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End the tax on illness of hospital parking charges

THERE aren’t many political issues on which Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and former Tory education minister Robert Halfon are united, but opposition to hospital parking charges is one.

Corbyn is fully within current Labour Party thinking to say making NHS staff, visitors and patients pay is “fundamentally wrong,” but some of Halfon’s colleagues would gag at his accurate charge of a “stealth tax.”

How better to characterise this tax on sickness that relieved those working, visiting or being treated in hospitals of over £174 million in the last year?

The beneficiaries of this windfall are those outsourcing companies that squat on the borders of the public and private sectors, milking finance from central and local government and the NHS.

It doesn’t have to be like this. NHS England could do what the health authorities in Wales and Scotland have already done — ending, as far as they can, this pernicious practice a decade ago.

Labour’s then Welsh health secretary Edwina Hart announced in 2008 that hospital car parking charges would be scrapped unless external contracts were already in place.

Charges still pertain at Cardiff’s University Hospital of Wales (UHW), run by the Vinci Park private company, but that private finance initiative (PFI) contract expires this year.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon took a similar stand the same year when she was health secretary in the first Scottish nationalist government.

Charges were scrapped at 14 sites where fees had previously applied, while continuing at Ninewells in Dundee and the royal infirmaries of Glasgow and Edinburgh, all of which were enmeshed in PFI schemes run, respectively, by private consortiums Park Indigo Infra Dundee, Impreglio and Consort.

It is no accident that UHW is the biggest hospital in Wales, with the Dundee, Glasgow and Edinburgh sites the largest in Scotland, since they provide a large captive audience for the outsourcing companies.

While the UHW contract runs out this year, the three Scottish PFI schemes are based on 25 or 30-year agreements — precisely the problem identified by opponents of PFI when New Labour promoted it as the only way to replace outdated public buildings.

Public facilities or those who use them are faced with decades-long obligations to pour much-needed finance into private outsourcing companies’ bank accounts.

Former minister Halfon’s investigations into hospital car parking charges in England have revealed nearly half of hospitals have increased their hourly charge since 2014, a similar figure offer no concessions for disabled drivers and the same applies to facilities with a neonatal unit.

He told a Commons debate yesterday that sick and vulnerable people are "disproportionately hit,” with cancer patients and parents of premature babies facing the greatest financial consequences.

Some parents of premature babies are precluded from visiting their children because of the cost of parking.

Halfon reminded the government of its own claim that better procurement within the NHS would bring in over £1 billion a year, stressing the comparatively trivial £200m cost of parking charge abolition.

The government is vulnerable to challenge over its stewardship of the NHS and it can be obliged by public opinion to take action.

Corbyn is clear that an incoming Labour government will abolish “NHS hospital car park charges in England by making those who can afford private healthcare pay a bit more in tax.”

A concerted effort by the parliamentary opposition, NHS campaigners and  those such as Halfon on the Tory benches could consign this iniquitous stealth tax to the dustbin of history.

 

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