NHS patients should be denied access to publicly-funded chaplains in hospitals, a secularist lobby group is demanding.
The National Secular Society (NSS) says taxpayers shouldn’t have to foot the bill for chaplaincy services.
But the Government says it is committed to ensuring patients have access to the spiritual care they want and points out that chaplains are highly valued in the health service.
Earlier this year the NSS backed the decision to suspend Christian nurse, Caroline Petrie, when she offered to pray for a patient.
The group claims that £40 million is spent meeting the spiritual needs of patients. If the figure is accurate, it would mean that for every £10,000 the NHS spent in 2008, £4 was spent on chaplaincy services.
The NSS has notified health minister Ben Bradshaw of its calculation and called on him to review the funding of chaplaincy services.
Terry Sanderson, the Society’s president, told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that this sum could pay for 1,300 nurses or 2,645 cleaners, and that “if people were given the choice they would choose the latter [nurses or cleaners]”.
National Health Service guidance states that all patients have a right to religious observance and says that trusts should provide faith representatives and places to pray.
The role of NHS chaplains of all faiths includes visiting the sick, administering sacraments, advising on ethical dilemmas and helping staff and relatives cope with death and serious illness.
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”.
“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.”
The National Secular Society obtained its figure of £40 million for chaplaincy services by contacting 233 acute and mental health trusts.
Finding that these trusts spent an average of £48,953 on chaplaincy staff, the NSS extrapolated this figure for the whole of the UK and added an estimation of other costs such as administration, office accommodation and training.
Mr Sanderson said: “We are not asking for an end to chaplaincy services, but we are asking that the taxpayer not be made responsible for them.
“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.”