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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Energy (Mr. Charles Wardle): I hear what the hon. Member for Middlesbrough(Mr. Bell) says. When he and his colleagues appear to be on weak ground, they talk about a less partisan approach. I do not doubt the sincerity of his suggestion that he and his colleagues believe in inward direct investment. However, in speech after speech, we heard that there is a contradiction in saying that and at the same time subscribing to the idea of the social chapter, as the Labour party does.
We have had a thoroughly interesting debate. We had some powerful speeches from hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond in the few minutes that remain.
Column 1180As my hon. Friend the Minister said so clearly, eloquently and rigorously at the outset, inward investment is a key element in improving competitiveness. It creates employment, offers important new opportunities for suppliers and challenges established United Kingdom companies to improve their performance, as several hon. Members said. Our record in attracting inward investment is second to none, but that does not mean that there is room for complacency. In inward investment, as across the whole competitiveness agenda, we need to go on improving our performance ever more. Improving competitiveness is not a one -off objective; it is an on-going process with no end date. It requires continual, incremental business. It is a tough business.
As for tough business, we listened to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough for about one hour. He had some fascinating things to say and I listened with respect and interest. I am always interested in history. The hon. Gentleman talked about the important industrial history of Cleveland over a span of some 150 years. With great respect, I do not dispute the importance of the number of warships that were built in the past century, but it is productive investment for the next century that we should be concerned about in this debate.
Once or twice, the hon. Gentleman resorted to the old music hall jokes which are tried by his party. He talked about the last two world recessions as though they had been the responsibility of this Government. I suggest that he talk to people employed in France, Germany, and many other countries which have experienced recessions to see whether that is the case. Just for good measure, he threw in a word about the City of London, and that was fairly disparaging. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, like several hon. Members, spoke about labour costs. It is worth pointing out that labour costs in Germany are 93 per cent. higher than in Britain. In Belgium they are 64 per cent. higher. In the Netherlands they are 56 per cent. higher and in France they are 29 per cent. higher. There is no doubt that a considerable element of that is the social payroll costs which are add-ons. That is not to say that that represents good management in any sense. It does not. We should leave individual companies and managers to decide how to meet those responsibilities. That is what counts.
It is worth highlighting that between 1987 and 1993 the stock of United Kingdom inward investment more than doubled. In 1987 it was some £63 billion. In 1993 it was £131 billion. It now represents 17 per cent. of all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development inward investment stock. That is to be compared with the fact that Britain has some 6 per cent. of OECD gross domestic product.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley), in an extremely interesting and powerful speech, talked about the key elements which cause foreign companies to decide to invest in Britain and to have British operations. He talked about a competitive cost base. He talked about the stability of the industrial relations climate that has been achieved in Britain, so largely as a result of the industrial relations legislation introduced in the past decade. He talked about the fiscal regime and about language. Of course, he was right on all those counts. That was acknowledged generously from the other side of the Chamber.
Column 1181I wonder whether I might add two other elements which I believe are almost as important. I certainly heard about them during a recent trip to Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong in pursuit of further inward investment into Britain. One key element was that when an overseas company makes an investment in Britain, its subsidiary here is regarded from day one as a British company. No one knows that better than Japanese automotive companies such as Nissan. When Nissan began to build on its success here and wanted to export to the huge market among our partners in the European Union, some countries, particularly France, wanted to challenge the fact that the products were British. But they are British: whatever their ownership in this new global theatre of business, those companies are British companies.
The second key element, which was alluded to by the hon. Member for Stockton, North (Mr. Cook) when he spoke about Samsung, is the approach of services. We do not merely promise companies that they will be well received before they come here. When they have set up and begun operating, the services provided by the Department of Trade and Industry, other Government Departments and most definitely local agencies and local authorities all show a willingness to help and a friendship about which I heard time and again during the recent visit to which I have just alluded.
The hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) raised the subject of endogenous growth theory. I was glad to hear him suggest that the shadow Chancellor should put that sort of jargon into English and that he shuddered when the shadow Chancellor spoke in that fashion. Don't we all--I am sure that Conservative Members do. The hon. Member for Rotherham talked as though a high-wage economy was not an ambition of this country. Of course it is. That is what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment said the other day and has said repeatedly. It can be achieved by gains in productivity. That is the important thing, provided that we do not succumb to a series of runaway payroll costs and add-ons such as those in the social chapter which make that difficult.
My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Coe), in an excellent speech, was right to highlight the success of supply side reforms, trade union reforms and the need to contain social and welfare costs, as he put it. Surely, as he said, we must remain free to tailor our employment and social policies to our own needs. Let management manage. We must not impose the rigidities and burdens on employers that some centrist organisations have ambitions to impose. My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne also referred to the multiplicity of organisations dealing with the business of attracting inward investment. The Government offices and the DTI sector divisions have developed plans to ensure that we are more focused and to follow up on the White Paper on competitiveness. Their aim is for an altogether more coherent structure.
My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne will be aware of the appointment of the chief executive for the Invest in Britain Bureau, who set among his priorities the requirement to focus on client needs and to think in terms of aftercare. It is all very well always looking for new companies to invest in this country, but
Column 1182as time passes we must ensure that we talk to the companies that are here about their needs--to return to what the hon. Member for Stockton, North said--and that in the process we identify their plans and are there in support.
The hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) spoke of the need to compete with our rivals in high technology. In fact, more than 90 Japanese companies have established research and development facilities in this country many of which are linked to British universities for applied research.
My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, North-West (Sir M. Grylls) was absolutely right to extol the achievements of the major British players in global markets and to talk of our success overseas. As they are producing in this country and exporting abroad, it is worth bearing in mind the fact that between 1985 and 1991 the league table for average annual percentage change in output per hour in manufacturing reads Japan 4.4 per cent., the United Kingdom 4 per cent., France, Italy and the United States 3 per cent. and Germany down at 1 per cent.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, North-West described the attractions of investing in this country, it is worth echoing the words of Ambassador Kitamura, who was until recently the Japanese ambassador here. He recently addressed an "Invest in Britain" seminar in Tokyo, which I also addressed. He said:
"We see Britain as the trailblazer for an open trading Europe." As my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, that is due to our attitude to the social chapter, but it is also due to progress with the single market-- implementing all those measures and in many cases taking the lead in doing so--and to taking the lead in market liberalisation.
One brief example is gas--gas delivered on the beach in this country costs about the same as gas delivered to the frontier of most of our European Union partners, but gas delivered to the domestic household and industrial user tends to be substantially cheaper because we have taken the first steps in the liberalisation of that market. That is a very useful pointer.
The hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South (Mr. Gunnell) mentioned the Yorkshire and Humberside Development Association and I agreed with much of what he said. The association was most successful and what he said about partnership is absolutely right. I will give him the figures for 1993-94-- 1,906 new jobs were created and 3,998 jobs were safeguarded, making a total of 5,904.
The hon. Member for Morley and Leeds, South also talked about single union agreements--as did one or two of his colleagues--and it is worth bearing it in mind that if we had not changed the climate or introduced industrial relations legislation, those achievements would never have been made. One need only hark back to 1987--the House will correct me if I have the date wrong--when the Ford motor company was contemplating investment plans in Dundee and was seeking a single union agreement, and the trouble that it landed in because of intransigence on the part of the Transport and General Workers Union and other unions. I am delighted that we have moved past that, but let us give credit where it is due. It is due to the changed climate achieved by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his predecessor.
Column 1183In an absolutely excellent and fluent speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) highlighted the upward trend in inward investment during the 1980s and 1990s. He was absolutely right to say that it is complete nonsense to suggest that we can somehow look to the good old days of the 1970s and imagine that things were just as good then. It was not a golden era. Anyone who remembers high inflation, the talk of the "British disease", the brain drain, the low morale in so many factories, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer going cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund, the message from the IMF that we had to get our public spending in order if we were not to go bankrupt, will know what I mean.
My hon. Friend also made a powerful plug for greater inward investment in the south-east, and he echoed a number of my hon. Friends in doing so. He was right to highlight that matter. The south-east is a varied region which does not easily lend itself to a single marketing approach. But it is important to avoid a fragmented promotion which confuses investors. We are looking to tackle precisely that challenge.
There are, of course, other examples as well as Nobo, the company mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) in an excellent speech. There is also Daewoo, which established a research facility in Worthing, and the Oracle corporation of the US which is doing well in the Thames valley. The Swiss electronics company Huber and Suhner is another example of that kind of success. I have already alluded to the remarks of the hon. Member for Stockton, North. He spoke of the Japanese belief in research and development, and I hope that he will take heart from the fact that a number of Japanese companies are saying "Let's do it here". It is now a global arena in which international companies want to be in the Pacific basin market, the north American market and the European market, and they want to set up facilities in all of those markets. I said a moment ago that the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne was excellent. It is the second time he has impressed recently with his silver tongue. He was in my constituency recently, and I know that he impressed hugely all of my constituents who amassed to hear him. My hon. Friend was right to speak so bluntly about the sharp differences between the Liberal Democrats' national policies and what one hears locally on the street, which sometimes seems to be made up as they go along--and go along they do, do they not?
My hon. Friend spoke of Labour's "Business Plan for Britain". It must be right that we avoid any idea of such a national plan. The plan was the kind of book which, once one puts it down, one cannot bring oneself to pick up again.
My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Ainsworth) talked about the global theatre of business, and he was absolutely right. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend report to the House that the Deutsche bank was to centre its investment activities, presumably at its subsidiary Morgan Grenfell. He spoke of the need for new management practices springing from inward investment, and what we learn from companies abroad, and he was absolutely right about that.
Column 1184My hon. Friends the Members for Sutton and Cheam (Lady Olga Maitland) and for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) were also absolutely right in speaking up for their constituents and talking--as other hon. Friends have done--about the nonsense of suggesting that if we had the social chapter we could continue as if things were as they are now, thanks to Government policies.
UK companies will generate the wealth on which our future prosperity will be founded, wherever ownership comes from. These companies will win the share of world markets which is needed to keep Britain economically strong and vigorous. Britain is the preferred location for inward investment because it is demonstrably the best location.
Inward investment is all about partnership--a partnership of national, regional and local organisations and individuals from the private, public and central Government sectors--a partnership that works, with all dedicated to providing a quality service for inward investors, all working together towards the common goal of securing inward investment and its benefits for the United Kingdom. I agree with all those hon. Members who said that the efforts already made have been more than justified by the results, but that is not to suggest a hint of complacency. We must ensure that, through British competitiveness, we continue to attract further investment-- It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
That this House do meet on Thursday 3rd November at half-past Nine o'clock. -- [Mr. Burns.]
That, notwithstanding the provisions of Standing Order No. 14 (Exempted business), the Speaker shall put the Questions on the Motions in the name of Mr. Secretary Gummer relating to the draft Local Government Act 1988 (Competition) (Defined Activities) Order 1994 and the draft Local Government Act 1988 (Competition) (Defined Activities) (Construction and Property Services) Order 1994 not later than one and a half hours after the first such Motion has been entered upon; and the said Motions may be entered upon and proceeded with at any hour, though opposed.-- [Mr. Burns.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Burns.]
Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage): I understand that today is the debut of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr. Watts), the new Minister for Public Transport. He and I are both lucky that this debate is taking place at a comparatively civilised time. I fear that, in the course of his Government career, he will have to face Adjournment debates at less agreeable times. On behalf of the whole House, I say that we hope that he will enjoy his job in the Government and that he will be able to make the contribution that we all know he can make. The orange badge scheme is a very valuable facility for people with disabilities. It has existed since 1970, and during the period between 1986 and 1989 it was extensively reviewed by my hon Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Bottomley), who introduced a number of important modifications. They were supplemented in 1991 by announcements from the former Minister, Christopher Chope, whom we sadly miss from the House.
I think that we all understand very well the justification for the review in the late 1980s. My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham had an absolutely cast-iron justification when he pointed out that, in 1986, there were almost 800,000 valid orange badges in circulation, and that one in 20 cars in operation at that time could legally ignore some of the parking restrictions that applied to others.
I understand, therefore, that there was a need for some tightening of the rules of eligibility; I am not quarrelling with that. On the other hand, like every other hon. Member, I have been approached by constituents who were formerly thought eligible for orange badges, but who then found that they were no longer deemed to be qualified. One category where it seems to be especially difficult to draw the line is in respect of those who, for reasons of a psychological disorder, have considerable difficulty in walking. Another category is those whose disability may be severe but intermittent. They would normally not be entitled to an orange badge.
One instance is that of a young man, cared for by his parents, who not only has severe learning disabilities but is liable to epileptic fits. During and following those fits, his mobility is severely restricted, and his parents would like to be able to park close to the facilities to which they need to take him for help. Cases like that are difficult to accommodate under the present regulations. Another such case is that of a young man who, due to his heart condition, should not walk for long distances but, because he cannot get a badge, may find himself obliged to do so. Then there are those who have problems with bowel and bladder. Oxfordshire county council social services tell me that far more people than is generally realised suffer from those distressing conditions, and it has given me some examples. Many of those cases are not eligible under the revised regulations.
That is also true for a number of people with mental impairments and behavioural problems, which are not so severe as to make them eligible for the higher rate of mobility allowance--which is one of the conditions of eligibility.
Column 1186On a lighter note, one particular case from my constituency stands out in my memory--that of Mr. Harry Crookes, who had been conducting research in the Bodleian library in Oxford on issues connected with the International Churchill Society, leading to the publication of a fascinating article, like the one published in "Finest Hour" in 1993, entitled "Fact or Fish Story? A Look at Salisbury Hall". That is the former residence of Sir Winston Churchill's mother.
The subtitle of the article was "Did the Pike caught at his mother's country home really inspire the famous RAF mosquito aircraft? And how did Winston kill the fish? A Churchillian investigates". Mr. Crookes had difficulty getting into the Bodleian library to conduct his research when he lost his orange badge, which was not reinstated despite my representations. However, I was able to persuade the Bodleian library to give him parking facilities, so at least his story ends on a happy note.
The problem with all the cases that I have mentioned is that they involve drawing a line, which will always strike those who are just on the wrong side of it as arbitrary and unjustified. Wherever we draw the line, people will have those feelings because they are in the nature of line drawing.
I guess that the Minister must consider whether the number and weight of those who feel aggrieved about the revised regulation justifies a more liberal redrawing of the boundaries. He must weigh that against the important consideration that, if the orange badge scheme is to work properly for those who need it, it must be respected by the general public. In turn, that requires the issue of orange badges to be controlled and their use to be policed. I am concerned not about where we draw the line but about a point of principle connected with the regulations. This matter arose recently in a meeting that I had with officials of Oxfordshire county council social services, who drew my attention to a point that could be dealt with in a more flexible scheme.
Apparently, the local authority must determine whether people who do not have automatic entitlement to concessionary permits are eligible. The criteria which they are asked to apply in making that decision relates to the applicant having a disability that is permanent and substantial and causes inability to work or a considerable difficulty in walking.
May I draw attention to the word "permanent"? A problem arises for those whose condition or need for a badge is temporary. Many of us have constituents who are immobilised following a traffic accident or a surgical procedure that requires them to wear, temporarily at least, an orthopaedic plaster cast. Others may be waiting for an operation which, they hope, will cure their condition, such as a hip replacement. Their position is complicated if, as is too often the case, the date of the medical intervention and the outcome of the procedure are uncertain. Constituents have told me that, until successful surgery takes place, they are permanently disabled. Officials of Oxfordshire social services have told me of a further category of which we should take account, despite the fact that no one in the House represents it--temporary visitors from abroad, who, if resident, would be entitled to an orange badge. Oxfordshire social services consider that, under the regulations, the condition of "permanent disability" can be interpreted as being
Column 1187disabled for three or more years. That means that the disability is likely to continue for the period of the badge's validity. They also tell me that decisions on that point are made by senior members of staff. That approach is probably as liberal as it is possible to be under the regulations, which suggests that the regulations should allow more flexibility in respect of the issuing of temporary orange badges.
Now that the system has been tightened up, and especially now that the passport photograph has been introduced, will the Minister think again about that point?
The Minister for Public Transport (Mr. John Watts): May I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) for his generous welcome to me on my first appearance at the Dispatch Box? Certainly, 2.30 on a Friday afternoon is a good time to make a debut. I also congratulate my hon. Friend on securing a debate on this important subject, which invokes much interest in the House and outside. My hon. Friend has been in frequent correspondence with my predecessors about this subject over the years and takes a close personal interest in it, as his speech to the House this afternoon has shown. I am grateful for this opportunity to respond to the points that he made.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage rightly identified a number of areas of important concern with which I shall deal. Before I respond to his specific points, however, it may be helpful for me to say a few words about the general background to the issue. The Department of Transport has a long -standing commitment to promoting the improvement of transport facilities and opportunities for people with disabilities. Recent innovations in which the Department has played a major part include the introduction of wheelchair-accessible taxis, significant advances in bus design to improve access for elderly and ambulant disabled people and a new type of powered outdoor vehicle for road and pavement use. We now also provide funding support for two trials of low-floor, wheelchair-accessible buses in London and in north Tyneside. Personal mobility is a major priority and the ability of disabled people to park close to the facilities and services they need is an essential part of the process. I was encouraged by what my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage said about the concession made by the Bodleian to one of his constituents who was finding access to those facilities difficult.
The orange badge scheme provides an important facility in assisting the mobility of people with disabilities. It came into operation in December 1971 by means of regulations made under section 21 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. The scheme has always been principally intended to help those with severe difficulty in walking, but in 1975, further regulations extended the scheme to blind people, and eligibility was extended to people with severe upper limb disabilities.
I now come to the conflict that is inevitable in such a scheme. The scheme gives great benefit, and rightly so, to those who hold the badge, but it does so at the expense of other road users who may be held up by parking that would not otherwise be allowed.
Column 1188People who are close to eligibility--as my hon. Friend said, those who fall just outside the eligibility criteria-- naturally want the scheme to be extended to include them. Parliament, however, as the guardian of the scheme, needs to keep eligibility under tight control, in the interests of other road users and to preserve public respect for this important scheme. For the same reasons, it is important to take firm action against abuses of the scheme when they occur. Since the scheme began, there have been two major reviews of its operation. One started in 1976 and led to new regulations in 1983. The other started in 1986 and led to new regulations in 1992. The length of time that the review took shows the care with which my Department reviewed the scheme and its future operation.
The second review identified the main problems. Badges were being issued too freely; there were variations in the number of badges reissued by local authorities; the value of the scheme was being questioned by many people, especially when, sadly, many able-bodied motorists misused badges, which brought the scheme into some disrepute; and parking concessions for genuinely disabled people were much too limited.
In response to those problems, the changes implemented in 1992 included the introduction of a passport-style badge, which has space for a photograph of the holder of the permit. I emphasise that it does not require the photograph to be visible when it is on the vehicle, so concerns about people being targeted for whatever malicious reason as a result of the photograph being displayed should be allayed.
The second change was an increase from two hours to three in the limit on the time that people with badges could spend parked on yellow lines. Thirdly, eligibility was extended to people with a severe disability in both upper limbs who regularly drive a motor vehicle, but who cannot turn the steering wheel by hand. Fourthly, entitlement was extended to people in respect of the war pensioners' mobility supplement.
Throughout the review, we were advised by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, a statutory body which advises the Secretary of State on transport issues affecting disabled people. Its advice has been invaluable.
I know that one of the most contentious matters of the scheme relates to the eligibility criteria. It might be helpful to give a more detailed explanation of how we have arrived at the current position. As I have said, there has been great concern about the number of badges on issue--indeed, the number on issue in England, Scotland and Wales has risen from about 800,000 in 1986 to about 1.5 million in 1993.
One of the original proposals arising from the review was to accept the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee's main recommendation--that eligibility for badges should be more closely related to eligibility for the old mobility allowance. However, it became apparent during our consultation that some organisations felt that that would be too draconian a measure, and, after careful consideration, we decided not to change the scheme in that way. Instead, we wrote to the local authorities that operate the scheme requesting that they give greater emphasis to ensuring that badges are issued only to those entitled to receive them.
Column 1189One change was the adoption of new measures for undertaking medical assessments of applicants for badges. Under the old scheme, the medical advice form that general practitioners had to complete when there was any doubt about an applicant's eligibility effectively put the doctor in the position of saying whether or not the applicant should be issued with a badge. That placed GPs in an invidious position.
A new medical advice form has been introduced. It requires doctors to provide factual answers to a series of questions. On the basis of those answers, the local authority can determine whether the eligibility criteria are met.
In general, the new procedures seem to have been well received, but there is always pressure to extend eligibility. I shall say a few words about that, and pick up some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend.
I know that many people think that a badge should be available to temporarily disabled people. The main difficulty with that is that having temporary badges would further increase the number in circulation, leading to the scheme possibly becoming unworkable in its current form. Their issue would also impose financial and administrative burdens on both local authorities and health authorities.
That said, I know that some authorities issue badges to people awaiting surgery--for example, for a hip replacement--on the basis that, until the surgery has taken place, those people are permanently disabled. I can understand that approach, but I think that any such judgments are best left to local authorities applying their common sense and good judgment to the permanence or otherwise of the disability that causes the problem.
I am also aware that people with psychological disorders or suffering from bowel disorders feel that they should be eligible for a badge. Provided a person's actual ability to walk is sufficiently impaired to meet the eligibility criteria, the cause of the impairment is immaterial to his or her entitlement to a badge. But I am afraid that, distressing as many of those ailments are, they are not in their own right sufficient to qualify for a badge. Another difficult subject involves the issue of badges to those under two years of age. Children under the age of two have been ineligible for an orange badge since 1983. The rule was introduced because it was considered that disabled children below that age could reasonably be carried in a pram or pushchair, in much the same way as able-bodied children of a similar age.
I can understand the view that there should not be an age limit for qualification for an orange badge. In 1992 and 1993, we considered the question in some detail with the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee. The main concern at that time was whether eligibility for a badge should be extended to children under the age of two with tracheostomies.
One of the arguments put to that committee was that, as it was obviously demanding for a parent to look after a baby with a tracheostomy, such a parent deserved all the relief that could be secured. On a humanitarian basis, everyone would have sympathy with that argument. In so far as an orange badge gives some relief from the strain of finding convenient parking for whatever purpose the journey serves, it would be of assistance.
Column 1190I have a great deal of sympathy for that argument, but the DPTAC chairman advised in his report that it should not in itself be considered a reason for conceding the case. The committee recommended instead that badges should continue to be restricted to those for whom a badge is a necessity, however deserving other circumstances might be.
My hon. Friend raised the question of overseas visitors. While there is an argument for assisting someone visiting this country who has a disability that would qualify him or her if resident here, there would be considerable difficulties in administering a temporary scheme. Such badges would have to be issued for varying lengths of time, and would need to be specially identifiable as being for overseas visitors.
Mr. Robert Jackson: My hon. Friend said that he knew that some local authorities are issuing temporary badges. I understand that Oxfordshire does not believe that it has the power to do so. Can my hon. Friend make it clear to local authorities that they possess that power?
Mr. Watts: I will certainly reflect further on my hon. Friend's question. It is difficult precisely to define what is and what is not permanent. My hon. Friend cited the example of a person waiting for a hip replacement. It is arguable that, with a condition that can only be remedied after successful surgery, unless and until that surgery is completed, the individual is as permanently disabled as someone who, for other reasons, does not have the use of his or her limbs. It is perfectly reasonable for local authorities, in exercising their judgment and discretion, to take a fairly broad view of what is permanent in some instances. However, I would be reluctant to enter into an off-the-cuff commitment to issue further guidance. My Department does not believe that that aspect causes great practical difficulty for local authorities in administering the scheme, although I acknowledge the difficulties of interpretation and judgment that must confront them. My hon. Friend described what happens in Oxfordshire, and that seems an eminently sensible way of approaching the problem.
We will always be faced with the dilemma that some people will be just excluded from the scheme who consider that their circumstances are similar to those of people who do qualify. Wherever we draw a line, there will always be claims of unfairness--and in some instances, they will be justified.
I invite my hon. Friend to agree, in the light of my remarks about the number of badges currently in issue and of the growth in that number over a relatively short time, that, if we were, with immediate effect, to permit further relaxation, we would run the risk of running into the same problems that existed before the 1986 review. So many badges would be in issue that the scheme would start to come into disrepute and motorists who were not entitled, because they are able-bodied, to parking concessions would consider the rules unreasonable, unfair and impinging too much on their right as motorists to find places to park and to have free passage on the highway.
Earlier, I mentioned some of the changes made in the medical assessment required before eligibility can be agreed. One of the points which is often raised in that connection is the matter of how far someone should have to be able to walk or how impaired their ability to walk a certain distance should be for them to be eligible for a
Column 1191badge. I stress that, although one of the questions which doctors have to answer relates to how far the applicant can walk, there is no particular statutory distance laid down in the regulations to determine how far they need to be able to walk before they cease to be eligible for a badge.
That is another instance in which the freedom of discretion available to local authorities in exercising their administration of the scheme works to the advantage of disabled people. If we were to have a rigid distance limit --beyond that point, no eligibility, up to that point, eligibility--it would make it difficult for other relevant factors to be taken properly into account. It is clearly advisable that they should have the right to take those other factors into account in deciding whether a badge should be issued.
It is also important that we always look on this scheme in the context of the whole panoply of measures which the Government, across Departments, seek to take to make life easier for disabled people. In the case of my Department, that is especially true with regard to public transport.
Under the Railways Act 1993, there is an obligation on rail service operators to publish a code of practice and a plan as to how they will ensure that the needs of disabled travellers are met. There is already the extensive availability of wheelchair access ramps, so that, for example, I believe that the whole inter-city network is now wheelchair-accessible. The rail regulator and the franchising director will pay particular attention to the way in which the needs of disabled people are taken into account in the services which franchisees offer under the new franchising arrangements. The scheme is valuable and extensive. It allows badge holders to park free of charge and without time limit at parking meters, or in other places where other people may only park for a limited time. They may also park on single or double yellow lines for up to three hours in England and Wales, although, in that case, they have to display a time clock, so that there is certainty that no abuse is committed. However, in Scotland, they are allowed to
Column 1192park without time limit. They must not, of course, park in bus lanes, which would affect the mobility of other people, including disabled people using public transport. They must not park where loading or unloading vans are in force, or where there is a double white line in the centre of the road, which would clearly be a safety hazard.
However, the scheme provides exemption from other parking restrictions. For example, orange badge holders cannot be wheel-clamped. Badge holders, though, still have the same obligation as other road users to ensure that they do not park dangerously or obstructively.
The scheme does not cover off-street car parks, and it is often argued that it should. But there is a good counter-argument that many local authorities choose to make special provision for disabled drivers, such as reserving for them parking spaces which are most convenient for points of exit from a car park, or those which are nearest to the shops which a car park serves.
It is right and proper that local authorities do that, but most people would accept that a general free concession in car parks is not justifiable, since a disabled driver finding a convenient car parking space in a car park is in no different a position from any other motor car user seeking somewhere to park his car while he goes about his business. However, I certainly commend and encourage local authorities to try to maximise the provision of parking spaces reserved for disabled people in places which are convenient for them to use.
I hope that my hon. Friend will conclude from my remarks that the Government are strongly committed to making life as convenient as possible for disabled people in moving about this country. While I cannot announce any immediate changes to the scheme, I thank my hon. Friend for bringing the matter before the House again today. It is important that it should be constantly before the House, so that, over time, we may take account of the very powerful arguments which he has advanced in support of disabled people.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.
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