Religion on the NHS! Who pays?

Religion on the NHS!
Who pays?

Garry Otton

Chapel at Western Infirmary – NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde

Fancy tapping the NHS for a poultice of Comfrey? Or, flat on your back, in a hospital bed, how about getting the cash-strapped NHS to fork out for a Red Indian guide to carry out his business through the body of a 67-year-old former seamstress from Renton? Or, essential to your physical and spiritual recovery, demand a statue of Vishnu be moved into a room in the same hospital? The NHS wouldn’t actually cough up…. Would it?

NHS Grampian, typical of many NHS Boards, has to watch the pennies. They couldn’t pay for the drugs 53-year-old Michael Gray from Buckie needed for bowel cancer because they claimed it wasn’t value for money. He paid for them himself. And since he’d Gone Private, the NHS also chose to deny him the chemotherapy treatment he’d of otherwise got free. After his death, Holyrood was left wringing their hands, wondering how they could have served him better. Given the Scottish Government’s generous record of fiscal support for all things religious, be it sectarian schools or an ‘IslamFest’, it was a wonder they didn’t just hire more chaplains to sit by his bed! Could Grampian afford to cut back on religion? Or, if we want to use its cosy, new, all-inclusive moniker: ‘Faith’? According to their figures, Faith recently cost the Grampian NHS almost £500,000 a year! Never mind, in an attempt to hit its £67.2m savings target, they’ve promised to save £12m in staff turnover!

Faith provides benefits to a large minority of people at different moments in their lives, but given the wealth of major UK religions, is it fair for costs to be borne by the NHS? When Worcester Acute Health Care Trust was forced to cut costs, it made one of its chaplaincy team redundant. Local Christian charities soon found the money to keep him on. For the time being, the greatest beneficiary of these Health Service handouts is the Catholic Church. But could they afford to pay their own chaplains? Given the Vatican’s possession of a mind-boggling art collection housed in 1,400 rooms in 12 separate complexes and millions of antique artefacts, much of it still unseen, I’d say ‘yes’. Many Catholic adherents, however, are still living in abject poverty without even rudimentary healthcare. So how justifiable is it to line this organisation’s pockets when so much of its real estate is right on the doorstep of our crumbling hospitals?

Supplying and administrating ‘faith’ in hospitals – be they through chaplains or the provision of ‘prayer rooms’ – has, up until now, been something of a mystery. Astonishingly, the Government says it doesn’t keep figures and leaves it up to individual Boards to work out.

‘Prayer rooms’ have been multiplying in multicultural Britain. One has been installed at Number 10, Downing Street where it is called the ‘Faith and Multi-Faith Room’. Another one has been set up in the Cabinet Office. All the same, these ‘Prayer rooms’ aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be. Quiet reflection? A war zone more like!

Take Catholic, Salford hospital porter, Joseph Protano who was sacked from his job at the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital after an altercation involving the police when Muslim visitors repeatedly covered up statues of the Virgin Mary and a crucifix.

In Manchester, the Royal Mail was ordered to pay substantial damages to Donald Holden, a worshipper of the Nordic God, Odin, (the original, indigenous faith of the English), after he took action under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulation, 2003. Holden had clashed with Muslim employees in their ‘Multicultural Room’ at a Royal Mail depot. An anonymous complaint about muddy footprints prompted the Royal Mail to splash out thousands of pounds for five month’s surveillance of the ‘Multicultural Room’ with hidden cameras. They never found who planted the muddy footprint, or, for that matter, anyone confessing to having actually seen it, but they did catch Mr Holden briefly praying and leaving his sacred works on a chair by the sink! In 2005, after over 30 years service with an unblemished record, Mr Holden was suspended from work for ‘religiously aggravated harassment directed at the Muslim faith’ and had his religious works confiscated and destroyed. (Not a fate likely to befall the Bible or the Koran, I’m sure)!

The National Secular Society (NSS) – an organisation, not against religion, but campaigning to ensure taxpayers are not forced to pay for it – discovered that apart from the millions organised religion had been quietly pilfering from individual Health Boards over the years, there was also a scramble for a grant of £185,000 given to support – according to former Health Minister, Ann Keen – “chaplains across the world faith communities”.

In a consultation conducted for the parliamentary chaplaincy group by Conservative Mike Penning when he was shadow Health Secretary, recommended hospital chaplains should be paid like doctors and other medical staff. Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society said: “It is curious that moves to retain or even increase chaplaincy services come after church attendance has been in decline for sixty years and is projected to continue to decline. More important, we need to know whether patients would prefer the money to be used to fund medical staff and resources, which is what the alternative would be, especially in times of financial stringency”. He added: “It is not good enough simply to ask people if they want the chaplaincy service to continue in its present form. You need also to ask them whether they consider the tens of millions of pounds of NHS money spent on these services wouldn’t be better deployed elsewhere. After all, the employment of one chaplain (average cost £50,000) would fund an extra two nurses or several cleaners”.

Mr Sanderson continued: “The NSS is not seeking to end chaplaincy services, but they should be funded by the religious groups who want them. Most people in hospital who might want a chaplain will be within easy travelling distance of their priest or imam, etc. They would be far better suited to do the job, and at no cost to the NHS”.

The cost of chaplaincy in Scotland collected in 2008 has been scrutinised by Secular Scotland. NHS Shetland’s Carolyn Hand, their corporate services manager initially informed me that the Shetland Isles didn’t employ a chaplain. Once pressed, she admitted that although they didn’t “officially” employ a chaplain, “about £100 each year is spent on payments to ministers”. This rose to £1,000 in an email to Des Moore, enquiring on behalf of the NSS. None of the earlier emails uncovered a refit of something called “the Sanctuary” which was nothing less than “a new multi-faith room in the Gilbert Bain Hospital” costing an extra £25,000, approximately £1 for every inhabitant on the isles!

On nearby Orkney, the smallest of Scotland’s NHS Boards, they estimated the annual cost for its chaplain – who works just one day a week “although extra hours are done sometimes” – at £7,624.

NHS Lanarkshire, on the other hand, confessed to employing four full-time chaplains and 31 part-time chaplains who work just one to four sessions a week. The part-time chaplains are employed only through the Diocese of Motherwell and the Church of Scotland. The cost to NHS Lanarkshire is a staggering £315,000 per annum!

Like so many Boards, NHS Lanarkshire was quick to point out that funds were in place to support “minority faith and belief groups” although the Catholic Church remained the main beneficiary. NHS Lanarkshire insisted it “celebrates diversity and is committed to supporting the spiritual needs of people from all faiths and no faith regardless of race, age, disability, gender, sexual orientation or religion”. (Not that such a commendable ambition would square well with the Bishop of Motherwell whose disregard of certain egalitarian issues has been well-documented)!

NHS Borders employed one full-time chaplain and a further five on a sessional basis. The annual cost to the Borders (2007/08) was £67,370.40.

NHS Dumfries & Galloway Health Board also employ what they call a “Healthcare chaplain” with additional sessional appointments for other denominations and informal visiting appointments for those outside Christian denominations. They admitted the gross spending in 2007 was a staggering £73,193! This is the same health authority that forced hundreds of women to give birth in pain because they couldn’t afford an anaesthetist to administer epidurals! What do you think of these patriarchal religious organisations now, eh girls?

NHS Ayrshire & Arran employed four whole-time chaplains, one part-time, a team of six Roman Catholic chaplains and a further two employed through the Church of Scotland, traditionally acting, explained a spokesperson for them, “as an employment agency” on behalf of the NHS with no confirmed date when they will hand over this task to the NHS. Cost to the taxpayer? £214,008. In overall cutbacks of £22m, they planned to save £2.8m by cutting back on staff, maternity and orthopaedic services.

NHS Forth Valley employed three whole time equivalent chaplains and five sessional chaplains, destined to become employees. Costs then were estimated at £159,573.70. To hit a savings target of £15.4m, Forth Valley aimed to cut £1.1m from acute services such as Accident and Emergency.

NHS Lothian employed ten full-time and one part-time chaplain with another six employed by the Church of Scotland and paid, of course, by the NHS. In addition, there were another seven part-time staff in funded religious chaplaincies. The estimated cost in 2008/09? Kerr-ching! £390,000! Lothian was forced to make £20m of cuts by 2009 and to double it to £40m by 2009/10. It’s still cutting, but the chaplains are still being paid by the NHS.

NHS Fife employed two full-time and two part-time chaplains at approximately £162,000.

NHS Tayside employed three “whole time generic chaplains” (all religions but not none, I imagine) and 12 part-timers. Tayside also generously paid for the Catholic Church for four part-time chaplains and the Episcopal Church for two. This is aside from one administrative staff member and one Head of Department. That’s approximately £382,000 per annum.

NHS Western Isles employed two whole time, one relief, two part-time, one retained, three honorary and nine spiritual care volunteers at a cost of £100,643.06; approximately £4 from every man woman and child on the Western Isles. (The board had a deficit in excess of £3m).

NHS Highland managed to double its deficit and was forced to hand out redundancies in 2008 while struggling to save £36m. All the same, they splashed out on three full-time and 17 part-time chaplains running up a bill of £286,395 per annum. NHS Highland was expanded following the dissolution of Argyll & Clyde Health Board in 2006 which, let me remind you, was £80m in the red!

With NHS Greater Glasgow & Clyde forced to make cuts of £42m and at least a further £72m in 2009, how much was Glasgow’s growing and diversifying addiction to religion in hospitals costing taxpayers? During 2007/08, they employed over 23 whole-time equivalent chaplains at an annual cost of £617,190.

The NHS was set up to provide free healthcare for our physical well-being. In a time of austerity and cuts, is it not time to privatise religion?

Garry Otton

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