Hospitals put 'tax on sickness' with record £174m from car parking charges

NHS hospitals made a record £174 million in the last year from charging patients, visitors and staff for car parking, an investigation has found.

Hospitals across England took £174,526,970 in parking charges in 2016/17, up 6% on the year before, according to data collected by the Press Association.

In 2015/16, £164,162,458 was raised. The Liberal Democrats have branded the charges a "tax on sickness".

Some 120 NHS trusts across England were asked to give figures on parking charges and fines under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, of which 111 responded.

While NHS trusts in England continue to charge patients, visitors and staff for parking, hospital parking in Scotland and Wales remains largely free.

A total of 40 trusts provided data on parking fines, showing they made £947,568 in 2016/17 from fining patients, visitors and staff on hospital grounds. This was up 32% on the £716,385 taken by the trusts the year before.

The investigation found that half (56) of NHS trusts also charge disabled people for parking in some or all of their disabled spaces, with more trusts now saying they charge disabled visitors compared to last year.

The Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust came out top when it came to parking income, making £4,865,000 across the year.

This was followed by Frimley Health NHS Foundation Trust, which raised £3,946,312 in 2016/17, including £1,524,803 from staff and £2,421,509 from patients and visitors.

Other trusts making more than £3 million a year included Derby Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust ( £3,918,587 in 2016/17), Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust ( £3,620,368 in 2016/17), Sheffield Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust ( £3,073,222 in 2016/17) and Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust ( £3,706,845 in 2016/17).

Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust also made £3,228,301 in 2016/17 . And University Hospital Southampton made £ 3,730,000 in parking charges.

Around two-thirds of trusts that responded to the FOI are making more than £1 million in car park fees every year, with some also handing hundreds of thousands of pounds to private firms to run their car parks.

Some hospitals defended their revenues, saying some or all of the money was put back into patient care or was spent on maintaining car parks and grounds.

Others claimed their sheer size and the fact that they served busy neighbourhoods meant they took more revenue.

The investigation also looked at the cost of parking for one hour. The most expensive trust in the country for a one-hour stay is the Royal Surrey County Hospital in Guildford, where patients pay £4 if they need to stay for an hour.

This is followed by Hereford County Hospital (£3.50 for a one-hour stay), Bristol Royal Infirmary (£3.40) and Northampton General (£3.20).

Longer-term concessions are available at some hospitals, such as for people having regular chemotherapy.

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb said: "The vast sums of money that hospitals are making from parking charges reveal the hidden cost of healthcare faced by many patients and their families.

"Hospital car park charges amount to a tax on sickness, with people who are chronically ill or disabled bearing the brunt.

"All hospitals should be following the national guidelines to make sure that patients, relatives, and NHS staff are not unfairly penalised."

Shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said: "Hospital parking charges are an entirely unfair and unnecessary burden, which disproportionately affect the most vulnerable people using our health service.

"Even Jeremy Hunt has described this outrageous practice as a 'stealth tax', and yet Tory underfunding of our NHS has resulted in hospitals and private companies extracting record fees from patients and staff.

"It was extremely disappointing that the Budget offered no solution whatsoever to this burgeoning problem.

"Labour will abolish car parking charges and scrap this needless strain on already worried families."

Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association, said the current state of NHS finances meant it was sometimes hard to blame hospitals for trying to find money.

But she said that did not make the current situation acceptable.

She added: "For patients, parking charges amount to an extra charge for being ill.

"The increase in the number of trusts who are charging for disabled parking is particularly concerning.

"Patients who require disabled parking may have little choice but to access their care by car, and may need to do so often. Targeting them in this way feels rather cynical.

"The increase in parking fines is also worrying.

"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."

Lucy Schonegevel, public affairs manager at Macmillan Cancer Support, said: "Frequent trips to the hospital are unavoidable when you've been diagnosed with cancer, or caring for someone who has.

"People are having to travel to receive life-saving treatment and public transport isn't always an option.

"Vulnerable people, such as those living with cancer, shouldn't have to bear the financial burden of extortionate car parking fees.

"We feel more needs to be done by hospital trusts in England to follow the guidance set by the Department of Health and provide concessionary parking for cancer patients and their carers, including free and reduced parking charges or caps."

A Department of Health spokesman said: "Patients and families should not have to deal with the added stress of complex and unfair parking charges.

"NHS organisations are locally responsible for the methods used to charge, and we want to see them coming up with flexible options that put patients and their families first."

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