Parking charges for hospital in-patients to be scrapped

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The Independent Online

Hospital parking fees will be scrapped for in-patients in England under Labour plans to boost the number of visitors they receive.

NHS Trusts have increasingly turned to parking charges to bolster their income, but Andy Burnham, the Health Secretary, acknowledged today that the expense of tickets distressed many patients and deterred visitors.

He said the charges would be phased out over three years at a cost of £140m a year, with the cash coming from cutting bureaucracy.

Under the plans, in-patients would receive a parking voucher covering the length of their stay which could then be passed around family and friends.

Mr Burnham told the Labour conference: “When people are coming in to hospital, the last thing they want to worry about is keeping the car parking ticket up-to-date. But, for families of the sickest patients, the costs can really rack up.

“It’s not right if some people don't get visitors every day because families can't afford the parking fees. And yet we all know that having friends and family around helps patients get better more quickly.”

The move will bring England more closely in line with Scotland and Wales, where there are no charges for hospital parking. Some English patients who make repeat visits for treatment also get free, or discounted, parking.

Mr Burnham said he believed the cash could be raised from “back office costs”. Tonight Labour sources said they were confident the extra money could be found despite the growing pressure across Whitehall for cuts in spending and denied it would harm front-line services.

However, the move will not cover out-patients who represent the large majority of hospital visits or for hospital staff who are charged to park at work.

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the King’s Fund, said: “While this will be a popular move, we do need to remember that the money spent on free parking is money that cannot be spent on something else in the health service.”

Mr Burnham, who will be given a leading role in Labour’s election campaign, confirmed plans to revise hospital funding to “get a real focus on what matters to people”. The initiative will mean extra money going to hospitals where patient surveys find high satisfaction levels after operations.

He also reaffirmed the government’s commitment to abolish GP practice boundaries in 2010 and to give suspected cancer patients the right to be tested and get their results within a week of referral by their family doctor.

Yesterday Gordon Brown announced 350,000 elderly people would receive free personal care at home, a policy that would cost £670m a year, of which £400m would come from the Department of Health Budget.

But critics claimed the cash would only pay for £38 of care per week, against the average £165 cost of domicilary care for a week.

Andrew Lansley, the shadow Health Secretary, said: “In these difficult economic times it is incredible that Andy Burnham thinks he can announce millions of pounds worth of new initiatives without any detail as to how they will be paid for or implemented.

“The numbers he has come up with seem to have been plucked out of thin air. Labour are constantly talking about efficiency savings but they never seem to materialise.”