Hospital Parking Charges Bill: Accelerated Passage

Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:30 pm on 16 April 2024.

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Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP 4:30, 16 April 2024

I beg to move

That the Hospital Parking Charges Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Business Committee has agreed that there should be no time limit on the debate.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I am grateful for the opportunity to address Members on this critical issue. I seek agreement today to progress, by accelerated passage, the Hospital Parking Charges Bill, which will postpone the ban on charging money for parking vehicles in hospital car parks, as contained in the Hospital Parking Charges Act (Northern Ireland) 2022. I confirm that Executive approval was sought and gained for the process of accelerated passage.

I do not make this request lightly. When possible, primary legislation should be subject to full Assembly scrutiny. The Committee Stage of a Bill is clearly a significant element of that scrutiny process. However, for reasons that I will outline, there are, on this occasion, compelling grounds for the use of accelerated passage.

Before I do that, I want to say a few words about why legislative change is required. I will, of course, cover that in more detail at Second Stage, which will follow this debate, if successful. Briefly, health and social care trusts have been working to implement the legislative requirements of the Hospital Parking Charges Act by 12 May 2024. However, due to legal challenges beyond our control, the award of a contract for the traffic management system has been delayed by around four months. Following the resolution of those challenges, we anticipated awarding a contract later this week. However, due to the technical realities of implementation, which includes, for example, an assessment of the infrastructure required and its locations at each site, the ordering, delivery, installation and testing of the equipment and any necessary communication to and engagement with members of the public and staff, the system will not come online until, at the earliest, later this year, which is after the new law is scheduled to come into effect on 12 May.

Advice from the health and social care trusts is that, once parking is made free, there will likely be a surge in demand, and, without a traffic management system, they will be unable to control parking, preserve blue-light routes and protect designated spaces. They are now significantly concerned about their ability to maintain safe access to their sites for patients, clients, visitors and staff. The resulting congestion on sites and at access and egress routes will contribute to delayed or missed hospital appointments, including emergency treatments.

I know that many Members are aware of the traffic issues at health and social care sites and, indeed, may have personal experience. You will therefore understand why I am very concerned that a delay in bringing any effective traffic management solution into operation will make the situation significantly worse for patients and staff by adding unmanageable demand for spaces and putting further pressure on trust staff who are already dealing with huge challenges. In particular, it would have a significant impact on the Belfast and South Eastern Health and Social Care Trusts that, regionally, have the highest number of charged parking spaces and offer many regional healthcare services.

If Members do not grant accelerated passage, the stark reality is that hospitals will have no means to control parking, preserve blue-light routes and protect designated spaces. I hope that it is clear to Members, from what I have already said, that, in our view, this creates an unacceptable risk of traffic chaos in and around critical hospitals, which will bring associated risks to staff, patients and the public for up to six months from May 2024.

I therefore commend the motion to the Assembly and ask that it agrees that the Hospital Parking Charges Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his opening remarks and for the opportunity to outline the Committee's consideration of the Minister's request for accelerated passage on the Hospital Parking Charges Bill. The Deputy Chair and I met the Minister and senior officials last Monday, and the Minister outlined the reasons for seeking accelerated passage for the Bill.

Following the briefing, officials came to the Committee last Thursday, where they outlined to members the reasons for accelerated passage and the consequences of accelerated passage not being granted. I thank the Minister and officials for that engagement and for the opportunity to further interrogate the reasons for accelerated passage being required for the Bill.

From the Committee's point of view, accelerated passage is not something that it actively encourages. We all understand the important role that Committees play in consulting the public on legislation and bringing forward amendments following consideration of the evidence provided. However, on occasions, accelerated passage is required if circumstances deem it necessary. The Committee was informed of a number of reasons why accelerated passage for the Bill was needed and of the consequences of its not being granted. We are all aware that provisions in the Hospital Parking Charges Act 2022 were due to come into effect on 12 May 2024. However, the Minister and officials made it clear that, should car parking charges be removed on 12 May, the trusts would not be in a position to implement a parking management solution that would prevent gridlock at many of our hospital sites. It was said that, at some of the sites, it would not be possible to preserve blue-light routes and protect designated spaces, as the Minister mentioned.

I am sure that many Members have received complaints from constituents about problems with parking at various sites, and the Committee was made aware that, without the necessary controls being put in place, the problem would be exacerbated. We were advised that, while trusts had been working towards 12 May this year, due to legal challenges in relation to the awarding of the contract for traffic management systems, the systems would not be in place by 12 May. The timeline for implementation of a new control system has been significantly delayed. Members were advised that the delay meant that the earliest a system could be in place is September 2024.

It was said that, without automatic number plate recognition systems, our hospital sites would be even more chaotic, which would result in people being late for or even missing their appointments. The Department provided the Committee with a timeline of the work that it and the trusts have taken forward in the two years since the Hospital Parking Charges Bill was passed.

The Committee noted that the Executive had agreed to the Minister's request for accelerated passage. Following the briefing by officials and considering that no management system would be in place before 12 May, the Committee agreed that it was content that accelerated passage be approved. However, I note that Mr Colin McGrath placed on record his opposition to granting accelerated passage to the Bill.

I ask the Minister for clarity on what will happen if Royal Assent is not received by 12 May. Has there been any consideration of the arrangements and management of car parks that would be required if the 12 May target is not achieved? If accelerated passage is granted, I will outline the Committee's consideration of the Bill at Second Stage.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will make a few brief remarks about the request for accelerated passage. I am not happy that we are having to use it. I worry when a Department gets a procurement process so wrong that it is left open to legal challenge and that that delays the roll-out of legislation that the House unanimously voted for. I remind Members that there was all-party, full-party support in the Chamber for the Bill over two years ago. Mind you, the fact that there was an election a few weeks later may have accelerated that support, but that full-party support was nonetheless there.

I am not a fan of the accelerated passage of Bills. We have normalised this place a little bit: we have an Opposition and Committees, and we have space for debate. My goodness, with the complete lack of legislation coming from the Executive, we certainly could not cite pressure on Assembly time as a reason for having to rush things through. I also note that we have been back since 3 February; we are two and a half months in. This could have been sent to the Committee a few weeks earlier to allow us a little more time to consider it than we got at one meeting. I fear that discussion of the delay that is being requested today is not in the Executive's favour. A quick, stick-it-through delay is what suits Executive parties best, and that is what we face. As the saying goes, we are where we are.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I am opposed to the Bill. I will go into detail on that later, but logic follows that, if you oppose the Bill, you should oppose the plan to fast-track it. If the accelerated passage motion is passed, Members will have until half past nine tomorrow morning to table an amendment, which does not allow time for anybody to consider or engage or to speak to unions or anybody else about the problems with the Bill. From listening to the Minister and Members, I do not see a sound reason to bring forward the Bill or to fast-track it, and I will therefore try to vote against it.

I would like a clarification from the Minister. The Chair of the Committee mentioned September 2024 as the date for the technology to be available. Is that an exact date? When do the Minister and his officials expect the technology for parking to be available and its implementation completed?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I thank Members for their contributions, and I thank the Chair of the Health Committee for her comments about the discussion at the Committee.

I can assure Members that every effort was made to explore the expedition of the traffic management contract. Given the ongoing work between my officials and the health and social care trusts, I am deeply frustrated and I deeply regret that this course of action needs to be taken at such a late stage.

The Chair asked what will happen should the Bill not be enacted by 12 May. With Members' support, I hope to achieve Royal Assent for the Bill as soon as possible after 12 May. There has already been engagement on the off-chance that we do get it through by then. Trusts are aware of the risk of an interim period in which no charging may apply, and, during the period of free parking without the required traffic management system in place, demand on car parking spaces is expected to increase. Trusts are already working to minimise the level of disruption by deploying additional parking attendants and putting in place manual interventions and cordons to try to protect spaces for legitimate users. Trusts have advised that the barriers in place will continue to be used but that the charges will not be applied when the ticket is presented at a pay station. The main impact will be that many staff who park off-site will choose to park on-site once parking becomes free. Without the automatic controls, visitor car parks and patient car parks may reach full capacity before 8.30 am from Monday to Friday, which will undoubtedly prevent patients and visitors from utilising the car parks during those times.

Mr Carroll made a comment about the appointment of the contractor. The contractor has indicated that, by the end of 2024 — September at the earliest — the facilities will be in place for the recognition of number plates, which may help as well. The Belfast Trust has indicated that the roll-out of Encompass may enable people to receive a QR code on their appointment letters that they could use to access car parks.

I ask the Assembly to approve the motion.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Before we proceed to the Question, I remind Members that the motion requires cross-community support.

Question put.

Some Members:


Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

As there is only one dissenting voice, I will move ahead on the basis that we have cross-community support.

Question put and agreed to. Resolved (with cross-community support):

That the Hospital Parking Charges Bill proceed under the accelerated passage procedure.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

The Assembly has agreed that the Hospital Parking Charges Bill may proceed under the accelerated passage procedure. The Second Stage may therefore be moved today.