Page last updated at 14:48 GMT, Wednesday, 30 September 2009 15:48 UK

Free parking plan for in-patients

Andy Burnham on scrapping hospital parking fees for in-patients in England

Health Secretary Andy Burnham says Labour hopes to scrap hospital parking charges for in-patients in England if the party wins the next election.

He said patients would get a permit to cover the length of their stay which visitors could use to park for free.

But campaigners said the move did not go far enough as in-patients, who tend to require the most complex care, only represent a fraction of total patients.

Wales and Scotland are both scrapping fees for everyone.

This has already happened in most instances, although under the terms of contracts signed with private firms to fund the building of new hospitals it will take several years to ensure parking is free across the board.

We are disappointed that they have ignored the same high cost of parking charges to those cancer patients having treatment as out-patients
Ciaran Devane, Macmillan Cancer Support

In England, discounts - and even free passes - are already available for people needing to make repeat visits to hospitals, such as cancer patients.

NHS trusts have always maintained that some level parking charges was necessary to ensure core health funds were not diverted towards managing and maintaining car parks.

But the variation in procedures across the UK has caused controversy among patient groups.

And even though the health secretary has now intervened, many NHS trusts will still not be compelled to act because they have foundation trust status which gives them autonomy from central government.

New legislation would be required if ministers wanted to force this through.

What is more, in-patients only represent a small number of overall hospital users.

For example, there are about five times as many out-patient visits as in-patient ones.

Nonetheless, Mr Burnham said the move would make a big difference.

"When people are coming into hospital the last thing they want to worry about is keeping the car park ticket machine up to date.

"It's not right if some people don't get visitors every day because their families can't afford the parking fees."

Liberal Democrat health spokesman Norman Lamb said: "This announcement hasn't been thought through. The sad reality is that many Trusts will simply increase car parking charges for outpatients and hard-working doctors and nurses to cover their shortfalls."

And shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley accused Mr Burnham of trying to score political points with voters ahead of the election.

"The NHS deserves better," he added.

Ciaran Devane, of Macmillan Cancer Support, said: "We applaud the government for recognising the high cost to families visiting relatives in hospitals."

But he added: "We are disappointed that they have ignored the same high cost of parking charges to those cancer patients having treatment as out-patients."

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