RELATIVES of chronically ill patients must be given free or cheap hospital parking under new rules announced by the Government.

Patients with disabilities and those with frequent appointments as well as staff working shifts will also benefit from the shake-up, according to Jeremy Hunt.

The Health Secretary said new guidelines for English hospitals had been drawn up to put an end to the stress of "unfair" charges.

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Under the reforms, trusts should waive fines when an overstay is beyond the control of the driver, such as treatment taking longer than planned.

Mr Hunt last month admitted he had concerns about the fees being charged to park at some hospitals after being pressed by Tory backbenchers to put an end to the ''rip-off'' costs.

The guidance sets out for the first time that hospital trusts are responsible for the actions of any privately contracted firms they use to run their car parking operations. It also calls on hospitals should also look at introducing pay on exit systems so that they only pay for the time they have used.

Mr Hunt said: "Patients and families shouldn't have to deal with the added stress of unfair parking charges.

"These clear ground rules set out our expectations, and will help the public hold the NHS to account for unfair charges or practices."

Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who has led a campaign for reforms, said the move was a "massive step forward" but insisted that charges should be axed altogether in the future.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "In the long term I think we need to scrap hospital car parking charges completely because they are a stealth tax.

"It was never envisaged that people with cars should be subsidising the NHS."

Ending charging would cost the health service around £200 million which could be funded by savings from switching to generic versions of branded drugs, he said.

The MP said parking charges were causing "misery" for thousands of vulnerable people.

"The stories that we've had of people not being able to use the machines so they haven't been able to see their dying relatives is quite horrific and we have to make a change."

HEALTH workers at one of the region's biggest hospitals are facing a 36 per cent increase in the cost of parking, officials have revealed.

Earlier this year officials at the South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust announced  that parking charges for patients and visitors at the James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough would rise by between 15 and 17 per cent from May. It also axed free parking for disabled visitors.

Part of the income would go towards the development of two new car parks on the site and the building of a link road, the trust said.

Many other trusts in the region have argued that income from parking charges is used to improve security and parking facilities.

Shadow health minister Andrew Gwynne said: "The Tory-led Government scrapped Labour's plans to phase out car parking charges for patients and Jeremy Hunt needs to take responsibility for the fact that, since then, one in four hospitals have increased parking fees.

"Any action to ease the burden of car parking charges on patients and their visitors is welcome. When people go to hospital, the last thing they want to worry about is parking fees."