The Blue Badge scheme is a national initiative to help disabled people to park close to their destination, either as a passenger or driver. While the badge is intended for on-street parking only, some off-street car parks, such as those provided by local authorities, hospitals or supermarkets, also offer benefits to Blue Badge Holders.
It is a criminal offence to misuse the badge, and doing so can lead to a £1,000 fine. If the badge holder is using the parking concessions as a passenger (as opposed to driving the car themselves), it is their responsibility to make sure that the driver is aware of the rules governing the scheme.
The badge is for the sole use of the person named on it. It must only be displayed if the badge holder is travelling in the vehicle as a driver or passenger, or if someone is collecting them or dropping them off. The badge may not be used by other people to do something on the badge holder’s behalf, such as shopping or collecting something for them, unless the badge holder is travelling with them.
In February 2011, the Government announced major reforms to the Blue Badge scheme. The reform programme was developed in consultation with disabled people, local authorities and other stakeholders, and on the basis of research and economic analysis. Central to the reforms was the desire to crack down on drivers who abuse the scheme. The most obvious change was the new badge design, which makes it much more durable and far harder to counterfeit.
The Government also announced the Blue Badge Improvement Service. This will offer:
- secure printing, supply and distribution of the new Blue Badge
- a common database of badge holders to enable verification checks to be made quickly and easily, either from a PC or on-street by CEOs
- a web-based management information system for local authorities
- a national online application form available via Directgov
Types of fraudulent use
Fraudulent Blue Badge parking can be categorised into two groups.
- Abuse of badges. This includes using a counterfeit badge, using a lost or stolen badge and using the badge of a deceased person.
- Misuse of genuine badges. This means using the badge when the holder is not present. Some people who fall into this category think (wrongly) that what they are doing is not fraudulent. A few will have failed to understand the restrictions on use, but most will chance their luck on the basis that it can be hard to prove. Either way, this is still a criminal offence; it can lead to prosecution and a criminal conviction.
Cost of Blue Badge Fraud
Fraudulent use of Blue Badges prevents people in genuine need from accessing on-street parking where they need it most. This should be the primary motivation for undertaking any enforcement action against fraudulent motorists. High levels of fraudulent Blue Badge use also cause problems for the scheme as a whole. It is not uncommon for badge holders to be accused of fraud where their disability is not sufficiently ‘visible’ (e.g. if they don’t use a wheelchair) which of course causes them further anguish and brings the scheme into disrepute.
In addition, there is a significant cost to the public purse. By claiming exemption from the congestion charge, a blue badge holder saves £2,500 per year. They may also avoid having to pay for a resident’s parking permit, at £50 - £250 a year. If the motorist avoids paying hourly on-street parking charges of £3 per hour for 40 hours a week, this adds up to a further £6,000 a year (this could be even higher if commuting to central London). So the fraudulent misuse could be costing local government (TfL and the boroughs) £5,000 - £10,000 a year per badge, in addition to the extreme inconvenience for disabled motorists and passengers. If a borough took 100 fraudulent badges off the streets in a year (not an unrealistic figure), this could mean a saving to local government of more than £500,000.
Benefits of enforcement
The benefits of undertaking enforcement action against fraudulent use of Blue Badges are varied and far-reaching. They include:
- More space for genuine badge holders.
- Better management of the kerbside. As people are discouraged from using prime locations as long-stay parking, this means a greater turnover of visitors to high streets.
- Improved traffic management and better air quality. For many, fraudulent use of the Blue Badge makes driving and parking a car affordable. By taking this advantage away, they are forced to switch to public transport and active travel, reducing the number of vehicles on the road.
- Increased revenue to councils through correct payment of pay and display, pay by phone and permit charges.
At the time of writing (November 2012) ten London boroughs had undertaken enforcement operations against Blue Badge Fraud. Some have been doing so for some time, using tried-and-tested procedures, while others are relatively new to this area. The following good practice advice is compiled from all of these boroughs.
While the benefits speak for themselves, any parking work carries with it a heightened level of political sensitivity. What starts out as ‘Council tackles parking fraud to benefit disabled people’ can quickly become ‘Council wages war on the motorist’. It is therefore essential to seek political agreement before undertaking any enforcement against Blue Badge fraud to ensure no-one is taken by surprise and that everyone is on-message. See below the importance of agreed communications messages.
It is important to get into the habit of collecting strong evidence against potential fraudsters. This starts with CEOs, and may require the collection of more evidence than would normally be required. This includes full pocket book notes (or electronic equivalent), such as descriptions of any persons seen, who parks the vehicle, who gets out of the vehicle and where they go upon leaving. It is also important to gather photographic evidence, including of people in or getting out of the vehicle.
Some boroughs operate a dedicated phone line and/or email address for people to report misuse. If this is to be successful, the borough must be able to demonstrate that the information supplied can be acted on and responded to. Publicising a helpline (if sufficiently resourced to be useful) also serves as a deterrent to potential fraudulent Blue Badge users; it also instils confidence among disabled people that the council is responding to this serious issue.
Tackling this type of fraud can be complicated and resource intensive. A common theme among those boroughs that have had success in this area is involving other departments and other agencies. Some of the most common delivery partners are shown below:
- CEOs / enforcement contractor – in order to gather evidence and respond quickly to cases of fraud, the enforcement team (or contractor if outsourced) needs to be involved from the outset to ensure their systems are able to cope with enhanced evidence collection. They should also be involved in any targeted enforcement activity: once a Blue Badge is seized, a PCN can be issued as the vehicle is illegally parked. This will go some way to recouping costs of enforcement, and will also serve as an immediate consequence to the motorist. Depending on the circumstances and local policies, the vehicle may also be removed to the pound. Having the removal team (or contractor) primed will enable them to respond quickly.
- Internal fraud team – most councils have an internal fraud investigation team to consider council tax / benefit fraud etc. Making use of their specialist skills and resources can enable the enforcement operation to better target their attention, improving success rates.
- Communications teams – it is important to promote this work (see below) and comms colleagues should be involved at the earliest opportunity to ensure the borough capitalises on this work.
- Town Centre Managers – where there is a town centre management team and/or Business Improvement District, they can provide valuable intelligence on problem locations and the best days / times to target enforcement activity.
- Police – while CEOs have the power to inspect Blue Badges (a motorist commits an offence if they fail to comply), only the Police have the power to actually seize a badge they believe to be fraudulently used. Their cooperation can considerably improve the efficacy of targeted enforcement action, not least because they can arrest people on the spot, as well as carrying out checks on vehicles such as insurance and tax validity. The initial approach should be made to the local Safer Neighbourhood Team.
- Other boroughs – given borough boundaries are permeable and Blue Badges are valid nationwide, it is considerably easier to enforce against fraud when the issuing borough cooperates. Anecdotal evidence suggests most London boroughs are very cooperative, although some could do better when responding to requests for information from their neighbours.
Targeted enforcement activity
Given how resource intensive this work can be, many councils find it makes sense to focus their attention on those areas where the most fraud appears to take place. This is partly to improve rates of enforcement, showing a greater return on the upfront costs of the work, but also to focus attention on those areas where disabled people are most disadvantaged by desirable spaces being occupied. Such locations include commuter hubs, colleges, stations, shopping centres, sports grounds and entertainment venues, or anywhere that parking is in high demand and a Blue Badge is of maximum value to someone who may misuse it.
Intelligence should be gathered to identify the appropriate time and location for enforcement. Council officers would inspect Blue Badges they believe to be in use fraudulently. The police would seize the badge if fraud was confirmed, and the motorist could then be questioned under caution by either the Police or the council’s fraud officers. At the same time, the Police would check the vehicle’s tax and insurance, and the CEO would issue a ticket. Depending on the location and offence(s) committed, the council may remove the vehicle to the pound.
In order to meet the objectives of the enforcement activity, i.e. addressing disabled people’s concerns and reducing fraud at the expense of the public purse, it is essential to promote the enforcement activity through appropriate channels. These are likely to be local print media in the first instance, but also community websites (like SE1.co.uk) and specialist publications (Local Transport Today etc). Some boroughs have seen national press and broadcast coverage of their work, which is an indication of both how important the issue is and how relatively rare it is for enforcement to be undertaken.
Communications teams should be involved from the very start (i.e. planning the activity) to ensure that messages can be planned in advance and agreed with politicians. Failing to do so can mean press releases getting pulled because of conflicting or higher-priority activity. As is common, the story has to be very fresh; delaying the issue of a press release while political sign-off is sought can mean the story is dropped. The best approach, subject to thorough advanced planning and a strong relationship with the local press, is to have a reporter and/or photographer present during an enforcement operation.
The following legislation is relevant to enforcement against Blue Badge Fraud:
- Traffic Management Act 2004
- Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970 s21(4b)
- Road Traffic Regulations Act 1984 s115 – s117 (for misused badges)
- Fraud Act 2006 (ss1, 2, 6 and 11, and s3 of the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981, for counterfeit badges)
- Theft Act 2006 (ss1 and 22, for stolen badges)
- The Disabled Persons (Badges for Motor Vehicles) Regulations 2000
Section 94 of the Traffic Management Act 2004 serves as an amendment to s21 of the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act 1970. Under the terms of the act, Police officers, traffic wardens and civil enforcement officers have the powered to inspect Blue Badges from anyone getting into or out of a vehicle displaying a badge. It is a criminal offence for anyone to fail (without reasonable excuse) to provide the badge for inspection. Only Police officers have the right to confiscate the badge, at which point they may then hand it over to the local authority for use as evidence in any resulting prosecution. This will also take the badge out of circulation.
Some boroughs have used provisions in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) to tackle Blue Badge Fraud, with varying degrees of success. However, the Act can be cumbersome, expensive and increasingly restricted for political reasons. Given more appropriate legislation exists, boroughs are advised not to use RIPA powers for this type of enforcement activity.
Costs of undertaking enforcement action
While this work is clearly of benefit to disabled people and certainly in the public interest, it can be expensive. This is partly because of the need to involve other departments and agencies, but also because cost recovery isn’t always possible. Magistrates’ court fines are often very small and, where costs are recovered, they may not make it back to the department responsible for carrying out the work (or apportioned appropriately). Councils undertaking this work therefore need to identify appropriate resources to cover costs, and offset these against the goodwill and public interest benefits, as opposed to expecting a correlation between enforcement action and income.
Borough success stories
Wandsworth Council has historically had an investigator who dealt with parking fraud, primarily looking at resident parking permits. In September 2004, the team was expanded and the remit broadened to include Blue Badge fraud. Since this time they have prosecuted 454 individuals for 1,791 offences with a conviction rate of 99.8%. These investigations and prosecutions have resulted in offenders paying £599,000 in fines, as well as costs to the council, PCNs and removal fees. In some cases, offenders were issued suspended prison sentences, community service orders and tagged curfews.
Lambeth has had considerable success in this area since they started tackling Blue Badge fraud in 2006. Lambeth’s policy is to always prosecute offenders where there is sufficient evidence to do so. As a result, they have prosecuted more than 700 offences with a success rate of 99 per cent in the magistrate’s court.
Lambeth offers its Blue Badge Fraud Investigation service to other local authorities; they are currently delivering this service for Croydon Council and are actively looking for new borough clients. In just six months, nearly 250 instances of Blue Badge fraud have been identified and tackled in Croydon. Due to political and financial constraints, they do not currently prosecute every case; offences identified in Croydon are usually dealt with by way of warning and a PCN, and in many instances the vehicles are also removed to Croydon’s vehicle pound.
Sutton’s permit team works in partnership with the Sutton town centre police team. They set up sweeps of the high street to check blue badges after receiving several complaints from badge holders about a shortage of spaces. They have confiscated nine badges so far, and they are now working with the safer neighbourhood teams in other parts of the borough. The permit team works in partnership with the fraud team, who assist in carrying out interviews under caution and prosecutions of badge abusers. Enforcement contractors issue parking tickets to vehicles where a badge is seized for not displaying a valid badge. They have received a lot of positive feedback from badge holders who are pleased the council is taking badge abuse seriously and ensuring the disabled bays are being used by those who need them most.
Islington council receives high levels of complaints from residents about the abuse of blue badges around the Emirates Stadium. The Fraud Team undertakes regular patrols of the area on match days by checking badges displayed in vehicles and also approaching fans arriving prior to the match, sometimes with the assistance of the Police. The successes recorded have been encouraging and have ensured that drivers are now aware that the team exists and that action will be taken.
They Islington team undertakes special projects to verify the use of blue badges in other areas where the use is higher than usual, for example minicabs parked outside their bases. They also carry out daily compliance visits to homes and streets within Islington, to specifically check up on badge holders and how they use their badges.
“Waltham Forest proactively undertakes action against Blue Badge abuse. We have a dedicated specialist counter fraud team that operates across the borough and since September 2012 we have seized over 300 badges and gathered useful intelligence that has been used to help prevent other types of fraud.
One of the measures the team carries out is joint operations with the Police to identify motorists with badges that are fake, stolen or in the name of a deceased relative. Motorists that misuse blue badges can expect robust action to be taken against them, which could include the badge being confiscated, a Penalty Change Notice (PCN) being issued, having their vehicles removed and impounded and ultimately prosecution. Additionally whilst working with the Police a number of motorists have been arrested and through the prosecution process one motorist has even been banned from driving.”
Blue badge enforcement has been carried out in Camden for the past five years. The Camden blue badge enforcement team consists of one council officer and two NSL CEOs. One CEO patrols the streets on foot and the other on a moped and they regularly cover the whole borough. The CEOs are currently trialling the use of the Blue Badge Improvement Services (BBIS) and are able to login and use the information on the BBIS website whilst on the streets to check the validity of blue badges. The Camden fraud enforcement team is in daily contact with the surrounding local boroughs. Special operations with other councils and the Police are carried out throughout the year. In the past five years, the council has collected £117,000 in tow away charges from vehicles displaying invalid blue badges, seized 963 badges, and been awarded £48,000 in prosecution costs by the courts.