges were awarded following GP assessment in December alone. I do not think that this is the best use of GP expertise. Removing GPs from the assessment process will reduce the burden on the GPs time and resources, allowing them to focus on patient care. Reliance on GPs is reducing and we are going in the right direction, but I want this to continue as recommended by the Task and Finish Group.
I appreciate that some applicants have varying and complex needs and that is why I established the Independent Advisory Service in December 2014. This service consists of a team of occupational therapists, and exists to assist local authorities in the assessment of cases which are difficult to determine. I have been disappointed that half of all local authorities have not taken advantage of this professional service, which has been funded by the Welsh Government to assist local authorities in their duties and provide continuity for applicants.
Some of the recommendations of the Task and Finish group can be implemented rapidly, and I have already taken steps to do so. I have this week launched a consultation on these recommendations, including proposals for extending eligibility to the scheme to people with temporary conditions; streamlining the administrative process for reapplications; and improving enforcement to prevent people using Badges fraudulently and taking the parking spaces that vulnerable Badge holders need. I would encourage those with an interest to respond.
Some of the Group’s recommendations cannot be realised immediately, as they will require changes to primary legislation in order to be implemented. I am clear however that I want to see improvement and will consider the potential for a single body to administer the scheme across Wales, and about making guidance on the enforcement of Blue Badges statutory.
I am aware that sometimes Blue Badges are misused. I want to emphasise that the Badge is for the sole use of the person it has been awarded to and can only be displayed if the Badge holder is travelling in the vehicle, either as the driver or as a passenger.
Sadly, we have all seen cars parked in designated bays that do not have a Badge displayed. There is also anecdotal evidence that Badges are sometimes being used by friends or relatives running errands on behalf of the Badge holder. This is not what the Blue Badge scheme is for.
The Group have told me how impressed they were with the enforcement actions taken by Portsmouth City Council. I understand that in a 2 day exercise before Christmas, enforcement officers in Portsmouth seized 69 Badges that were being abused or had expired. This included a Badge that had been issued in Wales. I will certainly be looking at how they are so effective as well as working with the local authorities in Wales to promote best practice.
Finally I think one of the main problems is lack of understanding of the scheme, who the scheme is meant to benefit, and how Badges should be used. A communications campaign is a vital part of the work programme, not just for Badge holders but for the general public who need to realise why we have the scheme in place. This will be a cornerstone of the forward work programme of the implementation group