Helen Harrison is an East Northamptonshire councillor, Chairman of Corby & East Northants Conservatives, Chief Executive of Grassroots Out, and was Parliamentary candidate for Bolsover in the 2017 general election.

The abolition of car parking charges at NHS hospitals is not a new campaign. Most notably, Robert Halfon has campaigned on for this issue for many years.

He wrote on this site about why ‘hospital car parking must be scrapped’ on the 7th November last year, introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill a week later, and led a back bench debate on the 1st February 2018. It is an issue that attracts huge cross-party support.

Today it is the turn of Peter Bone, who will move a Private Members Bill to abolish NHS hospital car parking charges for patients and visitors, and exempt NHS hospitals from local non-domestic rates. It is a carrot and stick approach, with one measure off-setting the other.

The total business rates paid by all NHS hospitals and premises in England in 2017/18 was around £386 million. A Mail Online study found that hospitals had made around £175 million from parking charges in 2016/17. If this Bill succeeds then NHS hospitals overall, should end up about £211 million better off.

My local hospitals, Kettering General Hospital (KGH) and Northampton General Hospital (NGH), both rake in well over £1 million in parking fees each year. In 2016/17 KGH made £1.29 million and NGH made £1.73 million. Shockingly, last year, NGH was found to have the second highest car parking charges in the country! Their respective business rates were £929,000, and £769,000.

Some hospitals do not charge for parking. In response to Halfon’s back bench debate, Steven Barclay, Minster of State for Health and Social Care, pointed out that 67 per cent of NHS sites do not charge.

I believe that, though this is true, it is disingenuous. Whilst, for example, only 15 per cent of mental health and learning disability hospitals charge for parking, 94 per cent of acute hospitals charge, and many at very high rates.

For patients and their visitors, attending an acute hospital for treatment can be a difficult and stressful experience. Adding unaffordable parking charges is unacceptable. If some acute hospitals are able to offer free parking, then so should the rest.

The argument that the hospitals need this revenue stream to fund clinical care is an admission that parking charges are an extra tax – labelled by some, a ‘sickness tax’ – hitting people at their most vulnerable.

How we continue to fund and deliver the NHS is one of the most hotly debated issues of the day. Only yesterday, a report by the IPPR estimated that an extra £50 billion would be needed by 2030. It is an issue that needs to be resolved, on a cross party basis, as soon as possible.

Of course, the OBR’s report accompanying the Autumn Statement showed that, in the next four financial years, there will be a Brexit dividend of £55 billion which could be spent on public services like the NHS. Certainly, parking charges should not be used as a hidden means to provide extra funding.

This Bill will ensure that the financial hit from losing the ability to raise funds in parking charges would be offset by exempting NHS hospitals from paying business rates. To many people it will seem silly that public money is being shuffled around from one pot to another, especially when it involves money being taken away from front-line NHS care.

But even putting that incongruity to one side, there is another problem with business rates. They create a disincentive to building and improving hospital facilities as to do so will attract ever higher rates! We want our hospitals to have the best possible facilities, so let’s scrap this tax.

I hope that Parliament will get behind this Bill today, and see it safely through its Second Reading.