One in seven hospital sites now charges for disabled parking, an increase of 12 per cent in a year.
The figures, from NHS Digital, emerged as it was revealed that one of England’s flagship hospital trusts is poised to make disabled patients and visitors pay for parking.
Disabled people were charged up to £2.70 per hour at 155 hospital sites across England in 2017/18, up from 139 in 2016/17, 135 in 2015/16 and 132 in 2014/15.
Hospital parking is free in Scotland and Wales but patients and visitors in England paid a total of £156.8 million in fees in 2017/18.
Campaigners said the charges were “disgraceful” and “discriminated” against disabled people. They warned they could lead to patients missing appointments and being prevented from accessing vital care.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, was confronted over the issue last week at a leadership summit at the King’s Fund in London, but did not respond to questions about whether he would support scrapping fees for disabled parking at hospitals.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said later that “patients and their families should not have to deal with the extra stress of complex or unfair parking charges”, but that hospitals had the power at a local level to decide whether to charge.
Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Trust, which serves 1.5 million patients in London, is expected to be the latest to announce a new fee for disabled parking at its Chelsea-based site.
The hospital offers free parking to blue badge holders with an appointment letter for that day but managers want to bring in a fixed fee of £3 per day for disabled parking, in a bid to increase revenue by nearly £60,000 a year.
Regular parking on the site costs £3 for up to an hour, £7 for one to two hours and up to £40 for a ten to 24-hour stay. The nearest Tube stations are a 15 to 20-minute walk away, making access via public transport difficult for wheelchair users.
Kush Kanodia, a disability rights campaigner and an elected patient governor of the trust, raised the issue with the health secretary last week. He said: “Disabled people are less able to afford the charges and they are more likely to be using health services more regularly. It is direct discrimination.
“We should be helping these people, some of the most vulnerable in our society, to access care – not putting in barriers and costs.”
Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association, said: “Patients who have disabilities have traditionally had access to free spaces at many hospitals, so we are very concerned to see more and more hospitals withdrawing these spaces.
“Anyone calling for changes to hospital parking charges needs to reckon with the fact that they bring in funding for hospitals at a time when money is tight. We’d like to see a full funding settlement for the NHS that enables all charges to be scrapped. But the fact that even spaces for disabled people are now being charged for on a wide scale shows that the financial situation is still going in the opposite direction, and getting worse.
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health and social care secretary, said: “What an absolute disgrace. We need these car parking charges binned. It’s time ministers intervened and sorted this out.”
Disabled patients at Chelsea and Westminister Hospital in receipt of certain benefits can claim back charges by submitting claims to the trust. However, Mr Kanodia described this as putting “an additional administrative burden” on disabled people who may already be struggling to navigate the health system.
A health department spokesman added: “Our guidelines make clear that concessions should be offered, including for disabled parking, and we expect trusts to be following these.
“We will continue to work with the NHS to ensure these principles are applied consistently to end variation and put the interests of patients first.”
A spokesman for the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital NHS Trust, said: “This is a very difficult decision to make in a challenging financial climate. An assessment was made that there was inequality in the current system in charging all other groups, including disabled users at our West Middlesex site. We intend to use the income generated to reinvest in facilities and clinical resources for our disabled patients, which include plans to increase the number of disabled parking spaces.”