HEALTH bosses have been urged to scrap a deal that sees the NHS pay tens of thousands of pounds a year to the Roman Catholic Church.
NHS Lothian has entered into a “service level agreement” with the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh to provide out-of-hours spiritual care, costing £30,000 a year, largely to ensure critically ill Catholics are read their last rites.
The church, which is the only religious organisation with which the health board has a specific agreement, said it was “long-standing practice” that cash was paid to organisations providing services to hospitals.
However, secular campaigners branded the payment “ridiculous” at a time when the NHS is becoming increasingly cash-strapped and said the church should foot the bill.
Gary McLelland, chair of Edinburgh Secular Society, said: “We find it strange that the very well-funded Catholic Church requires the taxpayers of Scotland to top-up its coffers. I would find it strange if the Catholic Church was to leave one of its members lying in hospital without providing a service, because the state refuses to foot the bill.
“We believe that the citizens of Scotland would be concerned to find that tax money is being used to support religious groups in Scotland, and not to heal the sick and educate the next generation of young Scots.”
Tim Maguire, spokesman for Humanist Society Scotland, said his organisation would never charge for chaplaincy services to hospitals.
“The Catholic Church is not poor, they could afford to do this themselves,” he said.
Members of religions, including Catholics, are generally offered support from NHS Lothian’s own non-denominational chaplains.
NHS Lothian has said the current contract, which is subject to review, took three years of negotiations.
A spokesman for the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh said its £30,000 fee for out-of-hours cover represented only five per cent of the amount the health board spends on spiritual care annually. While the church pockets tens of thousands from the deal, members of the clergy receive an honorarium of about £10 per week for their work.
The spokesman added: “It has been a long-standing practice that expenses have been paid to those who provide services to hospitals, including the Catholic Church.”
Sandy Young, NHS Lothian’s head of service for spiritual care and bereavement, said the health board focussed on meeting the “urgent and essential needs” of patients and their families at all times.
He added: “Over half of the out-of-hours urgent and essential referrals received in the last year were from Roman Catholics, for whom spiritual care often requires the presence of a priest at short notice. A 24/7 on-call system is in place to ensure this requirement is met.
“NHS Lothian is committed to providing this service for patients and their families and works in partnership with the Roman Catholic Church to achieve this. Making sure that appropriate spiritual care is available to patients when required is an important part of the overall care we provide.”
‘POOR RC SERVICE DELIVERY’
In a recent NHS Lothian report, it was stated that a previous arrangement, in which Roman Catholic chaplains were on the NHS payroll at a cost of £56,000, had been scrapped due to “poor on-call RC service delivery”. However, the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh said the paper “did not supply any evidence” to support the assertion. The church said the new agreement took three years to set up “because it did”.