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1.45 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Ms Glenda Jackson): I thank the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) for affording the House the opportunity to debate an issue that is of particular importance to many disabled people.

As we acknowledged in our White Paper, for many severely disabled people the private car is the only viable transport option. However, its value would be greatly reduced, if not lost entirely, if disabled motorists were unable to park as close as possible to their destination. That is the primary purpose of the orange badge scheme, which enables people with severe mobility difficulties to park close to the places that they need or want to visit. Research demonstrates clearly that the mobility range of severely disabled people can be as little as 50 m, so even having to park 100 m or so away from one's workplace or from shops may make the journey extremely difficult, and in some cases impossible. The orange badge scheme is therefore vital in enabling the day-to-day activities that non-disabled people take for granted.

The scheme was first introduced in 1971 and, as the hon. Gentleman said, has been reviewed twice since then, the last review being completed in 1992. Eligibility for an orange badge is governed by the Disabled Persons (Badges for Motor Vehicles) Regulations 1982, which were subject to wide public consultation and parliamentary scrutiny.

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To qualify for a badge a person must either be in receipt of the higher rate mobility component of disability living allowance or a war pensioner's mobility supplement; use a motor vehicle supplied by a Government health Department; be registered blind; have a severe disability in both upper limbs; regularly drive but be unable to turn a steering wheel by hand--even if that wheel is fitted with a steering knob; or have a permanent and substantial disability, which means that he or she cannot walk or has very considerable difficulty in walking. That last category is known as the "discretionary criteria".

It is clear from that list that eligibility is fairly tightly controlled, yet, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the number of badges issued over the past decade has risen dramatically, from 929,000 to 1.7 million--an increase of over 80 per cent. That total number bears no relation whatever to the proportion of the population that is disabled--some 10 to 12 per cent.; nor is the increase supported by a corresponding increase in the number of cars over the same period, although I recognise that not all badge holders are drivers.

That increase has prompted much concern, not least from our own statutory advisers, the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee, the majority of whose members are disabled people. The committee recently submitted to me a report that recommends that we review the scope of the scheme with a view to tightening up the eligibility and revising the administration of the scheme.

DPTAC is particularly concerned about the application of the discretionary criteria. Its concern has been prompted by the fact that only a third of badges are issued "as of right" under the specific criteria that I outlined earlier. DPTAC's view is that the discretionary criteria are being applied too widely and should be restricted to people over the age of 65 years who would otherwise have qualified for the higher rate mobility component of disability living allowance.

One of DPTAC's proposals is that an applicant's GP should be removed from direct involvement in the process. Many local authorities considering applications under the discretionary criteria consult the GP for further information. DPTAC's view is that there should be some form of independent assessment, either by another doctor or by a qualified health professional.

It is not just the issuing process that has come under scrutiny by DPTAC. Like those of us in the Department, it is also concerned about the apparent abuse of the system--another matter to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The badge design already has a photograph of the holder, but we have not yet been able to introduce the legislative changes to provide the enforcement authorities with the powers to inspect badges. That gives rise to scope for unscrupulous people to use a badge belonging to someone else--often an elderly relative--and thus to enjoy the parking privileges that the scheme provides. That is unacceptable, and we have made it clear that we shall introduce the necessary legislation to allow inspection of badges as soon as parliamentary time allows.

DPTAC wants local authorities to strengthen their response to the abuse issue. It has recommended that local authorities should take a firm line with disabled people who knowingly allow their badge to be used by someone else, including withdrawing the badge altogether in cases of persistent abuse.

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I recognise that DPTAC's recommendations have arisen from genuine concern about the effectiveness of the scheme. Although I share that concern, I am not as yet convinced of the need for a wholesale review of the scheme, as DPTAC has suggested. We have, however, undertaken a survey of issuing authorities to gather more information about how they are currently administering the scheme, particularly in relation to the discretionary criteria. I shall want to consider very carefully the information that is provided before deciding what, if any, further action is necessary.

Having set out the current position and explained our concerns and those of our advisers, I now turn to the particular concerns of the hon. Member for Twickenham, who has suggested that, far from narrowing eligibility, the scheme could perhaps be extended to cover people with temporary disabilities and those with specific conditions affecting their mobility.

I am very sympathetic to the problems faced by people with temporary disabilities, and I have certainly received other representations suggesting that the regulations should be relaxed to accommodate them. Currently, the regulations allow for badges to be issued only for a three-year period. We are not convinced that extending the scheme to allow badges to be issued for shorter periods would be in the best interests of the many thousands of severely disabled people for whom the scheme is an essential part of their mobility.

As I have said, there has already been a dramatic increase in the number of badges. Widening the eligibility criteria would inevitably mean a further rise in numbers. That would contribute to further traffic congestion in town centres, and could become self-defeating if it encouraged more local authorities to introduce local parking schemes that benefit only disabled people resident in their area. A number of local authorities have already introduced such schemes, which have attracted considerable criticism from disabled people residing outside those areas, as they are no longer able to access their town centres.

A significant rise in the number of badges would also make it more difficult for the police and traffic wardens to enforce the national scheme. The associations representing local highway authorities, whose members would have to operate the extended scheme, are opposed to the introduction of temporary badges.

From what I have said already about DPTAC, hon. Members will not be surprised to learn that it, too, shares those concerns, and fears that a move to extend eligibility would lead to the erosion of the benefits for those who currently qualify. It has emphasised the importance of ensuring that the rules of the scheme restrict eligibility to the permanently disabled people who rely on a badge to have at least some of the freedom of movement that non-disabled people enjoy.

It has also been suggested that there could be a two-tier system with a different coloured badge for people with temporary disabilities. Again, that would be difficult for local authorities to administer, and would make enforcement even more difficult for the police and traffic wardens. A two-tier system would also run counter to our

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decision to implement the European Commission's recommendation for a standard design of parking card for disabled people.

The new badge, which will be blue, will be introduced in this country from 1 January 2000, and all badges will have been replaced by 2003. It will be recognised by all other member states, and will provide disabled people with the assurance that while travelling anywhere in the European Union they will be able to enjoy the parking concessions that apply to disabled people in each member state. The recommendation does not affect the eligibility criteria or the parking privileges that operate in each member state.

Returning to the United Kingdom scheme, I am aware that some authorities issue badges to people awaiting surgery, such as a hip replacement--a point made by the hon. Gentleman. They do so on the basis that, until surgery has taken place, those people are, in effect, permanently disabled. I understand that approach, but, in my view, it would not be appropriate to set national rules in this area. The effect of such conditions vary considerably. Setting eligibility criteria around particular conditions regardless of their effects would increase the demand for parking spaces reserved for disabled people, and could disfranchise the most severely disabled people who rely on them.

One such condition, to which the hon. Gentleman referred and which I know is of particular concern to him, is Crohn's disease. Although I recognise that the condition can be debilitating, those with the disease would be eligible for a badge only if their walking ability was also permanently, not just intermittently, affected. The issuing

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authority is best placed to make that judgment--supported of course by medical evidence--and to decide whether the applicant qualifies for a badge.

I realise that this may seem harsh to those who are outside the scope of the scheme, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that for severely disabled people, who view the scheme as a lifeline, the main concern is to ensure that it does not become so over-subscribed as to minimise or even negate the benefits to them. They have already been disadvantaged in areas where local authorities have introduced their own badges in response to the increasing number of orange badge holders. They are anxious that that practice should not extend to other authorities.

The orange badge scheme is, without doubt, a key element in the independent mobility of many severely disabled people. Without the badge, many people would be unable to go about their day-to-day business. It is, therefore, vital that the eligibility criteria for an orange badge should be tightly controlled, and that issuing authorities take great care in processing applications to make sure that those who receive a badge are those who have the greatest need for one. I am afraid, therefore, that I can offer the hon. Gentleman little hope that the scheme will be widened to bring people with temporary disabilities within its remit; nor are we likely to specify specific conditions in the guidance that we issue to local authorities to assist them with their administration of the scheme.

It being before Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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