Political parties hit back after consultation opens on reintroducing hospital car parking charges - follows direction by Chrish Heaton-Harris
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Parking charges are currently due to end next May following the passing of a Bill by the Stormont Assembly before it collapsed last year.
The Hospital Parking Charges Bill proposed scrapping charges for patients, staff and visitors at public hospital sites in the region.
However, the health service in Northern Ireland is facing a funding crisis and the cost of providing and maintaining the car parks is around £10m a year.
DUP Stormont Finance Spokesman Gordon Lyons said: "Whilst the Secretary of State is focused on car park charges, this is rearranging the deck chairs when the problem is much more fundamental. We have a budget shortfall of half a billion pounds.
"The UK government has a definition of “need” which can be applied to each of the devolved regions. When that definition was applied to NI by our Fiscal Council they found that we are underfunded and that funding gap will massively increase over the next decade.
"The situation must be addressed regardless of whether devolution is restored or not. It is not sustainable to try and run first class services that are underfunded.”
A TUV spokesperson also hit back at Mr Heaton-Harris. He said: “A government which rushed to implement Irish language legislation - a supposedly devolved issue - and can, according to the Secretary of State, find 'whatever it takes' financially to fund the redevelopment of Casement Park clearly can do without the paltry sum which reintroducing hospital car park charges will generate."
Alliance Health Spokeswoman Paula Bradley also opposed the reintroduction of the charges."Alliance has long supported free car parking charges for staff," she said. "The Hospital Parking Charges Act achieves this. Efforts should not be focused on repealing the Act, but on measures to prevent abuse of free parking and ensuring the provision is only availed of by those staff and patients entitled to do so.
"Implementation of the Act should be coupled with promotion and adequate funding of public transport, and active travel to achieve improved and sustained uptake."
In a submission to the Stormont Health Committee last year, the Royal College of Nursing said that that parking charges impact negatively on nursing workforce recruitment and retention, at a time when we can least afford any such impact. The RCN also said nurses were offended by the argument that free parking could only be provided to nurses at the cost of cutting services to patients.
Last week, Neil Gibson, the permanent secretary at the Department of Finance said Northern Ireland is on a trajectory to overspend by half a billion pounds in the current financial year.
However, the DUP says that Treasury funding to Northern Ireland has fallen far behind that to other UK regions.