Charities help government with cover-up over blue badge changes

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Disability charities have helped the government cover up the reason it was forced to announce changes to rules that prevented thousands of disabled people with invisible impairments secure blue parking badges.

The Department for Transport (DfT) won widespread praise this week for announcing changes to the disabled people’s blue badge on-street parking scheme, following a public consultation held earlier this year.

The changes mean that people with invisible impairments should find it much easier to qualify for a blue badge.

Disability charities including the National Autistic Society (NAS) – which was quoted in the DfT press release – expressed their support for the government, with NAS saying it was “thrilled” with the move.

But the charity failed to mention that the government had only been forced into the changes because of its previous decision to tighten the rules in 2014.

The support of charities like NAS was then reported by mainstream media including the Independent, the Observer/Guardian online and the BBC, most of which repeated the government’s line that the announcement was the biggest overhaul of the system in 40 years.

None of the coverage mentioned that the consultation had only been necessary because of a judicial review legal case taken on behalf of an autistic man with learning difficulties.

David*, who has since died, had had a blue badge for 30 years but was told by his local council that he no longer qualified because of new DfT rules.

His family took legal action against the government and his local council because of new guidance issued by DfT in October 2014, after the government had begun to replace disability living allowance (DLA) with the new personal independence payment (PIP) disability benefit the previous year.

DfT was forced to settle the judicial review claim in 2016 by agreeing to review the new blue badge guidance.

It was that review that led to this year’s consultation – which heard from more than 6,000 individuals and more than 230 organisations – and the announcement of changes to the scheme this week.

Linda Burnip, co-founder of Disabled People Against Cuts, said the way the changes had been presented had been “a complete lie”.

She said: “Until the changes were brought in with PIP, people in receipt of higher rate DLA mobility component always qualified for a blue badge.”

She said the changes were “forced through” by the legal action, which was taken by a DPAC supporter.

Disabled activist Nicky Clark, whose daughter lost her blue badge after moving from DLA to PIP, and who started the Parking Points campaign because of the changes, said the government’s announcement had been “nauseating” and “incomplete”.

She said: “Those who are paid to protect, defend, support and represent disabled people, should be apologising for taking away the legitimate eligibility to a blue parking badge in the first place, not patting themselves on the back for returning them.

“None of the charities and organisations currently complimenting the government are, I feel, giving credit where its due.

“As we find increasingly these days, the real work in changing government policy lies not with the charities talking behind closed doors with unprecedented access, but instead the real work is being done by disabled people, their legal teams and the judiciary.”

She added: “Ultimate praise is reserved by me for those who fought for and gained a judicial review. It’s a stressful and difficult process and not undertaken easily.

“They have improved the lives of hundreds of thousands of disabled people by their combined efforts.”

This week, DfT refused to say why it failed to mention that it had been forced into the consultation by the legal action and that the only reason that was necessary was because of changes to the guidance it had introduced in 2014.

NAS had faced similar questions about its support for the government in January, when DfT announced a consultation on the changes and the mainstream media had again failed to report on the reason why the government was being forced to change the blue badge rules.

The blue badge guidance currently states that it is only those who qualify for the standard or enhanced mobility rates of PIP under the “moving around” criteria – those with physical impairments that mean they cannot walk very far – who should automatically qualify for a blue badge.

Those who qualify for the PIP enhanced mobility rate because they have problems planning and following journeys are no longer automatically entitled to a blue badge, as they were if they claimed the upper mobility rate of DLA for the same reasons.

And the updated blue badge application form included in the DfT guidance document in 2014 had no sections in which disabled people with problems planning and following journeys could provide evidence to show why they needed a blue badge.

The government has now decided to change the rules so that they make it clearer that eligibility is not only for those with mobility impairments.

There will now be eligibility for disabled people who cannot walk or undertake a journey: “without it causing very considerable difficulty when walking”; “without there being a reasonably foreseeable risk of serious harm to the health and safety of that person or any other person”; or “without it causing very considerable psychological distress to that person”.

There will also be eligibility for a blue badge for anyone who receives at least 10 points for the “planning and following journeys” activity of PIP because they cannot make any journey without overwhelming psychological distress.

The new rules will still have to be introduced through secondary legislation, with guidance drawn up by DfT and “medical professionals and key stakeholders”.

Sarah Lambert, head of policy at NAS, said the government’s changes went further than correcting the problems introduced in 2014 and that NAS had been campaigning for blue badge eligibility to be widened for several years before 2014.

She said: “We’ve made no attempt to cover up the role of the legal case you refer to and our response has been based entirely on welcoming the change and explaining it to our supporters, as well as acknowledging the role our supporters have played (eg responding to the consultations).

“However, we recognise that we haven’t acknowledged the role of the legal case in bringing about change, and we will add this detail to the news story on our website.”

She added: “It’s our charity’s mission to help bring about change that can make a significant difference to autistic people’s lives, as the new regulations and guidance will.

“We also need to publicise this change so we can increase public understanding of how the world might need to change to become more autism friendly.

“By being quoted in the DfT press release, we managed to get the message to millions of people about the difference having a blue badge will make to autistic people.”

Sarah Newton, the minister for disabled people, also failed to mention that the government had been forced by a legal action into making the changes.

She said: “It’s absolutely right that disabled people are able to go about their daily life without worrying about how they will get from one place to another.

“We’re taking an important step forward in ensuring people with hidden disabilities get the support they need to live independently.”

Authorities in Scotland and Wales have already made changes aimed at addressing the problems with the guidance.

DfT said it believes the new rules will see a six per cent increase in blue badge applications (53,000) in the first year, and an “initial surge” of 44,000 new badges (five per cent) costing £1.7 million in extra administrative costs for local authorities.

Meanwhile, the charity Disabled Motoring UK warned today (Thursday) that the extension in eligibility could “have disastrous consequences for all blue badge holders, especially wheelchair-users, as there is simply not enough parking to meet demand” and “may make the entire scheme not fit for purpose”.

The charity said it had called on DfT to “consider proper enforcement of the scheme before it looked to extend it” and added: “We implore the government to look at the issue of proper blue badge provision and enforcement as a matter of urgency so that the scheme maintains its integrity.”

*Not his real name

 

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