Sir Mike Penning backs calls to abolish hospital car parking charges

1st February 2018

Sir Mike Penning supports calls for a consultation to identify ways to abolish car parking charges at NHS hospitals in England for patients, staff and visitors.

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.

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