Baby Loss

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:25 pm on 13th October 2016.

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Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Shadow Minister (Health) 2:25 pm, 13th October 2016

I congratulate the hon. Members for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) and for Colchester (Will Quince) on securing this debate, and I pay tribute to their courage in speaking so movingly about the incredibly difficult circumstances that they, sadly, have experienced personally. It is a great tribute to their character that they responded to such tragic experiences by seeking to do all they can to help others. We have heard from many Members how their constituents have done the same, following their own personal tragedies. I commend the work of the Members who comprise the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss, which has made an important and valuable contribution, addressing both the prevention of baby loss and the importance of offering the best possible care to parents when this happens.

This is the first time that we have discussed baby loss in the Chamber, but the third occasion on which I have responded to a debate on the subject over the past year. Each occasion has shown the House at its absolute best. I would like to take a few minutes to go through some of the compelling contributions.

The hon. Member for Eddisbury talked about the lack of recognition of how miscarriages can increase feelings of loneliness and isolation. I was sorry to hear about the lack of understanding that some people have faced when they have been contacted having suffered a miscarriage. I know from my own experience that there is a propensity to put miscarriage down as “just one of those things”, as we have heard several times today. The hon. Lady made very powerful comments that most parents just want to make sure that whatever has happened does not happen again. There is a recognition—a number of Members spoke about this—that parents sometimes do not feel that they get the answers they need.

It is disappointing to hear the statistic that the hon. Lady revealed that 25% of maternity hospitals do not have bereavement suites. Time and again today, we have heard Members welcome the provision of these suites in maternity units. I know from those I have visited up and down the country what a valuable contribution they make. They are often built following local fundraising and are often born from tragic circumstances. They always seem to receive significant input from parents who have suffered bereavements. I hope we are all agreed that we should aim to get a bereavement suite in every maternity unit.

As the hon. Lady said, one hour of bereavement training for midwives is clearly not enough, and the issue of training and support featured in several contributions. She is also right, however, that there is plenty of good practice out there, which we should disseminate across the country. Her comments about a bereavement pathway were important, and I am pleased to hear that Sands has been asked to look into it. I hope we will hear some good news about developments in that respect.

The hon. Member for Colchester spoke from personal experience with great passion and knowledge about what he believes needs to be done. He is absolutely right that no one who suffers a bereavement should have to go back on to a maternity ward. A number of Members made that point. He was right, too, to say that this is a far bigger issue than just ensuring that we have bereavement suites everywhere. We need to do much more work to understand why there are such disparities in occurrences across the regions and across different ethnic groups. His point that a mother can sense when something is not right was a powerful one. We should always stress how important it is to seek medical advice if there is any scintilla of doubt. The hon. Gentleman was right, too, that every stillbirth and every neonatal death is something that we should learn from. We need consistency right across the bereavement pathway and right across the NHS.

I wish the hon. Gentleman success with his private Member’s Bill, the Parental Bereavement Leave (Statutory Entitlement) Bill. We know that the odds of such legislation succeeding are not great, but perhaps today’s comments and the no doubt eloquent case he will make in support of the Bill will persuade the Government to bring forward legislation of their own.

My hon. Friend Liz McInnes spoke with her customary experience of the health service. She gave examples of some of the best practice in her constituency, but also spoke of the struggle of one of her constituents, Jane, who had been trying to obtain answers following the death of her daughter Niamh, and referred to the gaps in support throughout the country.

Sir Nicholas Soames talked about Group B Strep, which, he said, is one of the most common causes of infection. He told us that one baby a day develops it. That is a shocking statistic, given that, as we know, the infection is largely preventable. The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned childhood strokes and the courage of his constituent Emily. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response to what he said.

Patricia Gibson has her own personal experience. She very bravely told us about Kenneth, who would have been seven on Saturday. She rightly made the point that people often do not know what to say in such circumstances, and end up saying nothing at all. We hope that the more Members talk about these issues, the less often such situations will arise. The hon. Lady also said that the response that she had received that it was “just one of those things” was not good enough. She talked about the culture of secrecy and the pulling down of shutters, which cannot possibly help bereaved parents who are looking for answers.

My hon. Friend Diana Johnson raised an important issue about her constituent’s son William, whose ashes had been scattered without the constituent’s acknowledge. She talked about her campaign to get Hull council to conduct an independent inquiry into what is apparently a widespread practice in Hull. The campaign was initially successful, and my hon. Friend is right to be furious about the U-turn that has now taken place, with no consultation or warning. We certainly support her campaign to have the inquiry reinstated, and I hope that the Minister will agree to look into the matter and make representations to the Secretary of State for Justice.

Victoria Prentis spoke, very bravely, about her personal experiences. She observed that we often hear that the nature of the public’s interaction with many public services means that people must tell their story again and again. She stressed the importance of relationship counselling, or, at the very least, an evaluation of how bereavement affects relationships. She also spoke with great knowledge about the importance of getting cremation right. I was pleased to hear that a working group is now looking into that.

Byron Davies said that awareness was the key to tackling this issue. He spoke with great sincerity about the fact that he and his wife had felt that they could not speak about their own loss, such was the stigma surrounding it. He rightly said that the medical advice that they were given at the time to “keep trying” was simply not acceptable.

Anna Soubry talked about her constituents’ daughter Emily, who was stillborn, and their subsequent discovery that there was no bereavement suite. She said that it was almost cruel for bereaved parents to have to be in close proximity to those who had experienced successful births, and I think we can all understand that sentiment.

Fiona Bruce highlighted the experience of her constituents, and the lack of joined-up communication in dealings with bereaved parents. She gave some disturbing statistics from a miscarriage survey which found that four out of five women received no aftercare at all. I think it is clear to all of us, given what we have heard today, how important it is for that support to be provided as often as possible.

Tim Loughton spoke with great knowledge of this subject. He mentioned the shocking statistic that 68% of local authorities do not commission bereavement support, and presented a volley of other statistics revealing a lack of access to mental health support across the board. As he said, this is not something that just fades away; ongoing support is needed for parents. He paid tribute to the many charities that provide such support, but rightly said that people should not have to rely on charities to receive it. He also drew attention to his own private Member’s Bill, and to the legal absurdity of the classification of births before 24 weeks. He made, I think, a compelling case for a change in the law.

Finally, let me pay tribute to the outstanding contribution from my hon. Friend Vicky Foxcroft, who showed incredible courage in telling us about her daughter Veronica. We could all feel the pain that she must have felt every day for the last 23 years, and we all admire her bravery in talking about her experience. I am sure that Veronica would be as proud of her mum as we all are today.

As we have heard, this debate coincides with baby loss awareness week, which provides an opportunity for bereaved parents, their families and their friends across the world to unite and commemorate their babies’ lives. I echo the tributes that have been paid to the many charities that do so much to support families through what is possibly the most challenging time that they will ever face. I do not think that any Member can be in any doubt about how difficult it is, having heard the moving speeches that have been made today. I know that the hon. Member for Colchester did not want to single out particular charities, but I shall name four. Sands, Bliss, the Miscarriage Association and Antenatal Results and Choices all do excellent work.

It is a demonstration of the importance of this issue that in baby loss awareness week—as in every week—we know that more than 100 families will experience one of the biggest tragedies of their lives. An average of 15 stillbirths occur each and every day. We have heard from Members that stillbirth is often a taboo subject that many find difficult to discuss. I think we are beginning to change that, but we owe it to all those families to address the issue, and I know that today’s debate is a valuable part of the process. The loss of 100 lives a week in any circumstances is a tragedy, and if it were happening in a particular industry, there would no doubt be calls for action to be taken. That is why the words of the Members who have spoken today about their personal experiences are as important as they are brave.

I followed with great interest Monday’s baby loss debate on Twitter, and I commend the hon. Members for Eddisbury and Colchester for their innovation in facilitating it. The debate offered members of the public from all over the country an opportunity to share their views about this issue, and I want to put on record my thanks to everyone who took part. Twitter and social media generally have gained a bit of a reputation over the last few years for being unforgiving and cruel domains, but Monday's debate showed how that arena can be harnessed to bring about genuinely thoughtful and meaningful engagement with the public.

One of the key themes that emerged from the debate was the fact that this country offers some of the best neonatal care in the world, along with some exemplary psychological and bereavement support services. However, it also made clear that—as we have heard from many Members today and in the past—it does not offer that excellent care equally in every area. There is a great deal of variation across the country, which is why, much to our shame, our rates of stillbirth are unacceptable in comparison with those of similar countries. There has been an enormous amount of progress in reducing the rates of stillbirths and infant deaths in the last century, but it has sadly stalled in recent years. Indeed, according to The Lancet, the annual rate of stillbirth reduction in the UK has been slower than those in the vast majority of high-income countries. Our annual rate of reduction has been 1.4%, compared with 6.8% in the Netherlands. I think we would all agree that that is not an acceptable level of progress, and variability may well be one of the key reasons for it.

We welcome the Government’s commitment to reducing the rate of stillbirths, neonatal deaths, maternal deaths and brain injuries that occur during or soon after birth by 20% by the end of this Parliament, and by 50% by 2030. During the debate that took place in June, the former Minister, George Freeman, confirmed that the first annual report on progress towards meeting those targets was due to be published this autumn. I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us whether that is still the Government’s intention, and when we can expect to see the report.

If we are to see a reduction in the number of avoidable deaths, another key priority, which is linked to the variability of care, is to ensure that there are safe staffing levels in neonatal units. According to the “Bliss baby report 2015: hanging in the balance”, 64% of neonatal units do not have enough nurses to meet national standards, and 70% of neonatal intensive care units regularly look after more babies than is considered safe. Given the strong evidence of a link between staffing levels and babies’ mortality, I ask the Minister to set out what steps the Government are taking to address that. We shall simply not be able to achieve the Government’s laudable ambitions if we cannot provide safe staffing levels in neonatal units.

Another issue that was raised during the debate in June was the investigation of stillbirths. At present, coroners do not have the jurisdiction to investigate the deaths of children who are stillborn to try to understand exactly why the deaths occurred and to inform best practice. As we have heard from many Members today, parents simply want to know what went wrong and whether it will happen again. Members of all parties were encouraged when the previous Minister undertook to discuss expanding the remit of coroners with his counterpart in the Ministry of Justice. I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us how those discussions have gone.

Let me end my speech by focusing on the families who so sadly experience bereavement, and the care and support that is offered to them afterwards. This is another area in which, sadly, there is a great deal of variability, with some families receiving the levels of support and care that we would expect while others have had shocking experiences such as those about which we have heard today. I should be grateful if the Minister could outline the steps that he will take to realise the Government’s commitments on parity of esteem for mental health in neonatal care. No one who has suffered the trauma of losing their baby should be left to suffer alone.

Members in all parts of the House have spoken very bravely and with great passion about their personal experiences. I hope that, following the debate, we shall be able to move forward, continue to break down the taboos, and ensure that every family to whom this happens receives the very best care, both medically and in terms of bereavement support. Families experiencing the very worst of times deserve a system that offers them the very best.