Blue badges: another botched Coalition “reform”

Coalition consequences logoChanges to the application process for Blue Badges are leaving elderly and disabled residents in Greenwich in the lurch – with some having to wait weeks or months for their badges to be renewed, and a doubling of refusals.

The Conservative/Lib Dem coalition has come up with a new system that is slow and bureaucratic, with local councils forced to administer the new rules, pick up the pieces and get the system back on track.

The Government announced in February 2011 that it was overhauling the Blue Badge system (the first thorough overhaul since Blue Badges were introduced in 1971, thanks largely to Labour MP Alf Morris). The government claimed that “tens of thousands of people” were abusing the scheme at a cost of £50m a year to the taxpayer, citing Audit Commission  figures which showed that 16,535 blue badges were still in operation even though their registered holders had died.

Blue badge sign

There’s nothing wrong with clamping down on fraudulent applications for, or abuse of, Blue Badges. As the Badges give people the right to park just about everywhere for free in London and avoid the Congestion Charge, the scope for abuse is beyond doubt (the annual value of benefits to holders is estimated to be more than £300m, or more than £100 per badge).

But the new regulations, introduced in January 2012, mean that 70% of applicants (both new and existing) now have to be assessed by occupational therapists. The only people who do not require a face to face assessment are those in receipt of the high rate mobility component of Disability Living Allowance.

As a result of this added bureaucracy, the fee for a blue badge has had to be increased from £2 to £10. The new criteria are a lot tougher: if applicants are deemed able to walk independently for more than 80 metres, they lose their Blue Badge. In Greenwich, 551 renewal applications out of almost 3,000 were turned down in the year to March 2013, and 339 out of just over 1,500 in the six months between April and September 2013: a refusal rate of more than 20% (roughly double the refusal rate before 2011). Of those who had a face-to-face assessment, the refusal rate was 55% (a report on the issue that went to the council’s Social Inclusion scrutiny panel this week can be found here, with appendices here and here).

The familiar Tory argument that Labour is the party of bureaucracy, intrusive means-testing and  inefficiency is wearing a bit thin. I have received several complaints in the last two years about the new process – not about unfair refusal of applications, but about delays in renewing existing Blue Badges (under the new rules, badgeholders have to reapply every three years). Applications can take up to 6 weeks for those “eligible without further assessment” and up to 10 weeks for those “eligible subject to further assessment” (see here for more details). This causes problems for badgeholders who are used to renewals taking much less time. One Blackheath resident who has contacted me was left without a blue badge for several weeks and could not easily get to hospital appointments.

Although the council originally struggled to meet these timescales, I am pleased it is now sticking to them and Greenwich is making a bad system function better. Not all the blame can be laid at the Government’s door: Greenwich Council also made an unwise decision to stop sending out reminder letters to people whose Blue Badges were about to expire. I am pleased that after concerns were raised by many councillors, including me, the council restarted sending out reminder letters last June, which immediately led to a 50% reduction in complaints.

But prior to the changes the Blue Badge process worked perfectly well: in 2011-12 there were only 14 complaints about the process in Greenwich (about one a month); in 2012-13, after the system changed, there were 51 complaints (one a week).

It is impossible to know how many Blue badges, if any, before 2011 were obtained fraudulently or given to people who did not really need them. But it should have been possible for the government to have found a way to weed out the fraudsters without paralysing the system for everyone.


6 Responses to Blue badges: another botched Coalition “reform”

  1. Pingback: After 16 years as a Labour councillor in Blackheath and Westcombe Park, Alex Grant says thank you and goodbye | Blackheath Westcombe Labour

  2. Pingback: Blue badge delays are 'national scandal'

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  4. Pingback: ‘Muddled’ blue badge reforms ‘are to blame for renewal delays’

  5. anne cooper says:

    My mother is 90 years old and suffers from heart issues , mobility and numerous other conditions.She has had her badge since 2004 and following assessment they have just refused to renew it.
    I appealed and they refused it again.
    What’s worse is that the appeal refusal was addressed to my next door neighbours house who has now read all about my mums medical conditions. Data protection???? I don’t think so.
    I have sent a 2nd appeal to the complaints Dept as without this we can’t go out its impossible.
    It’s ruining my poor mum’s life.
    I’ve written to my MP.
    Any further suggestions if shes tured down again please?

    • anne cooper says:

      After 2 assessments and 5 months without a badge our appeal was finally upheld and my 90 year old mum got her badge renewed.
      Disgrace on you Greenwich Council.

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