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Mr. McDonnell: One of the issues raised in discussions about the potential for an inquiry is the nature of that inquiry. The United Nations rapporteur has made it clear that he would welcome a judicial inquiry. Are there any plans to meet the UN representatives to discuss the potential of an inquiry as an option, and the nature of the inquiry--for example, whether the inquiry should be judicial, whether it should have an international element or whether any other steps should be taken that would at least move the process on in reassuring the UN rapporteur that the Government have taken this matter seriously?

Mr. Ingram: I know of no plans at present to do so. However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met Mr. Cumaraswamy. He was very satisfied with the way in which the Government were dealing with the issues that he raised at that time. I have probably said about three times that nothing has been ruled out. I do not think I can say that more clearly. Therefore, further meetings with those who have expressed an interest in this matter may prove beneficial if we move into that phase in dealing with the issue.

Mr. John D. Taylor: The Minister says that nothing has been ruled out. As everyone in Northern Ireland knows, the Finucane family is a strong republican family. Mrs. Finucane has made it clear that she will not work with the RUC. She has now rejected the English police as well. She refuses to speak to Mr. Stevens. Has the Minister not destroyed Mr. Stevens's inquiry already by saying that nothing else is ruled out? There is no need to speak to Mr. Stevens now because the Minister has already said that he is going to go ahead beyond that.

Mr. Ingram: I think that the right hon. Gentleman is trying to put words into my mouth. Clearly, we do not know what Mr. Stevens will report on. I think that it is appropriate, therefore, to say that nothing has been ruled out. It may lead to a requirement to proceed in the way that has been suggested during the debate or in another way, which would then be defined, based on what information was available.

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The statement that Mr. Finucane's family are a well- known republican family does not justify the murder of a member of that family. When we put labels on people, we must be careful about the possible consequences.

Mr. Taylor: In no way am I saying that that is an excuse for a murder. I deplore all murders. I was nearly murdered myself, as the Minister may know. What I am saying is that the family are one of the strongest republican families in Northern Ireland, who despise all police, whether they are RUC or English police. They have now said that they will not co-operate with Mr. Stevens. By saying that he will look beyond to an independent inquiry, the Minister has cut away the credibility of the Stevens inquiry, and people will no longer co-operate with it.

Mr. McDonnell: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. A statement has been made in the House about a certain family despising the police, but no evidence has been presented in the Chamber. When statements were made about the Finucane family 10 years ago, Patrick Finucane's life was put at risk and he eventually lost it. I believe that we should caution right hon. and hon. Members to be careful with their words when we are dealing with such matters. The right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) should know that full well, with his wealth of experience.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): That is not a point of order for the Chair, but all hon. Members should take care about the language that they use in debates such as this.

Mr. Taylor: All I am saying is that Mrs. Finucane herself has said that she will not co-operate with Mr. Stevens.

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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The right hon. Gentleman has made his point.

Mr. Ingram: The right hon. Gentleman has indeed made his point, and I am glad that he was able to correct any false impression that may have arisen from the way in which he phrased his remarks. I am not suggesting that he set out to create a particular impression, but it is important to put on record that, in a democracy, the fact that someone has certain labels put on him and takes a view on the institutions of the state does not justify action by paramilitaries to murder any member of our society. We have a duty of care for all members of our society, irrespective of how they view that society. That is the strength of the democracy that we seek to uphold in the House.

Before that exchange, I was about to conclude my remarks. It is important that we give every support and encouragement to the police. The best way that anyone who has information can bring people to justice is to co-operate with the police. It does not undermineMr. Stevens's inquiry one iota to say that we must consider the possible consequences of his report. It would be wrong to rule anything out, as we do not yet know the contents of his report.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington for initiating the debate. It has allowed me the opportunity to put on record the thoroughness with which the issue has been tackled by the Government and the RUC. We owe that to the Finucane family and to the rule of law.

1.23 pm

Sitting suspended.

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Orange Badges

1.30 pm

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): I am grateful for the opportunity to initiate an Adjournment debate on a subject which, through their case work, affects a large number of hon. Members. I appreciate the Minister for Transport in London replying to the debate. I have consulted several disablement groups, and all were positive about and appreciative of the knowledge and understanding of their transport problems that she has shown.

The angle from which I shall approach this issue is in one sense narrow. I am concerned, as are most hon. Members, with cases that fall just outside the eligibility criteria, but I do not want to lose sight of the bigger picture as I discuss the specifics. Orange badges are important because access for disabled people is crucial for employment, for shopping and for living a normal life. Access means mobility--and mobility, for almost all of them, means a private car, because the public transport system has not yet adapted to the problems of disablement.

I believe that the regulations applying to buses and to taxis will not fully come into effect until 2017 and 2012 respectively. Even for disabled people who can reach access points, buses and taxis are not practical options. The private car is the key to access and mobility and, in the urban and suburban environments that I represent, that means access to parking, so the orange badge concept is absolutely crucial.

Although I shall discuss a particular aspect of this issue, I hope that the Minister will be able to say a little about the Government's broad approach to the orange badge scheme. It was reviewed in 1989--which led to changes being made in 1991--and again in 1996, specifically in relation to enforcement. Perhaps she will bring us up to date on the Government's thinking. To the best of my knowledge, the orange badge scheme has not been discussed in this Parliament; I may have been inadequately briefed, but that is my understanding.

Although I shall argue for some broadening of the eligibility criteria in one or two cases, I recognise the dilemma--the tension--in this whole problem; it was brought home strongly to me by the disablement groups. Some cases, such as those of which I am aware, fall just outside the eligibility rules. They are hard cases, and my instincts are to seek a widening of the scheme for the benefit of those individuals. However, I recognise that the authorities, the Government and the disablement organisations are concerned, above all, with the integrity of the scheme. That is an important objective in itself.

Fears have been expressed about the proliferation of badges, abuse of the scheme and the system falling into disrepute if it is widened too much. I understand and sympathise with those fears; I certainly do not want to propose anything that would undermine the integrity of the scheme and thereby affect the seriously disabled badge users who take full advantage of it.

As I move to a discussion of the specific categories that I want to raise, it may be useful to hit upon a few of the key trends, which bring the conflict between the broadening of the scheme and its integrity into sharper relief. The first trend, as the Minister well knows, is the

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considerable increase in the number of badges. I tabled a parliamentary question to her a few weeks ago and the answer suggested that the number had increased from slightly under 1 million in 1989 to about 1.7 million.

I understand that that figure may now have reached 2 million, so it has doubled over a decade and a substantial number of vehicles--probably one in 10 of those on the road--have orange badge specification. My question, to which I do not know the answer, is whether that number is appropriate and whether research has been carried out into whether the disabled community as a whole is fully utilising the scheme.

My research suggests that about 4.5 million people are seriously physically disabled, and they obviously fall into the category of being eligible for the orange badge scheme, so slightly less than 50 per cent. of disabled people are covered. A lot of disabled people are old, live in rural areas or do not have cars, and they would not want to take advantage of the scheme. However, it would be useful to know whether the number of people taking up badges is appropriate, given the incidence of serious physical disability.

Some estimates of the number of disabled people go way beyond 4.5 million and it would be interesting to know whether sample surveys have been carried out in particular areas in respect of supply and demand for facilities for the disabled.

The second trend is abuse. I hear and read in the press apocryphal stories--and also real examples--of abuse of the scheme. I understand that a key objective must be the prevention of abuse and that any fresh look at eligibility criteria, if there is to be one, must not open the scheme to more abuse than already occurs.

I appreciate that abuse can occur in several ways. For example, general practitioners may be excessively liberal in their approach. It is difficult for doctors to say no, just as it is difficult for Members of Parliament to say no, when people ask for help. Perhaps the GP system is excessively liberal, but I find that difficult to believe as I have come across many cases of doctors refusing what seem to be plausible requests for orange badges.

Similarly, it is alleged that many local councils find it difficult to say no and award orange badges too freely. Again, from my experience, I find that a little difficult to believe--certainly of the area for which I am the Member of Parliament. The local authority is quite tough in its issuing policy and many cases of what seem, at first sight, to be unreasonable refusals come to me. Local citizens advice bureaux and other agencies--not only in my area, but in others--report how difficult it often is for those who fall within the eligibility criteria to get orange badges. There may be abuse, but it is certainly tempered by severe application of the rules elsewhere.

There may be abuse by disabled people themselves. We all hear stories of cars with orange badges pulling into parking bays and fit young people bounding out. No doubt some disabled people give their badges to relatives, but such incidents occur simply because many disabilities are episodic. People who have rheumatoid arthritis are more active in some periods than in others. I am sceptical about many of the claims of abuse, and I should be interested to know the Government's assessment of the scale of the problem and of how seriously we need to take it when we consider eligibility criteria.

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The next broad trend that I want to sketch as background to particular cases is what appears to be--and what the disabled associations believe to be--a breakdown of the national scheme. Implementation of the disabled orange badge scheme locally appears, in some cases, to be resulting in different councils adopting radically different philosophies in their approach to it. We know that green badges are being issued in some local authority areas, for the benefit of local residents as opposed to orange badge holders from elsewhere. A tougher regime is being applied and the scheme has never applied at all in other areas, such as central London.

It is not immediately obvious to me why Kensington and Chelsea, for example, should be exempt from the scheme; its parking problems are quite serious, but so are those in my part of suburban London. I am sure that there are serious problems in Hampstead and Highgate as well. We need to consider why orange badge schemes apply in some areas but not in others, and why the rules are more severe in some areas than in others. That is the context in which I want to place the discussion about eligibility criteria.

This issue has been raised before in the House, but not in this Parliament. It was confronted in 1994 by the late John Watts, when he was Minister responsible, and representations on widening the criteria were made by hon. Members. I want to return to some of the issues that he raised.

There seem to be two broad problem areas and I have encountered both in my work as a constituency Member of Parliament. The first is that of temporarily disabled people. Some people might be described as temporarily disabled for what appear to be trivial reasons. For example, someone may have broken his leg in a skiing accident or injured himself playing football. Clearly, I would not want the scheme to be extended to cover such cases. However, there are other cases of temporary disablement, such as that of the woman in Twickenham who came to me for help. She had been walking along the road and a car had hit her and badly crushed her legs. She is still immobile after 21 months--she tried to walk with difficulty on crutches. She clearly falls within the criteria of substantial disablement, but because she is not permanently disabled the council would not issue her with an orange badge.

Another case is that of a woman with serious cancer. She is undergoing cancer therapy, which has the effect, as does the disease, of greatly weakening her so that she is not mobile and cannot walk 100 yd. She needs help, but cannot get it because that disease is curable and thus the disability is temporary. She does not fall within the disability criteria that the legislation requires. There are also people with arthritic conditions, who are waiting for hip replacement operations. That takes a long time. I am sure that the Government's health policy will improve that over time, but people wait for one or two years for hip replacement operations and, in the meantime, they cannot avail themselves of orange badges because they are only temporarily disabled.

Can the Minister do anything about those categories of people? One suggestion is to issue for one or two years orange badges that would be returnable thereafter. Clearly, the flexibility that local councils have would enable them to judge the severity of particular cases.

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The second problem area is of a different kind. It covers people with diseases that clearly do not fit into the conventional definition of "physical disability". I do not know whether hon. Members are familiar with Crohn's disease, but it is a serious bowel disorder, such that people must have immediate access to public conveniences. It is a very distressing condition. Although it is not physical disablement in the normal sense, for those with severe manifestations of that illness easy access to parking is absolutely critical. Certain variants of epilepsy have similar implications.

If some of those diseases, which I believe are known to the Government--epilepsy, certain forms of mental illness, Crohn's disease and other bowel disorders--were encompassed in the scheme, we would be talking about large numbers of people and I understand why the authorities would not wish to widen the scheme indefinitely in that way. However, I should have thought that with an independent medical panel to hear appeals against local authority decisions and to look at cases flexibly, there might be some way of offering relief to those concerned.

Do the Government plan to address the question of the eligibility criteria? If they do, it must be done in a way that balances liberalisation against the danger of abuse. Do the Government propose to introduce the changes that were recommended in 1996 for a tougher enforcement code for orange badges; and if so, when? It was proposed that police officers and traffic wardens should be entitled to look at the identification of badge holders and that it should be mandatory for disabled people with orange badges to show them. That would be one way of cutting down on abuse while being flexible in other respects.

In a more general spirit, may I ask the Minister whether this whole area, which I accept is a vexed and difficult one because of the competing pressures, will be reviewed by the Government?

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