Merton a hotbed for blue badge cheats – but the fightback is on

By Harrison Galliven, Local Democracy Reporter

Nearly 20 cases of blue badge misuse have been discovered in Merton during the first week of the council’s inaugural effort to crack down on disability parking fraud.

One councillor likened the fraud to “stealing from a charity donation box”.

Merton council announced it has completed the first week of its collaboration with the National Agency for Blue Badge Fraud investigation (BBFI) in an effort to clamp down on misuse in the borough.

The BBFI’s initial findings have revealed that Merton has an unusually high number of people misusing badges issued in a neighbouring borough.

The BBFI also revealed the worrying trend of criminals using Snapchat to peddle counterfeit and stolen badges to people in the borough. This discovery has helped them in their goal to successfully prosecute offenders in the borough.

Paul Slowey, chief executive of the BFFI said:  “Misusing badges is a bit of a lose-lose situation because it means disabled people can’t park and the council loses money. Enforcing it, therefore, is a win-win for everyone, it’s what councils should be doing.

“We found misuse that we would find anywhere, but one thing that is interesting is that people are coming from all over to use the badges in Merton. Of the badges we found to be misused so far, 29 per cent were issued in Merton.”

Badges issued by councils from Wandsworth, Sutton, Kingston, Croydon, and Surrey were being used in Merton, according to Mr Slowey. This stands in sharp contrast to neighbouring Sutton, where the BBFI found that 63 per cent of misused badges found were issued in that borough.

He added: “Seventy two per cent of the badges we’ve dealt with so far were friends and family misusing, and the other 28 per cent were stolen, lost and deceased people’s badges.

“Deceased tend to be relatives and family members. It could be granny’s badge who doesn’t need it any more because she’s dead and now you’ve got free parking.

“I don’t know where the stolen ones come from, people always say ‘my mate gave it to me’ or ‘I found it in the street’, they never say where they buy it, they just close up.”

Merton Council is cracking down on blue badge fraud for the first time (Picture, left: Rawpixel) while Snapchat has posts from people offering fake blue badges (Picture, right: Paul Slowey

Mr Slowey believes relative inaction taken on enforcement since the introduction of the blue badge scheme is part of the reason for a rise in misuse. He said: “The scheme has been around 50 years. Why haven’t they been prosecuting people?  But at the same time, they are now doing it, which is brilliant.”

According to Mr Slowey, counterfeit badges now make up a sizeable portion of the BBFI’s caseload and that they are mainly being sold on Snapchat.

He said: “We have seized one of these badges in Merton, that was being used by an estate agent. We approached him, and he said he got a badge from his mate and he used it in his car.

“Back in the day, stolen badges were bought in pubs, whether there are still pubs you can buy stolen stuff I don’t know. Whether it’s all gone online, or the dark web or on social media I don’t know.”

According to Mr Slowey, the counterfeits are generally of a high quality and would be hard to identify without proper training. In response, the BBFI has posted a number of videos on their official you tube channel to help the public identify the difference.

This pilot investigation with Merton council represents the borough’s first-ever effort to crack down on badge misuse in history.

According to councillor Stephen Alambritis MBE, the decision to act has come following a rise in public whistleblowing around the issue.

Cllr Alambritis, Merton’s cabinet member for transport, said: “We had a little spike in residents contacting us about blue badge fraud, so decided to work with BBFI.

“The Blue Badge Scheme is an important asset to millions, enabling those with disability or infirmity to retain their mobility and independence.

“Abuse of the scheme is to my mind the same as stealing from a charity donation box, it deprives something valuable from those who need it most. That’s why we’re stepping up detection and enforcement.

“If you steal blue badges we will catch up with you and fine you, it may end up in the magistrates’ court as well.”

The BBFI is a non-profit organisation, with a current part-time workforce of 23 people operating throughout the UK. They primarily work in the capital, but have also carried out similar operations in the Midlands and the South West.

Mr Slowey said: “I ran an initial pilot in Camden in 2000, at which point the blue badge scheme had never been enforced by anyone. Camden asked can I be enforced, if it misused, is there was fraud and are there stolen badges and the answer was yes to all of those and we went on to prosecute people and take them to court.”

He subsequently set up the BBFI in 2008 and now takes on around 1500 cases a year. While the current scheme in Merton is in a pilot phase, both the council and BBFI are keen to make year-round enforcement permanent.

Pictured top: Paul Slowey (Picture): Paul Slowey

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