Baby Loss Awareness Week

Part of Business of the House (Prorogation) – in the House of Commons at 5:46 pm on 8th October 2019.

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Photo of Justin Madders Justin Madders Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston 5:46 pm, 8th October 2019

It is a privilege to follow Antoinette Sandbach, who speaks from personal experience on this matter. Every year, she identifies the main issues that we still need to improve on. She is absolutely right to talk about the evaluation that shows where things are getting better, but it is also fair to say that the good practice is not consistently felt across the board, and that is what we need to aim for. She also spoke about the need to change the culture, which is really important. Mr Hunt also referred to that, and I welcome him to the Back Benches—I know that we had our disagreements as Front Benchers, but on this issue, there was a great deal of unanimity, and that is the spirit that we should carry forward. Both spoke about the need to change the culture and the length of time that that will take, but that is absolutely the right approach, because with all tragedies in the health service, most of the time people just want to know why something happened and how it can be stopped from happening again. The more that we can move away from the blame culture and get into a proper analysis of why things have happened and how we can prevent them from happening in future, the better the experience will be for everyone.

When I first spoke in a baby loss awareness debate back in 2016, I expressed the hope that this would become an annual fixture, and I am pleased to see that we have managed to do that despite the unpredictable timing of Parliament at the moment. This gives us a real opportunity to take stock of where we are and hopefully to set some benchmarks for future progress, because, as we know, every year there are thousands of tragedies. Tommy’s estimates that a quarter of pregnancies end in miscarriage. The Ectopic Pregnancy Trust tells us that one in 80 pregnancies is ectopic and Sands tell us, as we have heard, that 15 babies are stillborn or die shortly after birth every day. Those charities are just some of the 60-plus charities who collaborate to support this extremely important week. I echo the comments of hon. Members who have praised their work in this vital area, not just how they support people who have experienced their own personal tragedies, but how they work across the board to secure better outcomes for everyone. They not only raise awareness of baby loss, but work with health professionals to improve services and bereavement care and, critically, to reduce the number of preventable deaths.

Like others, I want to focus on bereaved parents and mental health support. As we all know from meeting bereaved parents, the feelings of loss and isolation are understandably overwhelming, and nothing can take away from that, but that does not mean that we cannot do more to ensure that the right care and support is in place at the right time so that those people can come to terms with their loss as best they can. We know from the evidence that good bereavement care can make a difference to parents and families and their experiences at this tragic time.

The sooner we can support more healthcare professionals in delivering good-quality care, the better. I welcome the roll-out of the pathway, but I urge the Government to redouble their efforts to ensure that all trusts and health boards adopt the pathway and ensure that all our healthcare professionals feel properly equipped to deal with bereaved parents, so that everyone across the board gets the correct and best level of support, which is what they truly deserve.

Not all bereaved parents will develop a mental health problem, but we must ensure that those who do can access specialist psychological support, that they can access it as soon as possible and at a time and place that is right for them, and of course that it is freely available to them. Sadly, as we know, not all parents can do that at the moment. Parents have told me that they are often not aware of the services available. Many leave hospital with no information about where they can seek support. Some are given information but then find that the support is not available for them at the time they need it—because of course there is a waiting list.

A survey by Sands earlier this year found that nearly two thirds of bereaved parents felt that, although they needed specialist psychological services, they could not access them on the NHS. This is equally a challenge for those who seek bereavement counselling for adult deaths, urgent referrals for which can take up to six months to process, which is far too long, I think we would all agree. In the words of one mother who contacted me:

“we weren’t offered any specialist help in terms of bereavement support. I visited my GP on a number of occasions and was advised I could see a counsellor but there was a waiting list. I was prescribed antidepressants which I refused to take as I was grieving, I wasn’t depressed”.

Many listening to this debate will recognise that experience. I hope we can learn that it is vital that the right support and treatments are available at the right time.

A new report from the Baby Loss Awareness Alliance reveals that nearly nine out of 10 clinical commissioning groups do not commission talking therapies specifically for parents, and where the services do exist, they are mostly for mothers only, meaning that the needs of fathers are often overlooked, as Will Quince has spoken about in the past.

There is of course much good practice out there, but it is sometimes reliant on charitable grants and third parties, meaning that the provision is patchy and at risk from wider funding decisions. I therefore support a call for a review of the current provision, including an evaluation of the models of best practice, involving parents and professionals in those conversations. We know that the need for psychological support following pregnancy loss and stillbirth is recognised in the NICE guidance and that the “Better Births” report, the maternity transformation programme and the NHS long-term plan all highlight the need to improve perinatal mental health care. These plans must translate into action to ensure that the needs of bereaved parents are explicitly addressed in quality standards and national guidance, in the training for the relevant healthcare professionals and in guidance and support for local services.

Beyond the major transformational strategies we have been talking about, we can also make simple, small changes that will make a difference to parents’ experiences. In the words of another constituent after her own bereavement:

“That moment, I know myself, stays with you as much as the birth and most of us end up bumping into other new parents carrying their bundles home on the way out. I feel a support worker or midwife could do with walking the parents out, helping the transition into the hands of family or friends go more smoothly would be extremely beneficial. Most of us are left with not even so much as a leaflet of where to turn to in crisis. Most of us haven’t had a follow up with a midwife or healthcare professional even though we have given birth and these unfortunate administrative errors occur far too often. I suppose support is the key issue.”

Those comments show that some simple, straightforward things can be done that need not cost the earth or require massive national strategies, but actually just need a bit more thought and organisation. I think we can all recognise the difficulty that that mother must have experienced.

Having participated in debates on this subject over the last three years, I know that Members have shown a great deal of personal courage by speaking about their own experiences. Three years on, we have shown that the message is going out to people that they are not alone. I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) and for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson), and to the hon. Members for Eddisbury, for Colchester and for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), for their work and for the way in which they have spoken about their own experiences. That contributes greatly to increasing awareness of baby loss awareness week, which has itself led to some local groups getting together. Next Tuesday my constituents will take part in the Wave of Light outside Ellesmere Port civic hall, which I think is a very good way of encouraging more people to come and talk about what they have been through. The more people who engage in that dialogue, the better.

I should like to be with those constituents next week, but I suspect that I shall be here, although my thoughts will be with them. I think that what we can show them today is that when the House puts its mind to it, we can work across parties and make things better for our constituents. Anyone who has heard the debate today will understand why it is so important that we do that.