I took over the Bill from former Sinn Féin MLA Fra McCann, who is supposed to be here. He may well yet make his way here, so, hopefully, we will see Fra in the not-too-distant future to witness the Bill's passage today. The Bill reflects Fra's desire to help people, and I am proud to carry on that important work.
It is my honour to stand as a Sinn Féin Member and to bring the Bill to its Final Stage. The Hospital Parking Charges Bill is something that I have worked hard on over the past few months, and I am delighted that I have been able to deliver a Bill that will help everyone across our communities. I thank the Bill Clerks and the Bill Office for supporting and guiding me through the process. A private Member's Bill is a large piece of work, as every Member who has taken one through the House will know, but, with the support of the staff in the Bill Office and the Speaker's Office, it has been made much easier for me. I thank my party support, Catherine and Ciaran, who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes supporting not just me but our entire MLA team.
Finally, I wish to express my deepest appreciation for all of our health and social care staff across the North, who, in the past two years, have brought us through an unprecedented event. That is not just a cliché: it is the truth. You are the heroes who walk among us, and you deserve fair pay, safe staffing and good working conditions.
It is my wish that this legislation will ensure that workers, families and patients are no longer burdened, worried or at a disadvantage as a result of hospital car parking charges. The Bill tells workers, patients and families who attend a hospital, either for work or for care, that we are listening and that we heard them when they told us that hospital car parking charges are an unfair tax on them and that they simply cannot afford it.
I hope that this Bill will be the first step towards full recognition of the sacrifices that our health and social care staff make for us daily. The Bill will make a difference to so many people, and we know that from listening to Unite, UNISON, Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie, allied health professionals, the Royal College of Nursing, the Rural Women's Network and others. Again, I thank them all for taking the time to meet me and for attending the Committee to show their unwavering support for the Bill.
This is a significant Bill, which will be well-received by the staff of our hospital settings and those extremely ill patients who attend them. I want to thank the Bill sponsor for bringing the Bill forward. She came into the Assembly around the same time as I did, and she followed her predecessor Fra McCann, who introduced the Bill.
In the Health Committee today, we spoke to the Minister about the workforce pressures and stresses that our amazing healthcare staff are facing. We also spoke to the representatives of the health trusts and the Royal College of Nursing, who gave us stark warnings about the workforce pressures that are facing staff in our healthcare settings in Northern Ireland every day.
I hope that the passage of the Bill today will go some way towards showing our healthcare staff that they are valued and that they will not have to pay for the privilege of parking their car at work. We still have an awful lot to do — I am sure that the Minister realises that — in relation to workforce pressures and on ensuring that our workforce is better supported. I hope that today is a step in the right direction.
It is important that ill patients do not have to worry about the costs incurred in having to attend hospital settings weekly or even daily. Often, that can be too heavy a burden for patients and their families to bear when they are already anxious. It is important that they, too, have that support in place.
I want to place on record my hope that the concerns that I raised at the Bill's earlier stages about its outworkings are ironed out, that the Bill will operate for the benefit of all and that its intent is fully realised. Therefore, I press the Department for Infrastructure and the Department of Health to put in place mechanisms to support better public transport availability to hospital settings and to deal with capacity issues.
I thank the Bill sponsor for her engagement with the Health Committee on the Bill. I hope that she feels that the Health Committee's scrutiny was constructive. Furthermore, I want to thank the Bill Clerks for their work, as well as the Department of Health officials and the Minister, for his amendments. I pay tribute to those who gave evidence to the Health Committee and who helped us to scrutinise the Bill.
I will be supporting the Bill and I thank the Bill sponsor for all her work on it.
I will speak briefly to congratulate the Bill sponsor on bringing the Bill forward, especially as she came to the Assembly only very recently. It is another example of great work, from the initial idea to the objectives and, then, working through the Committee with departmental officials and the trusts etc, to come up with a well-rounded and workable Bill. I want to place on record my thanks to those people who came to the Committee or wrote to us to provide evidence so that we could scrutinise the Bill properly. It is another great Bill and I look forward to seeing how it benefits the people who work in and use our hospitals.
I will be brief. I thank the Bill sponsor, and Mr McCann before her for introducing the Bill. It is certainly well-intentioned, in that it removes car parking charges for staff and many groups of people who attend hospitals.
I had a couple of concerns about the Bill in its early days. From the get-go, the main thing that concerned me was the six-month period between the Bill's receiving Royal Assent and its being implemented in full. My party and I have absolutely no difficulty in fully supporting the Bill as amended, because that concern has now been taken account of, and the Bill includes a more sensible and doable period in which the various trusts can examine the logistics around what they will have to purchase and deploy at the various sites.
That little bit of extra grace time does not completely remove the pressure on the Department of Health's budget, because it will still have to make up the money that formerly came in through car parking, but a period of up to two years for implementation will at least give the Department a chance to be able to budget around that rather than have to scramble to find that missing money out of its budget over a short period like six months. I welcome the Bill sponsor's willingness to accept the amendments. I wish the Bill well and again thank its sponsor.
I will make some brief remarks as Committee Chair before doing so as Sinn Féin health spokesperson.
The purpose of the Bill is to prohibit the imposition of charges for car parking at Health and Social Care hospital sites. During evidence sessions, the Committee heard about the significant issues faced by staff to access parking and about how they had to pay significant amounts for parking to enable them to carry out their duties. I thank the Bill sponsor, my party colleague Aisling Reilly, and her predecessor, Fra McCann, for introducing the Bill and bringing it through the necessary legislative stages.
Staff highlighted to the Committee costs of up to £11 a day to access safe parking. We heard that many staff have to park off-site, which leaves them feeling unsafe and vulnerable when coming to and leaving work outside normal working hours. The significantly increasing cost of fuel at present puts into context that £11.
We also heard of the difficulties that staff faced when carrying equipment to and from the hospital and out into the community and how having parking is essential in order to do that. We heard from cancer charities about the impact that the cost of parking is having on staff and on some patients who need to come for regular treatment. That is also evidenced by the experiences of people in rural communities, who do not have the same access to public transport as those in other parts of the North. The Committee welcomes the review that the Department has outlined and is pleased that there is now a time frame in place for it. The work that the Department has done with the Bill sponsor to improve the Bill and bring it to fruition in the shape that it is in today is also very welcome.
I thank all Committee members for their consideration of and work on the Bill and for their engagement throughout its progression, during what was an extremely busy time for the Committee. I very much thank the Clerk and all on the Committee team for their support, guidance and advice at the Bill's various stages. I also thank the Bill Office and all other teams in the Assembly that provide backup and support to allow legislation to be put in place.
I commend the Bill to the Assembly, and I am sure that any incoming Health Committee will consider the review's progress and ensure that the Bill is implemented fully after that review is complete.
I want to say a few words as Sinn Féin health spokesperson. This Bill is a fantastic example of our recognition of, in the first instance, health and social care staff and those front-line workers who have maintained services throughout very difficult periods, even preceding the pandemic, but then exacerbated by it. I know that we all took part in the clapping of appreciation for staff, and rightly so, at the start of the pandemic. However, the point was made at that time that claps do not pay the bills, and they certainly do not pay the parking charges. It is appropriate that, as this mandate draws to a close, we send a practical and realistic message to staff that we understand the role they play and the difficulties they face and that we are prepared to engage in legislating in order to do something about that.
It is also indicative of the wider situation in health and social care. I acknowledge Deborah's earlier remarks. We have heard worrying evidence today about where staff are at and the pressures they are under at present. The fact that the chief executive of a trust is stating that the service is limping along on a wing and a prayer indicates the serious concerns that are out there.
While the future is unclear and uncertain, what the Assembly has achieved over the past number of weeks and days, and even today, demonstrates the way forward. It is about identifying the issues that are causing problems for people — all of our people — on the ground, drawing up legislation to do something about them, bringing that to the Assembly, putting it through the Committee process, engaging with the sectors and going back to the relevant Departments. Members and Ministers have all demonstrated the ability to bring forward realistic, pragmatic and helpful legislation. That is what our community and our population want to see happening in the time ahead. They want to see the Assembly back up and running, and they want to see it doing things that acknowledge and address the issues of concern in their everyday lives.
First, I thank my colleague Aisling Reilly, her predecessor Fra McCann and all of our Sinn Féin team for their work on this really important Bill. This definitely is a good day for the Assembly. Sinn Féin is committed to standing up for workers and families. This Bill will help to reduce the burden on health and social care workers and on patients and their families as they access essential healthcare services.
There must be no more platitudes. Our health and social care workers and the most vulnerable in our communities deserve to see more actions like this that support them effectively. We can do more, and hopefully, in the next mandate, we will do more, to improve staff pay and conditions and to ensure that there is better workforce planning to help to support staff in their jobs and all of our healthcare services.
This Bill will help to reduce the financial pressures on the staff and patients who access Daisy Hill, which is in my constituency, and to ensure that staff have access to safe and secure parking close to their place of work. That will hopefully reassure them, particularly in light of recent incidents, that we are listening and that we value and care about them.
I am so delighted to see the Bill reach its Final Stage and that it has such vast support across the Chamber. I look forward to seeing the legislation in action in the time ahead.
Thanks to the Minister — not the Deputy Speaker — for letting me come in late, as it were. I just want to say briefly that I support the Bill at its Final Stage. I have supported it throughout its various stages. I commend the Member. I do not want to tempt fate, but it looks as though it will be passed today. If that is the case, it will lift one burden off the shoulders of our health workers. However, the burden that I raised this morning with the Minister of pay and below-inflation pay still stands. I hope that that will be addressed soon. I support the Bill at its Final Stage. Thank you Mr Deputy Speaker and Minister.
I am pleased to be here to respond to the Final Stage of the Hospital Parking Charges Bill. I start by commending the Bill's sponsor, Aisling Reilly, for her work on bringing the Bill through the legislative process and all of its stages in the House. I acknowledge, as others did, Fra McCann for initially introducing it during his tenure. I also commend the members of the Health Committee for their commitment to scrutinising and progressing the Bill, those who give evidence and my departmental officials, who engaged both with the Health Committee and the sponsor to bring us to the legislation that is in front of us today.
I thank Members for supporting the Department's amendments at Further Consideration Stage to ensure that the prohibition is delivered in the best way possible, that its terms are simpler to follow and that it is expressed in ordinary language. It is clear how many important issues the Bill touches on and how important it is that we get it right. What we are talking about will impact on the lives of staff, patients and visitors.
Although elements of the Bill will undoubtedly present challenges and require significant resource from the Department and health and social care trusts, the extended commencement date will ensure that proper consideration can be given to what alternative arrangements can be put in place to manage and control spaces in hospital car parks when parking charges are abolished.
At present, there is not enough space to provide free parking for everyone, particularly at sites where space is limited. Sufficient time is therefore required to put in place any necessary provisions to deal with capacity. The agreed extended implementation period will allow our health and social care trusts, in partnership with my Department, to agree and finalise the new policy to direct and drive consistency regionally across all our hospital sites.
As Mrs Erskine commented, the implementation period will enable not only staff, patient and visitor involvement but collaboration with other, related Departments on infrastructure, such as public transport solutions, and on the House's commitments on climate change. Anything less than the two-year implementation period would certainly have caused major disruption to the running of our hospital car park sites, which would have had a detrimental impact on service delivery at those sites. As Mr Chambers highlighted, the implementation time frame will also allow my Department to prepare for a reduction in income and to identify any as yet unidentified costs associated with passing the Bill.
When the Bill passes Final Stage today, which, as Mr Carroll indicated, is probable, my Department will be duty-bound and legally required to comply with any change to legislation. I assure Members that my officials will work with the health and social care trusts to implement the changes as directed by the Bill and the House and as brought forward by the Member. I thank her again for sponsoring the private Member's Bill.
This is my final speech in the mandate, so I will take the opportunity to thank all Members for their contributions and remarks this afternoon and for showing their unwavering support for the Bill.
I particularly thank the Minister and his Department for working closely with me. His amendments also showed his willingness to work to ensure that the legislation is practical. The Bill will make a massive difference to people. I hope that the amendments address most of the concerns that Committee members raised, including concerns about the time frame and the potential unintended consequences.
There is nothing much more that I can say that I have not already said at each stage about the debt of gratitude that we owe to our health and social care workers. The banning of hospital car parking charges will put money back into workers' pockets. At the end of the day, that is what we want to do. We do not want to see anybody being out of pocket through going to work; we certainly do not want to see ill patients being out of pocket through going to hospitals. The Bill will put money back into people's pockets. It will allow the sick and ill to progress their medical treatment without additional worry, and it will rectify an inequality felt by those who live in our rural communities.
Today in the Assembly we have passed numerous progressive Bills that will improve the lives of so many of our constituents. We have passed Bills on period poverty and domestic abuse, and another couple of important Bills will come after this. I am proud that my Bill will be added to that list.
There is nothing more for me to add other than to commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to. Resolved:
That the Hospital Parking Charges Bill [NIA 40/17-22] do now pass.