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Supermarkets ignore government call to clamp down on bay abuse

Major supermarket chains have been criticised for failing to do more to stop the abuse of accessible parking bays, despite a government minister asking them to tackle the problem.

Liberal Democrat transport minister Norman Baker wrote to supermarkets earlier this year as part of government efforts to reform the system of disabled people’s blue parking badges.

He announced this week that seven supermarkets had expressed their support for government efforts to “eradicate blue badge abuse”.

Disabled campaigners have been calling for supermarkets to introduce stricter enforcement of their accessible spaces – including the introduction of widespread fines for abuse – for about 10 years.

But when Disability News Service contacted the “big four” chains – Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons and Asda – none of them said they had agreed to strengthen enforcement as a result of Baker’s letter.

Helen Dolphin, director of policy and campaigns for the charity Disabled Motoring UK [DM UK, formerly Mobilise], welcomed the minister’s letter and said she hoped he would write to the supermarkets again in several months to ask what action they had taken.

She said supermarkets knew the only method of enforcement that worked was issuing fines.

Under the Equality Act, supermarkets that operate their own carparks would probably have to show they had taken reasonable steps to ensure their accessible spaces are available to their disabled customers.

Dolphin said she believed there had been a number of such cases taken by disabled people under the Disability Discrimination Act, but that they had all been settled out of court.

She added: “I would like to see more people take court actions against supermarkets for failing to tackle abuse.

“It is only when they are threatened with legal action that they pull their fingers out and do something. If I face such discrimination, I will be taking a case. It seems to be the only way forward.”

Of the big four, Asda led the way by introducing widespread fining for abuse in 2008.

Tesco’s efforts have in the past been criticised as half-hearted by campaigners, with the last survey by the Baywatch campaign – DM UK, the British Polio Fellowship and Disability Now magazine – finding its bays were the most likely to be abused of the four chains.

Morrisons has also been criticised for lagging behind in introducing fining, while Sainsbury’s was the best performer in the last Baywatch survey after it began fining some abusers in 2009.

But none of the four said they had agreed to toughen their enforcement.

Tesco said its policy had not changed as a result of the minister’s letter.

A Tesco spokesman said they did not fine bay abusers in all their carparks, although he claimed that “in some areas where abuse is prevalent we are very strict”, while in other carparks “there is no need”.

A Morrisons spokesman said: “We are happy to reinforce the government’s message, but has something voluntarily changed in terms of our policy? It has not.”

He said the store fined abusers “from time to time” but not more often because “we prefer to educate first and penalise afterwards”.

Sainsbury’s said its position “has not changed with this announcement”, which it said was “an opportunity to launch our support for the initiative and reiterate the fact that we recognise that this is something that frustrates our customers”.

Asda also confirmed that its policies had not changed as a result of Baker’s letter, although –uniquely among the big four – it said it fined all cars abusing accessible spaces.

A spokeswoman said: “We are leading on this and always have done. Any car using a disabled space without a blue badge will be fined immediately. That is our policy.”

A Department for Transport spokeswoman said: ““All of the supermarkets who responded share the government’s view that abuse of blue badges needs to be tackled and said they are taking action on this issue. 

“This is an important step in tackling abuse of blue badges and ensuring that the government’s reforms announced in February are more widely enforced.”