Robert Halfon is a member of the 1922 Committee Executive and MP for Harlow.
Having spent years criticising Labour’s profligate spending plans, it can be easy to get caught up in the rhetoric of cuts and begin to eye all government expenditure with suspicion. It is always important to remember what drives Conservatives to believe in government spending at all: to help those who are, through no fault of their own, unfortunate.
If you have ever been a visitor or a patient in hospital, you will know that it can be a very emotional and exhausting time for all involved. The last thing people need in these periods is added stress – like worrying about how long they’ve got left on the parking meter.
I recently launched an investigation into parking charges in NHS Hospitals across England and was appalled at how many hospitals charge people excessive amounts to access essential services.
Unsurprisingly, London was the worst, with the Royal Free Hospital charging £3 per hour, increasing to £72 per day, or £504 per week.
But there were culprits all over the country. You’ll pay £15 to park at Bristol Royal Infirmary for just 9 hours, £20 at Luton and Dunstable University Hospital for more than 12 hours, and £4 at Nottingham City Hospital for just one hour.
The story is not the same everywhere. Around a quarter of hospitals in England do not charge for parking at all, and car parking fees have been abolished in Scotland and Wales. Hinchingbrooke Hospital, which has become a paragon of private innovation in the NHS, ran a consultation with the local community on how parking charges ought to be administered. They decided to charge a flat rate of £2.50 for all hospital-related visits, on the sound logic that the patient often has no control over how long they spend in hospital, and should not be punished for their clinic running late.
While many hospitals offer concessions for frequent patients and visitors, there are many whose circumstances will not meet the often stringent requirements. Furthermore, many of these discounted tickets are hidden in the small print or only available from ward managers, so those who are understandably too distressed to investigate all their options will often end up paying in full. This often means that the vulnerable are hit the hardest, often at a time when they can least afford.
So what can be done? The Government published a consultation in 2010 on how hospital parking costs could be reduced for patients and visitors. They estimated that the cost of providing free hospital parking across England would be £200 million. The idea of adding costs to an already growing health budget, or taking money from vital clinical services, is rightly met with scrutiny. Due to the gross waste that is still common in the NHS, however, the reforms could be brought in without spending a penny or compromising patient care.
Every year hundreds of millions of pounds is spent on expensive “branded” drugs where they provide no therapeutic advantage over their generic counterparts. GPs, who have no disincentive for handing out the expensive stuff, are easily swayed by the pharmaceutical industry’s flashy pitches and free pens.
A variety of studies agree that a huge amount is wasted. Even after making savings of £394 million in 2008 by using generic drugs more consistently, a report by Prescribing Analytics calculates that the NHS could save another £200 million by using more generic statins alone. A BMJ Article from 2010 put the figure across the NHS to be as high as £1 billion – enough to pay for hospital parking 5 times over.
Having saved this money, what would compel us to spend it on hospital parking rather than new heart machines or a tax cut?
There are a huge number of emotional and practical benefits that parking brings to patients. For many patients, driving is the only option. As Macmillan point out, “public transport and hospital transport are often neither adequate nor suitable for cancer patients”. Equally, patients who live in rural areas or have to come to hospital at unconventional hours barely have a choice. In the last National Patient Choice Survey, 46 per cent of patients rated car parking as one of the factors in choosing a hospitals.
Patients should have the peace of mind to be able to focus solely on getting the best care available. At present we are administering a postcode lottery stealth tax on millions of people who use the NHS every year. Equality of opportunity should be a cornerstone of all Conservative policy. Charging different amounts to different people to use a necessary service is neither equal nor fair.
Of all those whom our taxes go to help, none are more vulnerable or more guiltless than those whom the NHS serves. As long as the car parks were properly policed, free hospital parking would only go to helping those most in need. As Conservatives, we ought to protect these most vulnerable and unfortunate, to provide a service that is equal and fair for all, and to make it as easy as possible for families to be together in their time of need.