Teachers and police officers do not have to pay to park at work - but nurses do. As NT launches its free parking campaign, Clare Lomas reports on this unfair practice.
Hospital trusts are making millions of pounds by charging hard-pressed nurses for parking at work. NHS trusts in England made around£103m from car park fees last year.
Around£78m was paid by visitors and patients, while£25m came from staff. According to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, the burden is growing, with motorists paying£5m more than in the previous year.
An NT survey shows nurses believe the system is grossly unfair. Just under 95% of the 1,782 respondents say nurses should be exempt from the fees.
As the credit crunch bites, NT is launching a campaign calling on the government and NHS organisations to abolish car parking charges for all nurses and other healthcare staff across the UK.
‘With the ever-rising cost of nursing registration and petrol prices, it is crazy that nurses should be expected to pay for the pleasure of parking the vehicle they use for going to work. Just how far does the government and the NHS expect our much-less-than inflation pay rise to stretch?’ says one respondent to the survey.
Some trusts are making hundreds of thousands of pounds from their employees. Southampton General Hospital was one of the highest beneficiaries, raking in around£600,000, while Addenbrooke’s Hospital made almost£420,000 just from staff.
Trusts say charges are necessary because of the high cost of car park maintenance, and to prevent hospital land being misused by commuters and shoppers.
But nurses are not impressed. One said: ‘If you are a factory worker, you are not expected to pay to park at work. Why should nurses have to pay? It shows a real lack of respect for the nursing profession.’
Of almost 1,800 respondents to the survey, just 6% accept the charges - the rest want them abolished. ‘No healthcare worker should have to pay to park at work. Driving to work is not a perk of the job, it is a key requirement and charging for car parking is an additional tax on working,’ says Gail Adams, Unison’s head of nursing.
Mick McKeown, mental health nurse and principal lecturer in nursing at the University of Central Lancashire, adds: ‘The idea of charging for car parking is at odds with the spirit of the NHS, which is still committed to principles of fairness and universality.
‘Parking charges provoke more than just irritation at cost and inconvenience, they seem to strike against people’s sense of justice and fairness.’
Steep charges in England and Northern Ireland are in sharp contrast to those in the rest of the UK. In April this year, Wales abolished hospital car parking fees for staff, patients and visitors at most hospitals.
Scotland had capped charges at£3 per day in January and has now gone even further. Earlier this month health secretary Nicola Sturgeon announced that charges would be scrapped at 14 hospitals across the country by the beginning of 2009.
Nurses using three car parks operated by private finance initiative contractors will not be covered by the new rule but the Scottish Government said it expects staff charges to be limited or reduced.
In May Northern Ireland health minister Michael McGimpsey introduced free car parking for seriously ill patients and their families. But neither Northern Ireland nor England has any plans to abolish fees for staff. ‘We don’t think it is a sensible use of limited resources to subsidise car parking at hospitals for everyone,’ says a Department of Health spokesperson. ‘In England, hospital car parking charges are decided by individual trusts to cover the cost of running and maintaining a car park.’
However, more than 90% of those who responded to the NT survey said it was wrong that parking charges are to be scrapped in Wales and Scotland but not in the rest of the UK.
RCN general secretary Peter Carter said: ‘It is not right that a chief executive on a six-figure salary pays the same to park as a band 5 staff nurse. We are consulting with our members on this. I wish you every success with this campaign.’
Gail Adams agrees: ‘It is not just about paying the fees, it is the amount staff have to pay,’ she says. ‘Unison is fully behind this campaign as it raises the profile of the plight of nurses and all healthcare workers who have to pay expensive car parking charges.’
Because decisions on car parking fees are made by organisations, the charges nurses face vary wildly from trust to trust.
NT’s free parking campaign goals
- For unfair parking charges for nurses and other healthcare staff to be phased out across the UK
- At the very least for a cap to be imposed on how much trusts can charge their staff for parking at their place of work
- NT will lobby for the abolition of parking charges in England and Northern Ireland at all levels, from individual trusts to the Department of Health in England and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland
- NT will call on nurses to show their opposition to charging by placing a ‘campaign parking permit’ on their dashboard - see next issue for your free permit
- NT will launch a petition so nurses can add their support, as well as approaching key stakeholders for their endorsement
One in five respondents to the NT survey spends between£25 and£50 a month on car parking fees. A quarter say these charges represent up to 5% of their monthly wage.
At Addenbrooke’s Hospital, members of staff pay£2 a day to park. A nurse working four shifts a week has to find£32 a month.
Norfolk and Norwich University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust - which netted£461,926 from staff parking in 2007-2008
- charges workers£7.50 a month for a parking permit if they earn less than£13,750 a year, and£14 a month if they earn more.
Although permits are generally cheaper than paying a daily rate, staff are not automatically entitled to one and they can be hard to obtain at some trusts. Even if you are fortunate enough to find one, it doesn’t guarantee you a parking space.
The DH has argued that free car parking at NHS hospitals in England would go against their environmental policies. Calls for free parking have been described as ‘environmentally irresponsible’ by public health organisations.
Stephen Watkins, chairperson of the Transport and Health Study Group, says: ‘Free car parking would completely scupper efforts to reduce the NHS carbon footprint from transport and would undermine efforts to get staff physically active. We recommend that NHS trusts make more effort to encourage staff, patients and visitors to use public transport, walk and cycle.’
This argument may apply to those who have a choice in how they travel to work. It does not take into account nurses for whom driving is the only way they can do their job.
‘I live in a rural area and have to drive 30 miles to get to work. There are no buses available so I have to use a car,’ says Bindy Sumner, staff nurse at North Devon and District Hospitals NHS Trust. ‘I think it is a very poor idea to penalise people for driving to work when they have no choice.’
Ms Adams cites shift patterns and unsocial hours as key factors that can make it impossible for nurses to use alternatives to the car. ‘Staff need to able to travel to work 24/7. Public transport is not always available or reliable and is a non-starter in the more rural areas,’ she says.
Mr McKeown says if trusts want staff to use other methods of transport, they have to provide more incentives.
‘It is my experience that facilities to support safe and convenient cycling and changing are massively inadequate,’ he says. ‘The NHS should work closely with local government to develop integrated and cheap public transport systems, safe cycling routes, changing facilities and secure places for bikes to be left on site.’
Over 60% of those who responded to the NT survey said they would not feel safe using public transport. But the survey revealed that issues with car parking are also compromising nurses’ safety.
One respondent said: ‘I’m a single mum returning to work and can’t afford a parking permit. I know the place I park puts my safety at risk but the£28 cost of the permit pays for a lot of food for my family.’
Others said they have to park down side streets and in residential roads which can be dark when a late shift ends.
‘Nurses work long hours and often return to their cars very early in the morning or late at night when the roads are quiet,’ says
Cheryll Adams, lead professional officer at Unite/CPHVA. ‘Employers have a duty of care to look after the welfare of their staff - it is about putting staff safety first.’
The burden on nurses is in contrast to the treatment of other key workers. The Police Federation told NT that under normal circumstances police officers do not pay to park at police stations, and spaces are reserved, where possible, for those working shifts. Teachers are also not expected to pay to park at schools, says a spokesperson for the National Union of Teachers.
NHS trusts are adamant that they do not see parking charges as an easy way to make a profit. A spokesperson for Southampton General Hospital says the revenue from car parking is used for the upkeep of the car parks, and any profit is ‘ploughed back into frontline services’.
A spokesperson for Addenbrooke’s Hospital added that, if it did not charge for car parking, maintenance costs would have to come out of the patient care budget.
Unions challenge this. Unison’s Gail Adams says: ‘If trusts are looking solely at upkeep, charges should be costed appropriately and the amount people pay should be in proportion. Many organisations are making a profit by charging exorbitant amounts.’
Cheryll Adams of Unite/CPHVA agrees: ‘Although managers do have huge problems juggling budgets, this argument is ethically unsound,’ she says.
NT believes that making nurses pay to park at work compromises their safety. We are calling on all nurses to back our campaign to demand an end to parking fees for healthcare staff once and for all.
‘I would like to know what the money is being spent on’
Albert Ampofo is a charge nurse in theatres at Kingston Hospital NHS Trust in Surrey. He drives to work as the local public transport system is not reliable to get him to the hospital for his 8am start.
‘If I didn’t drive, I would have to take two buses which can’t always be relied on to come on time. Using public transport takes over an hour, compared with 20 minutes in the car,’ he says.
Mr Ampofo pays£400 a year for a car parking permit, which represents 1.5% of his annual salary. ‘Considering the majority of healthcare workers don’t earn a lot, I think it is ridiculous that we have to pay to park our cars.’
If staff forget to display their permit, they are fined£45, which rises to£90 if it is not paid within 28 days. This can be reclaimed by producing a valid permit but it is still very costly in the interim, says Mr Ampofo.
Hospitals say that money earned from car parking fees goes towards keeping the car parks well maintained. But Mr Ampofo says the car park at Kingston does not have enough security staff and not all of the security cameras work.
‘Some nurses who work the twilight shift ask to be walked to their cars because they don’t feel safe,’ he says. ‘I would like to know exactly what the money we are paying is being spent on.’
Mr Ampofo and colleagues at Kingston are trying to find out exactly how much the trust makes from car parking fees, and are raising an objection to having to pay.
‘Charging staff for car parking is retrogressive and effectively penalises staff for going to work,’ he says. ‘All charges should be abolished.’