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

Fight for a fully funded, democratically controlled NHS

Bea Gardner, Socialist Party national committee

The publication of the final report of the Ockenden review into maternity services at Telford and Shropshire NHS Trust is an indictment of the shocking failures in their mother and baby care, spanning decades. But the report also highlights wider problems with maternity services, including dangerous understaffing and underfunding across the rest of Britain.

Shamefully, it was only due to the tireless campaigning efforts of two families that an inquiry was carried out at all. If the same level of scrutiny was given to other maternity services, how many more avoidable deaths and serious incidents would be uncovered?

The inquiry ended up investigating over 1,400 cases. It concluded that, had better care been given, the outcome could have been different in one-in-four of the stillbirth cases reviewed, and a third of the neonatal deaths. Cases of 12 maternal deaths were also reviewed, and all were found to have significant shortcomings in the quality of care offered. Shockingly, reviews into these deaths had not only failed to be carried out, but in some cases the women themselves had been blamed.

The families affected want a meaningful apology, and for those responsible to be held to account. That accountability should extend beyond Shropshire to Whitehall, where successive governments have underfunded maternity services and presided over real-terms pay cuts for midwives and other health workers. This, together with the scrapping of the midwife student bursary, gives the Tories responsibility for the criminal staffing crisis.

Bullying culture

Part of the review included a survey of staff, revealing a culture of bullying and high stress levels. Some staff withdrew comments from the report at the last minute for fear of the repercussions if they were identified. Where a culture like this exists, the safety and quality of services can only deteriorate. Workers need to feel confident to come forward to flag up mistakes or unsafe practices; a well-organised trade union in a workplace can help this happen.

Pregnancy and birth can be an extremely stressful time for expectant parents. It is a vulnerable time. You have to trust that the maternity team will look after you and your baby, in spite of the chronic underfunding and staffing shortages.

When I recently gave birth, I could see the staff were doing all they could to make it a positive experience, but they were working extra shifts and covering wards they wouldn’t usually cover. In other words, papering over the cracks for the sake of their patients, but it can’t carry on this way forever.

There is currently a shortage of 2,000 midwives. A recent survey from the Royal College of Midwives found eight out of ten were concerned about staffing levels, and two-thirds were not satisfied with the quality of care they are currently offering. The grassroots protests called by campaign group ‘March with Midwives’ have expressed some of midwives’ anger. But the leaders of the midwives’ trade unions should be leading an organised expression of this anger, in a fight for decent pay, conditions and adequate staffing levels. The tragic stories from the Ockenden report show the consequences of an under-funded, under-staffed NHS run by diktats from the top. It’s why we need to fight for a fully resourced NHS, democratically run by staff, patients and the local community.