Private firms earn £2m for running hospital car parks in Northern Ireland
Private companies have pocketed almost £2m from running car parks at Northern Ireland's hospitals, it has been revealed.
Three of the five health trusts have a car park operated by a private contractor.
The Belfast Health Trust paid out £1.6m in fees linked to its car parks in the last five years.
The spending was released on the day it emerged chief executive Michael McBride has warned that savings of up to £30m need to be made this year.
Separately, hospitals' own car parks raked in some £16.3m in the same five-year period.
The figures were disclosed by Health Minister Simon Hamilton following an Assembly question from SDLP MLA Fearghal McKinney.
Mr McKinney, who sits on the Assembly's health committee, called for a reassessment of fees paid to all private contractors.
"The health service is already facing significant pressures which is being felt daily by patients, staff and the public," he said.
"To add to this, only yesterday did we hear of the Belfast Trust chief executive Michael McBride's letter to health managers to further cut spending by £30m.
"In a time of severe financial constraint, such high fees are simply not acceptable and every pound spent must be measured against its outcome.
"What we need is assurances that instead of cutting frontline services, that all other options for savings are considered.
"I am now calling for a reassessment of the fees paid to private contractors."
According to Mr Hamilton, £1,761,631 was paid to private contractors for car parks, including £1,617,084 by the Belfast Trust.
Its car park at the Royal Victoria Hospital is operated by Car Park Services Limited and charges up to £5 a day.
A 2011 research paper produced by the Assembly said the service was provided under a private finance initiative contract.
The contract - for 2,300 parking spaces spread over five different sites within the hospital grounds - involved a 20-year licence to build and run the car park, and is due to expire next year.
There is an annual payment of £40,000 for the use of the land. Any profits from parking charges goes directly to Car Park Services.
Cancer patients and relatives of people who are critically ill can park for free.
Mr Hamilton's answer states the Belfast Trust's spending related to maintenance and upgrading costs paid to external contractors and subsidies paid to the private contractor for staff car parking.
Some £114,258 was paid out by the Western Trust and a further £30,289 by the Northern Trust.
Most hospitals run their own car parks and retain the revenue from charges.
Mr Hamilton said this had raised £16,322,665 in the past five years.
This includes £5.5m in the Belfast Trust, £5.9m in the South Eastern Trust and £2.7m in the Southern Trust.
The Patient and Client Council has expressed concern at the charges.
Its chief executive Maeve Hully said: "For some people attending hospital can be stressful enough, without the added challenges of finding a parking space and thinking about having the right change to pay as well.
"Sometimes people are paying for longer than they need to, or staying longer than they expected and having to run back to their cars to put extra money in the meter.
"There are variations in hospital car parking charges and the availability of parking discounts across Northern Ireland, and many of the people we speak to say where charges are made, they are often considered too high."
Wales and Scotland have largely abolished hospital car parking charges.
However, charging is commonplace in England and the Republic of Ireland.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: "Trusts set car parking charges to recover the costs of providing car parking costs - lighting, security, monitoring, access gates etc, not to make a profit.
"This ensures that funding for frontline patient care is not redirected away to car parks."