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Covid-19: Hospital Parking Charges for NHS Staff

Volume 685: debated on Tuesday 1 December 2020

I beg to move,

That this House has considered parking charges for NHS staff at hospitals during the covid-19 outbreak.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Walker. The pandemic has made many things clear: it has exposed the deep inequalities in our society and highlighted that it is the labour of working people that keeps society going. Perhaps more than anything else, it has shown the value of our NHS and its staff. NHS doctors, nurses, cleaners and porters have been incredible throughout the pandemic, working tirelessly on behalf of us all to defeat the virus. They deserve huge thanks and recognition for their courage and determination, so I begin by paying tribute to NHS staff at University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire and across the country. I thank them for all that they do.

Thanks alone are not enough; NHS staff deserve much more than that. In the spring, in response to the public outpouring of support for the NHS, the Government announced that parking would be made free for staff during the pandemic. The Government said that NHS staff should be able to

“carry out their vital work without worrying about paying for car parking”

and that they would provide

“the financial backing NHS Trusts need to make this a reality”.

That pledge was, of course, welcomed by NHS staff across the country. So far, so good.

The pledge has been regularly repeated by the Government since. On 8 July, the Prime Minister told the House of Commons that

“hospital car parks are free for NHS staff for this pandemic”.—[Official Report, 8 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 966.]

Last month, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care repeated that, telling “Good Morning Britain” viewers that

“We don’t have parking charges in English hospitals and we’re not going to for the course of this pandemic.”

That all sounds well and good. The only problem is that it is not true, and has not been for many months.

As far back as June, parking charges were reintroduced for NHS staff at University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire. Ever since, staff have been made to pay for parking. Similar things have happened at NHS trusts across the country. Charges were brought back at the nearby University Hospitals Birmingham and at the South Warwickshire NHS Trust, as well as in places as far afield as the Harrogate District Hospital and Wye Valley NHS Trust. Even now, as the second wave puts renewed pressure on NHS staff, charges are being reintroduced.

As I said to the hon. Lady and the Minister outside, during the first wave of coronavirus, trusts and the health board in Northern Ireland did away with the charges, but restarted them after the covid wave had passed. Now that the second wave has come, they are considering stopping the charges again. Does she feel that the example from Northern Ireland and elsewhere indicate a need to subsidise staff during the covid-19 outbreak? Clearly, their work, which saves us all, is a priority.

I agree. We see in Scotland and Wales that staff parking is free, because parking is free for everyone. Northern Ireland has also shown leadership in this field, and I hope that our Government here in Westminster follow suit.

As of today, it is reported that staff at the Royal Cornwall Hospital Trust will have to pay for parking. Quite simply, I and many others can see that the Government have promised free parking for NHS staff throughout the pandemic and funding for NHS trusts to make this possible, but they have unfortunately broken that promise. Parking charges have been reintroduced for NHS staff, during a global pandemic. From clapping for carers, we are now clamping carers. Frankly, that is scandalous and no way to thank our incredible NHS staff.

Does my hon. Friend agree that our hard-working NHS staff, who put their lives on the line every day and are currently suffering from anxiety and mental health issues, need to be supported in a better way than clapping and need to have free parking reintroduced? I have heard that charges are going up by 200%. Does she believe that this should be stopped?

I will touch on the mental health of NHS staff later, but my hon. Friend makes the point that some trusts are introducing parking charges, in some cases with a 200% increase, which is absolutely scandalous. The Government should provide enough funding to cover the gaps from a decade of cuts to the NHS. I will talk later about increasing NHS pay so that actual rewards and recognition are given to our NHS staff.

When I asked the Prime Minister about this in the Chamber, he promised to look into it and get back to me. I have heard nothing since and would be very interested to hear the Minister’s update today. It appears that the Prime Minister and Health Secretary are so out of touch that they do not even know that this has happened.

This is not just about the Government failing to keep their word; it is about public safety and basic fairness. Working on the frontline, NHS staff are already more exposed to the virus. As the Royal College of Nursing and UNISON highlight, travelling to work by car reduces the risk of NHS staff catching or spreading the virus. Reintroducing parking charges makes that safer option more expensive. It also makes it more unaffordable for some workers. To ensure public safety, parking charges must be abolished throughout the pandemic.

But it is not just that; NHS staff are battling the virus day in, day out. Some tell me how exhausted they feel, pushed to breaking point by the pandemic. One nurse at the Royal Victoria Infirmary in Newcastle told me:

“We are exhausted, we are on our knees”.

She told me that staff are acting outside their roles, working overtime for free and being redeployed across wards and positions to try to cover the gaps. Another told me how frightening battling covid has been, with consistent failures to provide NHS staff with proper PPE. A Sunday Mirror investigation found that healthcare workers needed almost 2 million days off for mental illness in the first wave, with doctors and nurses suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and more than 2,000 doctors quitting the profession since March. Tragically, we know that more than 200 health and care workers have lost their lives to the virus.

Even now, staff are being forced to use repurposed bin bags as official PPE at some hospitals in the UK. It is not a surprise that a British Medical Association study found that nearly three-quarters of its members fear that they will be overwhelmed this winter. Nurses in Coventry tell me that morale is at rock bottom, but the stress and overwork that NHS staff experience are not new. They did not begin with the pandemic. Instead, a decade of NHS underfunding and privatisation has left NHS staff underpaid and overworked. Nurses’ and doctors’ pay has fallen by more than 8% and 9% respectively since 2010. Many cleaners and porters are on less than the real living wage.

Underfunding means that we now spend 22% less per head on health than France and 47% less than Germany. It is in this context that NHS staff are being battered by a Government that have overworked and overstretched them for 10 years. A deadly second wave is hitting our hospitals and we see the Government have let parking charges be introduced. Can the Minister tell me how this is fair? One member of staff at University Hospital Coventry and Warwickshire told me that the move has felt like a kick in the teeth. She said:

“Staff feel totally undervalued and unappreciated.”

What will the Minister say to them? At another hospital, a student nurse has spoken out about how demoralising it felt to get a parking fine after she worked a 13-hour shift. Another told me:

“Staff give and give and give and get nothing in return, not even a free place to park our car.”

Another described how he is,

“incensed that we are expected to pay to park in the middle of a global pandemic. This is happening while nurses are using food banks and are leaving the profession in their thousands.”

Such problems with parking are not new. I have been told how low pay and high parking charges have forced staff to quit the jobs they love. There are reports that parking charges could dramatically rise, with recent revelations showing that one NHS trust plans to raise charges for staff by 200%.

Some NHS trusts are under such financial strain that they feel they have no choice but to reintroduce charges. Staff tell me that that underfunding has become so extreme that parking charges are used to subsidise frontline care costs, meaning that NHS staff are victims of what one healthcare worker described as a stealth tax, paying for the NHS twice: once through taxation and again through parking at work. In Coventry, a private company runs hospital parking, lining its pockets from the hard work of NHS staff.

In the past, hospital parking charges have been justified on the grounds that abolishing than is not feasible. Tell that to the people of Wales, where charges for staff, patients and visitors were abolished more than a decade ago. If anyone thinks that there is something different or unique about England; that here we somehow cannot abolish charges, that has been thoroughly debunked by the simple fact that for three months at the start of the pandemic, charges were abolished. It is not a question of feasibility; it is simply a question of political will. The Government just need to find the will to intervene, to provide the funds for trusts and to guarantee free parking, just like they said they would.

In the spring, Ministers clapped for NHS staff. Instead of more empty gestures, I call on them today to give our NHS staff the recognition they deserve. Start off by guaranteeing free parking for all NHS staff, and this time make it permanent. That is the very least they can do. It should not stop there—parking charges are an unfair second tax on staff, but they are also a tax on patients and on visitors seeing loved ones. Parking charges should also be abolished for patients and visitors.

NHS staff have faced a decade of falling pay, for which the current pay deal does not compensate. The French Government have stepped in to give their healthcare workers a pay rise totalling £7.2 billion. Our Government need to do the same, so I call on them to give NHS staff a fair pay rise of 15% to make up for a decade of lost pay, and to end the creeping privatisation of the NHS, which has seen resources taken away from frontline services and channelled to private healthcare companies. If the Minister says there is no money for this, I say to him that the Government have just found £16 billion for the military. Let us fund the NHS instead. Our priority should be welfare, not warfare.

I will finish with a series of questions for the Minister. Does the Minister acknowledge that the Government have broken their promise and allowed parking charges to be reintroduced during the global pandemic? Will he apologise to NHS staff for this broken promise? Will he urgently work to reverse this situation, and bring back free parking for NHS staff in Coventry and across the country? Will he move on from empty gestures for the NHS and instead commit to permanent free parking, a fair pay rise, and the funding the NHS needs for the future?

It has always been a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, not least on the Procedure Committee, which you chaired when I was first elected to this House.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Zarah Sultana) on securing this important debate. I know that this is an issue that she in particular, with other hon. Members, has taken a very close interest in, and it is a timely debate. Before I turn to the specifics of the issue and the hon. Lady’s points, like her, I would like once again to put on record my gratitude and thanks to our NHS and care workers, including those at her local hospital trust. They, as always, continue to do an amazing job in the face of this incredibly challenging pandemic.

To address one of the hon. Lady’s points, I know she will very much welcome and be encouraged by the fact that the Government have put in place a £33.9 billion increase in investment in the NHS, the biggest increase in investment by any Government of recent years. I know she will welcome that very clear investment by this Government in our NHS. However, as she said, it is important that, in the face of this pandemic, as well as thanking our NHS workers, we have taken practical steps as a country and as a Government to further support them. One of those steps has been funding the provision of free parking for NHS staff at work during the pandemic since the spring, as she set out.

As the hon. Lady will know, parking is determined at trust level. While I appreciate she is critical of trust decisions in this space, and that of course is her right, in acknowledging that, I also express gratitude to the trusts that did, following the Government’s clear statement, provide free parking, and to local councils whose provision of free parking space for NHS staff made that possible. As the Prime Minister stated in the House on 8 July:

“The hospital car parks are free for NHS staff for this pandemic—they are free now—and we are going to get on with our manifesto commitment to make them free for patients who need them as well.”—[Official Report, 8 July 2020; Vol. 678, c. 966.]

That remains the policy of Her Majesty’s Government.

I am conscious that the hon. Lady has previously raised a specific question about her own trust, which she also asked today, and which I will seek to address. NHS trusts have control of their parking policies. We, the Government, have made it very clear that we expect individual trusts to follow the approach that I have just outlined and that the Prime Minister set out. To her specific point, trusts have received and continue to receive additional funding to do so, to ensure that they do not lose income. I hope that her trust and others will recognise that, but if it is helpful to her, I will write to her after the debate with more specific information about her local trust and the specific points she raised about its income and funding and the position it has taken on this.

It is, however, also important to set out the broader context, while not losing sight of the clear expectation that trusts will fulfil that policy position. As I say, as the hon. Lady knows, the decision rests with trusts.

What I hear from the conversations I have had at University Hospitals Coventry and Warwickshire is that the money has not continued to come; it has stopped. The Minister makes the point that NHS trusts have decision-making powers around parking, and I want to clarify that point, because I find that it then becomes a decision on whether to fund parking or frontline services, and it should not be a choice between those two. There should be enough funding for frontline services and additional funding for parking, so that trusts do not have to make a decision between those.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I will come on to the specific point about funding for this commitment in probably about a page or so’s time in my notes, but I go back to the £33.9 billion increase by 2023-24. The Government have given the NHS the money it said it wanted and needed to fund its services and, in addition, we have funded covid costs over and above that settlement.

Turning to the broader context, which is not just about funding, during the first wave of the pandemic, not only were hospital car parks largely empty of patients and visitors, but high streets are empty and so were council and commercial car parks, which local authorities were able to make available to NHS workers for free. That helped to address the fundamental challenge, which is not primarily funding, but capacity in hospital car parks.

While some trusts have significant capacity in their car parks, a very large number, even before the current situation, saw demand for spaces significantly exceed a limited capacity. By way of a little statistical context, overall, the NHS has around 440,000 spaces on its estate. That is set against over 1.3 million staff, and that is even before visitors or patients are factored into the demand side of the equation.

In recent months, we have seen patient and visitor usage of commercial car parks return. As activity has returned to shops and high streets since the summer, we have seen increased demand for those parking spaces that were available during the height of the first wave. This all means a return to significant demand exceeding a finite supply of available parking spaces. As set out in our manifesto, it is important that the patients and visitors who most need parking can access it, alongside our amazing NHS staff.

I will briefly address the issue of funding that the hon. Lady raised, and the concerns about a potential loss of trust income or trust funding. During the pandemic, we have provided trusts with specific funding for free parking for NHS staff. They continue to receive funding for that, currently as part of the overall system of funding allocation we have put in place. However, as I said, I will look into the hon. Lady’s specific point about her trust and how the allocation of the funding coming through that system is done, to reassure her that her trust continues to be supported through that overall pot.

Alongside the Prime Minister’s clearly stated commitment on NHS staff parking, he referenced our manifesto commitment, the context of which I will touch upon, including what we are doing to increase capacity to address that fundamental, underlying challenge. Some trusts began implementing the manifesto commitment earlier in the year. However, we fully recognise—and did recognise—the need for trusts, given the pandemic, to focus both on implementing the staff parking measures and on their operational response to the pandemic and ensuring they were there for all patients who needed them. We understand that, for reasons that I am sure all reasonable people would understand, many trusts delayed the planned phased roll-out due to take place over the course of this year, reflecting that external context.

The commitment will ensure that, in the course of this Parliament, disabled blue badge holders, frequent outpatient attendees, parents of children staying overnight, as well as night shift NHS staff, will be given free parking at hospitals. This will be the first time that hospital car parking has been completely free in this country for those groups who need it most. It will be mandated by NHS England and NHS Improvement on trusts from 1 January 2021. That mandating process, which takes considerable time, is the only lever by which trusts can be compelled to do this. That is why I say that the decision rests with trusts.

However, we recognise that in the midst of a second wave, flexibility is required. To have both policies operating at the same time will be a challenge for some sites, particularly in urban areas where capacity is limited. As we face this second wave, trusts’ clear focus is on operationally tackling the pandemic and responding to it. I am sure that all reasonable people will recognise the need for roll-out flexibility in the context of the mandating, and given the focus of our NHS on their responsibilities in tackling the pandemic.

On the capacity issues, the Government are committed to increasing hospital car parking capacity. I set out the challenge earlier, but we have set aside over £200 million of capital funding for the financial year to do this. This money is available to trusts to modernise and expand their car parking facilities, and to utilise technology, such as automatic number plate recognition systems, to make parking easier for patients. Trusts will be invited to bid for this funding in the usual way, and we will ensure that they have full details of how they can do that.

The Government have been clear on their commitment on staff parking. We have adhered to that commitment, and continued to provide the funding for it. I will give the hon. Lady more detailed granular information for her trust. We have made significant progress since the announcement of our manifesto commitment. We remain committed to providing free car parking for NHS staff during the pandemic, as the Prime Minister made very clear, and to ensuring that NHS hospital parking is free for those who need it the most, in line with our manifesto commitment that we are clear we will deliver. We must do that while ensuring that the NHS has the necessary resources to deliver the commitment successfully, both in terms of capacity and meeting the revenue funding cost.

Again, I thank the hon. Member for Coventry South for securing the debate and for the tone, by and large, that she adopted. I know she feels passionately about this matter, and it is right that she brings that passion, her knowledge and her constituents’ specific concerns to the House. I hope I have answered her points from the Dispatch Box, but I will of course come back to her about any that I have not been able to provide specific detail on in due course.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.