13th October 2016

Sir Nicholas speaks in a debate on baby loss raising the issues of group B strep and childhood stroke.

I hope that the whole House will read the speech of the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) and feel that she has done something incredibly brave and courageous today. To my hon. Friends who have proposed this debate, I say that nothing but the greatest respect is due. To my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach), who talked about this with such courage and straightforwardness, I say that all our thoughts are with her and all the other parents who have suffered these terrible losses.

I do not think that it is possible—having heard the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford I know that it is not possible—for anyone who has not suffered the unbearable tragedy of the loss of a child truly to understand the grief, the pain and the hopeless feelings that it must involve. I therefore warmly congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury and for Colchester (Will Quince) on securing this very important debate.

I will, if the House will allow me, speak about two issues. For the past 15 years, I have worked with a wonderful charity in my constituency that is very close to my heart and I greatly admire. I am patron of Group B Strep Support. I first became aware of the work of the charity in 2003 when its founder and chief executive, Jane Plumb—a remarkable woman—came to see me to raise the issue of group B strep. Jane and her husband, Robert, lost their middle son, Theo, to a group B strep infection in 1996 less than a day after he was born.

I learned that group B strep is the UK’s most common cause of serious infection in newborn babies. It is the most common cause of meningitis in babies under three months, and also causes sepsis and pneumonia. It is truly shocking that on average in the United Kingdom one baby a day develops group B strep infection, one baby a week dies from group B strep infection, and one baby every two weeks survives with long-term disabilities. It is even more shocking that most group B strep infections in babies can and should be prevented. The parents of these precious babies and their wider family live with the consequences of their baby’s unnecessarily horrible illness for the rest of their lives.


The right hon. Gentleman will know of the case of my constituents Fiona Paddon and Scott Bramley, whose son Edward tragically died at just nine days old from a group B strep infection. As devastated as they were and still are, they have channelled their grief into campaigning work and on a petition that has reached almost 250,000 signatures. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is an urgent need for more consistent and effective screening, and that the risk factor strategy by which we have assessed this infection to date has failed to reduce the number of instances and should be reviewed?


I certainly agree, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for talking to me last night. I look forward to working with him on this terrible illness and to joining him to present the petition when it comes along.

I have to say to my hon. Friend the Minister of State—he is not only my hon. Friend, but a real friend—who will be responding to debate, that what I have to say is not meant in any disrespectful way to him, but I have what can only be described as “issues” with the Department of Health about this matter. I have made representations on the issue to Governments of both complexions, and it has been an uphill, pretty unrewarding and generally lowering experience. Since the time of an Adjournment debate introduced by the previous Prime Minister, the former Member for Witney, on 9 July 2003, I have dealt with five Ministers, all of whom have promised prompt action and progress, all of which has been unacceptably slow, for reasons that I, the charity, the families involved and mothers to be would find pretty hard to understand in any objective examination.

The campaign has been pushing since 2003 for the enriched culture medium test to be made available, and I would like my hon. Friend to note that the Government committed to making the ECM test available on the NHS from 1 January 2014, following a meeting we had with the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter), and the chief medical officer in December 2012, only to make a complete U-turn on the decision in the final weeks of 2013. Despite these setbacks and the dismal pattern of indecision, I want to congratulate Group B Strep Support on all that it has achieved to raise awareness of this terrible, unnecessary infection since its founding in 1996, and to ensure that the issue is at least on the agenda among the key decision makers, even if they do nothing about it.

The charity has one overarching objective: to eradicate group B strep infection in newborn babies. To achieve that objective, which is frankly military in its clarity and precision, the charity informs and supports families affected by group B strep, educates the relevant health professionals and pushes for improvements. The charity has virtually single-handedly raised awareness of group B strep from virtually nothing to a position where one in 10 new and expectant mothers had heard of it in 2006, and five in 10 new and expectant mothers had heard of it in 2015. Amazingly, the NHS does not routinely provide information about group B strep as part of standard antenatal care, which makes that a significant achievement for a small charity. The charity has covered for an inexplicable shortcoming on the part of the NHS.

From the very start, Group B Strep Support has pushed for improvement to policy and practice, and it has done an extraordinarily good job. It is my view that the reason for the shortcoming is a fundamental disagreement between doctors, and we all know what that means. It is not clear to me why Ministers do not simply override this and order the test, which would save lives, and spare the tragedy and agony of those involved. I know that the Government say that they are committed to finding a way forward, but it is taking them a very long time to get there, and neither I nor the charity are one bit satisfied by the progress. When my hon. Friend the Minister winds up the debate, will he particularly mention group strep B and give us some hope that that cause will be considered?

The most wonderful young constituent of mine, an adorable girl aged 14 named Emily McStravik, came to see me at my surgery 10 days ago with her mother. Emily is a miracle child who survived two strokes at the age of 18 months. I shall be sending my hon. Friend the details of Emily’s case and the wider case for dealing with childhood stroke, which needs to achieve greater prominence and understanding. Stroke is one of the top 10 reasons why children die, and an alarming number of children who have had a stroke are misdiagnosed or sent home. There is no greater honour or privilege that Members of Parliament can have than to raise on the Floor of the House a child’s story and talk about her remarkable courage and survival. I would be grateful if my hon. Friend would examine carefully the information that I will be sending him from Emily and her family.

| Hansard

Thursday 13th October, 2016
Volume 615
No 42. Col 475

I am humbled to be responding to this debate. It is undoubtedly the most moving debate that I have participated in during the 11 and a half years I have been in the House and I pay an enormous tribute to all those who have spoken, particularly those who spoke of their own personal experiences. I shall touch on that further in a few moments. I want to start by congratulating my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) and for Colchester (Will Quince) on initiating this debate during baby loss awareness week. I also commend them on the remarkable progress they have made in launching the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss and on securing cross-party support for it. The group has had an unusually large impact compared with the plethora of other groups, and it has managed to achieve a Commons Chamber debate within a few months of being set up. That is an unusual and impressive achievement by them and the other officers of the group on both sides of the House.

Yesterday, hon. Members from across the House showed tremendous support for the work of the group. This was evidenced by the support from Mr Speaker in hosting a reception in his state rooms which was attended by many of the 21 pregnancy and baby loss charities that are dedicated to arranging support and care for families that go through this terrible experience. Events such as those that have taken place throughout the week here in the House—and indeed on Twitter, as the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders) mentioned earlier—help to raise awareness for the families who suffer this loss, often in silence. One of the things that has struck me most about this debate is the determination of those who have experienced such loss, either directly or through their families or constituents, not to allow the issue to remain in the closet.

I would like to address some of the comments that have been made and to applaud the contributions and interventions that we have had today from the more than 30 hon. Members who have spoken of their own personal experiences and those of their constituents. Interestingly, although we have had contributions from 17 Back-Bench women, we have also had contributions from 13 Back-Bench men, some of whom have had personal direct experience as well. Particularly moving have been the contributions from Members who have not raised their experience of this issue in public in this place before. They included the hon. Members for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis)—she might have mentioned it before, but she made another moving contribution today—my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Byron Davies) and the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan). Such personal testimony obviously touches the heartstrings of everyone who hears it, and there was barely a dry eye in the House ​when they were speaking. I pay tribute to their courage in making so clear the pain that they went through, either recently or some years ago. Foremost among those Members are my hon. Friends the Members for Eddisbury and for Colchester, who brought this matter so vividly to our attention with their speeches nearly 12 months ago.

I shall not go through every contribution that has been made today, but I shall try to refer to many of them in my remarks. In particular, I should like to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston for his very thoughtful contribution and for the spirit in which he made it. I shall try to address most of his questions as I continue. Before I forget, I should like to address the question put by my right hon. Friend the Member for Crawley—

Mid Sussex.

I am sorry. Have I got it wrong again?

My right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) asked about progress on screening for group B streptococcus, and I can reassure him that the UK national screening committee is reviewing its recommendation on antenatal screening for GBS carriage as part of its three-yearly review cycle. It will be taking new published evidence into account. We are anticipating that a public consultation will be held on this topic shortly, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will want to participate in it. Once it has been concluded, we will review the recommendations that emerge.

The loss of a baby is clearly devastating for its parents and the family, regardless of when or how the death occurs. Those experiencing the heartbreak of miscarriage, stillbirth, the death of an infant or the decision to terminate a much-wanted pregnancy need our support and kindness, and the acknowledgement that their child was here for a short time and was loved. I have been deeply struck by the comments about the lack of sensitivity that can occur when such a loss takes place, and it is absolutely right that the Department of Health should encourage best practice across the NHS in order to minimise the distress caused by insensitive conduct on the part of those involved in supporting families at this time.

Such feelings of loss are real, but as has been said, in particular by my hon. Friend the Member for Gower, who explained this dispassionately and clearly, the issues are often not discussed. Many of us do not realise that on an average day in England around 32 women will be diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy, 15 babies will be stillborn and eight babies born on that day will die before their first birthday. Most of those infants will probably be less than a month old. It is therefore important that we in Parliament discuss the issues around baby loss and the care for those families experiencing such tragedies.

I want to talk about the steps we are taking with the NHS to reduce stillbirths and other adverse maternity outcomes. I also want to talk about what we are doing to support families who experience this loss. England is a very safe country in which to have a baby, and it is encouraging that the stillbirth rate in England has fallen from 5.2 per 1,000 births in 2011 to 4.4 in 2015. In 2014, the neonatal mortality rate was 2.5 deaths per 1,000 births, and the rate of deaths in babies aged 28 days to ​one year was 1.1 per 1,000 births. Those rates have been steadily declining and are now at their lowest levels since 1986. There is, however, as we have clearly heard from every contribution today, more that we can do, and, as a Government, we are determined to do so.

It is important that we do not accept all miscarriages, stillbirths, pregnancy terminations or neonatal deaths as inevitable, or simply nature taking its course, as has been touched on by a couple of contributions today, because many of them might have been prevented.

When compared with similar countries, our stillbirth rates remain unacceptable. In the stillbirth series of The Lancet, which was published earlier this year, the UK was ranked 24th out of 49 high-income countries. The same publication showed that the UK’s rate of progress in reducing stillbirths has been slower than that of most other high-income countries. The annual rate of stillbirth reduction in the UK was 1.4% compared with 6.8% in the Netherlands. That places us, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury, in the bottom third of the table, in 114th place out of 164 countries around the world, for progress on stillbirths.

We also know that the rates of death in some higher risk groups are not coming down. Again, that was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester. According to the Twins and Multiple Births Association, stillbirth rates for pregnancies involving twins, triplets or more increased by 13.6% between 2013 and 2014. Multiple births make up 1.5% of pregnancies in the UK—around 12,000 pregnancies each year—but a disproportionate 7% of stillbirths and 14% of neonatal deaths.

We want NHS maternity services to be an exemplar of the kinds of results we can achieve when we focus on improving safety. With a concerted effort, we can make England one of the safest places in the world in which to have a baby. That was why, last November, the Secretary of State launched a national ambition to halve the rates of stillbirths, neonatal deaths, maternal deaths and brain injuries that occur during or soon after birth by 2030, with a shorter-term aim of achieving a 20% reduction in each of these rates by 2020. I am glad that that was recognised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury and pleased that she will be keeping an eye on the progress that we make each year to achieve those targets.

To support the NHS in achieving this stretching ambition, the Government have announced plans for investment. There will be a £2.24 million fund to support trusts to buy monitoring or training equipment to improve safety. More than 90 trusts have been successful in receiving a share of the fund, enabling them to buy equipment such as training mannequins, and fetal or maternal monitoring equipment such as carbon monoxide monitors and portable ultrasound equipment.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester acknowledged, we are also investing in the roll out of training programmes to support midwives, obstetricians and entire maternity teams to develop the skills and confidence they need together to deliver world-leading safe care. We hope to be able to say more about how maternity services can apply for this funding soon.

We are also providing funding via the Healthcare Quality Improvement Partnership for developing the new system—the standardised perinatal mortality review tool—which, once complete, should be used consistently ​across the NHS in Great Britain to enable maternity services to review and learn from every stillbirth and neonatal death. That was an important element of the APPG’s vision for the future. We need to develop proper learning and understanding from what goes wrong, and then the lessons learned should be spread to maternity services across the country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles) emphasised, many reports have highlighted that we do not effectively learn from our mistakes. Indeed, the guidelines of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists state that all stillbirths should be reviewed in a multi-professional meeting using a standardised approach on analysis for substandard care and future prevention. That is something that we would like to see taken up.

We must view individual failings as important and recognise the need for accountability, but balance that with a need to establish standard processes that can prevent avoidable mistakes from happening again. In April we established a new independent healthcare safety investigation branch to carry out investigations and share findings. The HSIB will operate independently of Government and the healthcare system to support continuous improvement by using the very best investigative techniques from around the world, as well as fostering learning from staff, patients and other stakeholders.

An important improvement in maternity care is care that is more collaborative and responsive to the needs of women. Several Members referenced the investigations by Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity, which has revealed that 45% of women who raised a concern with a health professional during pregnancy were not listened to and then went on to have a stillbirth. Clearly, that is not acceptable. All women should receive safe, personalised maternity care that is responsive to their individual needs and choices.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston asked where we are on supporting those with mental health conditions through pregnancy. I draw his attention to the announcement in January in which the Government set out that an additional £290 million will be made available over the next five years to 2020-21 to invest in perinatal mental health services. That is funded from within the Department of Health’s overall spending review settlement, and it will go a long way to providing support for women who are pregnant and need mental health counselling both before and after birth.

Last November we asked the national patient safety campaign Sign up to Safety, which was launched by the Government in 2014, to support all NHS trusts with maternity services to develop plans to improve safety and share best practice. In March this year we launched “Spotlight on Maternity”, with guidance for maternity services to improve maternity outcomes. This set out five high-level themes that are known to make maternity care safer that services could focus on: building strong clinical leadership; building capability and skills for all staff; sharing progress and lessons learned across the system; improving data capture and knowledge; and improving care for women with perinatal mental health problems.

In February this year, “Better Births”, the report of the independent national maternity review that was chaired by Baroness Cumberlege, was published, and hon. Members have touched on it today. It sets out that the vision is for maternity services across England to ​become safer, more personalised, kinder, more professional and more family-friendly. The Department of Health is leading the promoting good practice for safer care workstream of the maternity transformation programme that was launched last July to deliver the vision set out by the national maternity review, and we will set out our action plans shortly.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury highlighted, it is vital that we support research into the causes of stillbirths and neonatal deaths so that we can better understand how to identify babies at risk and improve services. In recent years, the Government have invested in research, looking at important questions regarding stillbirths and neonatal deaths. From 2012, the National Institute for Health Research biomedical research centres at Cambridge and Imperial College will have invested £6 million over five years in research on women’s health, including research to increase understanding of the causes of still births and neonatal deaths. We continue to encourage research bids for new studies that will help us to identify babies at risk.

The evidence shows that this stretching ambition cannot be achieved through improvements to NHS maternity services alone. The public health contribution will be crucial. As The Lancet stillbirth series concluded, some 90% of stillbirths in high-income countries occur antenatally and not during labour.

We heard from a number of hon. Members about the need to do more to highlight risks during pregnancy so that women are aware of what they can do while they are pregnant to minimise the risks. When starting pregnancy, not all women will have the same risk of something going wrong, and women’s health before and during pregnancy is one of the factors that influence rates of stillbirths, neonatal deaths and maternal deaths. We know that a BMI of over 40 doubles the risk of stillbirth, that a quarter of stillbirths are associated with smoking, and that alcohol consumption is associated with an estimated 40% increase to stillbirth risk. In addition, the MBRRACE—Mothers and Babies: Reducing Risk through Audits and Confidential Enquiries—report published in June last year showed that women living in poverty had a 57% higher risk, babies from BME groups have a 50% higher risk, and teenage mothers and mothers over 40 have a 39% higher risk.

I sense that the Minister is coming to the end of his speech—if you have anything to do with it, Madam Deputy Speaker. Will he give me a guarantee that he will look into the registration of stillbirths? He has not mentioned that yet.

I will come back to my hon. Friend’s point just as I conclude.

These striking facts are why the Department of Health will continue to work closely with Public Health England and voluntary sector organisations to help women to have a healthy pregnancy and families to have the best start in life. A new information campaign will be launched shortly, and I encourage all hon. Members to support it during the launch period.

I would like to say a few words before I conclude about the importance of delivering good bereavement care for those families who have experienced baby loss, which was a topic raised by many hon. Members. Having ​not gone through the experience myself, I can scarcely comprehend how devastating it must be for parents to lose a baby. It is important that parents receive appropriate care and support as sensitively as possible when that occurs. The MBRRACE report that I referenced stated that 60% of parents currently receive a high standard of bereavement care, but that clearly leaves 40% who do not, which is not good enough.

Since 2010, we have invested £35 million in the NHS to improve birthing environments, including better bereavement suites and family rooms at some 40 hospitals, to support bereaved families. I have seen some of those rooms, including the superb suite opened last month in the Medway Maritime hospital, which I think was one of those that indicated that it did not have such a suite when my hon. Friend the Member for Eddisbury undertook her research. We have heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) about the recent improvement in Nottingham.

We have been working with Sands, the Miscarriage Association, the Lullaby Trust and others to understand the challenges that maternity services face and to highlight areas of good practice. I am pleased that the all-party group’s report, which was published this week, recognises the work that we are supporting to develop an overarching bereavement care pathway to help to reduce the variation in the quality of bereavement care provided across the NHS.

In response to the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) in his intervention and elsewhere during the debate, I should like to say that I have been impressed by comments made about the distress caused by the registration of post-24 week baby loss, often in the same place where mothers with young babies are registering births. I can well imagine that that compounds the sense of grief. It is appropriate that we look at best practice and the common-sense delivery of registration to see whether it could be spread more widely, so I will ask officials to look at that, but I am not promising legislation.

I again thank again all hon. Members for participating in the debate and their deeply moving contributions. In particular, I thank those who secured the debate for their work in driving the all-party group and raising awareness across the nation. It is important that we as a Government try to drive an improvement in outcomes, and I reassure hon. Members that the Government are fully committed to reducing the number of babies who die during pregnancy or in the neonatal period, and to supporting those families who are bereaved. Although the Baby Loss Awareness Week events here in Westminster culminate with today’s important debate, other events are continuing to take place throughout the United Kingdom and internationally. I should like to encourage everyone to join in the global wave of light, which we heard about earlier this afternoon, by lighting a candle at 7 o’clock this Saturday 15 October and letting it burn for one hour in remembrance of all the babies who have died during pregnancy or at, during or after birth.

| Hansard


| Hansard

Protect Veterans Petition

Urgent legislation is required for the Statute of Limitations to prevent British military veterans from spurious and vexatious historic allegations and repeated prosecutions.
Sign the Protecting Veterans Petition here.