Baby Loss

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:40 pm on 13th October 2016.

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Photo of Philip Dunne Philip Dunne The Minister of State, Department of Health 2:40 pm, 13th October 2016

I am sorry. Have I got it wrong again?

My right hon. Friend Sir Nicholas Soames asked about progress on screening for group B streptococcus, and I can reassure him that the UK national screening committee is reviewing its recommendation on antenatal screening for GBS carriage as part of its three-yearly review cycle. It will be taking new published evidence into account. We are anticipating that a public consultation will be held on this topic shortly, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to participate in it. Once it has been concluded, we will review the recommendations that emerge.

The loss of a baby is clearly devastating for its parents and the family, regardless of when or how the death occurs. Those experiencing the heartbreak of miscarriage, stillbirth, the death of an infant or the decision to terminate a much-wanted pregnancy need our support and kindness, and the acknowledgement that their child was here for a short time and was loved. I have been deeply struck by the comments about the lack of sensitivity that can occur when such a loss takes place, and it is absolutely right that the Department of Health should encourage best practice across the NHS in order to minimise the distress caused by insensitive conduct on the part of those involved in supporting families at this time.

Such feelings of loss are real, but as has been said, in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Gower, who explained this dispassionately and clearly, the issues are often not discussed. Many of us do not realise that on an average day in England around 32 women will be diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy, 15 babies will be stillborn and eight babies born on that day will die before their first birthday. Most of those infants will probably be less than a month old. It is therefore important that we in Parliament discuss the issues around baby loss and the care for those families experiencing such tragedies.

I want to talk about the steps we are taking with the NHS to reduce stillbirths and other adverse maternity outcomes. I also want to talk about what we are doing to support families who experience this loss. England is a very safe country in which to have a baby, and it is encouraging that the stillbirth rate in England has fallen from 5.2 per 1,000 births in 2011 to 4.4 in 2015. In 2014, the neonatal mortality rate was 2.5 deaths per 1,000 births, and the rate of deaths in babies aged 28 days to one year was 1.1 per 1,000 births. Those rates have been steadily declining and are now at their lowest levels since 1986. There is, however, as we have clearly heard from every contribution today, more that we can do, and, as a Government, we are determined to do so.

It is important that we do not accept all miscarriages, stillbirths, pregnancy terminations or neonatal deaths as inevitable, or simply nature taking its course, as has been touched on by a couple of contributions today, because many of them might have been prevented.

When compared with similar countries, our stillbirth rates remain unacceptable. In the stillbirth series of The Lancet, which was published earlier this year, the UK was ranked 24th out of 49 high-income countries. The same publication showed that the UK’s rate of progress in reducing stillbirths has been slower than that of most other high-income countries. The annual rate of stillbirth reduction in the UK was 1.4% compared with 6.8% in the Netherlands. That places us, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury, in the bottom third of the table, in 114th place out of 164 countries around the world, for progress on stillbirths.

We also know that the rates of death in some higher risk groups are not coming down. Again, that was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester. According to the Twins and Multiple Births Association, stillbirth rates for pregnancies involving twins, triplets or more increased by 13.6% between 2013 and 2014. Multiple births make up 1.5% of pregnancies in the UK—around 12,000 pregnancies each year—but a disproportionate 7% of stillbirths and 14% of neonatal deaths.

We want NHS maternity services to be an exemplar of the kinds of results we can achieve when we focus on improving safety. With a concerted effort, we can make England one of the safest places in the world in which to have a baby. That was why, last November, the Secretary of State launched a national ambition to halve the rates of stillbirths, neonatal deaths, maternal deaths and brain injuries that occur during or soon after birth by 2030, with a shorter-term aim of achieving a 20% reduction in each of these rates by 2020. I am glad that that was recognised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury and pleased that she will be keeping an eye on the progress that we make each year to achieve those targets.

To support the NHS in achieving this stretching ambition, the Government have announced plans for investment. There will be a £2.24 million fund to support trusts to buy monitoring or training equipment to improve safety. More than 90 trusts have been successful in receiving a share of the fund, enabling them to buy equipment such as training mannequins, and fetal or maternal monitoring equipment such as carbon monoxide monitors and portable ultrasound equipment.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester acknowledged, we are also investing in the roll out of training programmes to support midwives, obstetricians and entire maternity teams to develop the skills and confidence they need together to deliver world-leading safe care. We hope to be able to say more about how maternity services can apply for this funding soon.

We are also providing funding via the Healthcare Quality Improvement Partnership for developing the new system—the standardised perinatal mortality review tool—which, once complete, should be used consistently across the NHS in Great Britain to enable maternity services to review and learn from every stillbirth and neonatal death. That was an important element of the APPG’s vision for the future. We need to develop proper learning and understanding from what goes wrong, and then the lessons learned should be spread to maternity services across the country. As my hon. Friend Nick Boles emphasised, many reports have highlighted that we do not effectively learn from our mistakes. Indeed, the guidelines of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists state that all stillbirths should be reviewed in a multi-professional meeting using a standardised approach on analysis for substandard care and future prevention. That is something that we would like to see taken up.

We must view individual failings as important and recognise the need for accountability, but balance that with a need to establish standard processes that can prevent avoidable mistakes from happening again. In April we established a new independent healthcare safety investigation branch to carry out investigations and share findings. The HSIB will operate independently of Government and the healthcare system to support continuous improvement by using the very best investigative techniques from around the world, as well as fostering learning from staff, patients and other stakeholders.

An important improvement in maternity care is care that is more collaborative and responsive to the needs of women. Several Members referenced the investigations by Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity, which has revealed that 45% of women who raised a concern with a health professional during pregnancy were not listened to and then went on to have a stillbirth. Clearly, that is not acceptable. All women should receive safe, personalised maternity care that is responsive to their individual needs and choices.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston asked where we are on supporting those with mental health conditions through pregnancy. I draw his attention to the announcement in January in which the Government set out that an additional £290 million will be made available over the next five years to 2020-21 to invest in perinatal mental health services. That is funded from within the Department of Health’s overall spending review settlement, and it will go a long way to providing support for women who are pregnant and need mental health counselling both before and after birth.

Last November we asked the national patient safety campaign Sign up to Safety, which was launched by the Government in 2014, to support all NHS trusts with maternity services to develop plans to improve safety and share best practice. In March this year we launched “Spotlight on Maternity”, with guidance for maternity services to improve maternity outcomes. This set out five high-level themes that are known to make maternity care safer that services could focus on: building strong clinical leadership; building capability and skills for all staff; sharing progress and lessons learned across the system; improving data capture and knowledge; and improving care for women with perinatal mental health problems.

In February this year, “Better Births”, the report of the independent national maternity review that was chaired by Baroness Cumberlege, was published, and hon. Members have touched on it today. It sets out that the vision is for maternity services across England to become safer, more personalised, kinder, more professional and more family-friendly. The Department of Health is leading the promoting good practice for safer care workstream of the maternity transformation programme that was launched last July to deliver the vision set out by the national maternity review, and we will set out our action plans shortly.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury highlighted, it is vital that we support research into the causes of stillbirths and neonatal deaths so that we can better understand how to identify babies at risk and improve services. In recent years, the Government have invested in research, looking at important questions regarding stillbirths and neonatal deaths. From 2012, the National Institute for Health Research biomedical research centres at Cambridge and Imperial College will have invested £6 million over five years in research on women’s health, including research to increase understanding of the causes of still births and neonatal deaths. We continue to encourage research bids for new studies that will help us to identify babies at risk.

The evidence shows that this stretching ambition cannot be achieved through improvements to NHS maternity services alone. The public health contribution will be crucial. As The Lancet stillbirth series concluded, some 90% of stillbirths in high-income countries occur antenatally and not during labour.

We heard from a number of hon. Members about the need to do more to highlight risks during pregnancy so that women are aware of what they can do while they are pregnant to minimise the risks. When starting pregnancy, not all women will have the same risk of something going wrong, and women’s health before and during pregnancy is one of the factors that influence rates of stillbirths, neonatal deaths and maternal deaths. We know that a BMI of over 40 doubles the risk of stillbirth, that a quarter of stillbirths are associated with smoking, and that alcohol consumption is associated with an estimated 40% increase to stillbirth risk. In addition, the MBRRACE—Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries—report published in June last year showed that women living in poverty had a 57% higher risk, babies from BME groups have a 50% higher risk, and teenage mothers and mothers over 40 have a 39% higher risk.