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Maternity Services

Volume 467: debated on Tuesday 13 November 2007

3. If he will make a statement on the level and quality of provision of maternity services in Sussex. (162932)

7. If he will make a statement on the downgrading of maternity services in (a) Eastbourne and (b) England. (162936)

Proposals for the reconfiguration of services and the responsibility to provide the appropriate level of very high-quality maternity services are a matter for the NHS locally, working in conjunction with clinicians, patients and other stakeholders. The safety of mothers and babies is our top priority. In April, we published “Maternity Matters”, which sets out how we will deliver local provision of safe, high-quality maternity care for all women and their babies.

Is the Minister aware that, under proposals tabled by two separate and unconnected primary care trusts, two of the three hospitals that supply maternity services to my constituents—the Eastbourne district general hospital and the Princess Royal in Haywards Heath—will see those services disappear? The third hospital, the Royal Sussex in Brighton, is already at capacity and regularly turns mothers away because it cannot handle the extra casework. Is she going to take action to intervene, or will she provide mobile facilities for mothers who cannot make it to the nearest hospital?

Yesterday, I met Nick Yeo, the chief executive of both the East Sussex Downs and Weald PCT and the Hastings and Rother PCT, so I am well aware of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. The local health overview and scrutiny committee has referred the consultation process to the Secretary of State for Health, and the Independent Reconfiguration Panel is currently considering the referral.

But is the Minister aware that when asked about maternity services on 6 November this year on BBC Radio 2, the Secretary of State said that

“you shouldn’t be going 20 miles, 20 miles is a bit far”?

Will she therefore abandon today the absurd and dangerous proposals that, in my area, will involve pregnant mothers travelling 21 miles over the extremely poor roads between Eastbourne and Hastings?

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has experience himself of remarks sometimes being taken out of context. The consultation in his constituency ended on 27 July and the PCT is evaluating the responses to that consultation. Therefore, we have to wait, but I am happy to see him at any time he wishes.

My hon. Friend will know that the reorganisation of maternity services in Greater Manchester is one of the largest, if not the largest, in the whole country. She will also know that the report of the Independent Reconfiguration Panel gave an absolute assurance that no change should take place to local services until community midwifery and community paediatric services were fully in place. Can she repeat the importance of that guarantee now in view of the fact that, last week, the health authority published a timetable that would appear to make it extremely difficult to fulfil the promise of the IRP?

I can say to my hon. Friend today that the safety of mothers and their babies is our priority at all times and the views of clinicians and midwives are always taken into account.

Is the Minister aware of the magnificent work done by the Support the Princess Royal campaign in Haywards Heath to save the maternity services mentioned by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker)? Is she also aware that because of the Government’s outlandish housing targets for the north of Sussex, the population is growing at such a pace that to have the idea that it would be sensible to downgrade maternity services at the Princess Royal is really an act of folly? Will she receive a delegation from the Support the Princess Royal campaign to discuss this matter with them?

The hon. Gentleman raised this issue in an Adjournment debate of which I took serious note. As I have said to the House, the views of clinicians and the safety of mothers are paramount at all times. If he wants to bring new evidence to me, he should by all means do so.

If the Minister is serious that clinicians’ views and the interests and safety of mothers and babies are paramount, why is a proposal being made to downgrade maternity services at Chase Farm hospital without the clinical evidence? Why is it that that unit, along with the others mentioned in the House today, are close to the level that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommends should be kept open?

There is no evidence at all that the clinicians’ views in any of the reconfigurations are not being taken seriously. Safety for mothers is paramount, and that is why we have the safest record in Europe and one that is even safer than that of the United States. That point is on the record. We have to say that reconfiguration sometimes causes distress through the consultation, but the consultation will proceed at all times by taking into account the safety of mothers and babies.

Is the Minister aware that on the first Sunday in June, the maternity units at Brighton, Eastbourne, Worthing, Hastings and Haywards Heath were all full and stopped admitting pregnant mothers? With a rapidly growing population in Sussex, and with units already at capacity, is it not madness to be suggesting that there should be fewer units, rather than maintaining those that are there now?

I am sorry to keep repeating this, but there is no other answer. We have to look at the safest practice for mothers and babies, and clinicians are asking us to do so. I am sure that the local health economy has taken these points into account.

Would the Minister accept that the quality and safety of maternity services very much depends on the midwifery profession? I declare an interest as an honorary vice-president of the Royal College of Midwives. I know that the Minister is aware that there is a shortage of midwives in both the community and hospitals. Will she seek to do something to increase the number of midwifes to benefit maternity services throughout England, including in Sussex?

I am sure that the Royal College of Midwives is very pleased to have the hon. Gentleman as an honorary vice-president. Being a friend to midwives is always a popular thing to do. I assure him that 1,000 extra midwives are being recruited. We are looking seriously at return-to-practice courses for midwives who have left for a variety of family reasons. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that more needs to be done, but that is what we are doing, and I look forward to working with him to achieve that.

Is the Minister aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) is leading a march through the streets regarding maternity services in his area? Is she also aware that according to a recent survey by the Royal College of Midwives, two thirds of midwives say that they have considered leaving the profession, while almost half those people state that increased work load and having to compromise care are the main reasons why? How does the Minister expect to fulfil the Government’s aspirations of choice when people in the maternity services are demoralised, when more midwives are leaving than joining, when the birth rate is up 12.5 per cent.—

Order. I have got to say to the hon. Lady that she must not make a speech from the Dispatch Box. She is asking a supplementary question.

Perhaps I could give some general tips on marching because I marched throughout the ’80s and ’90s when the Conservative Government were in power. We were constantly marching and raising money for services. Many members of the profession were leaving then, but members of the profession today are pleased to be involved in the review in which the NHS is participating, and they will be celebrating 60 years of the NHS with us next year.