Black Maternal Health Week — [Mr Philip Hollobone in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:56 am on 14th September 2021.

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Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington 9:56 am, 14th September 2021

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate on an important subject. I congratulate my hon. Friend Bell Ribeiro-Addy, who made it possible. In particular, to speak in Black Maternal Health Awareness Week feels right and appropriate.

For all mothers-to-be, pregnancy is a challenging time, as I remember. Pregnant women feel vulnerable as their bodies are changing. For a first-time parent, in particular, the uncertainty of parenting can be daunting. It is very important that all mothers-to-be have access to high-quality services. Many do, thanks to our NHS. Our NHS is staffed by so many dedicated professionals, who provide exemplary support for many new mothers.

I want to make it clear that this debate is not designed to berate or admonish hard-working NHS staff. In fact, many staff in maternity services are black. Nevertheless, as colleagues have said, the extraordinary disparities in black maternal health cannot, and must not, be ignored any longer. I am aware that the Government do not like to talk about racial disparities, but Ministers can scarcely blame black women themselves for the disparities in maternal outcomes for black women.

The time is now for the Government and those in charge of the NHS to take these issues seriously. As Members have said, statistics show that black women in the UK have a fourfold higher increased possibility of dying in pregnancy, compared with their white counterparts. Disparities in mortality rates extend to babies as well as mothers. Mortality rates remain higher for black, black British, Asian or Asian British babies. That must have something to do with the disparities in the whole area of the maternal experience.

As a number of Members have said, these statistics show that there is a major problem in maternal health. So, the question is this: what are we going to do about it? To NHS managers and commissioners who may listen to this debate or read the transcript of it, I would ask: how will you ensure that black women are listened to? A number of Members who have spoken in this debate have made the point that black women, however confident and educated they might be in other circumstances, do not feel that they are listened to when it comes to the maternal experience. How will we close the pain gap, to ensure that black women are not left to suffer without the pain relief that apparently is readily given to white mothers?

The 2019 NHS Long Term Plan is a start, but it lacks concrete steps to address this disparity. It makes no mention of addressing disparities even in the administration of pain relief, among other things. I am hopeful that the Minister will touch on these issues when she responds to the debate.

So I say to the Government: what is the plan to address these disparities? What explanation can be given for them? Ministers have said in the past that we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities. If they believe that, what will they do about the disparities in maternal outcomes?

If the Government and those managing our NHS wish to close this gap, they have to put black women at the centre of their thinking and listen to what they say about their experience, both after and during childbirth. That means that there must be clear and binding targets, data collection and monitoring to support and judge progress on this issue. It also means funding for new and existing projects to tackle this disparity and to take the measures that I and others have outlined.

I thank campaigners, such as those at Five X More, who have worked so hard to ensure that this matter is not forgotten. Black women and their babies deserve better. At no point in any woman’s life does she feel more vulnerable than in childbirth, and black women should not have to believe or understand that they will have a poorer outcome simply because of the colour of their skin and their babies’ skin.