I beg to move,
That this House calls on the Government to undertake a consultation to identify the most efficient means of abolishing car parking charges at NHS hospitals in England for patients, staff and visitors and to provide the timescale for its implementation.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for accepting the application for this vital debate. I especially thank my colleagues who have supported me in securing it, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan), the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) and the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker). I also thank the various charities and organisations that have actively supported the campaign through their own research and on social media, such as CLIC Sargent, Bliss and Scope, and organisations representing drivers, such as FairFuelUK and the RAC. Those are just a few of the bodies offering their help and support to bring an end to the extortionate car parking charges found at many hospitals in England.
We all know that being a patient or visitor can be a stressful time. The last thing that anyone should be worried about is whether they have change for a car park or whether they can afford the rates that are charged. I started this campaign for free hospital car parking in 2014, after finding out that hospitals in England were charging staff and visitors up to £500 a week to use on-site parking facilities. As a result, in the same year, the Government published guidance urging hospitals to cut their parking fees. They said:
“Concessions, including free or reduced charges or caps should be available for staff working unsociable shifts, blue badge holders and visitors of gravely ill relatives.”
Although some weekly charges have fallen since 2014, I was shocked to discover last year when we carried out further research that 47% of hospitals have increased the hourly parking charges and nearly half of hospitals charge blue badge holders to park. The average cost to park for a week at a hospital in England is £53.41 and people pay on average £1.98 for one hour stay.
The right hon. Gentleman is a fantastic campaigner on such issues and I congratulate him on bringing the issue to the House of Commons. In my constituency, Kingston Hospital just announced with no consultation that it will impose parking charges on blue badge holders, citing that people are doing it everywhere else in the NHS and that it is an NHS-wide issue. Does he therefore not agree with me that it is up to the Government to give a clear lead and, at the very least, get rid of parking charges for blue badge holders?
The right hon. Gentleman is exactly right. Too often, these charges are imposed without any consultation, or without fair consultation, and they hit the most vulnerable. He will hear later in my remarks that I completely agree with him.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not take too many interventions, but I would be honoured to take one from the hon. Gentleman.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey). A lot of the hospital charges are part of private finance initiatives, and he is right that the Secretary of State or the Minister responsible should now be looking at eliminating those charges. We could argue that they are a tax on illness.
That is the sad thing. Many private companies are making profits from the taxpayer and the most vulnerable people in our society. That must stop. The PFI things that have happened under Governments of both main parties have caused huge amounts of problems to many people, particularly when they park at hospitals up and down the country.
There is still a postcode lottery on car parking charges; different hospital trusts set wildly different fees. The core principle of the NHS is to provide free healthcare for all at the point of access but the charges are a stealth tax on drivers using the health service. The parking charges are the bane of people’s lives. No one goes to hospital out of choice; they go because they have to. No one chooses to be ill, and we rely on our doctors and nurses to look after us. I urge the Health Secretary and the Minister to take urgent action to end this social injustice once and for all, and to introduce substantive legislation to ensure hospitals scrap their parking charges.
Mindful of the advice from the Chair, I shall give way one last time.
My right hon. Friend is being most generous. I should declare that I am the joint chair of the all-party parliamentary group for fair fuel for UK motorists and UK hauliers. I have tremendous sympathy with my right hon. Friend in this respect and have campaigned hard on hospital parking charges in my own constituency. However, one difficulty I have in squaring the circle is the fact that my hospital is located right in the town centre and, if it is free, people use it as a base to go off shopping. That has happened in the past. Does my right hon. Friend have any solutions or ideas to deal with that?
I am very proud to have worked with my hon. Friend on the FairFuelUK campaign to keep fuel duty low. The point he has just made is very broad, so if he could wait a few minutes, I hope to be able to address the concerns that he has expressed.
I mentioned earlier that, in 2014, the Government had offered guidelines on concessions for patients and visitors. I welcomed that, as it was a sign that the Government were aware of the extortionate costs facing hospital users, but the problem with the guidance is that none of it is mandatory. In fact, the guidance encourages the postcode lottery. The guidelines state that charges should be reasonable for the area. Trusts are free to set their own fees, which means that patients and staff living in London and the south-east are charged the most. I have asked the Government on a number of occasions what constitutes a reasonable charge, and I consistently receive responses along the following lines: first, that hospital car parking charges are a matter for individual NHS trusts; secondly, that local NHS trusts are expected to follow the published guidance; and thirdly, that the Department of Health and Social Care has not discussed car parking charges with local NHS trusts.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will give way one last time, as I want to be fair to Mr Deputy Speaker who spoke to me before the debate started.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the national health service is not best placed for administering car parks, and that if we take car parking charges away from it we should also take away the whole provision of car parking from it and ensure that it does not lose out financially as a result?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. The crucial thing is that the NHS does not lose out financially. I think that that is the substance of what he is saying.
Sadly, the guidance is superficial. I have been unable to work out what constitutes a reasonable charge. The Government are not able or willing to keep local trusts in check. Since 2013, the campaign to scrap hospital car parking charges has gained speed, with more and more leading UK charities and associations representing drivers carrying out research into the negative effects of the charges on different groups of patients and drivers.
The sick and vulnerable are disproportionately hit by the charges, particularly those with long-term or severe illnesses who require repeated or lengthy stays in hospital. Research has shown that cancer patients and parents of premature babies face the greatest financial consequences. CLIC Sargent, a wonderful charity supporting young people with cancer, found that families were paying an average of £37 in car parking charges every month, with some families paying up to £10 per day. It also says that more than one in four parents of a child with cancer—29%—are not offered a reduction in parking costs by their NHS trust.
Macmillan Cancer Support mirrors that sentiment, saying that cancer patients in England are paying extortionate hospital car parking charges. Bliss is another very special charity for families with premature babies. Although some babies stay in the neonatal unit only for a few days, some parents will have to pay more than £250 if their baby stays in the neonatal unit for eight weeks. The charity says that many parents cannot even afford to go to see their premature baby because of the cost of hospital car parking.
I have a quote from the charity, Headway, which really sums up the whole debate. Headway does an incredible amount of work with brain injury. This is what it said:
“Recently, we supported a family who had spent more than £1,500 in parking charges in only 15 weeks. They needed to be at the bedside of their son who was fighting for his life after sustaining brain injury. What parent wouldn’t want to be there, day and night? Yet they were faced with a huge bill. These charges are driving families into debt and despair at a time when they already have more than enough to cope with.”
Kidney Care, another charity, told me that dialysis patients have to go to hospital three times a week, and each appointment takes four hours, with the average cost of four hours of parking estimated to be £3.28. Members can imagine how the costs stack up. The right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) mentioned disabled car parking. It is extraordinary that, despite the Government guidance, almost half of hospitals inexplicably charge disabled drivers. They do not go to hospital out of choice. It is harder for them to use public transport, yet they have to pay significant charges. Even the hospitals that allow free parking attach a lot of conditions to that provision. Scope, the charity supporting disabled people, shares the sentiment, widely noting that disabled people
“have on average £108,000 fewer savings and assets than non-disabled people”.
It is not just charities that do valuable work. The RAC and FairFuelUK have also supported the campaign to scrap hospital car parking charges. I have worked with Howard Cox at FairFuelUK for a number of years in order to freeze fuel duty. The organisation held a poll last year with almost 9,000 respondents, 95.5% of whom wanted hospital parking scrapped or set at a maximum of £1. The RAC carried out a serious survey of more than 1,000 motorists. Two thirds of them named hospitals as the location where they most disliked having to pay for parking, and 41% said that the Government should scrap hospital parking charges immediately. It is clear that support is growing for the campaign to scrap hospital car parking charges, not only from the charities representing the most vulnerable—often with long-term and life-threatening illnesses—but from the two major organisations representing millions of motorists in the United Kingdom.
The support for an end to hospital car parking for patients and their visitors is clear, but we must not forget our incredibly hard-working NHS staff, some of whom are charged to go to work. Other public sector workers such as police officers and teachers are, for the most part, rightly able to park for free on their work premises, whether at a police station or a school. The Government guidance suggests that concessions should be available to all hospital staff—nurses, porters, cleaners, occupational therapists and doctors—working shifts that make public transport use difficult, but so much of the hospital workforce cannot rely on public transport to get to work.
Let us take the example of a hospital worker living in Pocklington in Yorkshire. He or she would either have to make the 15-mile drive to work at York Hospital and pay £2 to park during the shift, or spend more than an hour on two buses to get to work. If staff are working shifts at unsociable hours—as, of course, many do in the health service—they have no choice but to use hospital car parks.
Although all hospitals seem to offer a discounted parking scheme based on pay band or salary, or by allocating a limited number of discounted staff spaces, NHS staff are charged to work unsociable hours. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) was told by hospital staff that they cannot afford the charges at hospital car parks, so they have to park on unlit nearby streets, which leaves them vulnerable when leaving the workplace at night.
Interestingly, staff car parking charges are a nuisance not just for hard-working NHS staff, but for residents too. I was recently contacted by a resident of Scarborough. This person was delighted to hear of the campaign, but came from a rather different angle. Staff park in the residential roads around Scarborough General Hospital to avoid being charged to go to work. The influx of cars every day means that driveways are blocked, there is more traffic on the road and residents are unable to go about their daily business.
I realise that hospital parking charges can be a source of income for hospitals. They are certainly a goldmine for some private companies, but the Government have previously stated:
“Providing free car parking at NHS hospitals would result in some £200 million per year being taken from clinical care budgets to make up the shortfall.”
I have a number of things to say about that. When considered in the content of the £120 billion-plus to be spent on running the NHS, the figure of £200 million is put into perspective. Going on the assumption that free hospital car parking would cost £200 million a year, I think that there are a number of funding options that would not leave hospitals out of pocket or affect clinical care budgets. The Government themselves have published a report saying that better procurement in national health service hospitals would bring in more than £1 billion a year. I am just asking for £200 million to scrap hospital car parking charges.
The Department of Health financial accounts for 2016-17 suggest that the Department underspent its revenue budget by £563 million, which is about 0.5% of the total budget. Could some of this money not go towards covering the parking costs of patients and hospital staff? It might also be time to look at other areas of government where we spend a significant amount of money and look at reallocating the very small amount of that money—£200 million—that it would take to scrap hospital car parking charges.
Another concern, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight), is that free parking at hospitals would be exploited by shoppers. However, this could easily be solved by using parking tokens validated by ward staff. Some NHS hospitals in England do the right thing and provide free parking, including Northamptonshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust. That shows that it is possible to deliver free parking for patients, visitors and staff while discouraging abuse of the system with tokens or barriers. Having contacted hospitals in Scotland and Wales directly, I know that there are numerous parking solutions to ensure that free parking is not exploited. Alongside the abolition of hospital car parking charges, a system could be introduced whereby a ticket or token is presented to ward staff at the beginning of the visit and validated at the end.
It is time to end the hospital car parking rip-off once and for all. The NHS is supposed to be free at point of access. It was never envisaged that people with cars would have to pay on top of their taxation for the national health service, yet patients and visitors are charged for access to vital services. That causes a huge amount of stress to many. It affects the most vulnerable: parents with sick children, patients suffering from long- term illnesses, and staff without access to public transport. These charges are a cause of major social injustice. Clearly, the Government guidance is not working. I urge the Government to look into the most efficient way to scrap hospital car parking charges and bring an end to this stealth tax on drivers once and for all.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I am bringing in an eight-minute limit. I call Melanie Onn to continue the debate.
I am very grateful to be able to take part in this important debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), and my neighbour, the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), on securing it.
Diana, Princess of Wales Hospital in my constituency provides a range of helpful wellbeing services. The site has an A&E, a dialysis unit, a child development unit, a nursery, an eating disorder unit, and health education spaces. It covers a huge range of services that deliver to a very wide community. There are two main areas that I want to address: first, the difficulties and challenges for patients caused by ever-increasing parking tariffs; and, secondly, car parking issues for staff, which have been raised with me on a number of occasions when I have been at Grimsby’s hospital.
In Grimsby, I can go and park in the Iceland car park, in the centre of our town, for £1 an hour. If I need to park for more than two hours, I might go to the Abbey Walk multi-storey, again in the centre of town, and pay £3.50 for the privilege of four hours’ parking. Having worked in places like York, I know that I should be very grateful for the seemingly small amounts that it costs to park in the centre of our town, so I count my blessings. When those smaller amounts are set against what people are expected to pay in hospital parking charges, it feels very much to my constituents as though the NHS is over-inflating the expense and putting an unnecessary burden on patients and families.
The charge for an hour’s parking at Diana, Princess of Wales Hospital has recently increased to £2.10— £1.10 more than in the centre of our town. If I go to the hospital to pick up a prescription, it might take—on a good day, admittedly—just a few minutes to collect the prescription, but on top of the prescription cost, I am paying another £2.10 to do so. Last week, I went for a blood test. I walked in, got my ticket, checked on the screen, and saw that there was a wait of about 68 minutes. It took me a matter of minutes to get the blood test, but the sitting in the waiting room lasted about 68 minutes. The cost of that visit was therefore £3.50. I am not bemoaning the cost to my personal pocket. I can afford it, but many in my constituency cannot, and the cost is prohibitive.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, as well as the issues that have been raised powerfully so far, the example she gives shows the opportunity for greater flexibility? In Hounslow, for example, free half-hour parking has been introduced to support local businesses. It is the same for leisure centres. We need to be proportionate as we consider the overall issue, and that is what was can do today.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. There is room for flexibility, and all trusts should be looking at what they can do to make parking less prohibitive so that people are not put off.
It is galling for my constituents to know that parking charges are much lower in other areas of the town. Local authority car parks, shops and private parking companies all have the same issues of maintenance, lighting and security, albeit to different degrees, but they are not charging that high rate. It feels very much like profiteering off the back of people who have no choice but to be at hospital, whether that is for themselves, their friends or their relatives. The trust offers concessions through lower costs for blue badge holders, although they are not exempt from charges, as well as for parents who are staying overnight with poorly children and those having cancer treatment. That is, of course, incredibly welcome. However, when the justification for the charges is that they pay for the maintenance of the site, it really does not stack up, given the costs of other paid parking sites in the town.
An automatic number plate recognition system was recently installed at the Diana, Princess of Wales Hospital, which led to even more frustration and concern for constituents. While that fantastic new automated system was supposed to make the process a lot quicker and easier for people, all it did was to cause additional delays and costs. After spending time in the waiting room, as I had to, people had to come out to try to pay for their parking with the new machines. It caused absolute havoc, and there were queues going around the block, and people ended up tripping over into the next pay band and paying even more. The process caused an extraordinary amount of frustration and reflected very poorly on the trust, which is a real shame.
The knock-on effect of the charges is that surrounding streets, such as Second Avenue, Edge Avenue and Limetree Avenue, which are all residential streets with limited on-street parking, get filled with the cars of patients, staff and people attending the hospital. I know that there is nothing illegal about that. There is nothing wrong with people parking in those residential streets, but it really irritates residents if a parked car crosses a dropped kerb or impinges on people’s driveways. That is not only incredibly frustrating, but it gives rise to increased concerns about road safety, especially in school hours.
The right hon. Member for Harlow addressed very well the broader point that people with disabilities or long-term illnesses are generally financially worse off than the rest of the population. The additional cost represents a significant inconvenience and potential hardship for people who can least afford it.
Hospital staff have increasingly been talking to me about this issue. There have been discussions with staff about increasing the amount that they already pay to go to work. An increase has been postponed for now, but the opportunity for it to be brought back next year is, I understand, very much on the table, and the increase will be significant. As the right hon. Gentleman indicated, the people affected will be not just consultants or senior executives who might be earning a very good wage. We are also talking about porters, healthcare assistants and medical secretaries—all the people behind the scenes who keep the hospital going—being expected to pay even more.
The frustrations for staff are immense. They say that they already struggle to get a parking space, not least because some shifts overrun. The likelihood that someone might do an eight-hour shift in the NHS at the moment is frankly negligible. Most people, through their own good will, are giving more to the NHS and working beyond their shift. They do not want to leave their patients in the middle of an incident. The number of parking spaces available is therefore reduced, and people are leaving home an awful lot earlier—an hour to an hour and a half earlier—than their shift starts, which increases their working day immensely.
Most of this is not just about travel time. I know that the roads are congested around the Diana, Princess of Wales Hospital, but that is not the only issue. There is also the problem that people are driving around car parks trying to find a space. It is incredibly frustrating that people are paying for a space at work and cannot get one, and sometimes that is even making them late for work.
The hon. Lady makes a very good point about congestion, with people trying to find parking spaces and there not being enough. Would a compromise be for hospitals to charge a reasonable flat rate, rather than abolishing charges completely, which would exacerbate the very situation she is describing?
That is certainly worth looking at. We need a system that does not put people off attending their appointments, and that certainly does not prohibit people going to work or cause them to arrive late. Any suggestions that would allow us to reach a sensible solution would be very welcome.
Finally, I will conclude by saying that all car parking charges should be set in the context of a long-term transportation plan that includes park and ride systems, as well as increasing people’s ability to use public transport, cycles and everything else. The reality is that not enough has been done on any of those things to enable people to use alternative methods of transport that will get them to work at the time they need to be there, or to appointments at the time they need them, so it has all been for nothing. The charges are incredibly prohibitive because no other methods of easy, regular transport suit the patients and the staff.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), who made a very thoughtful and engaging speech on this important issue. I am very glad that so many Members are in the Chamber to take part in the debate.
I particularly congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on steadfastly championing this issue in Parliament for many years. He is much admired across the House for taking up issues that not everybody chooses to champion, but his work on such issues so often makes the lives of the people he and I represent much better, so I thank him for it. Indeed, I was inspired by his efforts in this area when, before I became an MP, I campaigned in my constituency of Telford on the whole issue of parking charges after they went up by 75% at our Princess Royal Hospital, creating a great deal of local upset.
My constituents, like my right hon. Friend’s, raise their concerns about this issue frequently. During the time I have campaigned on it, I have received over 5,000 letters —letters, not emails—on this specific issue. In Telford, we really care about this, and that is why I am here today. I was supposed to giving a speech at Thomas Telford School’s ethical debating society but, unfortunately, I have had to cancel at short notice so that I can be here, because this matters so much. I apologise to the students at Thomas Telford School.
I was told by my hospital trust in 2014 that it was not possible to change the existing arrangement because of the long-term nature of the trust’s legally binding contract with CP Plus, a parking contractor. Even poorly negotiated long-term contracts eventually expire, so we must look forward to what we will put in place when they do. It is not acceptable for those who can effect change simply to stand back and wait for onerous contracts with parking contractors to be renewed.
As my hon. Friend says, part of the problem is that so many hospital trusts are locked into long-term PFI contracts. Many of them were negotiated in the late 1990s or early 2000s and will shortly be coming up for renewal or expiry. Does she agree that now is the time to look at what provisions we can put in place to ensure that, as the contracts are renewed, they do not contain exploitative provisions that allow hospital trusts to take patients, as well as their families and visitors, for mugs by overcharging them for parking?
My hon. Friend eloquently makes a very important point, and I am very glad that he has raised it. The debate is timely, and it is important for us to be here to make this case.
Sadly, my local hospital trust has continued to increase hospital parking charges in a way that some feel thoughtless and has been described to me as cavalier. Following the rises in 2017, it is cheaper to park in Southwater shopping centre in Telford than to go to hospital to visit a sick relative. There is clearly something wrong with a model that operates in that way, because, as many hon. Members have said, no one chooses to go to hospital.
Telford is a new town, much like the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow. There are problems to do with the way in which many new towns were designed because, rightly or wrongly, they are all about road users. Major roads and roundabout systems are much loved in Telford. Everything is focused on the car, and it was never intended that the pedestrian should be able to walk from A to B. That is one of the problems that makes this such an important issue locally.
We do not have good public transport. We cannot just hop on a bus, jump on a tube or walk to the local hospital, as people might in other areas; instead, we have to take buses, changing a few times. Many people are therefore driven, or drive, to hospital, and they have to pay. My trust gave several reasons why its charges increased, one of which was that they were lower than those elsewhere in the country. That argument does not have a lot of teeth to it, because London is very different from Telford, in terms of income and accessibility of transport. Trusts need to consider local factors when setting charges.
It is good if concessions are offered, and there are concessions at the Princess Royal in Telford, but they are complicated to administer and operate. People have to prove that they are on benefits, that they have had an appointment and that they have paid their charges. Healthcare staff have to administer that system. They have to cancel charges and give out refunds and concessions, but that is not what they are there for. It is no good saying that if there was more money for hospitals, they would not need to charge for parking, because we all know what happens in many cases. In my local hospital, 50% of the revenue goes to CP Plus, the parking contractor, which has to be wrong.
Another argument that we have heard today is that if there were no parking charges, there would be nowhere for people to park, because anyone who wished to could use the hospital car park. It is argued that charges are a disincentive to parking. My local hospital trust says that without charges, people might stay all day in the hospital cafés, having refreshments, rather than leaving the site. Clearly that is complete nonsense, because even with incredibly high charges, there is nowhere to park. All the spaces—and the grass and concrete—are filled. The argument that everyone is sitting in a café is simply beyond my comprehension. This issue needs to be addressed with careful thought, rather than charges being seen as an instant panacea to a problem, when it clearly is not.
Bizarrely, my hospital trust tried to justify the increase by talking to residents about the number of nurses whom the parking revenue has paid for. I do not like that argument, because nurses are paid for by taxpayers through Government funding, not by parking charges. The increase that it implemented was in the contractual agreement, and nothing whatever to do with the number of nurses whom it employed.
I worry when hospital managers think that the charge is not that big a deal because parking is cheaper than somewhere else; that transport is not really their problem; and that if people are spending too long in cafés, managers need to move them on by putting up the charges. That shows that they probably do not understand the people whom they serve as well as they should.
If we dig a little deeper, we see the reason why it is not possible to park at the Princess Royal is that there has been a huge increase in the number of staff working on the site and therefore parking in the car park. We need to look at ways of helping staff to reduce car park use, as that would free up many spaces for patients to use throughout the day. We need to think imaginatively about how that might be done. Perhaps park and ride schemes specifically tailored to shift times might help. It is a surprise to find that hospitals are not looking at that.
We have heard today that this is a tax on the sick. Most taxes take account of people’s ability to pay, as is absolutely right, yet hospital managers and porters pay the same to park at work. It is always the least well-off who are hit the hardest. If the aim is to tax people and then give half the tax revenue to a car parking company—that is a bit senseless in any event—do it through pay-as-you-earn, and do not get nurses and other healthcare staff involved in the enforcement. It is completely inefficient to operate the system in this way.
Others have touched on the rigmarole that goes with paying for parking. Whether that means people paying with coins, typing in their number plate, or being videoed as they go in or come out, there is a punitive element. When a person is rushing to see someone who is extremely ill, or if they are waiting for an appointment and the consultant is running over time, it all adds to the anxiety, and in this context, it is completely inappropriate.
No one really wants to own this issue, so we all end up accepting it rather than solving it. Too many people say, “It is not our problem, it is too difficult to fix and actually, it is not really that important, because it is only £8 a day.” Too often, people in power look at the world through their own eyes and not through the eyes of those whom they serve.
There is little appetite among hospital management to deal with this. It is not a big-ticket issue. It is not exciting. It is not a shiny new hospital. It does not cost £300 million—in Telford, we spend a lot of time talking about our new emergency unit—so that is why I am here today. I want the Government and hospital managers to sit up and take notice. Do not brush this off as a non-issue—it is not. Try to see it through the eyes of others and tackle the issue that is facing everyday users of our hospitals. It can be fixed and it will make a difference to the lives of those who most need hospital services. For that reason, we should all care about it.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow does a great service to his constituents. I thank him for securing this debate and I support him entirely.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan). We all know that our NHS is underfunded. The hospital trust in my constituency, the Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust, received more than £1.5 million in car parking charges in 2016-17, according to data released under a freedom of information request, so it might seem unusual for me to be calling for the abolition of car parking charges. We know that they can provide an income for hospitals, but I agree with the hon. Lady: much of the money does not go to the hospital, but often to the private operator of the car park.
It is the Government’s responsibility to ensure that our NHS has the money it needs and not that of patients, staff or visitors. We should not expect vulnerable people to pay a sickness tax through car parking charges. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) about the impact on residents living in the local area. In Walker Street opposite my hospital, resident permits have had to be introduced to try to stop other people parking on those streets. In effect, the residents who live there have to pay to park their cars, because staff cannot afford to use the car park and park their cars on those streets. The whole system is complete nonsense.
I am incredibly proud that our Labour manifesto pledged to scrap car parking charges. Our suggestion was that any loss in income could come from a hike in the tax on private healthcare insurance. That would meet the £162 million cost of free parking at all NHS hospitals across England.
The unfairness of the sickness tax, from having car parking charges, must be felt in context. Let me tell the Chamber about a dear friend of mine—a man called Dermot—who has been in hospital for well over 28 days. I am not sure whether hon. Members are aware of this, but a particularly cruel and unfair consequence of him being in hospital for more than 28 days is the ending of his payments for disability living allowance and attendance allowance. If he had been receiving personal independence payment instead of DLA, that would have been stopped as well. His wife’s income has also been affected because she is his carer; she has stopped receiving her carer’s allowance, because Dermot has lost his DLA.
The nice bit to this story is that friends have rallied round and organised a fundraising concert for Dermot called—I have to make sure I pronounce this carefully—“Folk the 28 Day Rule” to raise money to support him. However, friends should not have to arrange folk night fundraisers to compensate for the welfare system’s failure to support people. The dramatic fall in his family’s income makes the added travel and car parking costs particularly cruel. They are not the only family facing this situation, but their story highlights the unfairness that many families face in having to park every day to visit loved ones at a time when their income may have dramatically fallen.
We all hate to think what would happen if one of our loved ones ended up staying in hospital for a long time. One of the saddest examples of the sickness tax, as mentioned by the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), is the effect on parents of premature and sick babies. We know that if premature and sick babies are to have the best possible outcomes, they need hands-on care every day. The daily costs of travelling to hospital can present a barrier that prevents parents from being with their babies. Parents surveyed by the charity Bliss said that they spent an average of £32 a week on car parking charges when visiting their babies. That is an unacceptable cost. All new, precious babies have the right to be with their parents—and not just the parents who can afford to pay to park their cars.
I think that this is grossly unacceptable, in the case of people visiting sick babies and, indeed, in the case of men who are waiting for their wives or partners to give birth. How often do people who have paid for three hours find that they require much longer? Then they are stuck. The man is required to stay with the lady—the woman—who is giving birth, but he is worried about paying the flipping parking charge. That is wrong. There must be a way around this one.
I completely agree. I have accompanied my parents to hospital appointments. My mum sits there and sets the alarm on her phone, and then starts panicking: “We have to go back to the car park. Have we enough change?” That is not what people want to be thinking about when they are visiting a hospital.
The unfair cost is felt not just by visitors and patients, but by staff. It was during my local “big conversation” event that I became aware of the difficulties experienced by nurses and other NHS professionals in my local hospital. The financial squeeze faced by NHS professionals has been well documented. For example, midwives have lost an average of £6,000 a year in real terms since 2010, and the additional cost to them of parking their cars seems particularly unfair. An investigation by Unison found that some nurses were having to rush out between appointments to move their cars and avoid fines. That is a ridiculous situation.
Our hospitals are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and staff finish their working shifts at different times. We have a duty to keep them safe. When they have just spent a shift caring for us, they should not have to return to cars that are parked in dark and isolated streets because they cannot afford to pay to use the hospital car park.
I urge the Minister to adopt this motion and to take action. As has been clear today, it has cross-party support, and it would make a real, positive difference to so many people’s lives.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), who represents the other side of the Humber bridge, and it is a particular pleasure to support my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). He was an asset to the Front Bench, but he has also shown his campaigning skills when dealing with issues such as this on the Back Benches. We are very pleased that he is once more among us. Let us hope that we can be as successful with this campaign as we have been with one or two in the past. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), whom I will call my hon. Friend. On this occasion, I agree with every word that my Member of Parliament has said. That does not always happen.
As with so many financial matters, it is a question of getting the balance right. Should we place an additional burden on patients and their families, especially at a time when they are particularly stressed and perhaps in great distress, or should we place the burden on the very limited NHS resources that our hospital trusts are having to manage? As has already been pointed out, some patients and their families can afford to pay, but if they are visiting, for instance, a parent who is coming to the end of his or her life, they will suffer just as much distress regardless of their financial circumstances.
In 2017, the trust that serves Diana, Princess of Wales Hospital in my constituency had an income of £2.28 million from car parking charges. It tells me that there was a surplus of three quarters of a million pounds which was spent on patient care. That is good news in the sense that that is three quarters of a million pounds that it desperately needs, but it has come out of the pockets of people who are visiting the hospital or patients at particularly difficult times. As the hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned, we live in an area with many low-paid jobs and this is a real burden on many hard-working families.
I am not going to detain the House for too long, but I would detain it for a great deal of time if I were to read the 64-page guidance the local trust produces for parking on its hospital sites. It is an appalling burden that we place on organisations, be they in the public or private sector, when they have to go to such trouble as to produce guidance of that length on how they operate their car park. It is complete madness.
I also draw attention to the fact that patients in my constituency and the neighbouring areas in many cases have to travel much further than others for their treatment, specifically across the river to Hull. That is an additional cost; they have the burden of the petrol or of bus fares, although public transport is almost non-existent for many of the rural villages in my constituency and the wider area served by Grimsby’s hospital.
My hon. Friend is making a good point: the cost falls disproportionately on those who live in rural areas.
I thank my right hon. Friend for emphasising the point I am making. Many patients have to travel for perhaps 15 or 20 miles to get to the hospital, and that is an additional burden that they can well do without.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby mentioned the fact that there is a problem with management, and she mentioned parking in neighbouring streets. I will add the names of a few more of them: Cragston Avenue, St Helens Avenue, Charles Avenue. We know them very well; when I was a councillor for that area people used to complain about cars blocking their streets, and I am sure they complain to their Member of Parliament today.
That is a problem I recognise, and there is also a problem with commuter parking, which has to be dealt with. Tokens have been mentioned, and simple time limits of two or three hours before charges kick in might be another alternative, as well as the flat charge that my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Royston Smith) mentioned.
I urge the Government to tackle this; it needs Government action to resolve it. It is unreasonable to expect trusts—particularly those like Northern Lincolnshire and Goole, which are in special measures and have major challenges of their own—to do so. An extra burden such as this is something they could well do without. As has been said, savings can be made through better procurement procedures, and that is one possible route. I am sure every Member in the House today could identify one particular saving to meet the £200 million-plus the NHS would have to find. But this is a major problem and a burden on our constituents and it could easily be resolved, and I urge the Government to get on with resolving it quickly.
I thank the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for securing this important debate on one of the many issues facing carers, families and staff who visit our hospitals.
If I parked at the hospital car park in my constituency of Colne Valley, it would cost me a third more than if I parked in a council-owned car park. How is that acceptable? Is this not NHS trusts profiteering from the sick and vulnerable? When people are in a rush taking a sick friend or relative to the hospital, they will not necessarily consider where is cheaper to park; they will park in the closest car park and then sort it out later. Even people who have to attend hospital regularly will not get free parking. At the Huddersfield Royal Infirmary, a two-and-a-half-hour stay, three times a week, 52 weeks a year will cost £780. That is £780 to support someone who is receiving medical treatment. Even some who are disabled blue badge holders have to pay this.
I think I speak on behalf of all of us when I say that I find it iniquitous that anyone with a blue badge should have to pay a penny when they go to a hospital.
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman.
How are my constituents meant to afford these excessive costs? Hard-working nurses, doctors, porters, cleaners and receptionists go to work to help people. Those hard-working staff are paying £1,680 a year to support families whose loved ones are dying. They are paying £1,680 a year to work a 12-hour shift caring for people. They are paying £1,680 a year to save lives. How is that acceptable by anyone’s standards? How can anyone think it is right that those hard-working professionals are paying nearly £2,000 a year to help and care for people? I can tell the House that it is not.
I appreciate that trusts, including the Calderdale Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust, are following national guidelines, but patients and staff feel as though they are treating them as cash cows. In 2016-17, my local trust remained nearly £15 million in deficit. In the CHFT annual reports for 2014-15, the trust recorded £1.4 million income from car parking. In 2016-17, that figure rose to £2.7 million. Yes, the extra money that the trust makes helps to plug the hole left by Government underfunding, but it should not have to. Our NHS should be fully funded; it should not have to depend on car parking fees. I urge the Government to consider the comments being made today by Members across the House, and to act swiftly to resolve this issue.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker. This takes me back a long way, to 2006, when you were a Health Minister and I shadowed you for some four years. The issue of car parking charges was around at that time, and successive Governments have talked about addressing it. This is a regressive tax. It is a tax on everybody, because everybody needs the NHS—that is why it is there. It is even more regressive for NHS staff, who are taxed even more just to go to work their difficult shift patterns. That is completely unacceptable.
I have raised this issue many times before. Members might remember that I used to be a firefighter. Firefighters do not pay to park in the yard at the fire station. Our excellent police do not pay to park their cars. The ambulance service is part of the NHS in my constituency, and its staff do not pay, either. They drive to work and they go to the pound to pick up their ambulance. So why should other emergency workers be charged in this way? It is fundamentally wrong.
This issue has gone back and forth across the Floor of the House, no matter which colour Government we have. Contracts have been signed, by previous Governments and by ours, that have locked us into hugely expensive agreements, particularly the private finance initiatives. We need to do something about that, and I will say more about it in a moment.
It seems to me that there should be staff car parks. There should be a set-up in which staff have separate parking arrangements so that they do not block public parking spaces. They should also have guaranteed slots, so that they are not late for their shifts.
That happens in some parts of the world. For example, that is what they do at the Luton and Dunstable University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, which looks after part of my constituency. I went there the other day to visit someone who was in palliative care. I did not know how long I was going to be seeing them, or whether I would see them again. The fantastic news is that they are now at home, being looked after by the hospice movement, of which I have been a member for 40 years. That is what the hospice movement is very much for.
Interestingly, I parked and paid in what I thought was a public car park, but I was in the staff car park. So, when I went to try to get out, the barrier would not go up. I pressed the button to talk to someone, and they said, “You’ve parked illegally.” I said, “How have I parked illegally? I’ve got a ticket.” Fortunately, they had no idea who I was, because they probably would have just lifted the barrier to get the MP out of there as fast as possible, which is normally what happens when we visit our hospitals, isn’t it—everything is brilliant, rosy and shiny and everything is great. I said to the person, “No. If you’re going to fine me, fine me. I’ll see you in court, because I have paid in an NHS public car park that you have designated.” They eventually just said, “Oh, go away.” I have been waiting for the fine to come through—it probably will now—and I will see them in court, but the charging is morally wrong.
The situation is even more difficult for patients. The previous debate was about babies and parenting. Babies come out when they want to, usually, not when we want them to, and not based on how much time is left on a car parking ticket. That is what happens, and yet people are getting fined every day because they have outstayed their time in the car park. How can that be right?
A Member who could not be in the Chamber today because they had to attend another meeting, asked me to mention volunteer drivers. What would we do without them? They are fantastic, but they have to pay to park in some hospital car parks before they take patients home, which they do as volunteers because the patient ambulance service is struggling so much. In some parts of the country—I know that it is happening in my area—people are actually asking for patient transport because the car parking facilities are so bad. They are putting more of a burden on patient transport because they cannot find a parking space and they are petrified of being late for their appointment. If they are late for their appointment owing to patient transport, that is okay, but if they cannot find a parking space, they hear, “Oh, you’re a bad person.” We have heard that people are parking outside hospital car parks. Blue badge holders are being charged to park in a car park when they can park for free on the road, so that is what they do. We know that is happening, and it is really very wrong.
I know that the Minister is a good man, and an honourable man, but when he stands up to reply he will almost certainly say that parking is devolved to NHS trusts, and that it is for them to decide how they run their facilities. But for those of us who are Members of Parliament, NHS trusts are completely unaccountable. We can moan about this, but they will not listen in the slightest. They will be looking at whether they can get away with it and how much they can raise.
This is not just about money; it is about space. We have heard that if car parks do not charge, they will be full of people from the town centre. When the acute facility at the excellent Hemel Hempstead Hospital was closed, it was moved to the middle of Watford town centre, next to a football stadium. Apparently Watford play there, and a lot of my constituents will be very upset when they hear about me being derogatory about Watford, but they have a huge number of fans. I went to Watford General Hospital on a Saturday morning to visit a constituent, a good friend of mine, and I parked and paid. When I came out, there was a group of parking people around who clearly wanted to give me a ticket. I had paid in the football bit that is designated for use by Watford football club when they are playing at home. What has that got to do with going to see and look after someone at an NHS hospital, or go to that hospital?
Unfortunately, the parking attendants did recognise me, and they were very apologetic, but I do not think that is right. What would have happened if they had not known who I was? The ticket was coming. How on earth can we have a full acute hospital in the middle of a town as big as Watford, next to a football stadium, and then call that a modern NHS hospital? The parking facilities there for staff and patients are frankly almost non-existent, not least because tons of it has been carved off for the football club. I want Watford to be very successful, but what I want in our part of the world is a brand-new hospital, with proper parking facilities, on a greenfield site away from the town centre, so that we do not have any concerns about whether people will park there all day in order to go shopping. At the moment, though, I do not have that.
There is the acute hospital in Watford, which struggles—it has just come out of special measures and I wish it well—and Hemel Hempstead Hospital, which is basically a clinic these days. We have out-patients; we have a few intermediate wards. They charge the staff, and patients with out-patient appointments, to park there. The car park is empty. Hardly anybody parks there because there is nothing on the site any more, but the hospital still insists on charging. That pushes the patients outside, so there is restricted parking outside, which is also an issue. It is cheaper to park in the council car park in the town centre and walk 400 yards up the hill than to park in a car park that is empty because there are so few facilities at the hospital.
This problem has to be sorted out from central Government, and the central Government guidelines have to be enforceable. I was a Minister for many years: Departments can issue as many notices as they like, but nothing will happen if they do not come out with the stick. Could the money be raised in other ways? Could there be savings in the NHS? As we have heard, the amount of money being raised, compared with the overall pot, is peanuts. One of the more recent chief executives of my very small acute trust was on a package of over £300,000 a year. If we want to save money instantly, let us take a look at the salaries of the really top people in the NHS and let us look after the people at the bottom—we certainly should not charge them to park when they go to work.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning). Much of what he said echoes the complaints that have come to my constituency office.
I thank the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for securing this debate. This subject is close to my heart because I used to work for the NHS. I well remember when car parking charges were introduced for patients, carers, visitors and staff. I remember the controversy it caused at the time, and it still causes controversy now. This issue has not gone away.
I worked for the NHS as a clinical scientist, but I was also a workplace rep for Unite, the trade union. I remember the resistance that all the health unions put up against the introduction of car parking charges, which we saw then, and still see now, as a tax on staff coming to work and on patients, visitors and carers.
The practice of charging for car parking in my area was started by Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, and the issue of people using the free parking at the hospital and then going elsewhere was the reason for introducing those charges, but once Central Manchester University Hospitals did that, all the other hospitals in Greater Manchester followed suit.
The only reason anyone would go to North Manchester General Hospital, where I worked, is because they work there, because they are getting treatment there or because they are visiting as a friend, a relative or a carer. There is no other reason for someone to visit that hospital, so there was no real reason to start charging people to park there.
The trust claimed that the moneys taken would be put towards improving the car parking facilities, which I admit were absolutely dire. We used to park on unsurfaced, potholed areas, which were eventually improved once the charging system became embedded—that is one positive thing that came out of it.
The trust initially purchased some wheel clamps and threatened to clamp the car of those who did not pay. I worked with some interesting people in the NHS, and one colleague decided to buy his own personal wheel clamp, which he attached to his car when he parked in the morning. The hospital is not in the most salubrious of areas, so the clamp served two purposes: it immobilised his car and kept it secure; and it gave the impression that he had been penalised for not paying to park. Within a few weeks his wheel clamp had paid for itself.
Not everyone was that inventive, however, and gradually the idea of paying to park at the hospital became commonplace, if not accepted, although the trade unions always strongly opposed the practice. The wheel clamps were quickly phased out—rumour had it that the trust had been successfully sued, although we never found out the full facts—and the trust began to impose fines on those deemed to have breached the rules.
The whole issue of car parking fees and fines generated a huge amount of controversy, discussion and debate, not to mention a huge number of visits, phone calls and emails to the trade union office. Anyone who might question the need to give trade union reps facility time to do their job might like to reflect on the massive pressure put upon them by issues such as this. When I left the trust, having been elected to this place, I was paying £20 per month in car parking charges, which was taken directly out of my salary. That staff fee is now £22.10, which might not sound a lot, but represents an increase of more than 10% over the past three years. That pays scant regard to the fact that NHS staff have had their pay either frozen or capped to a maximum of just 1%—this is completely disproportionate.
As an MP, I have helped many constituents who were sent demands for car parking fines by a company called Civil Enforcement Ltd, which is contracted by my local Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust to pursue those deemed to have breached car parking regulations. I have had constituents aggressively chased for payment when they have parked in a staff parking space by mistake, and the practices of this company do seem to lack the human touch. Most people attending hospital usually have more important matters on their mind and could be forgiven for being slightly distracted while trying to work the myriad of instructions posted in a hospital car park prior to visiting sick relatives or going for treatment themselves.
The charges can be prohibitive: £1 for one hour, £4 for 8 hours and £8 for up to 24 hours. As many Members have pointed out, most of the time the patient or visitor does not know how long they will be in the hospital for, so most will err on the side of caution and pay more than they should. The ticket machines also do not take banknotes. When I worked at the hospital, I was regularly asked for change by patients and visitors struggling to feed the machines. I am sure that all those people had more important things to deal with and could have done without that additional stress. I accept that my local trust will provide a weekly ticket for £15 and will make arrangements for those with long-term illness, but that is not immediately clear to patients and visitors, and it requires action on their part at an already stressful time.
The motion calls on the Government to provide a means whereby car parking charges may be abolished and I fully support that, but hand in hand with that has to go an improved public transport system, so that staff, patients, carers and visitors are not as reliant on private cars. Sadly, in my constituency, we have just had a bus service between Rochdale, Middleton and North Manchester General Hospital withdrawn. Retrograde steps such as that do nothing to reduce the demand on hospital car parks, and we absolutely need a comprehensive public transport policy to support the abolition of hospital car parking charges.
The other step we need to take is to reduce NHS trusts’ dependence on income from car parking. Department of Health guidelines used to stipulate that income earned from car parking should be spent only on the maintenance and running of car parks, but those guidelines now appear to have been relaxed, and cash-strapped trusts are now using that income for patient care. In fact, when I visited North Manchester General Hospital recently I was disappointed to see that a staff car park that had been in a very poor state when I worked there many years ago had been allowed to deteriorate even further. Clearly, no income had been spent there on improving conditions for staff. The Pennine Acute Hospitals NHS Trust alone made £3 million from car parking charges last year. The NHS underfunding issue must be addressed in any consideration of the abolition of car parking charges.
First, I wish to thank the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for having secured and initiated such an important debate, which affects so many in my constituency and across our country. For many, attending a hospital is a vulnerable time, whether we are seeking treatment for ourselves or for a loved one. Our hospitals are indeed underfunded and overstretched, but it is not for sick patients, anxious relatives and already hard-pressed NHS staff to be filling the funding gaps.
We have heard that hospital car parking charges raise funds, but many hospital trusts up and down our country have increased their charges without consulting the public—the very people they are there for. Some trusts allow private contractors to manage car parking sites, which is leading to penalties and fines for patients and visitors, as we have heard in this important debate. At a time when the cost of living is increasing and those who work in the public sector have had their pay capped, the rising cost of hospital car parking only increases the financial burden on many in our constituencies.
It is not just the patients who are deterred by higher charges; families and friends might be discouraged from visiting patients at their bedside, which must surely have a negative impact on the mental wellbeing of patients and lead to increased pressure on nursing staff. From personal experience, I know that many patients rely on relatives and friends to act as interpreters or advocates. Such elements are seemingly overlooked when surveys and reports are undertaken, but patient care can be impacted where higher charges deter people from providing such crucial assistance.
We have heard a lot about staff and patients and families. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) mentioned volunteers earlier, and the hon. Gentleman is talking about the importance of patient support. Does he agree that it is particularly short-sighted of any hospital trust to seek to charge volunteers, who give of their time, for parking?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his excellent intervention, and I could not agree more. We have heard previously about volunteer drivers. It is just not fair. It is nonsensical to ask them to dig further into their pockets. It also places an unfair and unnecessary burden on hard-working staff who have gone for years without a decent pay rise. While some hospitals offer free or discounted parking for specific kinds of treatment or for people in receipt of specific benefits, there are significant variations in fees across trusts in the same region. Wexham Park Hospital in my constituency has some of the highest parking charges in the region: £3.30 after the first 15 minutes and an increase, in stages, to £8 over five hours. That is the situation in my constituency, but that trust is only doing what all other trusts are no doubt doing and it is within Government guidelines. I do not want older and vulnerable patients to be deterred from attending hospital. They should be able to get to their appointments in a comfortable, dignified, affordable manner and within a reasonable time.
Most NHS car parking charges have been abolished in Scotland and Wales, and I know that the Government have issued guidance to NHS trusts on the implementation of car parking charges, including the provision of discounted or free parking. These guidelines are not based in legislation and appear to have had little effect. The Labour Government in 2010 left fully costed plans to phase out charges for in-patients and their visitors, and in 2015 a private Member’s Bill on this subject gained cross-party support but was talked out. Clearly, many across the country and the House want an end to hospital car parking charges. Let us send a clear message today that there is another way forward and that this unfair stealth tax on the vulnerable must end.
It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr Dhesi), and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on his extremely powerful speech and on raising this important issue.
I want to start with an experience that our family recently went through. My daughter started to show signs of acute appendicitis. As any family could imagine, we quickly bundled our daughter, who was in agony, into the car and drove to the hospital—it was not a very calm journey. I am sure that many Members will have had a similar experience. We were panicking and scrambling around for change so that we could park the car, then taking turns to pop out every few hours to move the car or top up the ticket. That was obviously a one-off and bearable, but for many a trip to the hospital is sadly not a one-off experience, and they are forced to take several trips a week because of chronic illness. They are people going through the worst of times, and the cynical approach of charging them to park is unacceptable. It is not anyone’s choice to be ill, and they should not be exploited.
New figures show that the money raked in from NHS car parks in England run by private firms has increased to £500,000 every day. The £175 million that was made from hospital car parking charges in 2016-17 is equivalent to only 0.001% of the total health spend, but still, ruthless private car parking firms pocket most of it. It cannot be fair that worried family members who visit their loved ones can end up with eye-watering fines if they arrive late back to their cars. As my hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) said, it cannot be fair that NHS staff who have parking charges deducted from their wages are fined for parking in the wrong bay when they cannot find a space in the correct bay.
Some may recommend that regular hospital visitors use public transport, but in my constituency, Batley and Spen, the bus that used to connect Birstall with our local hospital has been cancelled, as have local bus services in many smaller communities. That has forced more people to use a car and thereby incur parking costs. My local hospital, Dewsbury and District Hospital, charges after 20 minutes, so people get 20 minutes for free. There is a reduction for blue badge holders, but they still have to pay. There is a stress-inducing pay-on-exit system, and it is quite complicated to get car parking concessions approved by hospital staff on the day. It is not an ideal situation.
Does the hon. Lady agree that in the 21st century, means-testing at the point of delivery, which is what we are talking about here, is morally unacceptable in an NHS of which we should be and are proud?
I am so glad that the right hon. Gentleman raised that issue, because the concession that I was talking about is available only to the patient, not to the low-paid person who may have driven the patient to hospital. The poorly person has to go and get the car parking concession. It is absolutely unfair.
A freedom of information request by Unison revealed that some hospitals charge nurses and health professionals who regularly visit hospitals up to £100 a month. As other Members have said, the cost of parking also has wider effects on the surrounding streets. I have been contacted by many constituents living around Dewsbury and District Hospital who complain that those who cannot afford car parking charges, or who think they might have to stay for several hours, park on residential streets, blocking people’s drives and making it difficult for people to park outside their own homes. Free hospital parking would end that.
We know that trusts are struggling to balance the books after years of being underfunded by the Government, but we must ensure that they are not forced to fill the funding gap by charging sick and poorly patients, their visitors and anxious relatives, and already hard-pressed NHS staff.
Car parking charges are a tax on serious illness. Labour would scrap car parking charges at all hospitals. We would fund that by raising insurance tax on private healthcare to 20%, to meet the £162 million cost of providing free parking at all NHS hospitals in England. Charities, trade unions, the British Medical Association, the Society for Acute Medicine and the public are all calling out for the Government to listen. In Scotland and Wales, car parking charges have been abolished in all but a handful of hospitals. We should show some humanity and do the same. I support the motion.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) on securing this important debate.
It is clear from hon. Members’ speeches that the scandal of hospital parking charges must come to an end. Gravely ill people and people visiting relatives while in a state of distress should not be treated as cash cows by hospital car park operators. It is shocking that half of all trusts last year charged disabled people to park in some or all of their disabled parking spaces. We need to address the ridiculous inconsistency whereby hospital parking is mainly free in Wales and Scotland while trusts charge for parking in Northern Ireland and England. It is time that all hospitals abolished parking fees. Drivers must not be punished for being sick, visiting loved ones or attending medical appointments. People do not choose to be ill and should not be asked to pay for a no-choice hospital visit.
Many of my Enfield, Southgate constituents have approached me about this issue. A mother contacted me to say that after her husband took their son to the North Middlesex University Hospital accident and emergency unit with breathing difficulties in the middle of the night, he was later presented with a parking charge notice. I do not believe that people rushing to hospital with gravely ill children should be put into the position of having to worry about such matters. Imagine if my constituent had spent extra precious moments scrambling for change for parking while his son struggled to breathe. Would that have been a sensible and responsible thing for the parent of a seriously ill child to do? Of course not. That is exactly why we must get rid of these charges.
I have also been contacted by a father who had to take his young daughter to the emergency department. Throughout the evening and into the night, my constituent had to leave his daughter to feed more money into the car park meter because she was being kept in for such a long period of time—it ended up being overnight. My constituent kept paying into the machines, which failed to give him receipts when requested, leaving him unsure how much time he had left. My constituent reported seeing other people in various states of distress walking around the car park and seeming unsure of what to do. Two weeks later, my constituent received a notice telling him that he had not paid for all the time that he had been in the car park. Again, we must ask whether this is an appropriate way to treat the parents of very ill children.
We have all heard in the press about desperately ill patients who have been forced to quit work and left with bills for hundreds of pounds due to their frequent visits to hospitals. Then there are hugely unfair cases of NHS staff who have had parking charges deducted from their wages, but then have been unable to get a space and have been fined for parking in the wrong bay. Several elderly constituents have contacted me to say that they face relatively high parking charges for their regular hospital attendances.
This Sunday, 4 February, is World Cancer Day, and many of us know people who have had treatment for cancer. Anyone who knows the effects of chemotherapy will be aware of how debilitating the treatment can be. People often need a carer to help them to make the journey home. Considering the frequency of treatments for cancer and other illnesses, surely car parking charges are nothing more than a tax on the sick. As the hon. Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) pointed out, many people have no choice but to drive to their local hospital due to the infrequency of public transport.
My hon. Friend talks about travel difficulties. Does he agree that reductions in the number of bus services in many areas mean that there is no alternative to parking in hospital car parks? In constituencies such as mine, which has no hospital, that means frequent journeys for people who require treatment.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. People in rural areas or who live far away from their local hospitals are unfairly affected by having poor transport networks to ferry them to hospitals, so they have no choice but to travel by car.
The right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) made the excellent point that other emergency workers are not being required to pay to park at their police or fire stations. In addition, hospital staff, by taking up parking spaces, are reducing the number of spaces for patients and visitors. NHS staff should be able to park for free, but they should also be able to afford to live nearer the hospital. It is therefore ironic that we are in a situation in which NHS trusts are forced to sell land that could have been used to house NHS staff locally.
Another pressure on North Middlesex Hospital has been the fact that the closure of the accident and emergency unit at Chase Farm has resulted in far more visitors to its A&E unit. Those additional visits meant that, between Christmas and new year, the hospital ran out of acute beds. One can only imagine how busy the hospital car park was during that period.
Many hon. Members have made excellent contributions about the need for the Government to abolish car parking charges. It is time that those unfair charges were scrapped and the NHS properly funded. For the sake of NHS staff, parents and visitors, I ask the Minister to bring forward measures to scrap car parking charges as soon as possible.
It is an honour to speak in this debate, and indeed in any debate in which the NHS is at the heart of what is being discussed. I particularly thank the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for bringing the debate to the House. As has been discussed, the matter is extremely important to patients, charities, emergency workers, volunteers, carers and NHS staff, so it is a credit to him that he secured this debate. He set out his case most eloquently and comprehensively.
The SNP Scottish Government scrapped hospital car parking charges approximately 10 years ago in all car parks that are owned by the NHS. I urge the UK Government to follow both this principle and policy.
As an NHS employee for more than 20 years, I must declare an interest. I was part of the campaign, all those many years ago, as a Unite rep, to scrap NHS parking charges. I was so pleased when we succeeded, because that has made a great difference to many people, and has saved some of the most vulnerable who already facing so many financial difficulties from spending money on parking.
The hon. Lady has been very generous in giving way, and I thank her for her kind remarks. Given that, for the most part, hospital parking charges have been scrapped in Scotland, she must have heard about how the problem of people perhaps misusing the car parks to go shopping or whatever was dealt with.
Indeed. Where there is a will there is a way. It can happen; it can be done. Basically, it is a matter of prioritisation and making things happen. That issue can be raised with the Minister today.
Hospital car parking charges hit the most vulnerable people in our society: disabled people; those who are chronically and even terminally ill; families caring for terminally ill children; and those who require repeat appointments and lengthy hospital stays. Before the change in Scotland, I heard about families and couples who had had their cars impounded because their partner was giving birth in the maternity unit and things did not go quite to time, as happens so often in these cases, and they were unable to feed their meter. At a time of utmost importance for the family, that is one of the last things that we would want to have on our mind.
NHS staff, particularly those on community-based shifts, are also penalised. They often have no choice but to use their cars to travel from the hospital to make community visits, so they cannot travel by public transport to their hospital base. There is something fundamentally wrong with charging our valued NHS staff to get to their work of saving lives when their pay has already been affected for so many years by caps.
The SNP is clear that the founding principle of the NHS is services that are free for everyone—services that are not out for profit. We have heard today from hon. Members that it is sometimes cheaper to park in town centres than to park at hospitals. That just cannot be right. By 2015, getting rid of hospital car parking charges had saved patients and staff in Scotland more than £25 million. Parking charges are basically a tax on NHS treatment, and that cannot be allowed to go on. As chair of the all-party group for disability, I am particularly concerned that people with disabilities, who we know are more likely to experience poverty, are being doubly financially penalised if they require medical treatment, as in England they to pay for hospital parking—should they have retained their Motability vehicles of course.
The right hon. Member for Harlow is right that there are pragmatic ways to address the issue. The things that are said to prevent change from coming about can be overcome. He discussed tokens and other pragmatic ideas that can be put in place and that can work. We have made this work—we made it a success—so it can happen. With the will, there is the way.
I will take a brief moment to extend the issue from hospital parking charges by addressing parking for NHS staff in health centres. I believe that all health centres in my constituency have free parking, aside from the new Hunter Community Health Centre multi-storey car park. I have been in a somewhat intransigent negotiation with NHS Lanarkshire for more than a year, as only a limited amount of permit parking has been made available for staff. This has unfortunately meant that some staff—often those in lower pay bands, such as admin staff—face extortionate weekly charges for getting to work. That is unprincipled and unfair. Why should we penalise only staff who work in a particular health centre?
On Fridays, I have taken to monitoring the free spaces in the car park. I can assure the House that it is half empty every single Friday, which is usually an extremely busy day for car parks elsewhere, so there are enough spaces for the staff. I once again urge NHS Lanarkshire’s chief executive, Calum Campbell, to reverse this decision and ensure that permits for staff, as requested, are restored and that this principled step is taken. I will be writing to him after the debate, which I am sure he will look forward to, as he always does. I will let him know that he has been mentioned in the House of Commons once again.
I thank hon. Members from all parties who have taken part in this debate: the hon. Members for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), for Telford (Lucy Allan), for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker), for Slough (Mr Dhesi), for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous); the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), who raised an important point about people in rural areas being badly affected; the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), who made an extremely pertinent point about volunteer drivers; and the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes), who worked for the NHS as fellow Unite rep in my time, and who has done great work for the NHS.
Everyone who has spoken has urged the Government to act. We do not need any superficial rhetoric, but we do need action. I ask the Minister and the Government to act by putting NHS patients, staff, carers, relatives, volunteers, emergency workers and those who care about the NHS first. We are all requesting change. This request must be taken forward, and I trust that the Minister will do so.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to this debate on a very important subject. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for bringing this subject forward. He and I agree on most aspects of the issue, and he has campaigned passionately on it for so many years.
As you have.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that comment.
I am grateful to Members on both sides of the House because it seems that there is much agreement on the matter. It is heartening to hear Members mentioning—and fully understanding—its impact on patients, visitors, carers and NHS staff. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) mentioned the effect on the greater transportation system.
The hon. Members for Telford (Lucy Allan) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) made powerful speeches, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker), who accused the system of profiteering. My hon. Friend the Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) made an important point on behalf of staff. The right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) referred to the burden of having to pay to go to work. My hon. Friends the Members for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and for Enfield, Southgate (Bambos Charalambous) mentioned personal family issues when people are taken away from a sick family member’s bed to replenish parking meters.
No one likes to pay to park, but to pay to park at a hospital really does add insult to injury. We are not talking about a luxury experience, a shopping trip or a fun night out; we are talking about paying to visit a hospital. People are not queuing up to go to the hospital café, as the hon. Member for Telford pointed out. No one goes to hospital because they want to. People go because they are sick. They go for treatment, for surgery, for chemotherapy and for kidney dialysis, and they go to visit loved ones. In short, hospitals are not destinations of choice: people go because they must. I am quite shocked that it is free to park at Trafford shopping centre yet I must pay to park at my local hospital.
During the past three years, I have spent hours and hours visiting my mother in hospital. I have often gone backwards and forwards two or three times a day, juggling hospital visiting around work and other commitments. I have to say that it has all been very distressing. As I leave the hospital each night worried, wondering what tomorrow will bring, the last thing I want to do is to stand outside in the cold queuing to pay for my parking. This burden is, of course, in addition to the actual cost.
Some hospital car parks demand payment in advance, as we have heard. This brings its own set of problems, because patients and visitors have to judge how long each hospital visit will last, and then often have to leave the ward or treatment room to feed the ever-hungry parking machine. Of course, running to and fro between the car park and the hospital is impossible for someone hooked up to a dialysis machine. Many dialysis patients suffer with multiple conditions and are unable to work, so paying to park three times a week for dialysis sessions that each last four to five hours is a real financial burden for them and their carers.
Paula in my constituency relies on the weekly £62.70 carer’s allowance she has received since she was forced to give up work to provide round-the-clock care for her husband, who suffered a severe stroke. He has been in hospital for the past month. She has visited every day, often staying for two to three hours to support and comfort him. This costs her more than £20 a week. By the time she has paid for her petrol, half her carer’s allowance is gone.
We have a national health service that was set up to be free at the point of delivery. It was established in 1948 to make healthcare a right for all, but that is not what is happening. Even though hospital car parking is free in Scotland and Wales, here in England, hospital users are forced to pay often extortionate rates, with charges varying from £1.50 an hour to £4 an hour. We are charging the chronically ill, the terminally ill, and their carers and visitors. More than half of all people over 76 have conditions that require regular hospital appointments, and hospital car parking charges are an extra burden for them and their families. The Alzheimer’s Society reports that patients with dementia stay five to seven times longer in hospital than other patients aged over 65. Hospitals can be frightening places for people with that condition. They rely on family and carers visiting them to give support. Parking charges are an extra burden that these families could well do without.
The Patients Association has commented:
“For patients, parking charges amount to an extra charge for being ill…Hospital appointments are often delayed or last longer than expected, so even if you pay for parking you could end up being fined if your ticket runs out. Visiting a hospital can be stressful enough without the added concern of whether you need to top up the parking.”
Macmillan Cancer Support says:
“The core principle of the NHS is to provide free healthcare for all at the point of access. But sadly some cancer patients in England are paying extortionate hospital car parking charges in order to access treatment for a life-threatening illness.”
Bliss, the charity for babies born prematurely or sick, says in its “It’s not a game: the very real costs of having a premature or sick baby” report that these charges can contribute to the financial burden that many families face when their babies need neonatal care.
In the midst of all this misery, the average hospital trust is making £1 million of profit from car parking charges, and several hospitals the length and breadth of the country report profits of over £3 million. Last year, NHS hospitals made a record £174 million from charging patients, visitors and staff. In addition, 40 trusts report additional income from parking fines.
Some people point out that public transport is an option that avoids parking charges. Public transport provision has been reduced in response to funding cuts, but even where it exists, there are many for whom it is not an option. Some patients are too unwell or too frail to travel on a bus. Others, including cancer patients attending for chemotherapy, have reduced immunity and must avoid contact with the general public.
The hon. Lady is making a compelling case, as have most Members. Public transport has its place for out-patients and so on, where it is available, but imagine someone going into labour and saying, “Can I wait for the No. 2 bus, please?” This is farcical. We need car parks to be there for people when they need them, rather than being a cash cow.
I entirely agree and thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention.
Patients and carers are often balancing work and other commitments, and have tight time schedules that preclude public transport. I have spoken to the parents of a terminally ill child who left their child’s bedside only to tend to the needs of their other children. They do not have time to wait for a bus.
No discussion of hospital car parking charges would be complete without a consideration of their impact on NHS staff, which Members have spoken about eloquently. These staff pay to go to work and are still not even guaranteed a space. That can lead to them being late for the beginning of their shift. Some hospital staff whose shift overruns because they are tending to patients’ needs face fines for overstaying their parking time. That is clearly no way to treat our health professionals. It is no wonder we face a crisis in recruitment and retention.
Government action to date has been limited to a series of recommendations on hospital car parking. Currently the Government recommend that hospital car parking charges should not be applied to blue badge holders, carers, visitors of relatives who are gravely ill, and patients who have frequent out-patient appointments. In reality, those recommendations count for very little. In fact, the trend is to increase car parking charges and to reduce the number of those who are exempt. Many hospital trusts have even begun to charge blue badge holders.
It is not good enough for the Government to abdicate responsibility. This is a matter of principle. Scandalously, Conservative Members have previously argued in the Chamber that the NHS needs the income from parking charges. I have no doubt that the NHS needs this revenue, as it is common knowledge that the service has been starved of funding since 2010, but is it right that we fund our health service by taxing the sick?
Labour Members will have none of this. I am proud that the next Labour Government will ensure that our NHS is properly funded and will abolish car parking charges at all hospitals. To pay for that, we will increase the premium tax on all private health insurance policies. Crucially, no hospital will lose funding as a result of our policy.
In 2015, I asked the Government via a private Member’s Bill to exempt carers from hospital car parking charges. At the time, that relatively modest proposal was met with derision from Government Members. My attempt to remove this financial burden was dismissed as a worthy aim, but not worthy enough for the Government to support. Indeed, Conservative Members went to great lengths to talk the Bill out.
Times, I hope, have changed. Today I am asking, along with the right hon. Member for Harlow, that the Government remove all car parking charges at NHS hospitals. Today we ask the Government to do the decent thing by removing this tax on the sick and taking action to ensure that we truly have an NHS that is free at the point of access.
May I begin by commending my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) for securing the debate? Members across the House recognise that he has campaigned assiduously on this issue for some time, as he has on many campaigns, and he has already had some success, as reflected in the Government guidelines issued in 2014. However, it is right, in the light of the concerns raised across the House, that the issue is revisited. This has been a very constructive debate, granted by the Backbench Business Committee, and I commend all Members who have contributed and informed the House of what is happening in their constituencies.
I do not think anyone in the House has any issue with the desirability of scrapping car parking charges. As English Members of Parliament—it is different for our Scottish National party colleagues—we all pay these charges, as the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) said in a constructive way. We all know that they are unpopular with our constituents and are a concern for staff working hard within the NHS.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) highlighted, the charges predate this Government. This issue has long been debated in the House, by parties on both sides. The issue is not the desirability of what is sought by my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow. The issue is the execution and how it would be done in a way that does not have unintended consequences, and how those might be mitigated. I think we got a flavour of some of those unintended consequences in the constructive contributions made by Members on both sides of the House.
Implicit in the motion is the suggestion that car parking charges apply in all NHS hospitals. It is not in the specific wording, but the impression from the debate has been that they apply across the NHS as a whole. However, as hon. Members will be well aware, 67% of NHS sites do not charge at all at present. We are talking about a subset of the NHS where charges apply, albeit that the subset is particularly concentrated in the acute sector, from which many of the examples we have heard come. For example, mental health patients, who are often among the most vulnerable of our constituents seeking the support of the NHS, do not on the whole face charges because those parking facilities are not charged for. This tends to be an issue in the acute sector.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words, but I must say that I disagree with what he has said. Hospital car parking charges in England are widespread, and we just have to go from one hospital to another to see that. As I said, nearly 50% of hospitals are charging the disabled, for example.
With respect to my right hon. Friend, it is a statement of fact, as confirmed by my officials—I am very happy to correspond with him further about it—that 67% of NHS sites do not charge. If one wants to get into the definition of a hospital, it actually covers more than acute services. I do not want to get distracted by that point. The one I was seeking to make is to recognise that this issue is particularly concentrated on acute hospitals, and that is the issue before us.
The hon. Member for Great Grimsby recognised that there is considerable room for flexibility within trusts. One of the key issues in this debate is the distinction between charges covering the maintenance of car parks, and how a reduction in charges may lead to a reduction in the number of spaces and the quality of the facilities—we heard, for example, about the state of the car parks in north Manchester—and those involving profiteering, with charges going beyond of the cost of maintenance. The hon. Lady is concerned about that, and the interplay with the current guidance. The hon. Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker) also mentioned that when she highlighted the distinction between the charges at her hospital and those of the local authority, and raised the issue of transparency.
The right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) expressed concerns about transparency in relation to blue badge holders. They are not means-tested, so an affluent blue badge holder could be spared a charge while a less affluent visitor to a hospital is charged. Transparency about how the guidance is applied is therefore a factor, as has been recognised.
May I push the Minister a little bit on blue badge holders? Quite rightly, blue badge holders are not means-tested. The key is their ability to access services. It does not matter how much they have in the bank. If they need to go to a hospital and they have a blue badge, surely spaces should be free and as close to the point of entry as possible.
Absolutely. As my right hon. Friend will be aware, the guidance speaks to that. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) mentioned the 64 pages of guidance. I am very happy to take away and look at why there are 64 pages of it. Blue badges are part of the conversation that my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow began in 2014.
I have huge respect for my hon. Friend, but the fact is that the guidelines in relation to blue badges are not working. According to the FOI request—this is backed by charities such as CLIC Sargent—up to 50% of hospitals are still charging disabled people to park. There is no point talking about the guidelines if people with disabilities are still being forced to pay to park at hospitals in England.
I am very happy to look at such cases and to speak to those trusts to understand this better, but I was making a point about the complexity of the issue and how to manage reducing the charges. For example, as the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) will no doubt be aware, there were local media reports over the summer about a hospital car park in Inverness being used by those going to the airport; there was displacement there. We do not want a solution that constrains capacity for those using the hospital and makes access more difficult.
Some of these issues have a very local flavour. That was recognised in the debate: the hon. Member for Heywood and Middleton (Liz McInnes) said that shoppers do not seek to use the car park at the north Manchester site, whereas my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) was concerned that simply removing charges would cause displacement at his hospital. The point is that there are local factors, just as there are with legacy PFI contracts, including in Scotland and Wales, where charges are still made under contracts going back to 2008.
Would the Minister accept, though, that people being ill and suffering distress at hospitals is not a local issue? It is a national issue. The burden of hospital car parking charges, wherever they occur, ought to be a concern of the Government.
Of course, but equally the hon. Lady must recognise that the fact that charges are still being applied under PFI agreements put in place by a previous Government in 2008 signals that there are often complexities, in terms of what can be done when different factors apply. As my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull highlighted, there are factors relating to displacement. That is why trusts have local discretion, but as the House has discussed today, we need to understand the transparency around that and how it is applied.
Will the Minister give way? He is being very generous.
I will, but then I will press on, because I want to give my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow some time.
I am sure we have time, on this important issue. The Minister raised the issue of complexity. Clearly, as has been shown by Members across the House today, some cases would be easier to address than others. I fully accept, as I said in my speech, that some ludicrous PFIs were put in place, both before the present Administration came to power and since. Do the easy ones first; that is the answer. That is what Scotland did. Then come to the more difficult ones. Ruling out any change at all because there are some difficult issues is surely not the way forward.
A point was raised about whether free parking could be addressed through tokens and barriers, but colleagues in the NHS raised concerns about how that would apply, in terms of any burden on staff. We heard examples of frequent users of a hospital being able to access concessionary schemes, but staff have raised concerns about the impact on them, and how they might be expected to assist in the administration of the scheme in regard to those visiting hospitals as a one-off.
The pertinent point about the impact on staff was raised by Members from across the Chamber. Many Members have been visited recently by representatives from the Royal College of Nursing, regarding the wider discussions between NHS employers and the RCN on pay. It was helpful to hear in the debate contributions about the RCN’s understanding of the benefits, pressures and issues.
Across the House, there is no question, as was reflected by my right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow, about the desirability of addressing iniquities and variance, and about the scope to ensure compliance with the guidance, but we need to be mindful of unintended consequences, and particularly about constraining the car parking available for those who need it. I am happy to continue my discussions with my right hon. Friend on this policy. I commend him and colleagues on a very constructive debate.
I thank the hon. Members who have spoken from both sides of the House. The Minister has heard about the madness of the guidelines not working, the problems with public transport, parking being given over to football club supporters, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning) said, and the moving stories of families and the problems that people with severe illness have had to face.
I have to say, I am incredibly disappointed with the Minister’s response. I gave him my speech in advance because I wanted him to look at this seriously, but a lot of what he read is very much what we might think would come from officials. It is a great disappointment. He opened his speech by saying that he believes in the desirability of this, but then gave no indication of how. Many hospitals have hospital car parking charges, as figures show. It is not beyond the wit of man to develop a number plate recognition system to deal with the problems of people misusing hospital car parking.
The Minister said that we will just try to make sure the guidelines work. Well, even if the guidelines were working, they would still mean that many hospitals charge millions of patients and visitors. On both sides of the House, we constantly talk about the billions being spent on the NHS and whether they should be. Most members of the public find that hard to understand, but this is real and it affects millions of people who go to hospital regularly—as has been said again and again today, not out of choice, but because they have to. This is real and substantive, and a solution would not cost a huge amount of money in terms of the overall NHS budget. There are different solutions to pay for it, so that the NHS is not harmed.
I strongly urge the Minister to look again at this issue and realise that there is cross-party consensus in the House. Many Government Members want the situation changed. When this issue comes up again, I urge him to come back with a more substantive solution to scrap hospital parking charges. That is why I moved the motion today.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House calls on the Government to undertake a consultation to identify the most efficient means of abolishing car parking charges at NHS hospitals in England for patients, staff and visitors and to provide the timescale for its implementation.