I congratulate Tim Loughton on bringing the Bill to the House. It is clear that the legislation on the registration of births, deaths and marriages needs updating. It is time that the details of mothers, not just fathers, are included in a marriage registration, and it is time for us to reform the laws on the investigation and registration of stillbirths.
I recently received a letter from a coroner. Together with other coroners, he is seeking a change in the law that would enable coroners to investigate all stillbirths that occur after 36 weeks. That is generally regarded as full term, and the reason for death after 36 weeks needs to be explored. Hospitals should involve parents and answer their questions about why their baby has died through their review processes, but when those questions are not answered, the coroner plays a vital role in looking for answers and ensuring that lessons are learned and mistakes are not repeated. As the law stands, the coroner cannot investigate stillbirths. That needs to change, and parents need to have that option.
The problem is that there has been virtually no decrease in the rate of stillbirths in England and Wales in recent years. The latest data give the figure for stillbirths in the UK in 2014 as 3,252. That is higher than those reported in the best-performing countries in Europe. I think it reasonable to argue that the rate remains so high because individual stillbirth cases are not properly investigated. The fact is that the majority of stillbirths are avoidable, and the outcome for both mother and baby would have been different if the care was improved. How can care be improved if there is no analysis and learning from mistakes?
The inquest process would require the circumstances of the death to be looked at and considered and recommendations made to improve outcomes in the future, which of course will save lives. However, it is important to say that the inquest process will not be appropriate in all cases of stillbirth. It is vital that a coroner’s investigation into stillbirths happens in close consultation with parents. Some parents may not want an inquest.
Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity, welcomes the provisions in the Bill that will enable a coroner’s involvement but does not wish to see that made mandatory. Stillbirth is a traumatic experience for parents and families, and I agree with Sands that it is vital to consult publicly as part of any review, to ensure that families’ views are fed into the process, which can be extremely prolonged and painful for them, so as not to cause additional emotional harm to bereaved parents.