Hospital Parking Charges Bill: Further Consideration Stage

Private Members' Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 6:45 pm on 21st March 2022.

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Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party 6:45 pm, 21st March 2022

I call Miss Aisling Reilly to move the Further Consideration Stage of the Bill. Glaoim ar Aisling Reilly leis an Bhille a mholadh.

Moved. — [Miss Reilly.]

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

Members will have a copy of the Marshalled List of amendments detailing the order for consideration. The amendments have been grouped for debate in the provisional grouping of amendments selected list. There is a single group containing three amendments, which deal with parking charges and commencement.

I remind Members who intend to speak during the debate that they should address all the amendments in the group. Once the debate is completed, any further amendments in the group will be moved formally as we go through the Bill, and the Questions will be put without further debate. If that is clear, we will proceed.

Clause 1 (Hospitals not to charge for car parking)

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

We now come to the single group of amendments for debate. With amendment No 1, it will be convenient to debate amendment Nos 2 and 3. Amendment No 3 is consequential to amendment No 1. I call the Minister of Health, Robin Swann, to move formally amendment No 1 and to address the other amendments in the group.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I beg to move amendment No 1:

Leave out clause 1 and insert—

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Ban on charging for hospital parking


1.—(1) No person may impose or recover a monetary charge with respect to the parking of a vehicle in a car park at a hospital by someone who is attending the hospital in a relevant capacity as follows—


(a) for the purpose of—


(i) work or employment at the hospital, or


(ii) providing services at the hospital,


(b) as a patient of the hospital, or


(c) as a visitor to the hospital.


(2) For avoidance of doubt—


(a) a person is not to be regarded as attending a hospital as a visitor merely because the person parks a vehicle in a car park at the hospital, but


(b) a person is to be regarded as attending a hospital as a visitor if the person parks a vehicle in a car park at the hospital in connection with providing transport to or from the hospital for someone else who is attending the hospital in a relevant capacity (whether as a visitor or otherwise).


(3) In this section—


(a) the references to a hospital are to a hospital—


(i) within the meaning given by Article 2 of the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, and


(ii) for which a Health and Social Care Trust has responsibility,


(b) the references to a car park at a hospital are to a car park or parking area which is part of the premises or facilities of the hospital and made available for use by people who have reason to attend the hospital in a relevant capacity,


(c) the references to parking in a car park are to parking in the car park in accordance with whatever reasonable conditions (including restrictions) apply in relation to the parking of vehicles in the car park.” — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

The following amendments stood on the Marshalled List:

No 2: In clause 2, page 2, line 2, leave out “6 months” and insert “2 years”. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

No 3: In the long title, leave out “by Health and Social Care hospitals of charges for car parking; and for connected purposes” and insert—



“of charges for parking vehicles in hospital car parks”. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I am pleased to be here to debate this very important issue. I start by commending the sponsor of the Hospital Parking Charges Bill, Miss Reilly, for her work on the Bill to date. I also commend members of the Health Committee for their commitment to scrutinising and progressing the Bill.

Having worked closely with the Office of the Legislative Counsel (OLC), my proposed amendment to clause 1 is to provide technical refinement and improvement while continuing to place a duty on the Department of Health and on health and social care trusts not to charge for car parking. The amendment to clause 1 has been designed solely to ensure that the prohibition, with all the necessary details included, works properly in practice once the Bill's provisions are commenced.

The advice from the Office of the Legislative Counsel is that the fuller details surrounding the prohibition do benefit from adjustment so as to ensure that the prohibition is delivered in the best way possible for the sake of giving the Bill all the necessary legal and practical certainty. The prohibition can be stated in free-standing text in the Bill without inserting the text into the existing legislation, and that has the benefit of letting the Bill do the whole job by itself and without causing the readers of legislation to refer to different legislation once the Bill is enacted. The prohibition can be stated without referring to the underlying mechanisms by which charges could otherwise be imposed, be that by health and social care trusts themselves or through third-party arrangements. Subsection (1) of the proposed new clause 1 gets straight to the prohibition so as to cover, in fairly neat terms, everything that is done by paragraphs (1) to (3) of proposed new article 3A in the existing clause 1.

The result of amending clause 1 is that, just as in the existing clause 1, no one can charge for parking of vehicles by workers, patients and visitors at hospitals.

Workers, patients and visitors to hospitals are still mentioned expressly, but there is a better focus on who those people are. For example, the reference to workers is expanded to clarify that all relevant workers of different kinds are covered, including where described as employees or service providers. The reference to visitors is embellished to ensure that only bona fide visitors are covered, but also making sure that those people who are dropping off or picking up workers, patients or visitors are similarly covered, just as actual visitors are.

Again, "hospitals" as a type of institution needed to be defined. That is done by adopting a definition that is recognised in the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972, which is cited. That ensures that the references to hospitals are to be taken fairly widely for the purposes of making sure to catch wider facilities than just those for inpatient treatment. Hospitals where the prohibition applies are, of course, to be our National Health Service hospitals, and that is achieved by referring in the definition of "hospitals" to those under the responsibility of health and social care trusts. Some useful narrative is added for ease of understanding, by reference to hospital premises, as to what hospital car parks are and what sort of parking in hospital car parks is legitimate in context. That is when attending hospitals for relevant reasons as workers, patients or visitors, for example.

New article 3A(4), proposed in the existing clause 1, has not been included in my amended clause 1 because the Bill is purely about the prohibition of charging, so the availability of parking capacity is something that lies, and is for due consideration, outside the strict confines of the Bill. Therefore, the prohibition of parking charges is not to be taken by a health and social care trust as the basis for reducing the amount of parking space to be provided at a hospital for the benefit of people who have reason to attend the hospital in a relevant capacity, but it should not limit the ability of the trusts to determine, from time to time, in light of all relevant factors, what represents the appropriate amount of parking space to be provided at a hospital for the benefit of such people. It is hoped, with real-life end users of the Bill in mind, that the new clause 1 will be simpler to follow on its own terms and in ordinary language.

The amendments to clause 2 relate to the commencement date. Following consultation with the health and social care trusts, I am proposing an amendment to the commencement date of the Bill which will extend the length of time available to the Department and the health and social care trusts to implement clause 1 of the Bill. I am proposing that the Act come into operation at the end of a 24-month period following Royal Assent. Clause 2 currently states that:

"This Act comes into operation at the end of the period of 6 months beginning with the day on which it receives Royal Assent."

Proper consideration needs to be given to what alternative arrangements need to be put in place to manage and control spaces in hospital car parks, should the charges be abolished through the Bill. Alternative parking management solutions will need to be carefully researched to establish how effective they would be at controlling the management of spaces, congestion and the cost implications. At present, there is not enough space to provide free parking for everyone, particularly at sites where space is limited, so sufficient time is required to put in place any necessary provisions to deal with capacity. Our health and social care trusts remain concerned that, if the Bill is enacted, the time frame currently proposed is insufficient for a carefully considered plan to address capacity issues.

It has always been the primary objective of the health and social care trusts to ensure that persons invited or in need of their services can safely access our sites with minimal delay. Should the legal requirements simply require that hospital parking be free, the only means to deliver that objective within the current stipulated time frame will be to open the barriers without any capacity controls. That will inevitably lead to operational issues and access concerns.

An extended implementation period will allow our health and social care trusts, in partnership with my Department, to regionally agree and finalise a new policy to direct and drive consistency across all hospital sites. That will also enable staff, patient and visitor involvement, and collaboration with other related Departments on infrastructure, public transport solutions and climate change commitments.

Our health and social care trusts will also need to identify how best to facilitate access to car parks for patients and their relatives, while preventing parking by staff or others for whom the facilities are not intended. That solution will need to be applied to all sites where the demand for car parking exceeds the number of available spaces.

The solution will need to take account of the urgent nature of many attendances and the capacity of all motorists to engage with the necessary technology. That will require research and scoping; an equality assessment; consultation with all stakeholders; preparation of a business case and securing the necessary funding; a procurement exercise; a programme of installation for the infrastructure across all sites; recruitment of personnel as necessary for each site to operate the verification arrangements; implementation of any new systems; and awareness raising of the new arrangements followed by a period of monitoring and modification as necessary. An enforcement process to clamp vehicles that are parked on site and not registered will also need to be developed.

The Belfast Trust has advised that, once parking charges are abolished, due to the current capacity issues, it would still need to apply a form of access control to ensure that car parking is available for service users when needed and for those staff who are not able to avail themselves of alternative travel options. That will require the full implementation of new staff car parking access criteria across all sites where car parking charges currently apply to staff. It is estimated that that could take up to around nine months for full implementation.

Anything less than a two-year implementation time would most certainly cause major disruption to the running of hospital car parking sites, which would have a real detrimental impact on service delivery on those sites. My Department previously outlined potential areas for further clarification and discussion prior to the implementation of the Bill. Significantly, the Department is already facing a substantial funding gap in its future years' financial position, and, given existing financial commitments, the Department will need to identify funding to absorb the loss of revenue from the abolition of car parking charges. At present, there is also not sufficient space to provide free car parking for everyone, and that is particularly the case at sites where spaces are limited. Implementing free car parking provision prior to giving the matter due consideration may have unintended consequences.

An extended implementation time frame would allow my Department to prepare for a reduction in income, to identify any as yet unidentified costs associated with the passage of the Bill and to identify other spending that may need to be stopped in order to make the abolition of parking charges affordable. In addition, given the current COVID-19 pressures on the Department and trusts and severely stretched and under-resourced staffing levels, the staffing resources are currently not available to ensure the full implementation of a new car parking policy within six months.

Amendment No 3 amends the long title. The change to the long title is merely technical in order to reflect the restating of the provisions to reach the result that is wanted. Currently, the long title states that it is a Bill to:

"Prohibit the imposition by Health and Social Care hospitals of charges for car parking; and for connected purposes."

Amendment No 3 will:

"Leave out 'by Health and Social Care hospitals of charges for car parking; and for connected purposes' and insert 'of charges for parking vehicles in hospital car parks'".

Therefore, the long title will read:

"Prohibit the imposition of charges for parking vehicles in hospital car parks."

I commend the amendments to the Assembly.

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin 7:00 pm, 21st March 2022

I want to start off by thanking my colleague Aisling Reilly for bringing this really important Bill to the Assembly. I am delighted that it has got to this stage, and that is definitely due to the hard work that she and her predecessor Fra McCann committed to it.

It is long overdue that action has been taken with regard to hospital parking charges. As elected reps and as members of the community, we know the impacts of those charges and how they can take a real toll on patients and their families alike and particularly on staff in the context of the rising cost of living, almost daily at this stage. We should be doing all that we can to reduce costs, particularly those that arise for those who are travelling to work and going about their job. It is important that we look at that in the current context.

In my constituency, particularly at Daisy Hill Hospital, we have seen the importance of having safe and secure parking for staff. There is a safety element to it. In recent weeks — as recently as 31 January — there was an incident where a doctor was going on shift to Daisy Hill Hospital and was mugged at her car because she had parked on the road outside the hospital.

She was attacked on her way to work, where she saves and protects the lives of others. There was no free parking near the hospital that she could avail herself of for that long period, and she was attacked as a result. It is important to note that context for staff, and that incident sent shock waves through the community.

It has also left staff, many of whom have been in contact with me, feeling very vulnerable and fearful that, if they do not use the paid facilities, for which they incur huge daily costs, they are at risk of something similar happening to them. While there is free parking in the area near Daisy Hill Hospital, it still means that those who are going on shift at times when it is quieter, whether early in the morning, as it is for many of them, or very late at night, feel totally vulnerable and more at risk at those times. If we are successful in passing the Bill, it would be hugely welcomed by the staff in Daisy Hill Hospital; I know that for a fact.

Similarly, in recent weeks, a number of staff from Daisy Hill Hospital had their cars clamped because they were not able to get parked. They had to park where they could, and they ended up getting clamped, whether that was for staying over their time or parking somewhere that they should not have parked. I do not condone that, but it emphasises the need for staff to be able to access proper parking. For those reasons alone, it is important that we look after the welfare of staff, help to ensure that they are not experiencing increased costs at what is already a difficult time and do all that we can to acknowledge and emphasise their daily hard work to look after all of us, protect the lives of others and provide an invaluable service that we could not do without. We repeatedly talk about how grateful we are for the work that our front-line workers do, particularly as we have come out of COVID. This is one way in which we can show our appreciation of that in the longer term and acknowledge the work that they have done.

Similarly, the removal of parking charges will be beneficial to patients, particularly those who attend hospital regularly. We talk about cancer patients, dialysis patients and all those patients. I know from my family experience the toll that it can have when patients are required to attend hospital for full days and things like that. That can have such an impact on the household income, particularly when the household may already be experiencing reduced income owing to the impact of a person's illness on their ability to carry out their employment and on other family members who accompany them to appointments and provide important support. When we look at it in that context, it is something that we really need to think about.

I reiterate my support for the Bill and welcome the support of others. Hopefully, we can get the Bill through to its Final Stage fairly quickly.

Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP

There is not a person in the Chamber who would not agree that the removal of car parking charges for patients and, in particular, our front-line healthcare staff is the right thing to do and that we should be looking at that. I support the amendments. However, I want to put on record some of my difficulties and concerns with the Bill. I am grateful to the Minister for his amendments, which make clear who will benefit from free car parking.

Income from parking charges pays for maintenance, lighting, security, resurfacing, parking enforcement, secure bike storage and showers as well as contributing to patient care. It has been stated that, in 2018-19, hospital car parks generated £7·5 million from charges, but the cost of operating the car parks was £8·8 million. That is a deficit of £1·3 million. My understanding is that that deficit is charged to the health and social care trusts. Therefore, it is money that cannot be generated and put into patient care. To absorb the costs of car parking and maintenance for such car parks could strip vital moneys out of our already bruised health service. It would be good to know what that might mean for our health budget and our health service going forward.

When we look at the transport issue for patients and the workforce in my area of Fermanagh and South Tyrone, we see that the option of getting a bus to the hospital is simply non-existent, and people must therefore travel to the hospital via car or taxi, whether they are a patient, visitor or staff member. Therefore, to help with prioritising sustainable travel in the face of climate change, I would like the Department to engage with the Department for Infrastructure to ensure better transport provision to our hospital sites. That will help with our health transformation as well. For me, that is important, and it will help to end the postcode lottery in my area.

In 2008, the Scottish Government abolished car parking charges at NHS hospitals. However, that decision did not extend to three hospitals operating under a PFI scheme. In 2021, the Scottish Government then purchased the three car parks at PFI sites at a cost of £35 million to ensure free car parking. Given the timescales, have we been able to scope out what the cost might be for any PFI sites in Northern Ireland?

The capacity issue at hospital car parks, which the Minister raised as well, is a concern. My fear is that hospital sites could easily become glorified park-and-ride facilities. However, amendment No 1 from the Health Department goes some way towards dealing with that, as it clarifies who will be able to avail themselves of free car parking and who is a visitor.

It is crucial that we deal with capacity issues, because access, especially for emergency services vehicles, is vital. When you look at areas that are congested with cars, you see how dangerous that is for ambulances trying to get seriously ill patients to the accident and emergency department. Every minute counts, not least for patients who are trying to access appointments. Patients may miss appointments as a result of capacity and space issues in car parks. That is an unintended consequence of free car parking for all. Missed appointments, as the Minister will know, come at a colossal cost to our health service.

We all agree that —

Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP

Yes. Of course.

Photo of Colm Gildernew Colm Gildernew Sinn Féin

Those capacity issues certainly exist. However, they are not the fault of the staff, and they should not be dealt with by placing an extra cost on staff.

Photo of Deborah Erskine Deborah Erskine DUP

Absolutely. I fundamentally agree with what the Member said. I do not think that that is the staff's problem, and I will come to that later. Certainly, we have to look at it in the round. There are capacity issues that need to be dealt with. We all agree that a root-and-branch review of car parking charges at hospitals in Northern Ireland is needed so that people are not disadvantaged in any way. We accept that different trusts have different policies.

At this point, I thank the Bill sponsor for her engagement with the Committee. During evidence sessions, we heard from the sponsor about technology used in other places, such as automatic number plate recognition, that would help to rectify some of the issues that we discussed. However, I point out again that that has not been without its challenges elsewhere. I question whether it would suit a growing ageing population. In the case of pre-booking slots, would people properly engage with the system? Is there also a need for the Department or trusts to provide significant capital investment to implement wider use of that technology? Capital investment is in short supply, given that we need it to plug gaps in our front-line services.

It may seem as though I spoke very negatively about the Bill, but those concerns need to be put on the record. Of most importance to me is that free parking at hospital sites will remove an unfair burden on our wonderful NHS staff and very ill patients.

Those staff should not have to pay for parking, and it is unfair that they are expected to do so, particularly at those times when they come in to fill gaps in the workforce, sometimes at short notice. I also remind the House that we should continue to tell very ill patients that they can benefit from reimbursement schemes for the cost of getting to hospital settings. We must ensure that people know about those schemes and that they reach those who need them. I agree that staff and those who are extremely ill should not face the burden of paying what is classed as an additional tax.

I will outline briefly why my party and I will support the Minister's amendments. Amendment No 1 is a genuine and well-intentioned attempt to mitigate unintended consequences. However, as I outlined, my concern is that it remains to be seen whether the proposal would be challenging to enforce, particularly given that any system for checking staff ID, appointment letters or registrations would be resource-intensive. There could also be lost receipts and things like that. We support the amendment, but it would be helpful if the Minister elaborated on how the principle behind it would be operationalised.

My party will also support amendment No 2, which increases the lead time from six months to two years. That will give trusts greater flexibility to plan, to mitigate the risks of any new system and, potentially, to look at options for enhancing parking provision, which will inevitably be needed. It would be interesting to know whether the two-year lead-in time is in part influenced by the duration of contractual obligations for current private parking or whether it is for dealing with capacity issues; it could be both. We will support amendment No 3, as it reflects the changes ushered in by amendment Nos 1 and 2.

I hope that that sets out not only my concerns but my overall support for the Bill and its intentions. I sincerely hope that, in practice, it will work for our hospital sites and for the betterment of all.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party 7:15 pm, 21st March 2022

In the last month, there has been what I can only describe as pandemonium at Daisy Hill Hospital. A private contractor came in and started clamping cars. The cars of nurses, doctors, porters and hospital staff were clamped. It was a complete slap in the face for our front-line health workers, who have been pushed to the limit throughout the pandemic. On that day, a community mental health nurse who had patients to visit had her car clamped and was unable to get the clamp removed even by police, who had no powers of enforcement. People's lives were literally put at risk as a consequence. I am not saying for a second that that lady was not parked responsibly, but responsible car parking will still be important. Parking helter-skelter cannot be allowed because of the implications for emergency vehicles and for patients.

In another incident at Daisy Hill, a member of a medical team was attacked as she tried to enter her car. That was a very frightening incident for that lady and her colleagues, who felt fearful about having to travel a long distance to get to their vehicle. The Bill has a huge safety implication too, so I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate on the Further Consideration Stage of the Hospital Parking Charges Bill.

The amendments that the Minister of Health has tabled are a positive development in the Bill's progression. We in the SDLP have supported the Bill vociferously since it was introduced. We believe in the spirit of the Bill and that its delivery will assist many in our community as we continue through the cost-of-living crisis. The amendments help to clarify matters that were of contention for the Department, and they are a fair compromise.

One important point in amendment No 1 is the inclusion of clause 1(2), which clearly details that a person is not defined as a "visitor" simply because they park in a hospital car park; rather, they must have a clearly defined purpose for being in that hospital, such as providing a service for the hospital, being a patient of the hospital or visiting a patient. That is to be welcomed. It shows clearly that consensus is possible in this place, and it ultimately makes for better legislation.

We in the SDLP will support amendment Nos 1, 2 and 3 and will continue our support for the Bill.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

Amendment No 1 meets the good intent of the Bill by excluding many groups, particularly staff, from having to pay a charge to park at hospitals. It also goes some way to helping to avoid abuse of the system.

On amendment No 2, during the Bill's journey through the Health Committee, I expressed concerns about the six-month period for coming into operation after Royal Assent being too tight and that such a short lead-in time could lead to chaos. We were told that the system of number plate recognition that has been deployed in some Scottish hospitals would be a helpful and useful logistical process to use at our hospitals, but we have since learned from a research paper that a lot of problems are being experienced in Scotland and other locations where that system of number plate recognition has been deployed. Given the current state of the world, we could see delays in producing mechanical controls. They may have to be manufactured bespoke for each entrance at each site. There is no doubt that materials will be in short supply throughout the world over the coming months, given the situation in Ukraine.

The Minister mentioned the budget. That is one of the consequences of bringing in the Bill over six months, which is such a short period. Given the budgetary difficulties that the Assembly is experiencing, the next six months may not be the time to impose such a dent in the Department of Health's budget. We need to take account of that issue.

The amendments are certainly not designed to undermine the worthy Bill; they are designed to make it more deliverable and fit for purpose from day 1. The Ulster Unionist Party supports all of the amendments, but we also fully support the good intentions that the Bill brings to the House.

Photo of Paula Bradshaw Paula Bradshaw Alliance

I support the Bill and all of the amendments from the Minister. We were not able to debate fully at Consideration Stage the issues that amendment No 2 addresses, but I had long thought that we needed to review the commencement date. Had we left it at six months or even reduced that period, it would have caused foreseeable detrimental impacts.

Fundamentally, the Bill's objectives are sound, and I commend the original and current proposers for pursuing its key principle. However, the Bill in its original form was not the best possible legislation to achieve its stated objectives. There were obvious consequences that would have meant that the outworking of the Bill would have been different from what was clearly intended on parking; in fact, it would have made things more difficult for some.

For the sake of brief clarification, we should be clear that we heard in Committee and from other research that free car parking is definitely deliverable. It has, after all, been delivered in Scotland and Wales. However, it was also made clear in evidence given to the Committee that the process of delivering it is not always smooth. Difficulties have applied, particularly in urban areas near city centres. We could never have claimed that those difficulties were unforeseeable had they happened here.

A particular risk was the unintended consequence of hospital parking simply ceasing to be available for those who need it. Let us be clear: that is what this is all about.

The Minister was correct in his contention that the only way to deliver free hospital parking on the day after Royal Assent or even within six months of it would be simply to lift the barriers. There would be absolutely nothing in the Bill, as originally drafted, to stop someone parking in the City Hospital in my constituency to go to work, to shop on the Lisburn Road or to take part in another pursuit that had nothing to do with accessing healthcare and avoid car parking charges elsewhere. That would simply see hospital car parking crammed full early in the day by people with no connection to the hospital. That would be a clear detriment to Health and Social Care (HSC) staff, patients and visitors, who have good reason to be there at particular times but would then, potentially, face long waits just to get parked.

Nevertheless, we need to be clear that other parts of the UK abolished car parking charges seven years ago. We need to send a clear message that the wait in Northern Ireland has to end. The Department and the health trusts have had those years to prepare. They even had the clear indication during the pandemic that free parking for staff should be deliverable. That is why I do not want to walk way from this mandate without legislation that delivers free parking as a bare minimum for HSC staff and regular visitors to hospital. The Bill, if amended, will deliver that.

Alongside amendment No 2, amendment No 1 is about accomplishing the optimum balance where free car parking is assured in law and where reasonable time and clarity are given for arrangements to make it a reality without those unintended consequences. We also need to consider contractual obligations around car parking that have already been entered into, because the last thing that we want is for part of our health budget to be taken up, over the next year, by money being given to contractors for services that are no longer required or, indeed, even permitted. Amendment No 1 provides useful additional clarity about what constitutes a legitimate user of the hospital's parking facilities, and amendment No 3 is, of course, consequential to the other two.

I will make one other point in conclusion. The amendments also help to avoid another potential unintended consequence of the Bill that might have led to people parking in hospital car parks, particularly those in and around Belfast, when they did not need to use their car at all. Potentially at least, therefore, the amendments also make the Bill more environmentally sound. In future, we need to proof legislation and amendments for that type of issue.

I welcome the Minister's intervention in tabling his amendments with clear detail about how they will deliver the Bill so that it will do what it was always supposed to do: deliver parking for HSC staff and patients.

Photo of Pádraig Delargy Pádraig Delargy Sinn Féin

I will keep my contribution quick. I begin by thanking my colleague Aisling Reilly and her predecessor Fra McCann for bringing the Bill before the House. I think that the House is united in seeing it as important legislation that will make a real impact on the lives of everyone across our society, particularly the front-line workers who have done so much always but especially in the past two years.

Aisling has talked a lot about the issue being important in her constituency. It is also important in my constituency and, as I mentioned, for people across the North. There are so many people in Derry and, indeed, across the North who travel regularly for healthcare. This is a way to take some of that burden off them. There is financial pressure, but there is also the worry about getting parked and arriving on time for their appointments. This will help to alleviate some of that burden.

One other really strong point about the Bill for me is, as some of my colleagues have mentioned, the cost of living and really putting money back into the pockets of workers and families. It is about making a substantial difference to front-line workers, including porters, cleaners, nurses, doctors and all of those who work in our health and social care system in our hospitals. I am proud to support the Bill, and I hope that others in the Chamber will do so.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

[Irish text to be inserted.]

I call the sponsor of the Bill, Aisling Reilly.

Photo of Aisling Reilly Aisling Reilly Sinn Féin

I welcome the opportunity to speak to my private Member's Bill, the Hospital Parking Charges Bill, at Further Consideration Stage. The Bill is about abolishing hospital car parking charges for Health and Social Care workers, patients and their families. Parking charges have for too long been an unfair tax on front-line health workers, who have been holding our health service together.

Patients should not be penalised for their ill health when accessing vital hospital services, and this Bill, as Pádraig said, will put money back into patients' and workers' pockets. At a time when the cost of living is ever-increasing and our health workers are under ever-increasing pressure, the Bill can and will make a real difference. It will remove that unfair additional tax on health and social care workers and any additional financial burden placed on workers, patients and their families whilst accessing hospital services as a result of incurring hospital parking charges.

The ethos of the National Health Service is that healthcare is free at the point of delivery, based on need and not on the ability to pay, yet, at the very first point of access, staff, patients and their loved ones are faced with a financial barrier. I am pleased to hear that the Minister supports the intent of the Bill. I have worked closely with his Department over the past number of weeks and months, and I thank him and his officials for the continuous open door and open dialogue throughout the process. I also thank the Health Committee for its scrutiny of and work on the Bill over the past number of months. We are legislators, and we want to make legislation that impacts on people's lives for the better. That is exactly what this Bill is intended to do.

The Committee heard from a range of groups, such as the Royal College of Nursing, allied health professionals, various health unions and Marie Curie. It received further written submissions from groups that were all in full support of the Bill. I also met Macmillan, Unite, UNISON and the Rural Women's Network, all of which expressed their full support for the Bill. I thank each and every one of those groups for taking the time to meet me, to write or to give oral evidence to the Committee. Some of the evidence that we heard came from allied health professionals representing 13 medical professional groups, ranging from physiotherapists to radiographers and occupational therapists. They explained that the exorbitant cost of making multiple site visits throughout each working day to various hospitals really hit them hard in the pocket. Marie Curie told us that hospital parking charges impose financial pressures on terminally ill patients and their carers, families and loved ones. Those pressures are worsened by the frequency with which many patients have to attend hospital. Indeed, some carers even told us that they are unable to visit a sick family member owing to the costs imposed. We all know that a bit of TLC from close friends and family is important for any patient's recovery process. Patients with motor neurone disease said that hospital car parking charges are in the top 10 most expensive regular costs that they face monthly.

Workers feel that they are bearing the brunt and subsidising the health system, which has been under-resourced for years. We heard from workers who are paying up to £60 a week on hospital car parking. How can that be fair? Unions report that, during exit interviews, car parking charges are often raised as a reason that staff are leaving the health and social care sector, and we all agree that the retention of staff is critical. At a time when there are significant workforce shortages, we must create conditions that make the sector more attractive for workers. We must recruit and retain and take action to make hospital and healthcare centres places in which people want to work.

Many of our health and social care workers are amongst the lowest paid in our workforce, working long hours, sometimes in the most stressful environments. During the pandemic, we saw at first hand the sacrifices and endurance of our health and social care workers. Our passage through the pandemic might have been a lot worse were it not for the sacrifices of those workers. Instinctively, we all knew that when we were applauding them on a Thursday night, but applause simply is not enough.

Again, I welcome the cooperation of the Minister and his Department, and we will support the Minister's amendments today. I recognise that the amendments will ensure that the Department can work, practically, to undertake the changes that scrapping hospital parking charges will bring and put the necessary systems in place. I also recognise that the amendments will clarify some of the concerns raised at Committee Stage by some members. We are not reinventing the wheel with this legislation. It has been done in other jurisdictions, as some have said, and legislation is currently going through Westminster. We must learn the lessons from other jurisdictions, particularly Scotland and Wales, about how they were able to introduce and operate free hospital car parking for workers and patients.

I will finish with a quick comment. Illness is neither an indulgence for which people must pay nor an offence for which people should be penalised but a misfortune, the cost of which should be shared by society.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank Members for their contributions. Again, I put on record my thanks to Miss Reilly for her engagement and the open door that she referenced in the interaction between my departmental officials and her, as the Bill sponsor. I also thank, of course, her predecessor, Fra McCann, for introducing the Bill. It is clear just how many important issues the Bill touches on. Those issues have been raised again today at Further Consideration Stage, just as they were raised at earlier stages. How important it is that we get this legislation right. What we are talking about today will impact on the lives of staff, patients and visitors.

Everyone knows that attending hospital can be very stressful. There is a concern that, if parking becomes unrestricted, spaces will be filled in the morning, and that this will only add to the anxiety of a hospital visit. I know from personal experience of trying to get a car parking space at the Royal Belfast Hospital for Sick Children that, as you enter the car park, you see a sign that says, "If you are delayed for your appointment, ring this number", because that is already such a regular occurrence. That is why we tabled the amendment that provides for an extension of two years to get procedures and things in place to make sure that this actually works as intended.

A number of Members referred to working with the Department for Infrastructure and to public transport solutions to make sure that, as we enact this Bill, we recognise the climate change commitments made by Members and parties in other pieces of legislation to make sure that everything works together. Proper consideration needs to be given to the alternative arrangements that would be put in place at each site, because each site will have its own challenges and opportunities to manage and control spaces in hospital car parks, should car parking charges be abolished via the Bill. The House will remember that my amendments at Consideration Stage were not accepted in full, and that was why I did not move those that were. The comments by all parties indicating support for the amendments that I have tabled at Further Consideration Stage are welcome.

Should the legislation be enacted, my Department will be duty-bound and legally required to comply with any changes. It will work with health and social care trusts to implement the changes directed by the Bill. I commend the amendments in my name.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 2 (Commencement)

Amendment No 2 made:

In page 2, line 2, leave out “6 months” and insert “2 years”. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

Long Title

Amendment No 3 made:

Leave out “by Health and Social Care hospitals of charges for car parking; and for connected purposes” and insert—

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“of charges for parking vehicles in hospital car parks”. — [Mr Swann (The Minister of Health).]

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

That concludes the Further Consideration Stage of the Hospital Parking Charges Bill. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker. I ask Members to take their ease while we move to the next item of business.