Disabled people must play a part in efforts to cut the misuse and abuse of blue parking badges, according to leading activists.
New measures to cut abuse of the disabled people’s blue badge parking scheme came into force on 1 January, with the introduction of an electronically-produced badge, which is harder to forge or copy than the previous handwritten, cardboard version.
To pay for improvements to the scheme, the maximum fee that local authorities in England can charge for a badge has risen from £2 to £10, the first increase for 30 years.
And a new central database – another measure campaigners have been demanding for years – will allow checks on the badges to be made from anywhere in the country.
But disabled people’s details will only be added to the database – which is being run by a private company – as they are issued with one of the new badges over the next three years.
The government hopes changes to the scheme will cut its running costs by up to £20 million a year.
Another measure, to be introduced from April, will see councils forced to use more independent mobility assessments – instead of asking GPs to carry them out – of applicants who do not qualify automatically for a badge.
Helen Dolphin, director of policy and campaigns for Disabled Motoring UK, welcomed the changes, which she said would make the scheme “fit for the 21st century”, and would make it easier for traffic wardens to detect forged badges, and genuine badges that were being misused.
But she said: “This is only going to work if disabled people themselves start taking more responsibility for their own badges.”
She said enforcement and awareness-raising of how the badges should be used were key to cutting abuse, while councils must ensure their parking attendants checked badges and took legal action against those guilty of fraud and misuse.
Last August, Disabled Motoring UK released the results of a survey which showed that many local authorities were doing nothing to combat blue badge fraud and misuse.
The survey found that, across the 79 local authorities in England and Wales that provided answers to a Freedom of Information Act request, the average annual number of prosecutions for fraud and misuse of blue badges was just 2.9 in 2009-10, and 4.5 in 2010-11. Most councils carried out no prosecutions at all.
Dolphin added: “The charity’s policy is that the badge should be free. However, it has been £2 since the 1980s and if this increased charge means the badges are much more secure and disabled people can park more easily, it is a burden we are going to have to bear.”
Mary Grace, chair of The Blue Badge Network, which represents blue badge-holders, also welcomed many of the improvements.
But she said she was concerned about the introduction of the new mobility assessments.
She said: “I think there will be a lot of people who should be getting the badge who will just be turned down flat.
“We will be asking our members to let us have their thoughts as they go through the system over the next three years.”
She agreed with Dolphin that badge-holders needed to take more responsibility for how their badges were used, and added: “Blue badge-holders ourselves can abuse the system.”
Other improvements to the scheme mean disabled people in England and Scotland can now apply for and renew their badges online, using the government’s Directgov website, while those in Wales will be able to apply online from April.
Badge-holders in England can also use a new national helpline number, 0844 463 0213, and will be able to report lost and stolen badges through the website from April.
Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat transport minister, said he believed the new badge would be “as secure as a banknote”.
He added: “Motorists who pretend to be disabled to get some free parking are frankly disgraceful.
“They prevent real blue badge-holders from using parking bays designed for those genuinely in need and they cheat the vast majority of road-users who play fair when they park their cars.”