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WI joins battle for more midwives

David Cameron promised funding for the midwifery service, but has yet to honour his pledge. Jonathan Owen reports on an NHS group in crisis

Britain's midwives are struggling with chronic staff shortages, closures of birth centres, mothers and babies dying on understaffed wards, and plummeting morale.

In marked contrast to the nostalgia of the hit TV series Call the Midwife, the situation is so dire that midwives have sought the support of the Women's Institute to put pressure on the Government after its failure to live up to its promises.

The WI is ready to take on the Prime Minister, after a landslide vote within the organisation made campaigning for the Government to tackle the "chronic shortages of midwives" its key battle over the coming year.

The ballot result comes as experts warn that morale among midwives is plummeting and lives are being put at risk, as too few qualified staff deal with Britain's baby boom.

In addition, an ageing workforce, – midwives, on average, are in their forties – represents a "demographic time bomb" according to the Royal College of Midwives (RCM).

Now the WI, which represents more than 200,000 women, has entered the debate. It is determined to hold David Cameron to account for his pre-election promise to create 3,000 more midwife posts, a pledge that he is yet to carry out.

The charity has become a formidable campaigning force since shedding its traditional "jam and Jerusalem" image, when the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was humiliated by a slow handclap at the WI annual conference in 2000. The years since have seen it mount successful campaigns on issues ranging from library closures to reforms to the Government's Legal Aid Bill.

With 96 per cent of delegates at the WI's annual conference in London last week voting to campaign for more midwives, the organisation is to hold talks with the RCM in the coming weeks, as the organisations join forces in a bid to lobby the Government on funding 5,000 new midwife posts.

Ruth Bond, chair of the National Federation of Women's Institutes, said: "The number of midwives is not keeping pace with the scale of the baby boom, resulting in an intolerable and unsustainable strain on the system." She added: "WI members will now be calling for more action to ensure maternity services are adequately resourced", with the issue to be "the main campaigning focus for the year to come".

Birth figures across Britain are higher than a decade ago. In England, 563,000 babies were born in 2001. The number increased by 22 per cent to 687,000 in 2010, the highest number in almost 40 years. But the number of full-time-equivalent midwife posts rose only 16 per cent, from 18,048 in 2001 to 20,790 in 2010.

Professor Lesley Page, president of the RCM, said: "There's been a baby boom and the numbers of midwives haven't kept up with the births. On top of that, care is more complicated than it used to be. We have an ageing group of women giving birth, and an increase in obesity, which means more problems in childbirth."

Midwives are under more pressure than any other group in the NHS, with 80 per cent doing unpaid overtime, according to new analysis by the RCM of data from the NHS staff survey. It claims that "midwives are more likely than other staff groups to face time pressures at work... and are more likely to see errors that could harm women and their babies".

With "fragmented" maternity care for women, the profession is in a "state of crisis", said Professor Mavis Kirkham, Emeritus Professor of Midwifery at Sheffield Hallam University. "Morale is at a very low ebb," she added.

There is not a single region in England that is meeting the nationally recommended ratio of one midwife for every 28 births, according to the latest reports from local supervising authorities responsible for the supervision of UK midwives. The picture is better for women in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where the recommended standards are met.

Janet Scott, research manager at Sands, warned: "Seventeen babies continue to be stillborn or die shortly after birth every day in the UK."

A Department of Health spokesperson said: "To ensure consistency of care, we have pledged that every woman will have a named midwife throughout their pregnancy and one-to-one midwife care during labour and birth."

But the Government has an uphill struggle to achieve this. One in four women does not have a midwife with her in labour or when she needs one, according to one RCM survey, while research last year showed half of newly qualified midwives and final-year students are finding it difficult to get a job.

Case studies...

'I never saw his eyes open or heard him cry. I'll never see him grow up'

Michelle Hemmington, 34, spent hours without being monitored when she went into labour at Northampton General Hospital last May. Her son, Louie, died within 30 minutes of being born. The parents are pursuing a claim for negligence

"I remember, every time we asked if there was a bed, being told that 'you've picked a bad day to have a baby'.... After Louie was born, he was put on my chest and the cord was cut, then staff tried to resuscitate him behind a curtain. Everyone was screaming for help... it sounded like chaos and panic. That went on for nearly half an hour before Paul and I were told our baby had died.... Every single day I go through my labour, I go through his birth and I go through his death. It was negligence, and it was to do with shortages of staff, but we've had no formal apology. It's not just one person who failed us, it's the whole system.

Louie was 7lb 7oz – he had lots of blond hair, and both of our features, which was lovely. But I never saw his eyes open, I never heard him cry, and I'll never see him grow up.... Losing our baby has been a major trauma for us both. It should have been one of the happiest days of our lives, but turned into a living nightmare. I can't do anything for Louie now. I just don't want others to go through what we have."

Our attempts to contact the hospital have been unsuccessful.

'I never thought I would give up midwifery before the age of 60, but it's horrendous now'

Belinda Akerman, 58, London. Retired last year after more than 30 years in midwifery, including 10 years at Guy's & St Thomas' Hospital

"Morale is at an all-time low – people are just exhausted and burnt out. There are a lot like me, deciding not to stay on until 60. I never, ever thought I would give up before the age of 60, but it's just horrendous now. The sheer pressure of high number of births... the numbers of midwives do not match the birth rate, and haven't for many years. David Cameron promised 3,000 extra midwives and we've never had that. He said all that before he got into office and of course, since then, we've gone on a steady decline."