Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc.) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:35 am on 2nd February 2018.

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Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Conservative, East Worthing and Shoreham 9:35 am, 2nd February 2018

My hon. Friend is an expert on this and has campaigned on it for a long time, and has her own personal experiences. There are many implications in law, in employment and in other regards in recognising that somebody has gone through the experiences of being pregnant, for which they are entitled to various things, but all of a sudden, just because that pregnancy came to a traumatic end before 24 weeks, all that support and recognition completely falls away. There are far-thinking employers who take that into account, although they are not obliged to. So this is about more than just giving closure to parents who have had a traumatic experience; there are all sorts of other things that can help them get through that experience as well. I will conclude shortly, and I know other Members will then recount their own experiences of the very real practical implications.

One particularly stark example was a woman who had given birth to stillborn twins delayed either side of the 24-week threshold. One was registered as stillborn, recognised in the eyes of the state, while the other, born just before 24 weeks, did not exist. That cannot be right and we can and must do better. The Secretary of State for Health shares that ambition and is to be commended for the comprehensive measures to bring down substantially the number of stillbirths and to deal much more sympathetically with the impact when they do still happen. Other countries, such as Holland and Norway, have reduced their mortality rates much more dramatically, yet in the UK we continue to see wide variations geographically and demographically. For example, the stillbirth rate in the south-west of England is 4.7 per 1,000 live births, while in the north-east it is 5.8; that is a 23% difference. There are big differences between age groups and mums from different ethnic backgrounds.

The simple fact is that 3,122 babies were stillborn in England and Wales alone in 2016; those are officially stillborn over 24 weeks, not including those before the 24 week threshold. One in 225 pregnancies end in stillbirth after 24 weeks; it is 15 times more common than cot death, and that equates to around nine babies every single day. That is nine mothers and fathers who have lost a child after completing more than half the term of a pregnancy. They then have to go through the pain of childbirth to see a baby who will not grow up.

The Bill will simply require the Government to hold a review of how we can do better and come up with a simple scheme that could have a huge impact on many grieving parents. It has nothing to do with changing the law on abortion, and that debate is for another day and another piece of legislation. I have deliberately not been prescriptive about what form the review should take, but I trust the Government to do the right thing here and I think we are pushing at an open door.

I know we are pushing at an open door with my last measure, as the Health Secretary signalled his support for it at the Dispatch Box during a statement on stillbirths in November. There appears to be an anomaly in the law where coroners in England have the power to investigate any unexplained death of any humans unless they are stillbirths. That is because a baby who dies during delivery is not legally considered to have lived. If a baby has not lived, it has not died. As coroners can only investigate deaths where there is a

“body of the deceased person” they have no legal jurisdiction to investigate these deaths. However, one in three stillbirths occur in healthy babies who die at term.

In some cases, those deaths occur due to mismanaged deliveries, and there has been a number of high-profile cases involving clusters of such deaths, well above the national average. According to the charity Sands, an estimated 500 babies die or are left severely disabled because of an event during their birth that was either not anticipated or not well managed. There is currently no independent investigation of these intra-partum deaths, and hospitals are left to investigate their own mistakes. It has been shown that these hospital reviews can be inadequate and fail to inform grieving parents of their findings.

If parents suspect that a mismanaged labour or delivery has caused the death of their child, the coroner has no jurisdiction to investigate, although there are some examples of good practice where the hospital agrees to allow that to happen. At worst, some baby deaths may be classified as stillbirths when there were in fact signs of life post-delivery, to close down on further independent investigation. I am sure that such cases are rare, but it will be to the benefit of all parents who have suffered the loss of a baby, or who want to be assured that their hospital is doing everything possible to keep babies safe, to have much more transparency and evidence that lessons are being learned from these tragic cases.

I am particularly grateful to my local West Sussex coroner, Penny Schofield, who has championed this issue and who approached me to include the subject in my Bill. Penny introduced me to Michelle Hemmington and Nicky Lyon of the Campaign for Safer Births, who have bravely bared their own traumatic experiences and worked for a change in the law, so that the pain of stillbirth can be reduced for others. I pay tribute to them, and others involved in the campaign, for their bravery.

My Bill proposes an enabling clause to give the Secretary of State powers to amend the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 to give coroners the power to investigate stillbirths. The preference would be for the change to apply to late-term stillbirths and for discretion to remain with coroners to determine which deaths they wished to investigate rather than be swamped by having to investigate large numbers of otherwise straightforward stillbirths. However, I appreciate the complexities of making such a change, given that the responsibility lies between the Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Social Care. I do not seek to be prescriptive about the enabling power at this stage, but I am sure that both Secretaries of State would wish to get on with this sooner rather than later, given the imperative that the Health Secretary has already placed on this issue, on record.

Importantly, coroners tell me that they have the capacity to take on these additional investigations, and indeed it is likely that the measure will cut down on subsequent litigation, as it will afford greater certainty about exactly what has happened. It will also lead to reduced care costs on the back of fewer damaged babies and give much greater comfort to parents who are struggling to come to terms with such a traumatic loss. As such, it should certainly be seen not as a stand-alone measure but as complementary to the panoply of other improvements that the Government are currently introducing, on which they are to be congratulated.

I apologise for the length of my comments, Mr Deputy Speaker, but the complex nature of the multiple measures in my Bill and the complicated and stressful route to getting here today have meant that greater explanation has been necessary. Much work remains to be done, with amendments in Committee and potentially at later stages, but I hope that all hon. Members here today and elsewhere will appreciate that these measures are welcome and important amendments to anomalies in the law and that they all have the potential to have a positive impact on the lives of a great many of our constituents and those yet to be born. I commend my Bill to the House.