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I beg to move,
That this House has considered historical stillbirth burials and cremations.
It is a fact that anyone can be a Member of Parliament and anyone can be a Minister, but only someone who really cares can get things done, and it is without doubt that the hon. Lady has achieved much in the time she has been in the House because she cares. I have the utmost respect for her. She has done a fantastic job, and I think that her compassion has been demonstrated by the fact that she called for this debate.
Over the past few years, debates in this House have successfully raised awareness of the importance of supporting families bereaved through a stillbirth and other types of baby loss. By speaking openly and sharing their personal experiences, Members of this House have helped to stimulate improvements in bereavement care, including the development of the national bereavement care pathway for pregnancy and baby loss.
Unfortunately, in the not so distant past, people thought differently. Until the 1980s and 1990s, bereaved families of stillborn children were kept in the dark by doctors and midwives, ostensibly for their own protection. It was assumed that if a mother or father was allowed to see their stillborn baby and establish any kind of connection with it, this would only prolong and worsen their grief.
When I was preparing for this debate, I was reminded of my own experience as a nurse. In 1976, I was working on a gynae ward, and I was asked to take receipt of a cot that was coming up from the labour ward. In the cot was a baby that was still alive, which I was told was to be returned to “Rose Cottage” and put in the sluice room. The baby went there until it died a few hours later. Remembering that experience of years ago and the work I undertake now on maternity safety show just how far we have come in the way we treat maternity incidents, newborn safety and mothers.
Many parents were never consulted over funeral arrangements for babies lost through stillbirth, with individual hospitals having to set their own procedures and their own means of disposing of bodies. That makes this difficult, because it means that there is not just one answer across the country. There is not a clear picture as the situation is very piecemeal. Many parents were never told what happened to the body of their baby or the location of any burial or cremation. People thought they were doing the right thing for the parents by not inflicting more trauma on them.
That is a generous interpretation. There was a slight culture in those days in which women were not regarded with the esteem that they are today. It was almost as though this was not just about protecting them, and that they were not worthy of being given the information, either. There are question marks over the explanation, and that has a lot to do with the status of women at the time and again today.
The Minister is making an excellent point about the culture and about how women were treated. With families now coming forward wanting information about what happened, does she feel that those women and families are being treated better now? Are they, for example, being given the opportunity to find out where ashes have been strewn without their knowledge or permission?
I certainly hope so. In fact, those parents and women who are coming forward now are enabling us to move along the pathway to women being given the full, correct information about what happens when a maternity incident takes place. We still have a long way to go, but, as I said at the beginning, the hon. Member for Swansea East is part of that process. The debates that we have here about baby loss are also part of that process. There is not one answer, one sledgehammer, that comes from the Department of Health and Social Care. Everybody has a role to play, because this is an issue that is spread over decades. It is about culture, and it is about the culture in hospitals today. It is about the esteem in which women and mothers are held within society. It is a complex picture with many parts, and everybody has an opportunity to play their part, as do those women who are now coming forward to ask where their babies’ ashes are.
Some hospitals arranged for stillborn babies to be cremated and told the parents that, because the baby was small, it would not be possible to recover any ashes. Even if ashes were recovered, their parents were not told. The ashes might have been spread in a dedicated garden of remembrance, but in other cases they might simply have been disposed of or kept in storage at the crematorium.
Over the past 20 years, we have heard about the discovery of mass graves containing the remains of stillborn babies in, among other places, Lancashire, Devon, Middlesbrough and Huddersfield. The 2015 review of infant cremations at Emstrey commercial crematorium in Shrewsbury found that, by using appropriate equipment and cremation techniques, it is normally possible to preserve ashes from infant cremations.
We now recognise that parents are committed and connected to their children long before birth—I think we knew that back then—perhaps at the point of conception or even earlier, when women imagine themselves being mothers for the first time. I am happy to say that, nowadays, parents of stillborn babies are able to be as involved in decisions about what happens to their baby as they choose to be. New regulations were introduced in 2016 to ensure that parents’ wishes for the cremation of their children are respected. The regulations introduced include a new statutory definition of what constitutes ashes or remains and require cremation request forms to be amended so that family’s wishes are explicitly recorded prior to any cremation.
Thanks to tireless campaigning by the hon. Member for Swansea East, the Government launched the children’s funeral fund last July so that bereaved parents do not have to worry about meeting the cost of burying or cremating their child or stillborn baby. The fund is available regardless of a family’s income and also includes a contribution towards the cost of the coffin. We have received over 1,000 claims to date, and I am sure that the hon. Lady must be incredibly proud.
The hon. Member for Swansea East called for this debate to consider what we in Parliament can do to help bereaved parents who did not have the opportunity to bury their stillborn babies and now wish to trace their final resting places. We know that parents never forget their babies, no matter how long ago their death occurred. Unfortunately, tracing a baby’s grave or a record of cremation may not be easy, and it can be a difficult time for people, both mentally and emotionally.
Records containing information about the locations of the remains of stillborn babies are not held centrally. Parents therefore need to start their search by contacting the hospital where the baby was stillborn, as I am sure the hon. Lady knows. If records are still available, the hospital should be able to tell parents whether the baby was buried or cremated and the name of the funeral director who made the arrangements at the time—if, indeed, a funeral director was involved. Hospitals do not keep records indefinitely, and some records may not contain enough detail to be helpful. The hospital where the baby was stillborn may have closed or the funeral director involved—if one was—may no longer be in business.
Cemeteries and crematoriums, though, are legally obliged to keep permanent records. If neither the hospital nor the funeral director has a record of which cemetery or crematorium was used, parents can contact local cemeteries and crematoriums, starting with those nearest to the hospital where their baby was stillborn. As I mentioned, in many cases stillborn babies were and may still be buried in a shared grave with other babies. These graves are usually unmarked, although they do have a plot number and can be located on a cemetery plan. In many cases, several babies were cremated together. The crematorium should have a record of where the ashes are scattered or buried, but I am afraid the emphasis is on the word “should”.
My sympathies lie with families who have had to deal with the pain of not knowing what happened to their children’s remains for so many years. It is hard for many of us to imagine how long that pain must last. The Department of Health and Social Care expects all hospitals to provide as much information as they have available to any parents who inquire about what happened to their stillborn babies, no matter how long ago they died.
It is unimaginable to think that parents who lost their child through stillbirth were not even privy to the arrangements for the cremation or burial of that child’s body—it was a completely different world.
On the Minister’s last point about urging hospitals to co-operate as much as possible, there is a bigger issue in that some of these children may not have been stillborn. Where a child lived for a while, as in the case she cited from 1976. there are greater questions to be asked about the child’s birth in that hospital. As a result of my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019, coroners will have the power, when the regulations are introduced, to look at such cases. Does she agree that there is a serious question not just on the whereabouts of a baby’s remains but on the circumstances of that baby’s birth?
That is an entirely different question but, yes, I completely agree with the substance of my hon. Friend’s point. I am sure he contributed to the Government’s consultation on the proposal for coroners to investigate stillbirths, which closed on
I do not normally start with warm words about a Minister’s speech, but what we have just heard shows great empathy for and insight into an incredibly difficult subject. I thank her for her introduction.
I express our sincere condolences to all parents who have not only suffered the loss of a baby or infant but have been denied the opportunity to grieve when their child was buried or cremated in an undisclosed place or when they did not receive their child’s ashes following the cremation. That should never have happened—it was wrong—and I am sure all Members on both sides of the House will wish to join me in extending our sympathy and full support to all those bereaved parents who found themselves in that totally unacceptable situation.
Each year, thousands of people sadly experience the loss of a baby in pregnancy, soon after birth or in infancy, and the feeling of loss and isolation can be overwhelming for bereaved parents. Nothing can remove that pain and grief, of course, but we know from evidence that good bereavement care can make a very real difference to the experience of parents and families at such a tragic time, which is why what we have heard already today has been so powerful.
Not so long ago, things were very different for parents who lost a baby during pregnancy or shortly after birth. Indeed, as we have heard, many hospital staff had to quickly remove the baby, and the parents were sent home to try again. Fortunately, this is not something everyone has to think about, but the law is clear on what must now happen to babies who are stillborn after 24 weeks of pregnancy or who die in infancy: they must be buried or cremated, and cemeteries and crematoriums must keep records of those burials and cremations.
Before the mid-1980s, it was often hospitals that took care of funeral arrangements for stillborn babies and for babies who died shortly after birth, and we know that parents were often not consulted or involved in those funeral arrangements. We can all see now that that was not the right approach.
The bodies of the babies were cremated, buried or put in a communal plot. In some cases, the bodies were placed in a coffin with a woman who had also recently passed away. Shockingly, information was not shared with either family in that situation. Many parents were not told what happened to their baby’s body when they were buried or cremated.
If the baby had been cremated, not all parents received their baby’s ashes. Some parents were wrongly told that there would be no ashes, and in some cases when ashes were recovered, they were disposed of without the parents’ knowledge. Again, we all now find that shocking, and it is extremely hard to fathom why it was allowed to be the practice at the time.
At this juncture, I echo the Minister’s tribute to my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris for calling the Government to account and securing this debate. She has been a tireless campaigner for bereaved parents and, of course, she brings her own deeply moving personal experience to this place. She articulates why this is such an important issue in a way that only those who have suffered personal tragedy can and do. She is entirely right to demand help and support to enable the parents of stillborn babies to trace their graves so that they can finally commemorate their loss. It is only right that we do all we can do to support these bereaved parents, having failed them in the past.
I also want to commend all the brave individuals and families who first brought these issues to light, and those who have taken part in inquiries and consultations, sharing their own painful experiences, which we know would have been difficult, to ensure that lessons are learned and that no other families have to go through what they have gone through. I should also mention those who have worked selflessly and tirelessly to help bereaved families to trace their lost babies, as we are grateful for their efforts and extend our gratitude to them. I think we all agree that these people should never have been put in that position.
Thankfully, since the 1980s there have been significant and positive changes in the way those families are now treated. There is a much greater understanding that the care bereaved families receive from healthcare and other professionals following the loss of a child can have long-lasting effects. Indeed, the need for psychological support following pregnancy loss and stillbirth is recognised in the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidance, the “Better Births” report, the maternity transformation programme and the NHS long-term plan. All those documents rightly highlight the need to improve perinatal mental health care. However, we must ensure that those plans translate into action and that the needs of bereaved parents are explicitly addressed in quality standards, national guidance, training for healthcare professionals and guidance for local services. It is important that all parents who experience pregnancy and baby loss and need specialist psychological support can access it in a timely fashion.
We know that, unfortunately, good practice is not consistent across the board and we need to aim to ensure that it is. Too often, people who experience a psychiatric illness after their loss do not receive the support they need. Most mental health support is available only to mothers and is focused on women who are pregnant or have already lost their baby. As discussed in the annual baby loss debates, we urge the Government to develop a national standard, with guidance.
We all agree that the woman, and indeed the whole family, should receive that psychological support if they need it, but just saying it does not mean that this help is getting to the people it should be reaching. In many cases, people find it almost impossible to get that support.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his intervention, as he raises the very point: the support is not consistent across the piece. We rightly raise that issue when we discuss these matters, because we need better support, better funding and better delivery of these specialist services. As he says, this is a difficult issue and support is needed at the right time.
I am pleased to hear what our Front Bencher is saying about this important subject, but I want to develop this point about mental health support. For families who have suffered and do not know where their baby’s ashes have been strewn, asking the local council to make inquiries, as happened in Shrewsbury with the Emstrey inquiry, goes some way to seeing whether there are answers to the questions they still have. Will the shadow Minister commit his support to local authorities that want to carry out these independent inquiries, to give whatever closure they can to families by trying to get the information they seek?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. I know about the work she has been doing in Hull. She has articulated in the past why it is clearly important for such inquiries to take place and how it is the most effective way for families to achieve closure on these difficult issues. I am certainly in support of what she says.
The availability of talking therapies for bereaved parents is not how it should be. Nearly nine out of 10 clinical commissioning groups do not currently commission talking therapies specifically for parents, and where the services do exist they are usually only for mothers. We need to do better than that. Of course, I acknowledge that there is much good practice out there, but Members will know that it is often reliant on charitable grants and third parties. That is one of the main reasons why provision is patchy and at risk from wider funding decisions. I therefore ask the Minister to undertake a review of the current provision, including an evaluation of the models of best practice. Will she ensure that parents and professionals are involved in that exercise? The Minister was absolutely right to identify that when she talked about the culture in the past.
We also need to acknowledge that although the culture today has definitely improved, it is still not where we would like it to be. As we know, most of the time those whose loved one has been involved in a tragedy in the health service just want to know why it has happened and how it can be prevented from happening again. The former Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, has on several occasions addressed the need for us to move away from a blame culture and towards a learning culture, so that when things go wrong there is proper analysis of why things have happened and we understand how we can prevent those things from happening again.
Only this week, I have heard from a constituent who has lost a lot of faith in the system in terms of getting to the truth about what happened to one of their family. They commented that the trust seemed to spend more money on lawyers than on actually uncovering the truth, and that should not be happening. We need to move away from the defensive culture that we see on occasions. I hope that we can look at that issue, possibly through the Select Committee, because there is still a temptation for trusts to lawyer-up at the first sign of concern. Most of the time, parents and family members want answers.
Back in October we heard that the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch annual report would share some of the learning about the more than 1,500 individual cases in which something has gone wrong in one trust. I hope that report will be available shortly. I think the quote was that it was going to be available in “early 2020”, so when she responds will the Minister update us as to when we can expect to see it?
Finally, although we rightly focus on the families in this debate, we must also not forget the impact on staff, some of whom will regularly have to deal with tragedies. The Minister set out clearly what that looks like. It is important that their voice is heard in this debate as well.
“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”
My eyes were opened to the subject by Carolyn Harris, since when we have worked together to bring about the children’s funeral fund—under her leadership, by the way; I was merely her acolyte. In doing that work, I became interested not just in that subject but in the whole matter of how people are dealt with when they die and how their loved ones are treated. There is much to be said on that, but time does not permit us to say it all today, for this particular debate is of course about stillbirth and lost children.
The Minister rightly said that things have improved. Some of this issue relates to the past—what happened to those who were loved and lost in years gone by—but I implore the Minister to reflect on whether it is possible for us to do more with local authorities, which are responsible for these matters, because, as she said, cemeteries maintain records, and cemeteries lie within the purview of local government. Perhaps further work can be done to impress on local authorities the need to make information available. Furthermore, in respect of people who are stillborn now, perhaps we could be certain that all health authorities are doing their best. I agree that things have improved, but we need to make sure that that improvement is consistent throughout the country.
In respect of the support given to those who have lost, as a number of Members have said, we need to ensure that the counselling, which makes so much difference, is readily available, quickly, and to whole families. Much is made of maternal love, and rightly so, but too little is made of paternal love. It is sometimes underestimated and often under-celebrated. The love of fathers and grandparents needs to be taken into account, too. Support for whole families when these events occur is critical.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point about fathers. We talk a lot about the perinatal mental illness suffered by at least one in six women—and much more is being done about that—but it is less known that many fathers, particularly new fathers, suffer from perinatal mental illness as well. The impact of losing a newborn is of importance not just for the mother but equally for the father. We forget that at our peril.
My hon. Friend, who served with me in the Department for Education, where he was responsible for matters concerning children, has a long track record of defending the interests of families and fathers. I pay tribute to that and entirely endorse what he has just said. Grandparents also feel these things very deeply. My children are only 19 and 15, so I am not enjoying grandparenthood yet, but those Members who are will know quite how profound their involvement is and their distress at loss can be. I entirely agree with what has been said about counselling, support and mental health.
I hope you will forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, for saying a word about public health funerals, a parallel but closely related matter on which the hon. Member for Swansea East and I have also co-operated. Councils in the UK spend about £4 million a year on nearly 15,000 burials or cremations for those with no next of kin or whose families are unable or unwilling to pay. They are known as public health funerals, although rather chillingly they are sometimes described as paupers’ funerals, which sounds so Dickensian, does it not? None the less, public health funerals are held for about 3% of all deaths, and there are real concerns about poor practice. The number of public health funerals has increased dramatically since 1997.
Tragically—in some cases councils are providing the bare minimum provision. Some of these funerals are held behind closed doors and families are prohibited from attending. There are instances of councils refusing to return ashes to families, even when requested. Sometimes, loved ones are not told when the funeral is going to take place, so they do not even know whether their loved one has been buried or, in most cases, cremated. I take this opportunity, with your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, to call again on the Government to communicate with local authorities about the strict need to ensure that these funerals are dealt with in a decent, civilised and humane way. I am not confident that that is happening across the whole country, and it needs to do so without further delay.
I know that other Members want to contribute, so I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion simply by saying this. I spoke earlier of the Dickensian character of paupers’ funerals. Dickens said:
“A loving heart is the truest wisdom.”
Love is greater than life because love lasts longer and, because it does it should be at the heart of policy makers’ considerations when they deal with the highly important, very sensitive and profound issues that we debate today.
I am very pleased to participate in this debate today. I echo the thanks that have been expressed to Carolyn Harris for securing this debate and for all the work that she has done in this area.
The death of a baby is an extremely traumatic event, which impacts on both parents and the wider family for many years, if not forever. It is not something that can simply be got over. It is an event that families and individuals simply learn to live with. The burial of a child is also very traumatic, but it can, for many bereaved parents and their families, form a very important part of the grieving process, and yet it was only in the mid to late 1980s that the death of a baby was truly starting to be recognised as a major bereavement. Until then, as we have heard some Members mention, any baby who died before birth, regardless of the gestation period, was swiftly removed from the labour ward, and parents were not given an opportunity to see or hold them. Some mothers were sedated after the birth because it was thought that this would help them to forget. It was a generally held view among professionals and, indeed, society that parents should forget their babies and that it was best to carry on as though nothing had happened. Grieving was actively discouraged.
Stillbirth truly was a huge taboo, and we are now gradually starting to break down that taboo and deal with these matters with more compassion and sensitivity. I agree with what Sir John Hayes said about the role of fathers in such events. Until fairly recently, fathers of babies who died before birth were pretty much ignored, and their role was considered to be one of merely supporting his wife or partner in her attempts to forget about the lost child and to have another child as quickly as possible. It is genuinely hard to believe that, until very recently, that was how we as a society dealt with stillbirth.
Some parents did not even give their baby a name, because they were not advised that they could or should do so. Some did not even know the gender of their baby, and many had no idea about what had happened to their child’s body. As a result, the grief felt at this traumatic life event was silenced and frowned upon, leading to unnecessary isolation, family breakdowns and poor mental health. It is down in great part to the work of charitable groups such as Sands—the stillbirth and neonatal death charity—that these appalling practices and attitudes, which, these days, are hard to believe, began to change.
Recent years have taught us that, although things are better these days, there can be no room for complacency. We have also learned that there are very different practices in baby cremations across the UK, with some parents receiving ashes from some crematoriums, while others are not. The availability of ashes after cremations seems to have depended on the equipment and cremation techniques used and/or how the relevant authority defined ashes. It seems that there was no statutory definition of ashes in the UK. That has now been rectified in legislation, and we have had legislation in Scotland similar to that mentioned by the Minister.
There is also the issue of parents being told that there were no ashes to be recovered when, in fact, there were ashes, but they were sometimes disposed of without the parents’ knowledge. Indeed, such practices led to investigations in Scotland, going back some decades, at Mortonhall crematorium in Edinburgh.
I am interested in asking the hon. Lady about the Mortonhall investigation inquiry. Does she feel that that helped parents who had questions about what had gone on and why things had happened in the way that they had? Was it something that she would support for other parts of the United Kingdom in cases where there are still questions that have not been answered?
The answer to her question is yes. There is no room for complacency. That investigation led to a whole swath of measures to make sure that nothing like this could ever happen again to parents and that the law would indeed be on their side when similar events occurred in the future. That, I think, is something in which the Minister will take an interest.
The investigation, the Infant Cremation Commission report, and the report of the National Cremation Investigation led to positive change. Now, in almost every circumstance, parents should receive the ashes from their baby’s cremation. A code of practice has been established by a national committee on infant cremation, setting out key principles and minimum standards for all organisations conducting infant cremations.
In March 2015, the Scottish Government announced the appointment of an inspector of crematoriums for Scotland to ensure that all crematoriums were adhering to the current legislation and best practice following the national investigation into circumstances surrounding historical infant cremation practices in Scotland. A criminal sanction was introduced to prohibit the cremation of a foetus, a stillborn baby, or an infant with an unrelated person. Indeed, legislation was brought forward to overhaul policy and practice in the burial and cremation sector, with improved staff training.
We also know that, until fairly recently, the parents of stillborn children were never told where or how their baby had been buried. To us today, that seems almost too cruel to be true and utterly beyond comprehension. I had a stillbirth at full term, and I cannot imagine a situation in which my baby would have been removed from me with no information about how or where he was buried. For the parents affected, that must have made the grieving process much more difficult and much more traumatic. We know that some parents who endured this decades ago can perhaps trace their babies’ graves now, but it is something that they should never have to do. It is probably worse if those parents who seek to trace their child’s remains simply cannot find where they are. Imagine the years passing and the questions growing in their head about where their baby is. I can scarcely believe the attitudes of the recent past that thought this was an appropriate way to deal with the lost babies and grieving parents and families.
We know that some of the babies were buried with other babies, or sometimes with other random adults who had recently died in hospital. Parents trying to trace the burial place of their babies years later are therefore not always successful, which simply adds to the torture and pain despite the passing of years. What is clear is that everything that can be done must be done to assist the parents looking for their lost babies.
These parents were not usually informed that their babies’ loss was officially documented and that they could obtain a certification of the baby’s stillbirth. Such certification can bring some comfort because it is an acknowledgement—a recognition—that their baby existed. Most had not even known that they could name their baby.
Patients in all circumstances were kept in the dark for their own protection. It was assumed that if a mother or father were allowed to see their stillborn baby and establish any kind of connection, it would only prolong their grief, but, of course, we know that parents are committed and connected to their children long before their birth—perhaps at the point of conception, or perhaps even earlier, when they imagine themselves as parents for the first time. We recognise that to lose a baby at any point in pregnancy can be profoundly traumatic.
Today, parents are encouraged to see, hold or even dress their stillborn baby if they choose to do so. They can take photographs, handprints, footprints, and a lock of hair. They are encouraged to collect mementos of their baby and grieve for them, as any parent would grieve for a child, no matter how long their life was. To know that so many couples and families have been denied that chance is heartbreaking and, frankly, difficult to comprehend. Parents who lost babies decades ago still speak of the terrible guilt that they feel about not knowing anything about what happened to their baby, or where they are buried. Sadly, though, they had very little choice in these matters, as, still in the fresh bewilderment of their grief, their babies were simply taken from them and nothing more was said. It is hard to believe that, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, this was, if not mandatory, certainly extremely commonplace, and it sounds as though it was something that would have happened hundreds of years ago.
Thankfully, we are more informed and more enlightened about these matters now. I hope that the relevant authorities in all parts of the UK will do all they can, and continue to do all they can, to help such affected parents to find out where their babies are and give them the support that they need. I know that Sands has done some excellent work in this area. Finding a baby’s resting place will surely provide some peace for many of the bereaved parents and their families—peace that is much needed and to which these parents and their wider family members are entitled.
Thankfully, we all now recognise what a huge and traumatic event it is to have a baby that is stillborn and how it casts a lifelong shadow over parents and wider family members as they cope with the absent presence of a child. Whether we are talking about cremation practices or burials, all parents must be given respect and their babies must be given the dignity of a burial or cremation that involves their families and provides a ritual that can be so important when grappling with overwhelming grief.
We are doing things better, but we must not be complacent on this issue, which is hugely significant for the families and parents left behind. It is right that this important debate has taken place, and I again applaud the hon. Member for Swansea East for securing it.
I had not intended to speak in this debate, but, as is usual with subjects brought here by Carolyn Harris, it is difficult to resist; they are always such important and emotive issues, and the contributions we have heard have only heightened that fact. I also pay tribute to the sensitivity and real-world personal knowledge that the Minister has brought to this debate, and indeed to everything to do with children and babies generally. It greatly heightens the worth of what we do here.
Stillbirth, a hugely underappreciated subject, has been disproportionately debated in the Chamber in recent years, thanks to the brave personal testimonies of many right hon. and hon. Members whose families have been affected by baby loss in such tragic ways. Their contributions have been hugely valuable and moving, but, more importantly, have led to changes in legislation and greatly raised the profile of this important issue. It is an example of some of the great but underappreciated things we do in the House, and this is another great opportunity for us to do good on a really important issue.
My right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes was right to mention the connection with mental illness, particularly around extended family members. Too often we look at mothers in isolation, with all the problems of pregnancy and childbirth, whether it is a healthy child or a stillborn child. We need to do more, as a society and as a Government, to think of the family in the round and the implications and impact that the tragedy of stillbirth can have on others, besides the mother.
We have made great progress in legislation in recent years, but, more importantly, we have made much progress in the sensitivity with which hospitals treat bereaved parents. We have legislated for bereavement leave, for example, but we should now consider extending that to this area as well. We have maternity and paternity leave, but losing a baby is hugely traumatic and impacts on the ability of parents to work normally afterwards.
I recently visited again the new bereavement suite in Worthing Hospital, which is officially the best hospital in the country with what is officially the best maternity department in the country. The bereavement suite is a fantastic facility. It is hard to imagine that until a few years ago mothers who had sadly just given birth to a stillborn child, or a child who died soon after, would be left within hearing range of children who had fortunately been born healthy to a mother in the same ward. Greater sensitivity is now shown throughout the whole NHS. It was great to visit that example of how well we now look after parents who tragically cannot take their child home with them.
It was through Worthing Hospital’s maternity department and the experience of my constituent Hayley from Worthing that I became much more familiar with the issue of stillbirth. She came to me to say that she had given birth to a stillborn child at about 19 and a half weeks at Worthing Hospital. She had been there in labour throughout the weekend and had gone through all the pains and anguish of giving birth to a stillborn child. That led to my Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019 and a debate about the whole issue of how we look at and recognise the existence of children stillborn before the 24-week threshold.
Hayley’s experience goes back to the extraordinary revelations we have heard already about how we used to deal with stillborn babies and how the parents had no involvement. Once a woman was delivered of a stillborn baby, any authority or interest the parents had in that child apparently came to an end. It was an extraordinarily brutal and inhumane approach. In the case of Hayley, she and her partner held the child, named the child, had a formal funeral for the child and now know where the child is buried and can mourn. That has been part of the grieving process for them. It is right that the parents be able to do that, if it is their wish; they got the footprint and the photographs, and that was right for them.
The tragedy still is, however, that that child never existed in the eyes of the state, because he happened to have been born before the 24-week threshold, and that is what the 2019 Act aims to address. I wish to make a plea to the Minister. Section 3 obliges the Department of Health and Social Care to conduct a review into how we can do something about pre-24-week stillbirths—they are not technically called “stillbirths”. To give him his due, the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Jeremy Hunt, set up the review before the Act became law—I sat on and contributed to it, along with Mrs Hodgson—but it has not met since 2018 and no subsequent review has been forthcoming. We still need to sort this out, because too many babies are being born just before 24 weeks. In previous debates, I have given examples of children born at 23 weeks, six days and a few hours. In one case, twins were born either side of the 24-week threshold. One was recognised and registered and one was not. This is an anomaly and an inhumanity and it is so important that we deal with it. I urge the Minister to inquire into where we are with the review.
We talk a lot in the House about historical injustices—this debate is technically about historical injustices, although we have spoken more about the present. I think of the historical child sex abuse scandal, the inquiry into which will go on for many years, but there are also parallels with the forced adoptions that occurred many years ago, when women, in an era of different morals, were forced to give up babies born out of wedlock. Many of those children ended up in Australia. There have been many reviews into how that was allowed to happen and into helping those children to re-establish connection with their birth parents.
What downside can there be to giving every assistance, difficult though it may be, to parents who, after having a stillborn child, were given no role in what happened to the body and have no knowledge of where the child’s remains are? I acknowledge that, as the Minister said, it would be difficult, particularly going back several decades, but we must make sure that hospitals, crematoriums and other public agencies do everything they can to respond sympathetically and extensively to queries from those people, just as we have done with child sex abuse and historical forced adoption.
The point I raised with the Minister might meet with some reluctance in some hospitals where practices were not of a quality we might have expected. Another section in my Act empowers coroners for the first time to investigate stillbirths. At the moment, they cannot do that, because a child who is stillborn is deemed never to have lived, and coroners can only investigate the deaths of humans who have lived. In a minority of cases—this practice was not extensive—children born alive have been designated as stillborn to avoid investigation through the coronial system. There is no reason why, once the further regulations are passed—I hope they will be soon; the Minister is right that the consultation ended last June—that we should not get on with giving coroners the power to investigate where they have reason to suspect that a stillbirth is not as simple or straightforward as it appears and that there might have been some medical negligence, oversight or whatever. If there were clusters of unexplained stillbirths, people might be reluctant to be co-operative in tracking down the details of what happened to that child and afterwards. I would hope, in the interests of providing parents who have already suffered a loss with some degree of closure, at least on what happened to the body of that child, that everyone involved in the national health service and other public agencies would want to be as co-operative as possible.
I asked the Minister to consider new guidance for local authorities about both past and present practice, and perhaps my hon. Friend might echo that call by suggesting that the Government should make direct and urgent contact with health authorities, for exactly the reasons he has described, with the same kind of vehemence.
That is really the point that I was looking to make, but my right hon. Friend has done it much more clearly.
If it had not been her intention already, perhaps a takeaway from this debate for the Minister might be to send a communication around maternity departments, and indeed local authorities responsible for crematoriums and others, to express the hope that they would co-operate and to set out the exact extent of the potential issue that we are dealing with.
To take the hon. Gentleman back to his earlier point, does he agree that the whole thrust behind instituting coroners’ inquiries—or, in Scotland, fatal accident inquiries—when these events happen is, added to the trauma, the complete lack of co-operation or willingness by hospitals to engage with parents in the appropriate way to give them the answers they need, as was certainly my experience?
That is right, but again, to give the Department of Health, the NHS and Ministers their due, there have been new innovations in internal inquiries into stillbirths that have made it much easier to get a dispassionate look at exactly what happened and give a full explanation of why it was that a pregnancy apparently without complication resulted in the child being stillborn.
The issue, and the reason my Act is so important, is that in a few complicated cases where the explanation is not sufficient for parents or where not enough disclosure is forthcoming—there has been some resistance from the medical profession; some were not in favour of the relevant clause—the fallback position is that if the coroner sees that there is a case to answer, he or she can launch an investigation, regardless of the view of the hospital or, importantly, of the parents, into whether there was more to the stillbirth that merits inquiry and whether there might be wider lessons, particularly with clusters of stillbirths, as we have had with various scandals in hospitals in this country, to ensure greater transparency.
I think the point I am getting at is that it is in everybody’s interests to have greater transparency, to ensure that we reduce the level of stillbirths, which has been too big a problem for this country compared with other western countries, and we can only do that if everybody has full access to all the information about exactly what the causes might have been. That is my ask of the Minister. Can we chase the Department on why the other bits of my Act have not been introduced yet?
I again pay tribute to the hon. Member for Swansea East, who we are all looking forward to hearing, for bringing together the House on another greatly important matter—a matter that may seem of niche interest, but which is of huge interest to parents who have had their lives so affected by the trauma of a stillbirth, particularly where they do not even know what happened to the body of the baby.
I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Leader of the House for allocating time for this debate and to warmly thank everyone for their kind words about the work that I have done. This place is at its best when we show compassion and work together to resolve the issues that matter to people. The work that we have done on children’s funerals—on what I like to call Martin’s fund—is typical of the kind of things that we can achieve when we work together.
Decades ago, when a woman had a miscarriage or gave birth to a stillborn baby, she was usually urged to forget about what had happened and often to try just to move on and have another baby as soon as possible. Families were not given time to grieve or offered any form of counselling. There were no special rooms with cold “cuddle cots”. Rarely were there opportunities for parents to even hold their babies for just a few minutes, for the first and last time, let alone take any photographs or gather mementoes for a treasured memory box. Babies were simply taken away quickly and quietly by hospital staff, to be buried or cremated in an undisclosed place. Fathers were usually advised to hide baby products at home, to help with the healing process and avoid traumatising the mother further. They were sometimes asked to pay for the burial. I found it really painful to hear the story of a man who had kept the receipt of his child’s funeral as the only memento of that child. These little ones’ innocent bodies were either cremated, buried in a communal plot sometimes, or placed in a coffin with a woman who had recently passed away. In some military cemeteries, babies were given their own plot, but marked simply with a number, never with a name.
When I had a scan when I was having Martin, the date of birth they gave for him was
The practice of taking stillborn babies’ bodies and burying them without disclosing the location to the parents continued right up until the late 1980s. In the years since, families have started to search for their little ones’ graves. One lady, Paula Jackson, dedicates her spare time, for free, to helping people to find their babies, and in the last 15 years has found 800 babies. Thanks to Paula and her group, Brief Lives Remembered, parents have been able to find peace after years of grief and uncertainty. They now have a place to visit and the opportunity to place a headstone or a flower, or something to commemorate the memory of their loved baby. But some women do not feel comfortable asking for help. They feel ashamed or at fault. They feel as if they deserted their children, even though they were never given a choice.
We should not be expecting these women to be asking; it should not be up to Paula. I commend her for the fantastic work that she has done, but she is spending her own time and her own money to help these families. Surely there must be a way of sharing information about where these babies are buried, whether from council records or hospital maternity units, undertakers, crematoriums or cemeteries. That has to be an easy way of finding out what happened to each of these babies. I am hoping that the words from the Chamber today will resonate more than any policy, and that those who have the information will allow us to see it and share it so that those families who want to know where their babies are buried or cremated will easily be able to find out.
My hon. Friend is making an incredible speech, and my heart goes out to the family circumstances that she has described. I want to ask her about institutions taking a proactive role by looking at the records they have and the information they can provide. It seems to me that lots of institutions—I am thinking of councils, in particular—do not do anything until someone asks a question, at which point it becomes a battle and is not the easiest thing to do. Does she agree?
I certainly agree. I think the consensus in this Chamber—and some news channels, no doubt—will prompt local authorities, hospitals and other people to come forward and offer us the information we need.
Like my own mother, many have gone to their graves without knowing the locations of their babies. Many more are alive and still suffering from the grief and guilt, and very often from post-traumatic stress disorder. These mothers and fathers should be offered counselling and emotional support if they need it. They should be helped to manage their grief, to locate their baby and to live the rest of their lives with a sense of peace that they have not known for a long time.
This matter was raised this week by BBC journalist Frankie McCamley. Since the story was run on BBC News, I have been overwhelmed by communications from parents and other family members about their babies. Indeed, today the Doorkeeper sought me out because one lady has travelled here from the south coast just to hear us discussing the issue today, and she wants to tell me her mother’s story. People generations below the mums and dads who lost their babies are suffering, and are asking me to help them to find their babies; a lot of people out there need us to help them to get closure. I have received so many heart-breaking messages that I have suggested to some members of my staff that they do not read them, because I know they will be traumatised.
With everything that goes on in today’s world, this issue may seem relatively unimportant to some, but to anyone who has lost a child, memories and a grave visit are the things that bring an element of comfort. It took me a long time to stop visiting Martin’s grave. I would spend hours and hours and hours there. I would go to the grave, sit there and talk to Martin about everything I was feeling psychologically—all the questions I had, all the anger, all the guilt, and everything I wanted to communicate to him. I now know that Martin is in my heart, on my shoulder and in my head; he is everywhere. But until people get to the point in their grief where they understand that the person they have lost may not be here physically, but will always be with them, they need something to focus on.
I am asking that we find a way of helping the parents who want and need this closure to find their baby’s resting place, giving them the opportunity to have the peace so many of them seek, and—most importantly—a chance to say their final goodbye.
Let me start by paying a huge tribute to my hon. Friend Carolyn Harris, who is a force of nature. She said that we in this place are at our best when we are compassionate and work together, and she certainly embodies that—in this debate and in the many brilliant campaigns that she has run since becoming a Member of Parliament.
In Hull, we have higher levels of stillbirth and neonatal deaths than the national average. I pay tribute to the excellent work of the Hull and East Yorkshire branch of Sands and the Lullaby Trust, the campaigning organisation. In the last few years, huge steps have been taken to improve and make changes to this whole area. Tim Loughton talked about the debates that we have had in the House since 2015, which I think have occurred because the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss has made it its mission to ensure that we have the Baby Loss Awareness Week debate every year. A huge amount has been done since 2015, and I pay tribute to all the officers and everyone else involved in that group.
Since 2015, I have been raising a particular case from Hull: I spoke on
Tina and Michael had a baby boy, William Michael Brian Trowhill, who was born on
Moving forward many years, Tina was alerted to the possible concerns about what had happened to baby William when the Mortonhall inquiry—which Patricia Gibson spoke about—was taking place in Scotland. The report on that inquiry was published in April 2014. In October 2014, Mike and Tina contacted the bereavement service in Hull and asked to see what it could find out about the circumstances around William. Unfortunately, it took until
My constituents came to see me just before the general election in 2015, and said that they would like to know what could be found out about what had happened in Hull and whether other families were affected. I thought that that seemed a very reasonable request, so I asked to see the leader of the council and took my constituents with me. Councillor Brady was very sympathetic. He understood that it was a sensitive issue, and said that he would have a think about what to do next.
Tina and Mike were very clear that they wanted a local independent inquiry. This was also at the time of the Emstrey crematorium inquiry in Shrewsbury. I understand that there were different circumstances there, but that the parents involved had similar concerns about what had happened at Emstrey crematorium, which was run by and accountable to the local council. Those parents had gone to see the leader of the council, who asked them, “What do you want”; they said, “We want a local independent inquiry. Let’s see what we can find out.”; and he readily agreed. I believe that that inquiry cost about £50,000, and was overseen by an independent local solicitor. And that is what my constituents in Hull asked Hull City Council for—a local independent inquiry. Sadly, we received a letter from the council saying that it did not really think that that would help in the circumstances and it did not see the need for such an inquiry. So I raised this with the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, and asked him how he felt about the situation where grieving parents who want to know the answer to questions about what has happened to their children’s ashes are being told by a council, “No, we don’t really need to do that.”
I think the Prime Minister was rather busy and occupied at that time, so I ended up going to see, with Tina, the then Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove. I have to say that he was an excellent Minister in terms of how he got it straightaway: he understood how, for families, this needed to be addressed locally. I was very grateful to him and to the then Secretaries of State for Health and for Communities and Local Government—three very senior Ministers—for what they did. The Justice Secretary wrote a letter to Hull City Council saying:
“My fellow Secretaries of State at the Department of Health and the Department for Communities and Local Government have agreed with me that there is a need for a historic investigation into the practices relating to infant cremations in the Hull area, and we have jointly today written to the Chief Executive of Hull City Council asking him to commission this. We have suggested that the whole investigation should have terms of reference similar to those of the Emstrey inquiry.”
I am incredibly grateful for the compassion that he showed to my constituents and to the many other families who came forward. Tina, like the lady my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East referred to, had been finding out about and talking to other families, and she set up the Action for Ashes group in Hull, which has 420 members comprising about 100 families who have been affected. Tina has been working very hard to make sure that she provides support and help to other families in these circumstances.
Hull City Council received that letter in 2016. Unfortunately, there was a change in the Secretary of State’s role at that time because, as we know, other events were happening. Hull City Council basically said to the Government, “No, we think we have looked into this and the parents are now fine—there is no reason to have a local independent inquiry.” That was not the case. The parents still, to this day, would like to have that local independent inquiry. Hull City Council did carry out a limited internal investigation. When we compare and contrast that with the Emstrey report, we see that it is a pale imitation. The council did not proactively look through its records; it looked only where it was asked to by parents. I have some sympathy because I know there are parents who do not want to have all this talked about and looked at again. But clearly, for lessons to be learned that everything has been done, and so that we can reassure ourselves that this could never happen again, it would be right for all the records to be looked at by an independent person.
In the meantime, despite Hull City Council saying that it would not pursue an independent inquiry, I, along with Tina, put together a coalition of people who did think that it was the right thing to do: Co-op Funeralcare, the largest, I think, funeral care company in the country; the National Association of Funeral Directors; the charity Cruse Bereavement Care; and Dignity, the largest operator of crematoriums in England. These organisations all came together to back what Tina and the 100 families in Hull were saying.
I was very pleased that last year the Minister’s predecessor came to Hull and met a group of families who had been affected by this. At that meeting we had the chief executive of Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, as well as local council representatives. This is many, many years on for a lot of these women and their families, but it was clear that the pain is still there and the questions are still there. They still feel that the institutions, be it the council or the NHS, are not properly recognising or understanding the real concerns that the families still have.
We had that meeting. I hope that, now that my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East has called this debate, we might have another opportunity to say that a local independent inquiry in Hull would be the right thing to do for these families. It would provide some closure. I know it will not provide all the answers that people need, but it would help them to feel that institutions of the state are taking the concerns of families properly in this incredibly sensitive and difficult area.
With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to sum up the debate. It has been, as these debates often are, very moving and very thought-provoking.
We heard first from Sir John Hayes, who made a very fair point about whether more can be done with local authorities, in particular, in respect of public funerals. There are clearly issues about the capacity in local authorities to take on extra responsibilities, but some of the issues that he raised are really matters of sensitivity and appropriateness, rather than funding. I am sure that we can do more on that. He also made the very fair point that counselling needs to be available quickly and to the whole family. He was right to raise the issue of paternal concern, which a number of Members talked about. He also talked about the impact on grandparents, which can also be overlooked.
Patricia Gibson, who has spoken very movingly on these issues on a number of occasions, also picked up on the need for support for fathers. She rightly paid tribute to Sands, which does a great deal of work in this area. She articulated particularly well the differences between parents’ experiences now and the experiences they would have had in previous decades. That contrast is stark and, in many ways, heartbreaking.
Tim Loughton spoke about the importance of the personal experiences of Members in this place and how, over recent years, that has helped to bring about change. We have heard again today personal experiences that cannot do anything other than bring about more change. He made an important point about the need for bereavement leave. I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done and the changes that he has already sought and brought about. He is right about the pre-24-week birth review. I think that needs to be resolved. As he says, it is an anomaly that does need sorting.
Of course, we could not help but be deeply moved by the contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Swansea East (Carolyn Harris). She was incredibly brave to talk about her sister and, indeed, her own son in the way that she did. She spoke very powerfully about how hard it would have been for her mother to deal with, first, the initial tragedy with her own child and then how that was repeated with her grandchild. The whole House will send its best wishes to my hon. Friend, and a huge amount of support and respect for the way that she has brought these issues forward, which we know will have been incredibly difficult.
I join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the work done by Paula Jackson in helping bereaved families. But she is also right to say that it should not have to be down to people like Paula—that surely more can be done to get this information to the families, who should not have to fight to get what should be theirs as of right. As she said, we really do need to get more done to make sure that families do have that opportunity to say their final goodbyes.
My hon. Friend Dame Diana Johnson paid tribute to Sands, to the Lullaby Trust, and to the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss, which has led the way on this over the past few years. It is now the fourth time that she has raised the case of her constituents Mike and Tina Trowhill and their little boy William. She took us through the tremendous efforts that she has gone to, on their behalf, to get to the truth about what happened to their baby’s ashes. The comparison that she makes between what Hull City Council did and what happened in the Emstrey inquiry is a valid one. I am sure that the persistence that she has shown so far will eventually lead to the full independent inquiry that the families clearly deserve.
It is fitting that we have had this debate today, on Time to Talk Day, because we have learned over the years that it is important to talk about these things. The more we talk about them, the more we understand and the more we can improve and change things for the better. It is through learning from personal experiences that areas such as this can see the changes that we will all see the benefit of in the long run.
I would like to begin by paying tribute to everybody who has spoken in the debate. Carolyn Harris is right: there are issues we discuss in this Chamber that transcend party politics. Indeed, party politics has no place in this Chamber when issues like this are discussed, and I hope that that has been demonstrated today.
I would like to pick up on a point that the hon. Member for Swansea East made about a lady who has come to the Public Gallery to watch the debate. If she would like to leave the Gallery after I have finished and make her way downstairs, I will meet her at the back of the Chamber and have a word with her.
I will comment on Members’ individual contributions before going on to my substantive response. I thank Justin Madders for the compassion he has shown today. It is not always easy when we discuss issues that are so emotive, but I thank him for his understanding and the points he made. He asked about HSIB’s annual report, which was published in December 2019. As he probably knows, HSIB is a particular passion of mine, and we hope to have more news about it. The thematic maternity investigation report is expected to be published soon, and I am pushing for it to be published as soon as possible.
My right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes said that love lasts longer. I think that love lasts forever. When Martin and other babies are mentioned, they have their voices here. It is love that brings them into the Chamber, and that is why we remember them; may we continue to do so.
My right hon. Friend asked whether I could do more with local authorities, as they are responsible for this. Actually, this issue is the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice. I will raise this matter with my colleagues in the MOJ. Perhaps my counterpart in the MOJ and I could send a joint letter to local authorities asking them to assist parents who are trying to trace the remains of their lost babies. That might be a way to push local authorities to be more co-operative.
I turn to the comments made by Dame Diana Johnson. I have the notes from the meeting that she attended last July with my predecessor my hon. Friend Jackie Doyle-Price, the families, the chief executives of Hull University Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, Hull City Council and Mrs Trowhill. I am informed that the trust and council agreed to give everyone affected as much information as they had available to them and that Mrs Trowhill agreed to share contact details. Following the promise that the trust made to set out exactly what processes are now in place to ensure that similar incidents cannot happen in the future, could the hon. Lady let me know whether Mrs Trowhill is happy with how far the trust has gone and the service she has had from it?
With regard to the independent local inquiry, I imagine that there may be a sensitivity around that, because some women or girls who had babies at the time may have done so without family members or other people knowing. That may be an issue that lawyers have considered. I have no idea why it costs so much, but that may be one way to help in a particular area where there has been a problem, such as the hon. Lady’s constituency.
The issue raised with me as to why a local inquiry could not take place was that the local authority did not have jurisdiction over the NHS. Could the Minister say something about the co-operation that I am sure the NHS would want to extend to any local inquiry?
The hon. Lady is right; the NHS trust has the ability and the jurisdiction to conduct its own inquiry. I believe that NHS Improvement would have a similar responsibility. As a result of today’s debate, I am going to investigate a little more deeply within the Department how we can go about having an inquiry and what the terms of reference would be. It may be that such an inquiry is not possible, but I will certainly find out whether it is.
My hon. Friend Tim Loughton asked for an update on the pregnancy loss review. I attended the APPG on baby loss a few weeks ago. We expect the report being done by Zoe Clark-Coates and Samantha Collinge to be published in spring/summer, and we expect to publish a Government response to the consultation in spring going into summer. Again, I will push and see how much longer that will take.
The problem is that nothing has been agreed, because the pregnancy loss review group has not met since 2018. If a report is imminent, it has not been approved by the panel members, including me and Mrs Hodgson. I do not know what will be presented to the Government before they can even respond. The Minister might want to investigate how the group came to conclusions of which we know little.
I will. If my hon. Friend drops me an email at my departmental address, we will look into that, and the officials will take it away. I am grateful to him for raising that, because I was not aware of it.
I do not think I have missed out anyone who made a speech. We have heard today how important it is to many parents to find the final resting place of their stillborn children’s remains. Unfortunately, that is not always easy or possible, and I have explained that such records are not currently held by the Government. Rather, they are held by local hospitals that arranged for burials or cremations with local funeral directors or crematoriums. In some cases, records no longer exist, or they may not contain enough detail to be helpful.
Nevertheless, I reiterate that the Department of Health and Social Care expects all hospitals to provide as much information as they have available to them to any parents who inquire about what happened to their stillborn babies, no matter how long ago they died. I would like to praise the 800 parents who have attempted to find out where their babies’ remains are, because they have helped to raise the profile of this issue. As the hon. Member for Swansea East said, only by raising the profile do we manage to get something done. We need to continue to do that, because that is how we will make progress.
We have also heard today about the new regulations and systems to ensure that parents are involved, as they want to be, in the burial or cremation arrangements for their stillborn children. Parents are required by law to register a stillbirth, and once registration has been completed the registrar provides parents with all the certification they need to organise their babies’ burial or cremation, and a funeral service if they so wish. The required burial and cremation forms ensure that the wishes of parents are recorded and respected. Many NHS hospitals still do make arrangements for funeral services and support parents to consider various options and to make the decisions that are right for them. Some parents may wish to arrange a private burial or cremation with a funeral director. Most funeral directors do not charge for their services for stillborn babies. Thanks to the hon. Lady’s efforts, the new children’s funeral fund supports parents, as I said in my opening speech.
A funeral can sometimes be a catalyst for people to begin processing a deeply profound loss. At such a time, parents mourning their stillborn baby need as much emotional support, compassion and understanding as possible. However, the quality of support can vary from one maternity service to another. This is why the Government have funded Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity, to work with other baby loss charities and the royal colleges to produce a national bereavement care pathway. The pathway covers a range of circumstances of baby loss, including miscarriage, stillbirth, termination of a pregnancy for medical reasons, neonatal death and sudden infant death syndrome. The NBCP is now embedded in 43 sites, and a further 59 sites have formally expressed their interest in joining the programme.
I would like to talk a little bit about mental health support. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North is a campaigner on this, and she raised mental health during her speech. A couple of weeks ago, I visited nurses who are delivering perinatal mental health care support. As part of the new approach to and new funding for mental health, there are now specialist perinatal mental health community services in all 44 local NHS areas in England, and further developments are planned. Just in 2018-19, this has enabled over 13,000 additional women to receive support from specialist perinatal mental health services, against a target of 9,000.
I spoke to the nurses about the perinatal services that are being delivered, and in that particular trust they have helped 700 women who previously had no assistance whatsoever. It was incredible to hear the stories of how that assistance—the mental health support—is now being given to women. As I have said, all trusts now have in place those perinatal support services, which were never there before. Again, that is a huge step on the path towards delivering services that are focused on women and their needs.
Via maternity outreach clinics, we are also providing targeted assessment and intervention for women identified with moderate or complex mental health needs arising from or related to their maternity experience who would benefit from specialist support, but where it may not be appropriate or helpful for them to accept specialist perinatal mental health services, so we are even thinking further than that. In those services we are also assisting partners and families, so it is not just for the women, but for their partners and families.
A huge amount of work is being done in this area. I am not saying that we have finished—there is more to be done—but we are making progress. This actually fits in very well with our women’s agenda in the Department of Health and Social Care. The women’s agenda is not just about periods and menopause; it is about so many things. The particular area we are discussing today is a huge part of that.
Hon. Members present for the Baby Loss Awareness Week debate last October may recall that I undertook to write to Professor Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent, the chief midwifery officer in England, to ask if those bereaved by baby death could be included in the NHS long-term plan commitment to develop maternity outreach clinics that will integrate maternity, reproductive health and psychological therapy support for women with mental health difficulties arising from or related to the maternity experience. I am delighted to tell the House that I recently received a letter from the chief midwifery officer confirming that access to these services is available to women and their partners who are experiencing moderate or complex/severe issues, so we have listened and we have addressed that need. At this point, I should pay tribute to Professor Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent for her understanding of and support for my role in helping to deliver better services to women.
As I have said, a funeral can often be a catalyst for helping people to deal with death and stillbirth death, and I believe that that is so important today. It used to be about protecting women or just not holding them in high enough esteem to inform them about what happened, but we now know that actually the opposite is true. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham mentioned, it is important to be involved not just in the death, but in what happened before, during and just afterwards. The question parents have at a time like this is: why? That question needs to be answered, and it does not get answered in a sentence or in a minute. Parents need to know and women need to know. They can only feel as though they have fulfilled their own responsibility to their child when they have explored every avenue and know every detail of what happened.
This debate has been specific to England, Scotland and Wales, and not necessarily about Northern Ireland. I congratulate everyone who has made a speech on their very valuable contributions. After this debate, could the decisions, conclusions and the way forward on the strategy be conveyed to Northern Ireland, where this is a devolved matter, so that we can all work together to help everyone?
The hon. Member is quite right that this is a devolved matter. However, this is an issue that affects all women in the United Kingdom. He is quite right, so I will ask my officials what discussions take place with the devolved Assemblies and come back to him.
The stillbirth rate in England is falling. As I am sure the hon. Member for Swansea East knows, it was our intention to reduce the 2010 rate of stillbirths by half by 2025. I am delighted to report that we are ahead of that target: in January 2020, we were already ahead of what we are trying to achieve. Since my appointment as the Minister with responsibility for both maternity and patient safety, I have seen for myself how NHS maternity services in England are working hard to ensure that the care they provide is safe and personalised to women’s individual needs.
Many measures have been introduced in maternity services that are achieving this reduction in the rate of stillbirths, and the issues raised in debates such as this on baby loss also make a contribution. We all know that applying pressure and raising the issue pushes the agenda further along.
The efforts have resulted in a 20% decrease in the stillbirth rate between 2010 and 2018. Between 2016 and 2018, there were 760 fewer stillbirths in England than in 2015. That is an enormous achievement, and something that we should be very proud of. There are 760 fewer families who have to go through the painful experience of planning a funeral for a much-loved and wanted child. I think we all know that there is nothing more painful for a woman or a couple than to go into hospital to have their baby and to leave with empty arms and broken hearts. The fact that 760 fewer families are doing that now, as a result of the measures that have been introduced, is a huge achievement.
In closing, I pay tribute to the initiatives that have been stimulated by Members of this House to improve support for families experiencing a stillbirth. These include the national bereavement care pathway, the children’s funeral fund and the Parental Bereavement (Leave and Pay) Act 2018, which provides for at least two weeks’ leave for employees following the loss of a child under the age of 18 or a stillbirth after 24 weeks of pregnancy.
I also pay tribute to the clinical professionals and support staff working in acute and community maternity services. They work incredibly hard. I visit these maternity units and meet amazing midwives who dedicate their lives to being in that room at that moment when a baby is born, to ensure a safe delivery. Through their efforts, many more women and babies are being supported to have a healthy pregnancy, labour and birth. They will be supported nationally by the maternity transformation programme, which will continue to oversee the implementation of maternity safety initiatives, including those published in the NHS long-term plan and the new NHS patient safety strategy, published last July.
I would like to conclude by thanking the hon. Member for Swansea East yet again—we are truly in her debt for the issues she raises in this place—and my right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings for supporting her, or for being her acolyte, as he described himself.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered historical stillbirth burials and cremations.