Hospital Parking Charges Bill: Second Stage

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 Second Stage of the Hospital Parking Charges Bill [NIA 02/22-27] be agreed.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

In accordance with convention, the Business Committee has not allocated a time limit for the debate. I call the Minister of Health to open the debate on the Bill.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Thanks for the opportunity to open the debate on the Hospital Parking Charges Bill. First, I thank the Health Committee, which ceded Committee Stage so that the Bill can progress in a shorter time frame.

As Members will recall, the Hospital Parking Charges Act (Northern Ireland) 2022, which was passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly in March 2022, prohibits the imposition of charges for parking vehicles in hospital car parks and is due to come into operation on 12 May. Its main policy objective is to abolish hospital car parking charges across health and social care hospital sites in Northern Ireland for staff, patients and visitors. While I remain entirely sympathetic to the intentions behind the legislation, delays to the operational implementation of a traffic management system to control parking once charges are abolished means that there is a significant risk of detriment to patients and staff, and it is undoubtedly the case that the financial context for Health and other Departments has worsened considerably since the Act was passed.

The Hospital Parking Charges Bill proposes to modify the operation of the Hospital Parking Charges Act (Northern Ireland) 2022 so as to postpone the ban on charging money for parking vehicles in hospital car parks.

If the Bill comes into operation on or before 12 May 2024, section 1 of the 2022 Act will mean that:

"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".

That would take effect on 12 May 2026. If the Bill comes into operation after 12 May 2024, section 1 of the 2022 Act ceases to have effect when the Bill comes into operation and resumes having effect on 12 May 2026.

Advice from health and social care trusts is that, if parking is made free 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 the ability to maintain safe access to their sites for, as I said, patients, clients, visitors and staff. The resultant congestion on-site and at access and egress routes will contribute to delayed or missed hospital appointments, possibly including emergency treatments. As I said, many of us are aware of the traffic issues at HSC hospital sites. I am concerned that, owing to the delay in being able to implement the parking management solution, the current legislation, though clearly well intended, will make things worse for patients and staff by adding to demand for spaces, which will add further pressure to trust staff who are already dealing with huge challenges.

Primarily, charging allows the car parks' capacity to be carefully managed and controlled to meet demand. Charging rates differ across health and social care trusts, so the rates applied are set at a level that is consistent with public car parks in the local environment to avoid an undesirable pull effect. Any changes to charging would change the dynamic of the local parking environment and impact on choices taken by non-permit-holding staff and commuters.

It is envisaged that, once parking becomes free, without traffic controls in place, visitor car parks may reach full capacity by 8.30 am, Monday to Friday, and remain full until 4.30 pm on each of those days. That will, undoubtedly, prevent patients and visitors utilising the car parks during those times. That is expected to have a significant impact in the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust, which regionally has the highest number of charged parking spaces. Belfast Trust has highlighted to me a number of risks and impacts associated with the introduction of the current parking legislation without the desired automatic number plate recognition (NPR) parking controls in place. They include the fact that a reduction in car parking charges in Belfast City Hospital would increase the demand for the car park, as the hospital is within easy walking distance of the city centre. If the pricing were reduced to a level to make it cheaper than public car parking and public transport, the parking at the hospital would be more attractive than the alternative options.

By charging at particular levels, trusts seek to dissuade inappropriate parking, ensuring that important capacity is available for those with a legitimate hospital-related need. Therefore, if the trusts reduced the tariff below the local commercial environment rates in the absence of the NPR parking solution being in place, they may find that they have introduced an equality issue, as legitimate users will struggle to access healthcare and hospital appointments and visits will be delayed or missed completely as a result of capacity pressures, with a significant increase in the number of complaints and negative media coverage. Without the parking controls in place, Belfast Health and Social Care Trust expects an increase in the number of staff using the car parks as well as other users from adjacent premises.

On the Royal Victoria Hospital site, which is already prone to serious gridlock, it is expected that, once parking is free, parking queues will increase in length and time. That would put blue-light routes under serious additional risk and may delay or prevent emergency service vehicles reaching their emergency department. In addition, gridlock to the adjoining roads, especially the Donegall Road, Broadway roundabout and Grosvenor Road, will be negatively impacted, and, potentially, traffic congestion will increase in those areas. The community areas surrounding the parking sites will be impacted as staff, patients and visitors seek alternative parking options due to the car parks quickly reaching full capacity. That will have a negative impact on community relations and potentially lead to negative engagement.

My primary concern is to protect access to hospitals for patients and staff. I therefore seek agreement to a Bill to defer the removal of charges for two years. While that may seem long to some colleagues, you will all know that my Department also faces unprecedented funding challenges. The removal of car parking charges would result in the loss of £7 million of revenue that is currently used to partially fund the £9 million expenditure associated with the operational upkeep and management of car parks. No additional capital or revenue funding has been made available to my Department for the implementation of the legislation. If it is not forthcoming in the 2024-25 Budget exercise, the costs would need to be met by reductions in other expenditure areas. Therefore, I propose to use the deferral period to implement fully the infrastructure required to manage free car parking and to develop a funding plan for the implementation of free car parking after the deferral period.

The deferral will also allow trusts more time to explore whether car use can be reduced. That is a fundamental point, not just because of our responsibilities on climate change. At present, demand for car parking space already significantly exceeds capacity on some hospital sites. Increasing that demand by abolishing all charges is not without risk. Prior to the end of the two-year deferral period, my Department will bring to the Executive a paper that sets out how it intends to fund and manage the implementation of free parking going forward.

I know that many colleagues supported the legislation because of the benefits to Health and Social Care staff, patients and visitors. Consequently, I propose proceeding with the option of making staff car parking permits free of charge at the same quantum as they currently are. As fair recognition of the hard work and dedication of Health and Social Care staff, that would allow the Executive to deliver at least some of the intent of the legislation. Concerns have been expressed around equality if staff permits are made free. I asked officials to consider a percentage reduction to all car parking costs as an alternative, but trusts advised that, when they conduct an equality impact screening assessment, they assess the impact on staff, patients and visitors separately, given the different capacity in which those groups visit the sites. Trusts advised that a blanket reduction of car parking charges is likely to have the unintended consequences of increasing demand for car parking spaces on hospital sites and incurring costs relating to the reconfiguration of equipment and signage. Charges across hospital sites are set in line with local car parks, so a reduction could increase demand for car parking spaces from the public, which, again, would be to the detriment of service users.

In addition, concerns have been expressed around equality if staff permits are made free, as, due to capacity, not all staff who meet the criteria for a parking permit will have access to one, with many placed on a waiting list. Current car parking policy outlines that health and social care trusts should ensure that a reasonable allocation of spaces is made available for staff, taking into consideration the overall availability of car parking on the site and balancing the needs of patients and visitors. Where demand for car parking spaces on hospital sites is greater than the available capacity, to ensure a fair and consistent award process, I am directing health and social care trusts to regionally implement an assessment of demonstrated need for staff parking permits. The assessment criteria will take into consideration individual circumstances, operational requirements and the individual's ability to access alternative and sustainable forms of transport. For example, recommended criteria may include the requirement to use a private vehicle daily to deliver direct patient or client care, the requirement to provide regular clinics or services on more than one site, the requirement to participate on a scheduled rota for on call or the requirement to manage service staff on more than one site. Other criteria may include holding a blue badge through disability or, as a parent, guardian or carer, using a private vehicle to transport children or provide caring responsibilities on the way to or from a base site where public transport is not available. On the basis of the information that is available, there is nothing to indicate that the proposal to provide free car parking to permitted pass-holders would create an adverse impact on the promotion of good relations.

Knowing the value that our Assembly colleague placed on the private Member's Bill, I do not make the proposal to postpone the operation date of the Act lightly. I do so to protect access to hospital sites for service users and because Health and Social Care no longer has the resources to deliver its services.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Will the Minister explain to the House why he has chosen to put the fixed commencement date of May 2026 rather than having the quite regularly deployed clause stipulating commencement at the Department's discretion? Why is he not amending the Act to impose such a commencement clause?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I wanted to bring in legislation that had a time-bound limit to reassure those, including us, who supported the Bill at the start that this is a time-bound extension rather than a never-ending one, for which I would be rightly criticised and which would put the legislation at risk. Acknowledging that I remain entirely sympathetic to the intentions behind the original legislation, we have a fundamental problem now to address. Once the legislation comes into effect, free parking will inevitably encourage more people to use car parks on hospital sites, including staff, visitors, patients and those without any legitimate reason.

I thank everyone for their patience while I provided the overview of the Bill. I hope that you will agree that the Bill is necessary to ensure safe access for staff, patients and visitors to our hospital services. I am conscious that I am asking the Assembly to make a difficult decision today. Unfortunately, given the budgetary challenges facing all Departments, there will be more difficult decisions to come, and we have to be honest with the public about that. Our collective financial position has deteriorated markedly since the free parking legislation was passed two years ago. I know that Members supported that measure for the best of motives, and I know that it reflected a genuine desire to show solidarity with health service staff, with patients and their families. However, the House will not be thanked if it allows a parking free-for-all to unfold from next month, with all the chaos and disruption that that would bring to traffic and vital services. Therefore, I ask Members to support the Bill.

Photo of Liz Kimmins Liz Kimmins Sinn Féin

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the Second Stage debate on the principles of the Hospital Parking Charges Bill. In the last mandate, the previous Health Committee undertook the Committee Stage of the Hospital Parking Charges Act 2022. That Committee undertook a public consultation on the Bill and heard from a number of organisations in relation to it. Some of the issues that were raised during the evidence sessions are still as relevant today as they were over two years ago, such as the lack of capacity, inequity in charging within and across trusts, financial issues for staff having to pay for parking and inconsistencies in the approach to providing free parking for patients and their families.

In March 2022, the Assembly agreed that the Hospital Parking Charges Bill be enacted. Therefore, it is disappointing that, over two years later, we are in a position where we are having to introduce new legislation to further delay the introduction of free parking on our hospital sites. The previous debate on accelerated passage of the Bill outlined the reasons why action needs to be taken quickly on the issue. I will outline the Committee's consideration of the Bill and some of the issues that were raised with the Minister and officials in relation to its implementation.

The Bill is a short, two-clause Bill that provides for a postponement of the implementation of the 2022 Act for a period of two years. As I mentioned in the previous debate, the Deputy Chairperson and I were briefed by the Minister on the Bill last Monday and the Committee was briefed by officials last Thursday. The officials outlined that a delay in implementation was required as the automatic number plate recognition system that would be needed to manage the car parks would not be in place until September at the earliest. The officials said that, without that system in place, free parking would result in gridlock at many of our hospital sites and that blue-light routes could not be preserved. The officials also said that the reason for the delay was a legal challenge in the procurement process and it was hoped that that would be resolved in the coming weeks. The officials told us that traffic impact assessments were completed and highlighted some of the issues that would occur if charging were to be removed. The Committee requested a copy of those traffic impact assessments.

Committee members also highlighted to the officials that the two-year postponement should not act as a target date and, if possible, charges should be removed once the system is up and running and had sufficient time to be tested. The officials said that it was not their intention to use the full two years. The issue of staff permits was raised during the briefing with the Minister, who outlined, as he has done today, that it is his intention to make staff car parking permits free of charge, which is, indeed, welcomed. The Minister and the officials outlined the criteria for providing parking permits, including the need for access to multiple sites, for home visits, for delivering equipment and for staff who work shift patterns where public transport is not available. I outlined the need for additional criteria in relation to those on low incomes. I hope that the Minister and the Department will consider that.

The Committee is aware that there are currently circumstances in which patients and families can avail themselves of free parking, and I encourage the Department and the trusts to ensure that they are proactive in providing those patients and their families with free parking where they qualify for it rather than continue with the inconsistent approach that is taken across sites at present. We are all too aware of the problems at some of our hospital sites, and the Minister and the Department need to ensure that they use this next period to improve access and capacity at those sites, for staff and patients. Provided that the Bill passes the necessary stages and is granted Royal Assent, the Committee will undertake its scrutiny of the implementation of the new system and the work that will be done to increase capacity and improve access to our hospital sites.

I will now make some remarks in my role as Sinn Féin health spokesperson. As outlined, Sinn Féin is extremely disappointed that the Hospital Parking Charges Act 2022 has not been implemented within the time frame agreed with the Department. There is no doubt that patients, staff and service users would all benefit greatly from the removal of charges, and, although we are disappointed, we do understand that the Minister has identified a preferred contractor, and we therefore hope to see rapid progress made on the matter in the coming weeks and months, not at the end of another two years.

During the legislative process, support for the previous Hospital Parking Charges Bill was expressed by many different organisations, such as Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie, the Rural Community Network (RCN), the Royal College of Nursing (RCN), NI Committee, Irish Congress of Trade Unions (NIC-ICTU)-affiliated trade unions and the BMA. Free parking at public hospital sites would help address health inequalities by reducing the burden on patients and visitors who are already physically, psychologically and financially impacted on by the experience of their own or a loved one's ill health. According to Macmillan Cancer Support's views on the provisions of the previous Hospital Parking Charges Bill, submitted to the Health Committee, Macmillan benefits advisers have reported that car parking charges are a cost frequently mentioned by people living with cancer and that they often need to refer people to the Macmillan grants team so that those people are able to access financial support for parking and travel costs. No one should have to deal with an additional financial burden while accessing treatment or attending hospital with a family member, particularly those who have long stays or frequent attendances at hospital. Just today, I met the Children's Health Coalition. It has outlined its key asks, which include a relatively small amount of ring-fenced funding to support families with the hidden costs of caring for a sick child as they face significant reduction in their family income during that time. Anything that we can do to try to alleviate what is already a very difficult time for families and patients, we should do.

We are acutely aware of the existing challenges with parking at hospital sites, and it is important that those be addressed. Those challenges must not, however, be used as a reason to continue this unfair and unjust cost to staff and patients, who have no choice but to travel by car to hospital for work or to receive healthcare. Although I welcome some of the criteria that the Minster outlined for ensuring that interim measures are put in place for free parking permits for staff, it is something that we have to have as a short-term measure. Every week at the Health Committee, we hear from departmental officials and representatives from right across the health and social care sector about the huge workforce crisis in our health service. How do we really expect to address that crisis when it is costing staff to come to their work? To put it into context, a band 5 nurse on a starting salary of around £27,000 a year, who is potentially already paying the equivalent of a mortgage payment every month for childcare, is then expected to fork out £11 or £12 a day for parking, in some cases five days a week. How can we justify that? If we really want to stabilise our health service and recruit and retain staff properly so that they can deliver vital healthcare, we must make it worth their while to do so.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party 5:00, 16 April 2024

We are here today to discuss the Second Stage of the Bill, and I have to say that that is a shame. It is a shame that we are discussing the delaying of the implementation of the 2022 Act, and it is a shame that, on a day on which we in this place have been focusing on how to break the cycle of poverty, we are debating a delay to removing unfair charges. The then Hospital Parking Charges Bill was lauded by Sinn Féin in April 2022 as saving patients and hard-working staff the money that they would have to pay and as saving folk money when visiting their sick and dying relatives, yet, two years later, here we are. The difficulties with that legislation mean the Sinn Féin/DUP-led coalition Executive have agreed to delay its implementation by another two full years.

It seems that it will take the Executive four years to put up a few cameras at a number of hospital sites to read car registrations and to get a computer program to analyse them. In our constituency offices, how many of us have been dealing with, if not been swamped by, people who get car parking tickets from supermarket and shopping centre car parks? Those organisations got their infrastructure in place, and I wager that it did not take them four years to put it up.

So many reasons — others might call them excuses — have been given for the delay in getting the infrastructure in place and for requesting the two-year extension. Some of them are so weak in places that the bottom of the barrel has been not just scraped clean but scraped through. When you hear terms such as "creating inequality of access to service" and then hear people asking for a two-year delay that, itself, creates an inequality of access to service, you wonder whether the situation has been handled properly at all.

The inevitability of the Bill's passing by the four-party Executive means that the most important thing that we, as an Opposition, can do is ensure transparency and make sure that the full facts of the matter are known. On that basis, I make the following points and seek the Minister's clarification.

The now junior Minister's Bill passed just before the Assembly elections in May 2022. We have heard that a legal challenge was concluded around November last year. How soon after the Bill received Royal Assent did the procurement process commence?

We are told that a new infrastructure system is needed. What is wrong with the current one? Could the current infrastructure, where people have to use cards to get in and out and to pay for car parking, not have been adapted in the short term to deliver some solutions rather than having to seek a delay for two years?

I will go slightly easy on Committee consultation. The Committee has had one presentation, lasting 45 to 50 minutes. That is all that the Committee has had, so I do not want to imply that it has had proper engagement. We would like, I am sure, to have brought in other organisations, including staff organisations and, potentially, other organisations involved in the delivery of car parking services. We could have asked for clarification and sought some more information, but all that we got was a briefing. It was a Committee briefing rather than a Committee engagement. Numerous remarks were made that, if hospitals were to implement free car parking, that could cause problems such as blocking blue-light routes. However, people also highlighted that that is an issue as things stand, so perhaps it is an issue not of car parking but of how ambulances get to the hospital. To suggest that it is an argument for holding up free car parking for another two years seems a bit weak.

Furthermore, the issues are very site-specific. Issues of congestion are specific to the Royal, and the issue of other people using the car parking facilities is specific and was mentioned in relation to the City Hospital. However, free parking at every site across the whole of the North now has to be delayed for a further two years, and we are heavily citing those two sites as reasons for doing so.

Part of the rationale for the 2022 Bill was to help to address the imbalance faced by people in rural communities who have no choice but to take their car to make hospital visits. How has the deferral been screened for its impact on rural communities that will have to wait for another two years for free car parking to arrive?

The Committee was told that the procurement process had caused a legal challenge and that that would mean that the system would not be ready for another three or four months. That brings us to August or September. An obvious question has to be this: why are we looking for a delay of two years if the system can be brought online in a few months?

I would really like the Minister to answer one specific question in his remarks. I would like a crystal-clear response. Can we have a date on which staff will get access to their free parking? When can they expect the system to be in place? It is referenced in the letter that was sent to the Committee, it was mentioned in the Committee's discussions and it has been referenced here today, but we have not been given a date. If there is a two-year delay —.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

I thank the Member for giving way. I declare an interest: my daughter is a nurse in Lagan Valley Hospital. We have had multiple issues on the Lagan Valley site for a number of years now. In fact, a multi-agency group has been trying to work out what to do about the overspill of parking in the area, which is causing public safety issues way outside the Lagan Valley Hospital site. One of the problems with the original Bill was the fact that it did not seek in any way to alleviate the public safety issues where illegal parking happens. Is it not better that we buy time and ensure that public safety is also measured in the introduction of free car parking for our health and social care staff?

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Member for his intervention. He gets a free pass on his birthday. That is not a problem that has just arrived today. We have known about it from the very beginning of the conversations about introducing free car parking. Somebody in the Department did not suddenly scratch their head last week or the week before and say, "Hey, we've got three weeks to introduce this. We need to get something sorted out". There was plenty of time to plan. We did not need to wait until the supplier of the car registration identification system was chosen before specific planning was done and some of the issues were dealt with. Those issues could have been addressed alongside the introduction of the Act, and we would have been two years into the provision.

Photo of Robbie Butler Robbie Butler UUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I will move on.

Those are reasonable questions that any MLA should be asking the Minister and the Department, but there are also questions that must be asked of the Executive and the parties that are represented here this afternoon. The tasks of the Executive Office are detailed on its website and include promoting and monitoring the implementation of equality of opportunity and good relations, and tackling poverty and social exclusion. However, the First Minister said that the Executive had no choice but to accept the Health Minister's proposal for the deferral. The deputy First Minister said that the Executive unanimously agreed to the Health Minister's proposal to bring forward a new Bill through accelerated passage. The Executive have made much noise about what they will do to tackle poverty, yet the deferral will only intensify poverty. We all agreed that poverty exists, and that we needed a Bill to address it, but, now, we are simply holding off for another two years. What are the Executive doing to mitigate the intensification of poverty if they are agreeing to defer the implementation of the Act?

When the initial Bill was brought forward, its sponsor, who is now a junior Minister and has agreed to defer what was in her own Bill, said:

"The charges are, quite simply, an unfair additional tax." — [Official Report (Hansard), 22 November 2021, p50, col 1].

The deputy First Minister's party said:

"the disparities in car parking fees between trusts have created regional inequalities for those who face a trip to the hospital." — [Official Report (Hansard), 22 November 2021, p52, col 2].

The Alliance Party said that, because staff often work shift work, public transport does not always align with that, hence charges are an unfair tax. It has to sit very uncomfortably with those Members that they have asked for the deferral of an Act, the provisions of which they so vigorously supported just over two years ago. Some might ask whether they would support the deferral if it were being brought forward a few weeks before an election. Those are important questions that I hope can be answered before the new Bill progresses any further.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

The Member who spoke previously stated that all the parties in the Assembly supported the original Bill. I reiterate our support for it; we do not resile from it. I say to the Minister that we are disappointed that we are having to defer the provisions of the Act. There are genuine questions to answer about how much work has been done in the interim period to get the systems into operation. As the Member who spoke previously said earlier today, we are where we are, but it would be good to hear some of the explanations for the delay in getting the provisions to proceed.

We have always said that accessible spaces should be available for those who require them the most, such as those who are under stress, those who have received a difficult diagnosis and those who are visiting an ill relative. The Chair of the Health Committee referred to meeting the Children's Health Coalition, which I too have met. Something needs to be done about the hidden costs of long-term hospitalisation for families who have children who are ill over a long period. Many children with a cancer diagnosis are in hospital for a very long period, and their families require support. I hope, Minister, that when you are looking at measures to alleviate the pressure in the interim, you will look at that particular issue. It is very important that that happens.

They say that all politics is local, and you referred at length to the City Hospital and the Royal Victoria Hospital. However, I assure you, Minister, that car parking at Craigavon Area Hospital is in just as serious a position. Even at times of day that are not busy periods, it is almost impossible to get a space at Craigavon Area Hospital. There is life outside Belfast, and we need to stress that those of us in other parts of Northern Ireland experience these issues as well.

Minister, you very kindly answered a question from me in the Chamber yesterday on the reconfiguration of hospitals. In implementing the Act — hopefully, as soon as possible — will you take that into consideration and let us know how that will work?

We could also look at the Scottish and Welsh Governments. When they looked at abolishing fees, they put down some markers on what they would do to achieve that. Those were to make sure that hospital car parks are not misused by commuters or shoppers, that you balance the needs of different groups and that you are encouraging the use of public transport, where possible, to get to hospital. As a Member for Upper Bann, I am aware that that is not always possible in rural areas. They were, of course, careful to protect spaces for the disabled and those who are very sick.

I do not think that we have an insurmountable task in front of us. I hope that it will not take two years to get the 2022 Act into operation. I accept, as I said to you earlier at a meeting, that you are operating in a really difficult budgetary situation and that it is difficult, at a time of extreme pressure, to ensure that every need across the health service is met. Nevertheless, this is an important issue and I look forward to hearing your responses.

Photo of Danny Donnelly Danny Donnelly Alliance 5:15, 16 April 2024

On behalf of the Alliance Party, I support the Bill at its Second Stage. I thank the Minister for bringing it forward and for the previous engagement of his officials with us at the Health Committee, which was very helpful. Like Members who have spoken previously, I share the disappointment that the Bill has been required.

We supported the Hospital Parking Charges Act and welcomed its passage through the Assembly in the previous mandate. It was one of many private Member's Bills that passed in the final stages of the mandate, just before I joined this House, and it highlights how important private Members' legislation is to ensuring positive change. As we all know, that mandate was compressed to just two years instead of five, due to the absence of an Executive, and here we are again, having lost two years out of this mandate already.

As the Minister said, this is a short Bill with two clauses and only one policy effect: to delay the coming into operation of the 2022 Act, from 12 May 2024 to 12 May 2026. That is necessary due to ongoing challenges, such as the awarding of the contract for traffic management systems, which is likely to take several more months. For that reason, we did not object to the use of accelerated passage on this occasion. I encourage the Minister to take that time to ensure that the Act can be fully delivered by the new deadline.

The intention of the 2022 Act is important, and it is to ensure that those who work at a hospital, provide services at a hospital or who are a patient of or visitor to a hospital are not charged for parking there. As section 1(2)(a) of the Act states, a person is not regarded as attending a hospital simply by parking in a hospital car park. There is a risk that that could be abused, particularly in hospitals that are near city or town centres, and we have, rightly, pointed out particular areas where that might happen. If the right mechanisms are in place, that should not be an issue. It is important that the Department ensures that that is not the case, because, as the Minister highlighted, there is the potential for occlusions in blue-light areas.

It should also be said that, given our climate change commitments and our commitment to reduce carbon emissions ahead of our 2050 net zero target, we should encourage methods of transport that are alternatives to the private car. It is understandable that, in many rural areas, that is not always possible. Equally, it is not always possible for people to travel on public transport, such as those with disabilities, people who require hospital services in a timely manner or, as mentioned, workers who work unsociable hours in the health service. In Belfast, the City Hospital is next to a railway line with its own station, and the Royal Victoria Hospital and the Ulster Hospital are both on the Glider route, although it is noted that public transport is not a 24-hour service.

The Bill presents two scenarios, one of which is straightforward. Clause 1(2) ensures that, if Royal Assent is granted by 12 May, section 1 of the 2022 Act takes effect on 12 May 2026. The second scenario is more complicated, as the Chair of the Health Committee noted. It provides that, if the Bill does not receive Royal Assent by 12 May, the initial deadline of 12 May 2024 stands until the Bill receives Royal Assent. That means that we could have a short period during which hospital parking charges would not be legal following 12 May 2024. I know that the Minister mentioned that. I seek a bit more clarity on his contingency plans for how he would deal with that period of uncertainty.

Beyond that, we are happy to support the Bill and its accelerated passage through the Assembly. It does not alter the intentions of the 2022 Act, but it can be used to ensure its faithful delivery, in line with the intent of the previous Assembly. It is important for our health and social care workers and those who need access to hospitals during difficult times — I noted the Minister's criteria for staff permits — that the Act is implemented in a way that honours its good intentions while ensuring that it is workable and efficient. I urge the Minister to use the new deadline to ensure that the 2022 Act can be delivered by 12 May 2026.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

The issue has been discussed at length by the current and the previous Health Committee. Indeed, I recall many lengthy discussions in the previous mandate during which, although the broader good intent of the Act was noted, some genuine warnings and concerns were raised about what would happen if the necessary steps and measures, such as number plate recognition equipment, were not in place. I am sure that all in the House agree that a free-for-all, open-to-abuse system was never an option.

As we know, due to various key reasons, including the threat of legal action, which has only just been removed, even if we were all in agreement, the current infrastructure simply is not there to roll out the previous legislation as intended by 12 May this year. As such, the Bill is necessary, although it may be difficult. The Minister's decision to seek a deferral of the existing legislation for up to two years is sensible and pragmatic. His decision will avoid the cliff edge scenario where, one day, parking is controlled and, the next day, it is a literal free-for-all, with all the associated chaos and disruption that would be quickly witnessed in several of our main hospital car parks.

Whilst I appreciate that some people will be genuinely disappointed at the temporary delay, we need to consider the alternative, which is staff being unable to park their car anywhere; patients missing appointments; and, perhaps most worrying of all, some of our hospital sites becoming so congested that key vehicle routes, especially blue-light routes, become blocked, which could mean life or death for a patient in an ambulance.

The scheme was introduced some years ago in Scotland and Wales, and an official at the Committee briefing last week said that, in conversation, colleagues in Scotland had said that they were reasonably happy with the way in which the system was working and that they had overcome many of the initial teething problems. However, it should be noted that some of the hospitals in Scotland and Wales have been deploying the system for over 12 years.

No legislation, no matter how well meaning, should act as a barrier to people receiving emergency access to hospitals when they need it. I applaud the Minister, however, for using what levers he had. Whilst the removal of all charges will be deferred under the new Bill, importantly, staff car parking permits will be provided free of charge across the two years for eligible staff. The Minister also referred to the budgetary implications of the scheme, and the two-year delay will also allow some time for the development of a sustainable funding plan. That, hopefully, may not require the full two years to implement universally.

Whilst there is disappointment at the delay, we can all agree — I am sure that Mr McGrath will also agree — that it is much better to have a system that works without any unintended consequences. The Ulster Unionist Party welcomes and fully supports the Bill.

In conclusion, I will say that my colleague Mrs Dodds may wish to reflect on the possibility that the two-year suspension of the House, when there was no Minister in place, may well have contributed in some way to the delay.

Photo of Aisling Reilly Aisling Reilly Sinn Féin

Like many other Members today, I express my disappointment that the Department is seeking a further extension. As the sponsor of the original Bill, which has been pointed out, I did a lot of work in the lead-up to the introduction of the Bill on the Floor of the Assembly. I am therefore acutely aware of the additional strain that patients, healthcare workers and families have to deal with due to car parking charges at hospital sites.

The Minister outlined all the reasons why an extension is required. However, I have to point out that there already has been an 18-month extension to the original Bill, making this the second extension required by the Department, which is, as I said, extremely disappointing. I urge the Department to do all that it can to implement the legislation before the end of the two-year period that the Minister seeks. Two years should be the absolute maximum time frame. The original legislation was important to my party colleagues and me because the charges are an unfair stealth tax that is imposed on ordinary workers and families.

As the Member who brought the original Bill through, I listened to the unions, which told me that the charges put staff in a situation where they sometimes pay over £150 a month to go to work. For many families, that is simply unsustainable. Our job is to make people's lives better, and, where possible, we should seek to remove barriers to healthcare access and put the money back in their pockets. I also listened to users who travel from urban and rural areas. I listened to people who must attend hospital day after day. In some circumstances, that is to receive special treatment, or it may be to visit a family member who is extremely ill or receiving treatment.

The Minister said that he is fully committed to the Act, given that he and all the parties voted for it back in 2022. After a brief conversation with the Minister, I also acknowledge that while a small step is being taken, one that should already be best practice, the Department will launch an interim advertising campaign to alert people who may be entitled to free or concessionary charges while attending hospital. It is vital that the advertising campaign reaches people in all communities and informs them that, where applicable, they can avail themselves of those concessions.

Finally, I hope that the Act is fully implemented long before the new deadline. Let us learn from other jurisdictions and do this well. Let us scrap this unfair tax once and for all, because, at the end of the day, it is not up to staff, patients or family members to foot the bill.

Photo of Alan Robinson Alan Robinson DUP

Like others, I express disappointment at the delay in disposing of what many would deem a sickness tax.

My disappointment pales into insignificance when one considers the disappointment of those who require frequent visits to our hospitals, such as parents with chronically sick children, visitors with gravely ill relatives and dedicated staff working shifts. They will, quite rightly, point to Wales, where hospital car parking charges were eventually dropped, and to Scotland, where charges were dropped approximately 15 years ago.

At a recent Health Committee meeting, we had a letter tabled from the Health Minister informing us that, at the Executive meeting on 21 March, he had sought and received agreement to defer the Hospital Parking Charges Act for two years. At the Health Committee meeting on 11 April, I was very disappointed that not one of the officials from the Department of Health could give a guarantee that car parking charges would be disposed of, as is being proposed here today. Therefore, I ask the Minister to provide that guarantee that he will not be standing in this House in two years seeking a further extension to the Hospital Parking Charges Act.

I read through some of the previous debates from when the original Bill travelled through the House. I have sympathy for some of the concerns that were expressed at the time, including the delicate balance between providing essential services, including the maintenance of health service car parks, and managing Health budgets. I do not envy the Minister in having to balance financial realities against the demands of the public, but today is not about the rehashing of previous debates, as the case has already been made. I will, however, encourage the Minister today to provide more detail on the permits that will be issued, how advanced this is and when it will begin. I also ask the Minister, with regard to the implementation timeline of the Hospital Parking Charges Act, at what point was it recognised that a parking solution was required? Was an opportunity missed to begin the tendering works earlier to provide that solution, given that tendering processes can be prone to legal challenges? I look forward to your comments on the matter, Minister.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance 5:30, 16 April 2024

Hospital parking charges are attacks on health workers' wages and on the sick. There is no other way to describe it, and that is what the Health Minister wants to revert back to. Wages are down, bills are up across the board and this Executive are once again telling health workers and patients to suck it up. We have heard all sorts of excuses, from the Minister and colleagues, as they have tried to justify this regressive measure. We have heard points about technological issues and so-called practical obstacles, but they cannot hide the fact that this is yet another cut aimed at working people and people who are unwell.

The explanatory memorandum to the Bill, received by MLAs, spells it out in black and white. The delay comes in the context of a wider austerity Budget, which will be paid for by our communities, and the Minister referred to that in his comments. The £6·4 million taken in hospital car parking charges last year is small change to the Department of Health, but it is a huge amount to expect health workers and patients to make up during a cost-of-living crisis, particularly when health workers have had their pay cut in real terms by the Executive year-on-year. The Health Minister and others might repeat the charge that there is no magic money tree and that the Executive have no choice but to penalise health workers for parking at their place of work. Unfortunately for the Minister, the socialist opposition is keeping receipts. Last month, we revealed the fact, from an answer from the Minister and the Department, that the health service agency staff bill has doubled in five years to almost £400 million — an astronomical figure of £400 million. While the Executive take from health workers and employ many more agency workers on precarious contracts, they continue to hand eye-watering sums to private agencies that are profiting from the crisis in our health service. Compare that £400 million to the paltry £6·4 million or so that it will cost to give health workers and patients free parking at hospitals.

We will not support the Bill today. The Executive need to get on with the business of providing free hospital parking to health workers and patients. It was promised to people. It was voted on in this Building and it should be implemented. In the not-too-distant future, the Executive need to subsidise public transport to provide free travel for health workers and others, as was done during the pandemic. The law to abolish car parking charges has already been on the books for two years — two years — and there should not be any excuse to delay its implementation any further. To row back on that at this stage flies in the face of the existing legislation and the views of workers, patients, trade unions and the vast majority who want the charges scrapped. We will not support the penalisation of health workers and patients. Shame on the Minister and the Executive for doing so. I get free parking at this Building. Other MLAs get free parking at this Building. The Minister gets free parking at this Building. There should not be one law for people in this Building and another for health workers, patients and people who need to use the health service and its facilities.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I call the Minister of Health to make a winding-up speech on the Bill's Second Stage.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. I thank Members for their comments, and I will refer to some of the queries and issues that a number of Members raised rather than name specific Members. I thank the Chair and members of the Health Committee for taking forward the Bill at pace. The Opposition spokesperson indicated that the engagement in Committee lasted for only 45 minutes. Mr Speaker, I assure you that the staff in my Department made themselves available for whatever the duration would be of that briefing on the detail of the Bill.

Specifics of the Bill that have been raised include the application of free car parking. Aisling Reilly, the sponsor of the original Bill, asked about the promotion of its availability to family members of those who are receiving treatment, by means of an advertising campaign to ensure that those who can apply for free car parking do so. I will highlight how that can be sought. Any patients in the care pathway for radiotherapy or chemotherapy and their next of kin, partner or a relative, if transporting the patient, can apply for free car parking. Similarly, for renal dialysis, free car parking is available for patients and their next of kin, partner or a relative, if transporting the patient. For critical or high dependency care, free car parking is available for the patient's next of kin or partner while the patient is receiving that care, and there is discretion for a further relative or other visitor. We will do what we need to do to advertise applications for free car parking.

On hospital travel costs, there is a recovery scheme for patients who fulfil specified low-income criteria. They may be able to reclaim car parking charges via that scheme. Information on the scheme is widely available to patients, carers, families and friends, and it can be found on trust websites. If an adult or a dependent child has to travel for treatment for medical reasons, the travel costs can be claimed back. People can claim back hospital travel costs if they or those on whom they depend get at least one of the following supports: income support; jobseeker's allowance; employment and support allowance (ESA); guarantee pension credit; universal credit; or child tax credit, with or without a working tax credit. Schemes are therefore available, and we will make sure that we advertise them to those who are eligible.

I highlighted the concerns that trusts raised with me about access to blue-light routes at facilities where queues for car parks will have an adverse effect on ambulances' ability to gain access to hospital emergency departments. Additional queues, and the length of those queues, have caused the trusts additional concern.

On issuing permits and doing assessments, when I asked officials to engage on whether there was a way of making sure that staff receive a reduced charge or free car parking permit in the same numbers as are currently provided for, the point was highlighted to me that unequal criteria are applied across trusts in Northern Ireland. I have therefore directed that there be consistency across all trusts for those who apply for the parking permits that will be free of charge from the date of implementation. We will make sure that we have done an equality impact assessment of people who obtain those free car parking permits. I mentioned that in my speech earlier.

There was mention of access for rural stakeholders. Again, the concern has been raised that, if people — rural dwellers — who are travelling quite a distance for regional services, specifically in Belfast, arrive there and there is no available car parking space, they will have to turn and go home and will not be able to access their treatment or their procedure. That is the concern about access for rural dwellers if car parks become overfull due to this system.

Delays in the procurement process and the timeline for the traffic management system procurement has been mentioned by a number of Members. I can say that health and social care trusts have been working to implement the legislative requirements of the Hospital Car Parking Charges Act by 12 May 2024, because that was their legal duty. At the time, there was an available route to procurement for car park management and infrastructure, and that was through NHS England's shared business services (SBS) framework. The framework was valid up until 29 November 2022, and renewal was planned to follow on from that date and shortly after. That was the direction that my Department's officials had been taking in the absence of Ministers.

By September 2023, a series of delays to the national framework being available led trusts in Northern Ireland to collectively establish a contract adjudication group to write a specific Northern Ireland tender for car parking solutions due to the uncertainty with the SBS framework in order to minimise the risk of not meeting the implementation deadline of 12 May. A regional tender to introduce automatic number plate recognition closed in November 2023, but, unfortunately, due to legal challenges beyond our control, the contract adjudication group was not able to award a contract. No matter what the Member from the Opposition said about procurement processes being so foolproof that they would not be open to legal challenges, I do not think that any Department in Northern Ireland, or across government anywhere, has been able to do that.

Following resolution of those challenges, we anticipated awarding a contract this month. However, due to the technical realities of implementation, the system will not come online until, at the earliest — I emphasise at the earliest — September this year. That is after the new law is scheduled to come into effect on 12 May. During the Committee Chair's comments and queries earlier, she asked what are the implications of that not happening at that point. I covered that after her query in the previous debate.

In regard to the implementation by September 2024, an initial high-level implementation plan has been set out by trusts but will need to be refined with the contractor, once a contractor is appointed. In the period to September 2024, it is envisaged that site surveys will be completed by the contractor to look at appropriate locations for equipment, to assess ground conditions and signage requirements and to order the equipment. It is also expected that installation of priority items and equipment will take place by that date. A further eight to 12 weeks is required for installation, such as set-down locations, smaller parking areas, bus routes and delivery yards, and to make sure that there is no potential congestion. Over the following eight weeks, there will be checks to assess whether the system is working as planned, finalised management reports and adding data in relation to permitted staff registration details. Contractor vehicles will be put in place as that stage as well.

Diane Dodds referred to access for parents whose children are receiving care. As I said earlier, there are specific times when family members can receive car parking passes. I engaged with the Access to Childcare group myself. I actually sponsored its launch because, as a parent who had a child in a Belfast hospital for 13 months, I know exactly what that means, and that is why I am keen to make sure that this legislation does not have unintended consequences for others.

A Member made reference to access to public transport. That issue was raised by the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs in regard to wider commitments on climate change, reducing the number of car journeys and the wider utilisation of public transport. I have been working with Minister O'Dowd in Infrastructure, and we have had a conversation about how we look at pooling not just public transport but all those other transport services, should that be school buses or hospital buses, to make sure that we are utilising the full extent of that.

I have had the conversations with Aisling Reilly, the sponsor of the previous Bill, and she knows my intended consequences of moving this legislation.

They are genuine — she knows that — and I received the support of the Executive for introducing the Bill and for accelerated passage.

Alan Robinson referred to looking towards the definition of those permits. As I said in the earlier debate, I have directed trusts to make sure that there is a consistent approach across all trusts. I give him a guarantee that I will not be standing here as Health Minister in two years' time to see a further extension of this legislation.

I move to Mr Carroll's contribution. My intention to support our health workers through the Bill is genuine. He said that £6·4 million is small beer to the Department of Health: I assure him that, in view of what I am looking at in the budget for 2024-25, £6·4 million is not small beer, considering the challenges that we will face in the delivery of services. He referred to agency spend: I direct him to correspondence that has been circulated and which was part of the answer that he received. Due to actions that I took when I was previously in office, the spend on off-contract agency has reduced by £20 million. Therefore, where he refers to the increase over a period, he has not acknowledged that work has been done to start to address agency spend in Northern Ireland.

If I have missed any points that Members have raised, my officials or I will —

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I know that the Minister gave different timescales in his response, but can we get a date at which staff will get access to free car parking? It was mentioned in the correspondence and in several contributions today that it will happen. It was expected on 12 May. When can they expect that from the Department?

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

I do not have an exact date, because I want to ensure that the criteria are equal across all trusts and areas and that it is not simply a first come, first served continuation of the permits that are there currently. That is one of the issues that we brought forward with the sponsor of the original Bill and members of the Executive. The number of permits that we have on each trust and each site remains the same, but there is an equality of access. That was the point that the Chair of the Health Committee raised as Sinn Féin spokesperson. There are people who need the permits. That is why I listed the criteria as to who will be able to access one. There is work on that that is, again, dependent on this legislation going through.

Proper consideration needs to be given to how we manage and control the limited capacity in hospital car parks and how provision and maintenance will be funded when parking charges are abolished. I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put. The Assembly divided:

<SPAN STYLE="font-style:italic;"> Ayes 57; Noes 7

AYES

Mr Allister, Dr Archibald, Ms Armstrong, Mr Baker, Mr Beattie, Mr Blair, Ms Bradshaw, Mr Brett, Miss Brogan, Mr Brooks, Mr K Buchanan, Mr T Buchanan, Mr Buckley, Ms Bunting, Mr Butler, Mrs Cameron, Mr Chambers, Mr Clarke, Mr Dickson, Mrs Dillon, Mrs Dodds, Mr Donnelly, Mr Dunne, Ms Egan, Mr Elliott, Ms Ennis, Mrs Erskine, Ms Flynn, Ms Forsythe, Mr Frew, Miss Hargey, Mr Harvey, Mr Kearney, Mr Kelly, Ms Kimmins, Mr Kingston, Mrs Little-Pengelly, Mr Lyons, Mr McAleer, Miss McAllister, Mr McGuigan, Miss McIlveen, Mr McReynolds, Mrs Mason, Mr Middleton, Mr Muir, Ms Á Murphy, Mr Nesbitt, Ms Ní Chuilín, Mr O'Dowd, Miss Reilly, Mr Robinson, Mr Sheehan, Ms Sheerin, Mr Stewart, Mr Swann, Mr Tennyson

Tellers for the Ayes: Mr Chambers, Mr Nesbitt

NOES

Mr Carroll, Mr Easton, Ms Hunter, Mr McGlone, Mr McGrath, Mr McNulty, Mr O'Toole

Tellers for the Noes: Mr Carroll, Mr Easton

Question accordingly agreed to. Resolved:

That the Second Stage of the Hospital Parking Charges Bill [NIA 02/22-27] be agreed.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

That concludes the Second Stage of the Hospital Parking Charges Bill. As the Bill is proceeding by accelerated passage, there will be no Committee Stage. The Bill stands referred to the Speaker. I should advise Members that, as Consideration Stage of the Bill is in the Order Paper for next week, the amendment deadline is 9.30 am tomorrow.

Adjourned at 6.04 pm.