For those of you not familiar with the background to all of this, hospital chaplains funded from the Health Service budget have been an integral part of the NHS since its foundation in 1948. This was a recognition that the NHS was there to provide for people's physical, mental and spiritual health needs. It recognised what in today's language we would call an holistic approach to health care. The role of chaplains is to provide both a pastoral service and to act as a conduit into the appropriate religious or faith communities. Originally, the service was Christian but more recently it has become a multi-cultural and multi-faith based service to reflect the modern society that Britain has become. So, there are Anglican, Roman Catholic and Free Church priests and ministers and also rabbis and immams. The service is continuing to evolve. I know from personal experience and from the many positive comments I hear in my role as a local councillor that the service is valued highly by those who've used it. This also includes those of no religious faith who value the pastoral role played by the service especially those who are very ill or terminally ill. Modern health care professionals are under great pressure and often simply do not have time to spend with patients. Chaplains are there to provide emotional care as well as spiritual care - many people need to talk through a wide range of life issues. It's often at times of ill health, stress and worry that people desperately need a pastoral service, especially if they have no family close-by to where they are being treated or no family at all.
And what does all of this cost? Well, in England the estimated amount is £29m and in Wales £1.3m. This is against a current total NHS budget of £104.3billion. So, good value for money on any objective measure. So, why are some people seeking to effectively abolish a valuable and valued service? The answer is a long running campaign by the National Secular Society, which amongst other objectives, seeks to challenge what it regards as "the disproportionate influence of religion on governments and in public life". It also seeks to counterbalance what it sees as "the more destructive religious impulses that can threaten human rights worldwide." In other words it is anti-religious and anti-faith. Abolishing NHS funded chaplaincy services is one of its current key campaigns and it has campaigned particularly hard in Wales to achieve this objective.
So far so good. In a free society the National Secular Society is perfectly entitled to promote its views and campaign accordingly and, as Liberals, we would defend its right to do so. However, let's not forget that secularism is a belief system in the same way that Christianity or Islam is a belief system. A liberal society is one in which the state is both neutral as to belief systems but which also actively enables its citizens to enjoy and exercise the rights and freedoms of a liberal society (as long as the exercise of those rights and freedoms does not impinge on the rights and freedoms of their fellow citizens - a key principle from John Stuart Mill). From the time of the 'New Liberals' at the start of the 20th Century the modern Liberal/Liberal Democrat Party has largely accepted the philosophy of social liberalism. We have accepted that rights and freedoms are meaningless unless people have the practical means to exercise those rights and freedoms. The way we have made a reality of this principle is by funding public services from general taxation. As a result, public services expanded throughout the 20th Century and many of us are fighting to preserve those public services in the current economic climate. Hospital chaplaincy services are one of those public services. They enable those (a majority of the population) who identify with a faith community to be able to exercise their right and freedom to have a service that addresses their pastoral and spiritual needs and that helps to make a reality of their rights under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The National Secular Society and others of a similar view would argue that no-one is taking away anyone's rights. The argument is that if faith groups want to provide chaplaincy services then they should pay for them. They should not be treated as a public service. They argue that some of the faith groups have plenty of money (not true incidentally in Wales where the Anglican Church was disestablished as long ago as 1920). But this isn't about the faith groups, this is about the ability of the individual citizen in a liberal society to exercise their right and freedom to receive faith-based services in an NHS hospital (which they pay for through national insurance and general taxation). That's why chaplaincy services should be a public service. Very few, if any, Liberals would argue that Britain should be an exclusively Christian country - we have diversity as a core value. By the same token we should not argue for it to become an exclusively secular country. We should be here to uphold and make a reality of every citizens's rights and freedoms - regardless of whether they hold to a faith based view of the world or a secular/athiest view of the world. For one, I find it profoundly disappointing that the Welsh Liberal Democrat Conference has failed to uphold this key Liberal principle.