March with midwives protest in Hull Photo:Ted Phillips
March with midwives protest in Hull Photo:Ted Phillips

Alex Sampson, Plymouth Socialist Party

Poor-quality maternity care, often covered up by hospitals, has led to stillbirths, premature births, permanent damage to babies, and death or life-long injury to many women. Many more have been left with deep trauma, impacting every aspect of their lives – from bonding with their babies, to relationships and the inability to return to work. These are some of the findings of a report by the all-party parliamentary group on birth trauma and it makes for uncomfortable reading.

This is not a new problem, however. There have been major inquiries into the failings of maternity services in Morecambe, Shrewsbury and Telford, and East Kent, dating back to 2015. Another inquiry is currently under way in Nottingham. All these reports have pointed to chronic understaffing and underfunding as major causes of their problems.

But, instead of acting on the recommendations of these reports, maternity services have been allowed to slip even further into chaos. As midwife numbers continue to decline, 88% of midwives are working extra unpaid shifts to keep the service running, equalling 100,000 unpaid hours a week across England. The staff that remain have the highest levels of mental health-related absences anywhere in the NHS. The Royal College of Midwives has warned that maternity workers are “buckling under the sheer weight of demands on them”, and the service is “crumbling before our eyes.”

This worry is certainly supported by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) figures, maternity services have the lowest safety rating of any department they review. In November 2023 they rated two-thirds as not up to required safety standards, up from 55% in 2022. Settling negligence claims due to birth-related errors now costs NHS England £1.1 billion a year, which is a third of the annual budget for maternity and neonatal services.

These issues are not felt equally amongst all women. It has also been found that black ethnic minority women are four times more likely to die in childbirth, with Asian women and white women from the most deprived areas twice as likely to die as those from the most well-off areas of the country.

This rapid and alarming decline has been ongoing for over a decade due to Tory austerity cuts, but the huge increases in the cost of living over the last two years has accelerated the crisis as more staff leave the NHS. An incoming Labour government also shows no sign of investing more money in NHS services, with Labour’s shadow health secretary Wes Streeting declaring he would “hold the door wide open” to the private sector. Capitalism is determined to bleed our NHS dry as it funnels more public money into private hands, and it is working-class women who are left bereaved, damaged, traumatised and neglected.

We need a fully funded, publicly owned NHS run within a socialist system for the benefit of all before our vital maternity services collapse entirely.