First, may I apologise? I very much hoped to be here at the beginning of the debate, but we had a three-and-a-half hour meeting of the Home Affairs Committee. Due to very poor chairmanship, it dragged on. I was chairing it at the time, so it is entirely my fault.
I pay tribute to the hard work of my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) and for Colchester (Will Quince). I was lucky to have caught many of the emotional speeches in this debate, which has been extraordinarily well informed by personal experience. It has shown the House at its best. It has also shown some quite extraordinary systemic insensitivities within the health system that can only make a tragic outcome even worse for parents experiencing the grief of baby loss. We must do so much better.
This is a big and partly hidden problem. The rates of prenatal, perinatal and post-natal mortality in this country are appalling and shameful. We rank for stillbirths 33 out of 35 developed nations in the world. One in every 200 babies dies as a result of stillbirth in the UK, which is 15 times the rate of mortality for cot deaths, an area on which we have made huge progress. We have heard many statistics so I will not quote many more, but there is a 25% variance between mortality rates in different parts of the country. That is a cause for great concern in itself. We need to be doing better as a nation, but certainly we need to be doing much better for certain parts of the country that do not deserve to be lagging so far behind in the progress that has been made elsewhere. We have heard that that is down to a whole host of reasons, including poor and patchy monitoring during pregnancy and a shortage of specialist midwives in some parts of the country, but at the end of the day 4.9 out of every 1,000 live births are stillborn. That figure must come down, because it has stayed stubbornly high for too many years.
I welcomed the Secretary of State’s pledge in March this year to seek to halve the number of maternal and baby deaths by 2030. If successful, that would save some 1,500 more lives every year. I welcome the progress made in giving out information and advice leaflets to all expectant mothers by week 24, but for reasons I will come on to in a moment, that is too late. We need to do better.
Smoking is a serious cause of baby loss. The self-induced poison of smoking during pregnancy, and in too many cases smoking excessively, has been attributed to 2,200 pre-term births, 5,000 miscarriages and 300 perinatal deaths. There has been progress and I pay tribute to the work done in this area. My hon. Friend Fiona Bruce mentioned the progress on foetal alcohol spectrum disorder. The all-party group, on which she and I serve as officers, produced a report on this recently. We have visited hospitals with the charity that promotes this subject to give clearer, better and more high-profile advice to women about what is acceptable and potentially harmful about the use of alcohol during pregnancy. Progress has been made, but we need a lot more. I contrast the lack of progress on baby loss with the great progress made on cot deaths. The very high-profile cot death campaign, some decades ago now, had a huge and very quick effect.
The brief we have received from Together for Short Lives mentions the appalling figures for bereavement support, which we have heard about—that 17% of clinical commissioning groups and 68% of local authorities do not commission bereavement support. This is not something that happens just in a medical environment; it happens when people are at home and maybe coming into contact with other council services, yet it does not happen in two thirds of local authorities. There is also the psychological and bereavement support in neonatal services, or rather the lack of it. The figures from Bliss show that 41% of neonatal units said that parents had no access to a trained mental health worker, while 30% of neonatal units said that parents have no access to any psychological support at all and one third of neonatal intensive care units, which look after the smallest and sickest babies, said that their parents had no access to a trained mental health worker.
This is not just about a bit of tea and sympathy from untrained bereavement support; it is about ongoing trauma. We have heard from my hon. Friend Will Quince, for whom this tragedy happened some time ago, that it is still there. It is not something that leaves people, that they grow out of when they leave the hospital or that disappears when they are fortunate to have a healthy baby. It does not. People deal with it in different ways, with different levels of success or not, and those counselling services need to be available.
The figures for perinatal mental illness in this country are appalling. One in six women will suffer from some form of perinatal mental illness. Those are the women who are fortunate enough to give birth to a healthy baby, and we all know about the impact that attachment dysfunction can have on the child and the problems they may have growing up without a proper, good quality attachment with their primary carer. We know, too, from our report by the all-party group on the 1,001 critical days that the cost of not getting that right is £23 billion every year. It is therefore a hugely false economy financially, let alone socially, not to be doing more about this at those early stages.
There are many charities that step in and help on this front, particularly with after-support, and we have heard some good examples. As my right hon. Friend Anna Soubry mentioned earlier, this is not just down to the NHS. A very good charity approached me recently called Aching Arms, which provides free comfort bears to bereaved parents to support their mental health and healing after the loss of a baby during pregnancy, birth or soon after. Significantly, the bears it gives out are gifts from other families who have experienced the loss of a baby, so the parents receiving a bear will know that they are not alone. Each bear has a label attached with information about the charity and signposts to other charities from which bereaved families can seek support that is relevant to them. Thank goodness there are charities doing work like that, but frankly it should not be down to them to be relied on to provide what is some pretty basic, essential health and social welfare care to mums and dads at a point in their lives when they are particularly vulnerable.
What I want to major on—I thought my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton was going to upstage me earlier—is my private Member’s Bill, the Registration of Stillbirths Bill, which I launched in the House on
The private Member’s Bill I introduced in 2014 would have amended the Births and Death Registration Act 1953 to provide that parents may register the death of a child stillborn before the threshold of 24 weeks’ gestation. Twenty-four weeks is an arbitrary threshold. If someone happens to give birth to a stillborn child after 23 weeks, six days and 23 hours, that child never existed in the eyes of the state and is to all intents and purposes a miscarriage. If that child had clung on for another couple of hours and been stillborn beyond the 24-week threshold, it would be a child in the eyes of the state. That is an extraordinary anomaly in the law which we need to address.
As we have heard, some experience loss through miscarriage, often repeatedly, some give birth but routinely experience the pain of losing a child within days, weeks or months, and some go through all the trials and tribulations and the highs and lows of pregnancy, only to give birth to a stillborn child. The aim of my Bill was to help those parents. We have heard of the problems we still face, but the situation is made worse for parents who have stillborn children before 24 weeks because of the arbitrary nature of that figure. There are no central records of exactly how many babies are born in that way; they do not form part of the perinatal mortality figures; and therefore the position with stillbirths is actually even worse than we appreciate, because of those born before 24 weeks.
I do not wish in any way to downplay the importance and pain of a miscarriage, particularly for new parents struggling to have their first child, but those experiences are different. That was brought home to me most starkly by the story of a constituent of mine, Hayley, who came to see me back in 2013 to campaign for the change in the law that I then took up. Hayley was pregnant. For nearly 20 weeks, she carried the child of her and her partner Frazer. She felt the baby kicking. She went through all the other ups and downs of a first-time pregnancy, but sadly, after around 19 weeks, something went wrong, and Hayley and Frazer’s baby died unborn. It was not a miscarriage, and the following week Hayley had to go through the pain of giving birth to a baby that she knew was no longer alive. She had to take powerful drugs to induce the pregnancy. She experienced contractions. She went into Worthing hospital and had pain relief.
I pay tribute to Worthing hospital, which has the safest maternity department in the whole country. It has been rated as such by the Care Quality Commission and we are immensely proud of it. We are particularly relieved, given that many thousands of my constituents and I marched to save it back in 2008, when the idiot primary care trust thought we did not need a good maternity department at Worthing hospital. Despite having the oldest population in the country, if not the universe, in Worthing, we also have the best start-of-life facilities, and we are greatly thankful for that.
The day after Hayley went into hospital, she gave birth to her baby, Samuel—she gave him a name. She held Samuel in her arms. She and her partner took photographs, had his hand and footprints taken and said their goodbyes. Fortunately, Hayley was given good support by the clinical staff at Worthing hospital, as one would expect, and they had bereavement guidance. She has an understanding employer in West Sussex County Council and was also fortunate to find a sympathetic funeral director. The funeral took place two weeks later.
To all intents and purposes, Hayley, with her partner, went through all the experiences of pregnancy and the pain of childbirth endured by any other mother, but they were coupled in this case with the unimaginable grief of a parent who has lost a child before they could ever get to know him. She did not just go through a stillbirth: she had a still baby; she became a mum. The crucial difference is that Hayley and Frazer’s baby is not recognised in the eyes of the state because he was born before 24 weeks’ gestation. If he had been born after 24 weeks and one day, he would have been recognised and the death properly registered in a register of stillbirths, forming part of the statistics I referred to earlier. More than just adding to the statistics, though, that would have been the acknowledgment of an actual, individual life. To add further insult to injury, Hayley had to hand back her maternity exemption certificate straight after going through that experience.
When I launched that Bill, I got, as we all do, a wave of extraordinary, tragic experiences from mums and dads around the country, including one from a woman who had twins, one of whom was stillborn before 24 weeks. The other survived and was tragically born stillborn after 24 weeks, but in the eyes of the law she only had one baby. How absurd is that? That is why the law needs to be changed.
That stark difference surely cannot be right. It adds insult to the unimaginable pain that the parents have already had to suffer. Until the passing of the Still-Birth (Definition) Act 1992, which amended the Births and Deaths Registration Act 1953, the threshold was 28 weeks, so prior to that even more babies went unrecognised in official records. That change followed a clear consensus in the medical profession on the age at which a baby is considered viable. Since then, in fact, there have been cases of babies born well before 24 weeks who have, incredibly, survived.
It is true that there is an informal procedure for hospitals to issue so-called commemorative certificates for foetuses that are not classified as stillbirths. They provide parents with a certificate that records their pregnancy loss before 24 weeks; and Sands, that excellent charity of which we are all in awe, has produced a template for a certificate of births which it encourages all hospitals to adopt. However, it is unofficial and still counts for nothing in the eyes of the state. Since that Bill, there has been a happy ending, because Hayley and Frazer had a bonnie baby daughter called Bonnie, who I am delighted to say is well and healthy.
My Bill would provide for the official recognition and registration of stillborn babies of below 24 weeks’ gestation. It would be based not on a crude time threshold of what is deemed a viable foetus, but on the experience of giving birth. Hayley and Frazer’s baby would be recognised as having existed, and Samuel’s death would have been registered, which would go some way to providing some comfort to parents such as Hayley and Frazer at an unimaginably painful time.