I thank my hon. Friend Siobhan Baillie for securing this debate and wish her well with her “vested interest” and her pregnancy. I am sure that her experience with her midwife, Jan Partridge, will be positive.
I want to thank all midwives and maternity teams up and down the country. For the past 18 months to two years, they have gone above and beyond their duty. I have visited maternity units, spoken to midwives and heard how difficult it has been, particularly with covid. Being on a maternity ward, particularly a labour ward, is a busy enough experience anyway, but if there are women there with covid, the added infection control measures bring extra pressures. With staff isolating and being off sick, it has been an incredibly busy time, and I have heard at first hand many of the experiences that my hon. Friend raises.
I say to midwives that I fully recognise the pressure that they are under. Sometimes there are not enough staff on the wards, and they are dealing with more complex cases. I hate to use the term “geriatric women”, but we are seeing women becoming pregnant much later in life, with the risks and complications that that brings. We are also seeing babies being born much earlier. The expertise and skills that a midwife brings to those situations mean that we all see the incredible work that they do.
There are three areas that I think we need to address. The first is staff numbers, an issue that the hon. Members for York Central (Rachael Maskell) and for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud all raised. I reassure hon. Members that we are trying to get on top of staffing levels. Health Education England undertook a survey based on the Birthrate Plus midwifery workforce planning tool to assess the numbers of current midwives in post, current funded posts and recommended funded posts to try to bridge the gaps between the three. Following that, NHS England invested £95 million to support the recruitment of 1,200 more midwives and 100 more obstetricians and to support multidisciplinary teamwork. There is also £450,000 for a new workforce planning tool at a local level, so that maternity units can calculate their own staffing level requirements.
We are trying to increase the number of midwives in practice. Returners are being encouraged to join Health Education England’s Return to Practice programme, where a payment of £5,000 is given to employers to support returners. Funding is given to the students to pay for their fees and their Nursing and Midwifery Council tests of competence, and they get a stipend while they are learning.
My hon. Friend is right about new students. We have increased student training places to 3,650. We are also recruiting from overseas. Early this year, we are advertising and interviewing for between 300 and 500 overseas midwives to join the NHS in the next 12 months. We are also recruiting extra maternity support workers to support the work of midwives.
We are also trying to improve the environment and to bring in a positive working culture. Some £52 million has been brought in to accelerate the digital maternity programme, so that the burdensome paperwork and paper records that midwives are having to work with will hopefully come to an end. Improving that documentation will improve the outcomes for mums and babies, too.
There is so little time to express how much we are doing. We are trying to bring in a positive working culture; it is not right that midwives are having to go without toilet breaks or are unable to drink during shifts. That is completely unacceptable, and it creates a vicious circle: because working conditions are so tough at the moment, we are losing experienced midwives, which makes trying to recruit and retain more staff even more difficult.
The debate we have had this evening is just the start, and I want to work with Members across the House to ensure that we support midwives as much as we can. We are serious about increasing staffing numbers and improving the working environment for midwives, because that is how we improve the safety of maternity care.