NHS hospitals break parking fees record
NHS hospitals appear to be making more money than ever from parking fees.
A report from the Press Association says hospitals in England collected more than £120m last year - up by 5%.
Many trusts defended the charges, saying the money was put back into patient care or maintaining car parks.
But the chief executive of the Patients Association said it was unfair that hospital parking in Wales and Scotland was largely free, while patients in England had to pay.
Of the 120 trusts asked by PA, 89 responded to the Freedom of Information request on the charges.
The responses showed £120,662,650 had been collected in car park fees over 2015/16, up from £114,873,867 the year before.
Only 27 trusts responded to a question about parking fines, but they showed over £2m had been collected in a four year period, with over £635,000 collected this year alone.
The figure which each trust accrued varied, partly as a consequence of their size. But more than half were making over £1m in car park fees in a year.
The investigation also found that almost half of all NHS trusts charged disabled people for parking in some or all of their disabled spaces.
Hospital car parking fees were abolished in Scotland and Wales in 2008, although a small number of hospitals still charge as they are signed up to private contracts to manage their parking facilities.
However, fees are allowed to be charged in Northern Ireland.
Katherine Murphy, chief executive of the Patients Association, said the investigation showed the "shocking reality" faced by patients, saying hospitals were "taking money from the sick and vulnerable to top up NHS coffers".
She added: "This is not what car parking charges should be used for. The NHS is clearly underfunded, but the onus on meeting the funding crisis should most certainly not be shouldered by the sick, injured and vulnerable."
Ms Murphy said it was important that drivers parked sensibly, but said fines were a burden on the sick.
"We take a very clear line that car parking fees need to be scrapped or strictly capped," she said.
And deputy mayor of Leicester Rory Palmer told the BBC charges created two levels of "profound unfairness".
"First, people find themselves paying different amounts, at different hospitals, in different parts of the country," he said. "That incoherency is unfair and, in effect, creates a postcode lottery.
"But the real question is whether its actually fair to charge people who might be very ill, having to make lots of visits to hospital for treatment of to charge people visiting their sick relatives?
"I'm not sure that's in the true spirit of the National Health Service, which is about providing a service free at point of access."
The Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust made the most out of parking, with £4,841,108 collected across the year.
The majority - £3,465,357 - came from patients and visitors, whilst staff paid £1,375,751. Almost £40,000 was also collected by the trust in car park fines.
The London North West Healthcare NHS Trust made £968,170 in car park charges. A further £1,262,194 went to the private firm Apcoa under a private finance initiative (PFI) contract to manage the multi-storey car park at Northwick Park hospital.
The trust made £28,449 from car parking fines and the private firm kept a further £25,990 in fines in 2015/16. Over four years, Apcoa has kept £167,357 in fines under the terms of the PFI contract.
But some of the larger organisations, including Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and Royal Surrey, did not supply 2015/16 figures.
In 2014/15 the trusts made £3,728,000 and £1,421,172 respectively, meaning the total figure for all trusts across England could be much higher.
Andrew Haldenby of the think tank Reform said no-one went into the NHS to set up a car park but charges stopped commuters and shoppers filling the spaces.
The parking charges income, he said, amounted to "a lot of money", adding: "If NHS hospitals had to suddenly lose that money, that genuinely would be a backward step for the NHS."
'Added stress of unfair charges'
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said it expected hospitals to follow its guidelines and put concessions in place for those who need the most help - including disabled people, carers and staff who work shifts.
"Patients and families shouldn't have to deal with the added stress of unfair parking charges," she added.
But Labour's shadow community health minister Julie Cooper said the government needed to take action.
"Raising car parking charges has a knock-on effect on patients, carers and family members who have no choice but to pay," she said.
"The current situation is wholly unfair and will only cause more stress for patients, families and carers.
"The government urgently needs to address this situation and take steps to cap the amount hospitals can charge for car parking fees."