I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to prohibit charging for car parking at NHS hospitals for patients, staff and visitors; and for connected purposes.
The Bill will give peace of mind to patients and visitors when they need it most and support our hard-working doctors, nurses and other NHS staff who are struggling with the cost of living. It is time to end the hospital car parking rip-off once and for all. These parking charges are the bane of people’s lives. No one goes to hospital out of choice; they go because they must. No one chooses to be ill, and we rely on our doctors and nurses to look after us.
The sick and vulnerable are disproportionately hit, particularly those with long-term and severe illnesses that require repeated and lengthy stays in hospital. Research has shown that cancer patients and parents of premature babies face the greatest financial consequences. CLIC Sargent, the UK’s leading cancer charity for children, has told me that some families are spending £50 a week when their child is having treatment. Bliss, the UK’s leading charity for babies born premature or sick, has also carried out research: while some babies stay in the neonatal unit for only a few days, some parents have to pay over £250 if their baby stays in the neonatal unit for eight weeks.
In addition, there is clear public support for the abolition of hospital car parking charges. Over the past few days, a Fair Fuel UK poll has received almost 9,000 responses. It finds that 95.5% of respondents want hospital parking charging scrapped or set at a maximum of £1; only 3.4% want them to remain as they are.
Much of the hospital workforce cannot rely on public transport to get to work, particularly if they are working shifts at unsociable hours. Many have no choice but to use hospital car parks. While all hospitals seem to offer a discounted parking scheme based on pay band or salary, or allocate a limited number of discounted staff places, doctors and nurses are charged to work unsociable hours at a time when everyone is facing economic difficulties.
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), who is a sponsor of the Bill, was told by hospital staff that they cannot afford the charges for hospital car parks and are parking on unfit nearby streets, which leaves them vulnerable when leaving work late at night. If we value our hospital staff—the nurses, the porters, the cleaners, the occupational therapists, the doctors, the consultants—we should allow them free parking.
I started the campaign for free hospital parking in 2014, after finding out that hospitals in England were charging staff and visitors up to £500 a week to use onsite parking facilities. There was—sadly, there still is—a postcode lottery on car parking charges, with hospital trusts setting widely different fees. Given that Scottish hospitals offer free parking, these charges seem even more unreasonable.
As a result of my campaign, the Government introduced guidance, for which I condemn—I should say, I commend —Health Ministers. The guidance urges hospitals to cut their parking fees. Among other recommendations, it suggests:
“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, but none of the guidance is mandatory. The guidance also says:
“Charges should be reasonable for the area.”
So patients and staff living in London and the south-east are charged the most, which encourages the postcode lottery.
Despite the Government’s efforts and that guidance, there has been little improvement. Since the guidance was introduced on 23 August 2014, weekly hospital car parking charges have fallen, but the average cost to park for a week at a hospital in England is still £53.41, and people pay, on average, £1.98 for a one-hour stay. In addition, 47% of hospitals in England have increased their charges per hour since the guidance was introduced. One hospital in Surrey, for example, charges £4 an hour for parking—the highest cost in England. The worst examples of high hospital car parking fees can be found in London and the south-east. The average one-hour cost in London is more than £2, and a trust with hospitals in central London charges more than £260 for a week of parking.
Almost half of hospitals offer no concessions for disabled drivers. Of those hospitals that do offer free parking for blue badge holders, about 40 do so with a condition attached. It may be limited to a number of bays or it may be time limited, as with Conquest Hospital in East Sussex, which offers up to three hours. Blue badge holders have no choice but to park nearby, and almost half of hospitals charge them to do so. The NHS is therefore not free of charge, and the previous guidance has clearly not worked. That is why I am promoting this Bill.
Some hospital trusts do provide free parking, including those in the Northamptonshire Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and the Leicestershire Partnership NHS Trust, which proves that it is possible to deliver free parking for patients, visitors and staff.
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.”
On the assumption that free hospital car parking would cost £200 million a year, a number of funding options should be considered. Hospitals have immense purchasing power. Lord Carter has found that better procurement would bring in more than £1 billion. Hospitals across the country pay completely different prices for the same goods. The Department of Health financial accounts for 2016-17 show that it underspent its revenue budget last year by £560 million, which is about 0.5% of the total budget. Surely some of that money could go towards covering the parking costs for patients and staff, and better procurement could help raise the money to pay for the car parking charges.
Hospital car parking charges are a stealth tax on the NHS. We cannot say in good faith that the NHS is free at the point of access, paid for by general taxation, if people with cars face extortionate and unfair parking fees to get to their hospital appointments, to go to work at our vital public services or to visit sick relatives. It is wrong to tell one group of people that they have to pay and that everyone else can have something for free. The charges penalise the most vulnerable in our society at a time when they most need support.
I am proud to say that this Bill is supported by Members on both sides of the House, including esteemed colleagues such as my hon. Friends the Members for Telford (Lucy Allan) and for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) and others who in 2015 promoted a Bill to abolish parking charges for carers. My Bill has their support because staff should not have to worry about excessive fees if their shift overruns or about the cost of living instead of concentrating on patient care. Visitors should not have to worry about topping up the meter, to stay at the bedside of sick relatives. Most importantly, patients should not have to pay to access the hospital treatment they need.
I rise in trepidation, because this is a popular and, certainly at a superficial level, well-thought-through Bill. However, if one considers it at a deeper level, one finds that it needs to be opposed. I say from the outset, given that we are going to be here until midnight anyway, that I do not think it would be beneficial for the House to divide on it.
I am concerned about the funding stream. My right hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) mentions £200 million—it is certainly more than the £162 million mentioned elsewhere—so that funding gap would need to be addressed. If we have £162 million or £200 million extra, we would be better spending it on hospital care rather than hospital parking.
I am concerned that capital expenditure will not be found to provide more parking spaces. There will be no capital expenditure because there is no revenue associated with it. I am concerned about transitional relationships. What happens in cases where existing car parks are being built and a revenue stream is anticipated? I am concerned that this will break the fundamental basic economics of supply and demand: as demand increases, there will be no market mechanism to enable more car parking spaces in the future. The Bill is a popular move—it would be popular with my constituents—but the responsible thing to do is to say, in this House, that the plan is flawed.
Question put and agreed to.
That Robert Halfon, Lucy Allan, Frank Field, Jeremy Lefroy, Martin Vickers, George Freeman, Jack Lopresti, Mrs Pauline Latham, Emma Hardy, Sir Mike Penning and Julie Cooper present the Bill.
Robert Halfon accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 16 March 2018, and to be printed (Bill 125).
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)