August 2014 marks an important milestone for the elderly and disabled living in Scotland - the introduction of the new Disabled Persons' Parking Badges (Scotland) bill that aims to change the lives of those with limited mobility, making it possible for them to enjoy a sense of normality that has been difficult to achieve under previous legislation in the country.
Aberdeen West SNP MSP Dennis Robertson - a blind political worker who understands first hand the challenges faced by the disabled today - proposed the bill after collecting significant evidence indicating that blue badges, which are issued to those with mobility problems to assist with finding accessible public parking, were being misused on what he described as a 'fairly grand scale'. It has been confirmed that this new bill will cover the redesign of existing badges to reduce the ease with which current badges can be replicated, and will make it legal for councils to implement fines of up to £1000 to those using badges that are not valid at the time of display.
Those who truly need help impacted by misuse
Abuse of the blue badge scheme may be seen as a relatively minor crime, but it can have a significant impact upon those with limited mobility, whether they be disabled or elderly. Blue badges displayed legally in vehicles can be used to secure accessible parking near to places of interest, such as city centre shopping districts, workplaces, and hospitals, ensuring the badge holder has a shorter transfer distance from vehicle to destination than they would if they had parked in a public car park, for example. These parking places include wider bays in local authority car parks, and on roadside yellow lines if there is no other parking restriction in place in the area.
Blue badges can make it easier, and more enjoyable, for the elderly and disabled to go shopping, socialise with friends, or simply get out and about. The misuse of the badges has a similar level of impact as disabling mobility aids such as stairlifts and bath hoists in the home. Ultimately, misuse prevents a person with restricted mobility from leading a normal life by limiting the activities they can carry out in a safe manner.
Research carried out prior to the introduction of this new bill, and subsequently used within the proposal itself, shows that 76 percent of badge holders believe that removal of the badge, or challenges in using the badge due to others abusing the scheme, would significantly reduce the amount of time the person spent outside of the home, potentially impacting social contact and, by association, contributing towards isolation and episodes of depression.
Interestingly, abuse of the blue badge scheme in Scotland isn't carried out exclusively for nefarious reasons. The term 'abuse' in this sense refers to both intentional misuse and accidental misuse, either through a misunderstanding of the scheme as a whole, or simply through forgetfulness. Misuse of the scheme can be qualified as using an expired or cancelled badge either belonging to the deceased or issued on a temporary basis, using the badge when the holder is not present in the vehicle, making copies of the badge, selling badges on the black market, stealing badges, or exaggerating physical conditions in order to be issued a badge.
In his proposal, Robertson cited research which suggested that 83 percent of blue badge holders in Scotland had encountered misuse of the scheme, either relating to their own badge or to someone elses'. Nearly half of those questioned in the poll stated that they believed that the blue badge scheme in Scotland was not properly enforced, encouraging misuse. However, under previous legislation, enforcing the blue badge scheme was tricky due to loopholes, areas of poor clarification, and a reluctance to give power to any authority bar the police.
What the new bill entails
The new bill in Scotland brings changes that, it is hoped, will make it easier for authorities to enforce the scheme's rules and regulations. Three factors that are anticipated to revolutionise the scheme are greater control given to traffic wardens and local authority parking attendants to take action against scheme abusers, a more rigorous application process to ensure that holders really do require additional support (wording has been changed from 'difficulties walking' to 'virtually unable to walk'), and a quick and easy cancellation process overseen by a local council authority should a badge be reported lost or stolen.
These changes follow on from similar amendments made to the scheme's legislation in England back in 2011. Changes included a redesign to make fraudulent copies much more difficult to produce, and a new database which made it easy to check the validity of a badge. Amendments were made not only to make the lives of the disabled and elderly much more enjoyable, but also due to the long term financial implications that the abuse of the scheme in England was creating.
London Councils claimed that within the capital alone, the Government were struggling to cope with financial setbacks attributed to abuse of the blue badge scheme. According to their figures, illegal use of a blue badge was costing the councils £2500 per year in congestion charges per abuser, £250 in resident parking charges per year per abuser, and £6000 in public parking charges per year per abuser. Following the success seen after the implementation of these 2011 changes, both in terms of finances and in terms of the lifestyles of the elderly and disabled, further amendments were made in 2013 which gave more control to traffic wardens.
Scotland's new bill has been met with much approval and praise from residents and it is hoped that the country will see similar benefits to those experienced in England following the implementation of a more strict set of regulations. While Robertson admits that the new bill will not prevent blue badge misuse completely, he remains hopeful that the new law will make people think more about the implications of abusing the scheme, highlighting the social and moral unacceptance of such actions.