Are we paying for NHS staff's posh cars?
"Shock figures released under Freedom of Information laws reveal that South Staffordshire Primary Care Trust leased one Alfa Romeo, six Audis and a BMW in 2011/12. In the same year, NHS Blood and Transplant leased seven Alfa Romeos, two Audis and six BMWs."
The Sun, 4 June 2012
Earlier this week the Sun reported that some health workers were supposedly driving "swanky" cars at the taxpayers' expense.
The newspaper featured the results of a freedom of information request which established the number and type of vehicles leased to certain NHS Primary Care Trusts (PCTs). South Staffordshire and NHS Blood and Transplant were two of the bodies singled out in the piece.
NHS staff at Trusts across the country are entitled to car lease schemes which aim to compensate staff for 'business mileage' incurred as part of their jobs.
But is there any evidence that the taxpayer is bearing the costs?
Since the Sun's report is based on a series of freedom of information requests, there are limits to how many of the paper's figures can be checked. However both Trusts mentioned in the article provided responses to the newspaper's findings.
South Staffordshire PCT kindly provided Full Fact with the full text of their response to the Sun. They point out that their employees were primarily entitled to a 'Base Vehicle' - in their case a Vauxhall Corsa 1.0.
However if an employee could prove a different car was necessary for their role they may be entitled to a different vehicle. South Staffordshire PCT continue:
"Should an Eligible Employee choose to have a Vehicle for which hire and/or insurance costs are greater than those for the Base Vehicle, then the additional cost will be borne wholly by the Eligible Employee" [emphasis added]
Furthermore, South Staffordshire impose other restrictions on which cars can be leased - such as those exceeding certain CO2 emission levels, two-seaters, four-by-fours, sports cars, high-performance vehicles, off-road vehicles, 'high cost vehicles' and convertibles.
The Sun article does not specify any more details on the type of cars revealed to have been leased by South Staffordshire PCT, but if these were leased legitimately by contract then none would have involved additional costs to the employee (and indirectly, the taxpayer) than those of a Base Vehicle.
NHS Blood and Transplant's response contained a similar explanation. They also kindly provided the details:
"We do not recognise these figures. NHS Blood and Transplant is a national organisation covering the whole of the UK. Staff with genuine business needs can use lease vehicles but they must comply with strict rules and regulations. Eligible staff can upgrade lease vehicles, but only at their own expense, and must pay for any private use of lease cars. The design of the NHSBT scheme means the cost to NHSBT for business use of lease cars is consistent with public transport rates."
But is there any wider evidence for the Sun's claims?
The Sun does not provide any further specific cases, however a cursory look across NHS Trusts that publish car lease policies shows some of the themes evident in South Staffordshire's case.
Wakefield West PCT for instance, in their own car lease policy, state that:
"The employee is free to choose any vehicle depending on their individual needs or preferences, but the employee must bear the total additional cost of any car which is more expensive than the base car [either a Vauxhall Omega, Vauxhall Vectra or Ford Focus]"
Similarly, NHS Yorkshire and the Humber state in their policy:
"If an employee chooses a vehicle which costs less to lease [than the base vehicle], there will be no refund to the employee. Alternatively employees may choose a vehicle with a higher lease cost but they will bear the full excess cost."
However this is not to state, of course, that every single NHS Trust questioned in the Sun's freedom of information request had car lease policies that restrained employees in this way.
In addition, while the additional leasing costs in these cases are borne by the employee, this is not to say that there will not be some additional costs still liable to the employer, such as compensating for higher insurance. However all the Trusts mentioned above seem to account for this anyway in requiring the employee to foot 'all additional costs'.
The case nevertheless seems to be that at least some of the 'costs to the taxpayer' implied by the Sun do not exist. Several NHS Trusts, including those featured in the Sun's report, had policies requiring the employee to bear the extra costs of having a 'posher' car.
The evidence from the two NHS organsiations featured by the Sun suggest the 'posh cars' being leased out to employees do not in fact impose additional costs to the taxpayer. This is not to say that there are not other additional costs potentially borne by the Trusts, but the Sun's headline claim seems unfair given the evidence provided by several NHS Trusts.
Whether or not the lease policies which prevent additional leasing costs to the employer are universal across all NHS Trusts is another matter. But the evidence gathered so far demands that the Sun's claim be treated with caution.
UPDATE (7 June 2012)
One of our Facebook friends has kindly provided us with more evidence. The NHS Staff Council regularly publish a handbook that sets out the terms and conditions of employment for all staff directly employed by the NHS, excluding very senior managers and those "within the remit of the Doctors' and Dentists' review body".
The handbook provides guidance for local lease car policies, which states clearly:
"The base cars of lease schemes shall be consistent with the proper use of public monies, NHS business needs and wider environmental considerations. Any employee choosing a car larger than the base car shall pay the additional full costs of this." [emphasis added]
The national handbook further undermines the Sun's claim that taxpayers - or the NHS - foot the bill for 'posh' cars above the specifications of the base cars provided by local Trusts.