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Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Free Parking

The announcement by the Welsh Assembly Government that they are scrapping parking charges in Welsh hospitals has caused quite stir, and that is just within the Labour Party.

The English Health Minister, Ben Bradshaw has hit out at the decision, saying that it does not make sense to spend NHS money on "subsidising" car parks. In return the Welsh Health Minister has accused him of "sour grapes".

Mr. Bradshaw did not stop there however. He went on to say: "In Wales, you have to wait much longer for your operation, you have to wait much longer in A&E [accident and emergency]. You're not going to enjoy the extended GP opening hours that patients in England are soon going to be enjoying. Those are the priorities that we think the English patients are more interested in, rather than subsidising anyone who wants to park in a hospital car park for free." A quite astonishing attack on the One Wales Government's priorities, and very much in line with Peter Hain's attack in the House of Commons last week, when the former Secretary of State argued for tough spending decisions in Wales with a moratorium on handouts and a bigger private sector.

The Welsh NHS Confederation has said the reforms will "inevitably" put pressure on NHS trusts, which collect more than £5m in car parking revenue. And it is certainly true that the One Wales Government is delivering this on the cheap. It will add to the financial pressure felt by many trusts around Wales. If the Government were going to do it the least they could do was to replace the lost income.

Welsh Liberal Democrat Health Spokesperson, Jenny Randerson has picked up on this theme by accusing the Welsh Government of "ill-considered popularism" and arguing that free parking risks a situation where the most vulnerable will not be able to access vital health services:

She said: "The principle of free parking is fine, I’m all in favour of free parking for those in greatest need, but I have serious doubts about the way this has been done.

"The way the Minster has introduced this will effectively work as a fine for all Trusts that have long term arrangements in place. That money will have to be taken out of front line care, as the government has not announced that it will be giving any extra.

The government has addressed one unfairness, but is in danger of creating another. At a stroke of the pen, the minister has removed a powerful incentive for hospital staff and patients to use public transport or car share. The reality is that car parking will be much more heavily used. There is a real danger that staff will fill up all the best parking spots first thing in the morning, meaning that the frail and vulnerable have to walk much further to enter the hospital.

"The Minister has given us all free parking – but the unintended consequences of this mean that many of us will find that there is no parking at all. In urban locations, with Trusts no longer receiving an income from parking, there will be no incentive to police the car park, and abuse could be rife. What’s to stop commuters and people who work in the area making the most of the free parking?

"The Minister’s ill-considered populism will come back to haunt her."

Welsh Liberal Democrats pledged during the Assembly election in 2007 that they would review parking charges at hospitals as one of their first acts in government.

Mrs Randerson added: "I agree that there is considerable unfairness in the way parking charges vary across Wales. But we have to be pragmatic. I would have preferred a system where those who have to make multiple visits, those on benefits and those visiting the long term sick can get their parking charges refunded."

I can think of one example where this may happen, Singleton Hospital in Swansea. This facility is situated next door to the University and in an area where there is particular pressure on parking spaces. There is a real possibility that the Hospital car park will fill up with cars belonging to students and staff, leaving precious few spaces for NHS staff, patients and relatives.

I support the general principle of free parking in hospitals but I agree with Jenny that the way the Government has gone about this is all wrong. It is not right to take much needed income out of the NHS without replacing it, no matter how small a proportion it is of their total expenditure, nor should the Government remove mechanisms by which Trusts are able to regulate and police the use of their car park. A simple device of refunding fees to certain categories of patient at reception could get around that one.

Will the devolution project founder on such lack of imagination? I hope not, but then I am not really sure what the current Welsh government are about? We seem to be lurching from freebie to freebie without any clear sense of direction or purpose. Ministers no longer trust people and communities to find their own solutions to problems, instead they impose them upon us. Our schools, hospitals and universities are crumbling around us whilst money is squirrelled away in reserves or spent on 'special projects'. Meanwhile, the Government's handling of the economy and much-needed European convergence funding looks ham-fisted and lacks coherence. Who would have thought that a government could so dramatically lose its way so early in its term?
Bradshaw was actually and unbelievably called "The English Health Minister" across the airwaves of England today.This is a major blow to broons britishness campaign. no doubt the person who said that offensive word will be out of a job by now.
The real problem, surely, is that Trust's were relying on this income in the first place - it's absolutely unacceptable that our NHS is so cash-strapped that it funds services through car parking charges. Do they also depend on the profits made in hospital cafes on over-priced cups of tea? I wouldn't be surprised.
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