HOSPITALS could be reduced to mere workshops where you get your biological parts fixed if the National Secular Society were to run the NHS.
Those are the words of a Catholic priest, father Paul Mason, who, on the BBC Today Programme this morning, opposed a suggestion by the NSS that hospital chaplains should be funded by religious groups, and not by taxpayers.
The NSS’s opposition to state-funded hospital chaplains follows a move by an all-party group of MPs to make hospital chaplains “a commissioned service” on the same basis as medical staff.
Responding to a consultation being conducted for the parliamentary chaplaincy group by Conservative shadow Health Secretary Mike Penning, the NSS has criticised the use of Health Service money to fund these services and has recommended that the religious groups should fund them from their own pockets.
The NSS says that around Â£40-million a year is being spent on “spiritual care” on the NHS – and that even organ players in hospital chapels are on NHS payroll. It insists that the money would be better spent on “much needed” nurses or cleaners.
The Society said it contacted 233 acute and mental health trusts which spent a total of Â£26.72m on chaplains, at an average of Â£48,953 each.
According to the BBC, the society extrapolated these figures for the whole of the UK to produce a national average of Â£32m.
But the NSS said this took into account only the salaries of the chaplains, and excluded national insurance contributions, pension payments, administration costs, office accommodation, training, and the upkeep of chapels and prayer rooms.
NSS president Terry Sanderson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the Â£40m figure was equivalent to employing 1,300 nurses or 2,645 cleaners.
I think if people were given the choice they would choose the latter [nurses or cleaners] because frontline services are under pressure, they are going to be increasingly so as the recession bites, and it’s important that savings are made wherever they can be.
We are all busy, there is a demand, we’re not there because we’re trying to find something to do, we are there because there is demand on the ground for chaplains to be present.
And a Department of Health spokesman said it was:
Committed to the principle of ensuring that NHS patients have access to the spiritual care that they want, whatever faith or belief system they follow.
The spokesman added:
Chaplains do an extremely demanding job, often in difficult circumstances, and their skill and dedication is highly valued by patients, relatives and staff within the health service.
A Church of England spokesman said:
Spiritual healthcare has long been acknowledged, by both medical practitioners and the churches, to be an intrinsic part of caring for people in hospital. NHS Trusts pay for chaplaincies because they see them as part of their duty of care to patients, not because the churches force them to.
But the NNS says these services are part of churches’ own “fundamental responsibility”, and as such should be paid for out of their own pockets.
Most people who go into a hospital come from the local area and it would be better if their own vicar, priest, rabbi or imam came to see them if they felt in need of religious support. This could be done as part of the clergypersons’ regular duties – it should not fall as a burden on the NHS.
Sanderson, who has worked in hospitals for most of his forty-year working life, said in a report published by the NSS that he had never once been asked by a patient for the services of a chaplain.
Religion is not generally important to people in this country. A Home Office survey showed that it was ranked ninth in a list of characteristics that people thought important to their identity. I am sure that they would prefer the money that is spent on chaplaincies to be redirected to the fundamental purpose of the hospital – the provision of medical services and aftercare.
NOTE: Earlier this year the Freethinker published an investigation into the subject entitled Spiritual Care on the NSS – Chaplains or Charlatans.