The chaplaincy crisis in the National Health Service needs urgent ministerial attention, following new research revealed swinging cuts to the service throughout England, says a trade union group representing multi-faith chaplains.
The call from Unite/The College of Health Care Chaplains (CHCC) comes as research by the think tank Theos, which is backed by the Bible Society and major church leaders, released on 7 October, showed big cuts in chaplaincy provision in nearly 25% of NHS trusts in England.
CHCC president the Reverend Dr Chris Swift commented: "The very welcome Theos research backs up what we have been saying for 18 months – that the NHS chaplaincy service has been hit by cuts imposed by NHS managers who view the chaplains as ‘a soft target. But the NHS is not in financial difficulties because of spending on chaplaincy. Managers need to make lasting improvements to other services – not raid chaplaincy in order to cover up their lack of progress elsewhere."
He continued: "Chaplaincy is a flagship service in delivering care that meets the diverse needs of patients in modern Britain. It is available to all and personal to each. Our society has always valued the care of the vulnerable, and that includes those approaching the end of life. I ask the Government to show its commitment to the chaplaincy guidance already issued by the Department of Health."
The research indicates that since 2005, chaplaincy care has been cut by a dramatic 54,127 hours per year. Trusts have also reported reductions to chaplaincy provision at an average of 19 hours per week. Only two trusts have reported an increase in chaplaincy hours, and one major trust has cut chaplaincy by over 50%.
The research finds that 23% of trusts report a cut to their chaplaincy budget and indicates that, even where trusts report an increase in their budget as a proportion of trust spending, they have made cuts in real terms.
In February 2007, it was reported that hundreds of hospital chaplains could face the sack or a reduction in their hours as a result of the NHS cash crisis."
The Rev Dr Swift said: "We have expressed surprise in the past that the government does not collect any information on chaplaincy in the NHS."
Last year Unite/CHCC said that the much-reduced chaplaincy service in Worcester now relies on handouts from jumble sales and coffee mornings provided by Friends’ groups.
The principle of pastoral and spiritual support to health service patients is widely supported. Historically it has been largely Christian, but Unite/The College of Health Care Chaplains backs a multi-faith partnership and the British Humanist Association has strongly urged that the needs of non-believers should be recognised and provided for properly.
The BHA points out that after Christians, humanists and the non-religious make up between 15-23 per cent of the population, according to the Office of National Statistics - compared to just over 5 per cent for other faith traditions, eight of whom are officially recognised as part of the service.
The National Secular Society has argued for the abolition of all state funded chaplaincy provision, calling it"parasitical" and "a waste of NHS resources".
By contrast, health professionals argue that personal, pastoral and spiritual support for all patients - irrespective of their religious or non-religious beliefs - is a vital component of the healing process, alongside clinical and expert medical treatment.