THE son of a stroke victim has accused hospital bosses of penalising distressed people after a sharp increase in parking fees for visitors.

Garth Rookes, 56, was outraged when car parking charges at the University Hospital of Hartlepool went up on Tuesday.

Instead of a flat £1 daily rate, each visit now costs relatives or friends £1.50.

"If anybody wants to visit their sick relative and they went twice a day, seven days a week, it would cost them £21 a week - that's a 200 per cent increase," he said.

Mr Rookes has been taking his 89-year-old mother, Esme, to visit his father, Ralph, 87, twice a day for the past three weeks after he suffered a major stroke.

Until Tuesday, Mr Rookes was able to park all day for £1. But now barriers have been installed and it will cost £1.50 every time he visits his father.

He said: "It seems that management of this hospital have got this all wrong. It is a tax on the relatives of the sick, people who are in a distressed state."

The father-of-four lives in Bradford, but returned to his home town to visit his ailing father.

"The first thing I knew about this was when I saw cars queuing up at the barriers and signs warning you would be clamped if you did not pay up," he said.

A spokeswoman for North Tees and Hartlepool Trust said: "A rise in car parking charges has been necessary to fund the significant improvements to capacity, lighting and security that the new system has brought about. However, all profits will be reinvested into maintaining and further developing car parking and transport facilities in the future.

"Concessional passes are available for people visiting the hospital more than once a day for at least one week."

Visitors to hospitals in the North-East can expect to pay the following charges:

* Darlington Memorial Hospital and Bishop Auckland General Hospital - 80p for the first two hours and £2 for up to ten hours.

* University Hospital of North Durham - £1.20 for two hours.

* James Cook University Hospital, Middlesbrough - £1.50 per 24-hour period.

* Scarborough General Hospital - £1 for a half day and £2 for a full day.

* Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle - £1 per hour.

* Freeman Hospital, Newcastle - £1 for four hours.

Union demands independent review of finance initiative

A report into hospitals built under the controversial private finance initiative (PFI) paints a damning picture of bed shortages, reduced levels of patient care and poorly designed buildings, the country's biggest union said yesterday.

Unison stepped up its call for an independent review of PFI after saying its research proved the initiative was not benefiting patients or staff.

Interviews with NHS workers at nine private finance initiative hospitals, which included talking to staff at the PFI hospitals in Durham and Bishop Auckland, County Durham, revealed a beds crisis, with claims that nursing staff were being put under pressure to discharge patients more quickly.

Extracts from the report were carried exclusively in The Northern Echo in January.

Several of the hospitals, which have all opened since 2000, are planning to build extensions or use temporary accommodation to bridge the gap, the report said.

Among concerns raised by staff at the £67m Bishop Auckland General Hospital were allegations about reduced standards of cleanliness on wards, two-tier pay and conditions for staff, and a lack of resources and equipment.

There were also complaints that a new £250,000 medical records library had to be bulldozed to make way for the hospital.

The researcher who interviewed workers at the hospital said staff at Bishop Auckland were the most bitter about how things had changed for the worst after PFI.

However, a spokesman for ISS Mediclean, a private sector partner in the Bishop Auckland PFI scheme, said standards of cleanliness had been maintained since the hospital opened.

The comments attributed to workers at the hospital "do not, in our opinion, reflect the overall attitude of all staff at the hospital", he added.

A spokeswoman for County Durham and Darlington Acute Hospitals NHS Trust said the demolition of the library was the most cost effective solution to the problem of centralising medical records.