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Cornwall Council (21 010 362)

Category : Adult care services > Transport

Decision : Upheld

Decision date : 28 Mar 2022

The Ombudsman's final decision:

Summary: Mr B complains the Council has not properly assessed his eligibility for a Blue Badge. The Council considered the evidence Mr B provided but it told Mr B that he could not provide information from his GP and this was fault. The Council has agreed to apologise to Mr B. The Council agreed to allow Mr B to send in further evidence and to provide him with an assessment to consider that evidence.

The complaint

  1. Mr B says he has underlying mental health conditions which affect his ability to walk. He says the Council has not properly considered these conditions when it assessed his eligibility for a Blue Badge.

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The Ombudsman’s role and powers

  1. We investigate complaints about ‘maladministration’ and ‘service failure’. In this statement, I have used the word fault to refer to these. We must also consider whether any fault has had an adverse impact on the person making the complaint. I refer to this as ‘injustice’. If there has been fault which has caused an injustice, we may suggest a remedy. (Local Government Act 1974, sections 26(1) and 26A(1), as amended)
  2. If we are satisfied with a council’s actions or proposed actions, we can complete our investigation and issue a decision statement. (Local Government Act 1974, section 30(1B) and 34H(i), as amended)

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How I considered this complaint

  1. I have discussed the complaint with Mr B. I have considered the documents he and the Council have sent, the relevant law, policies and guidance and both sides’ comments on the draft decision.

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What I found

Guidance and policies

  1. The Department for Transport’s (DfT) Blue Badge Scheme helps people with severe physical mobility problems, or other conditions affecting their mobility, to access goods and services by allowing them or a carer to park near their destination.
  2. The DfT issued new guidance to councils in August 2019, replacing the 2014 guidance. The main change was the introduction of assessment criteria for people with severe mobility problems caused by non-visible (‘hidden’) disabilities.
  3. The DfT guidance sets out what assessors may wish to consider when assessing a person’s mobility. The guidance is non-statutory so councils are not legally obliged to follow it, but most councils do.

Eligibility criteria

  1. There are two types of eligibility criteria.
    • Where a person is eligible without further assessment, they will receive a Blue Badge.
    • Where a person is eligible subject to further assessment, they have to fulfil one these criteria to qualify for a badge:
      1. a person who drives a vehicle regularly, has a severe disability in both arms and is unable to operate, or has considerable difficulty in operating, all, or some types of parking meter; or
      2. a person who has been certified by an expert assessor as having an enduring and substantial disability which causes them, during the course of a journey, to be unable to walk, experience very considerable difficulty whilst walking, which may include very considerable psychological distress
      3. in addition, they may be at risk of serious harm when walking - or pose, when walking, a risk of serious harm to any other person

Non-visible disabilities

  1. Councils do not have to carry out an in-person mobility assessment for a person who is unable or has great difficulty walking because of a ‘hidden’ disability. Such applicants may experience developmental, behavioural, or mental health conditions which could make answering questions or completing an in-person mobility assessment overwhelmingly stressful or intimidating. A mobility assessment may also not be relevant as a means of demonstrating the underlying difficulty that a person experiences when walking.

Role of the GP and the expert assessor

  1. The Guidance says:
    • The role of an applicant’s personal GP in Blue Badge decision making has been reduced considerably since the implementation of reforms to the Blue Badge Scheme in 2012. The widespread use of independent mobility assessments was central to this outcome.
    • Local authorities can choose to accept evidence from GPs in support of applications, provided this is not the only source of evidence that is used to determine the eligibility of a Blue Badge application.
    • Expert assessors such as occupational therapists or physiotherapists will carry out impartial mobility assessments.
    • A GP cannot fulfil the role of ‘expert assessor’.
    • Mobility assessments may be less appropriate for some people with non-visible (‘hidden’) conditions. Therefore, the broadened title of ‘expert assessor’ is intended to enable local authorities to draw upon a wider range of professionals with closer knowledge of the applicant’s case history to certify eligibility when required.
    • Input from an applicant’s own GP may be considered helpful where it contextualises the applicant’s lived experience of their disability in the absence of input from other suitably qualified health or social care professionals.

What happened

Mr B’s application – July 2021

  1. Mr B applied for a Blue Badge and said the following.
    • He had a personality disorder which prevented him from using busy places as this could trigger an anxiety attack. Searching for a parking place was an example of stress that would cause psychological distress and mood swings.
    • If a parking space was not available, he endured considerable psychological distress.
    • He found busy places very distressful, raising his anxiety levels.
    • He avoided situations where his anxiety was raised. This meant he would go out early in the day to shop or not shop at all.
    • He suffered post-traumatic stress after taken part in the Gulf War in 1990. He spent time in a psychiatric unit in 1994 and was prescribed anti-depressants when he was discharged from the hospital (in 1994). He had been on these drugs since then. He was medically discharged from the army in 1996.
    • He could be at serious harm when walking ‘if a depression mood swing occurs especially if brought about from personality traits.’
  2. Mr B attached a medical record from 1996 which said:
    • Mr B had a diagnosis of depressive illness.
    • He should continue on medication for six months and then withdraw under the supervision of his GP.
    • If he had a relapse of his depression, he should refer to his local psychiatric facilities.
    • There was no evidence of psychotic disorder.
    • His problems began following the Gulf War when he seems to have become increasingly low in mood with an exacerbation of pre-existing obsessional personality traits.
  3. The Council asked Mr B some further questions to assess his application.
    • Did he receive any therapy or treatment for his depression? Mr B had not received any treatment except for the anti-depressant tablets. Mr B said he had psychotic episodes when he was upset or aggravated.
    • How often did Mr B experience the mood swings / depression / anxiety attacks when he could not find a parking space? Mr B said it had happened on the last two Sundays when he went to the shops.
    • What were Mr B’s coping strategies? Mr B said he planned his car journeys carefully, but if things did not go as planned, he would leave. He did not go anywhere without his wife and he did not have any friends.

Council’s decision – August 2021

  1. The Council declined Mr B’s application and said the following.
    • Mr B had provided medical evidence of depression and not of any other mental health conditions. The evidence was dated from 1996. The assessor could not determine that Mr B had difficulty walking or suffered psychological distress while walking. Mr B had said that he had been unable to park twice in the last month, which was not that frequent. Also, Mr B said his wife accompanied him and this was his coping strategy.
    • ‘Assessing hidden disability applications can be a challenge and we rely heavily on supporting information from expert assessors (medical professionals involved with the applicant) not including their GP alone’.
    • If Mr B did not agree with the decision, the Council could look at the decision again. He should explain why he felt the decision was wrong and provide any additional information he had not already submitted, from a health professional to support his request.
    • ‘Please do not ask your GP for a letter but instead provide information from another health professional such as an occupational therapist, physiotherapist or consultant.’

Mr B’s appeal – September 2021

  1. Mr B appealed the decision and said:
    • The Council said there was insufficient evidence of his hidden disability. He suffered from depression and he had been on anti-depressants for nearly 30 years.
    • The Council said it would not accept evidence from his GP who reviewed his illness and continued to prescribe the same medication.
    • He could not provide proof of the psychological stress or anxiety that he suffered but provided an example.
    • He would like to see an expert assessor to help them to understand his ‘illness and worthiness of a Blue Badge.’

The Council’s review – October 2021

  1. The Council considered the evidence but did not change its assessment. It said:
    • The medical evidence from the 90’s only showed that he suffered from depression. There was not enough information on his mental health and how it affected him.
    • Mr B had coping strategies to prepare for journeys and the ‘bad days’ did not happen that frequently.
    • Mr B had spoken to his MP and she had advised him that he would have to provide a psychiatric report.
    • The Council told Mr B that it could send him for an assessment by an expert assessor but they would assess his mobility. The Council’s expert assessor could not diagnose mental health conditions such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
  2. In his correspondence with the Ombudsman, Mr B said he had a diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder in 1992/93, but the record was lost. He said he was awarded his pension in 2006 because of his depression and this pension was still being paid as it was deemed that his condition would not improve.

Analysis

  1. I have a lot of sympathy for Mr B and the difficulties he is experiencing. However, I can only say whether there was any fault in the way the Council assessed Mr B.
  2. Mr B made his application for a Blue Badge on the basis that he had underlying mental health conditions including psychotic episodes, PTSD and anxiety which affected his ability to walk.
  3. The Council checked the expert evidence Mr B provided but noted that Mr B’s medical diagnosis was depression and that this diagnosis dated back to 1996.
  4. The Council said Mr B had coping strategies and was not affected ‘more often than not’ by his conditions.
  5. The Council considered the evidence and the Blue Badge Guidance and said there was insufficient evidence of Mr B’s hidden disabilities or the way they affected his ability to walk. I find no fault in the Council’s decision making.
  6. I note the Council asked for further recent evidence of Mr B’s underlying mental health conditions and how they affected his ability to walk. There was no fault in that approach.
  7. However, there was fault in the Council’s statement that Mr B should not submit a GP letter. It appears to me that this may be a standard sentence that the Council uses in cases involving physical disabilities where an applicant has already sent a GP letter. However, that was not Mr B’s case. Mr B had not provided any GP evidence yet. The Council had a duty to consider GP evidence, particularly as Mr B’s GP was the only health professional involved with Mr B’s mental health treatment.
  8. I also note that this sentence slightly contradicted the rest of the letter which said that applicants could submit evidence from a health professional and that the Council could rely upon GP evidence.
  9. I cannot say, of course whether Mr B has suffered any injustice from this fault. It may well be that, even if Mr B’s GP had provided a letter, the decision may still have been the same.

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Agreed action

  1. The Council has agreed to take the following actions. It will:
    • apologise to Mr B for the fault within one month; and
    • allow Mr B to send in further evidence from his GP or any other evidence and provide him with an assessment to consider that evidence.

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Final decision

  1. I have completed my investigation and found fault by the Council. The Council has agreed the remedy to address the injustice.

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Investigator's decision on behalf of the Ombudsman

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