Leading article: Not in new mothers' best interests

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The encroachment of commerce into NHS hospitals is not always and everywhere to be decried; there are times when being too other-worldly serves no one's interests. But the particular concerns we report today, on the basis of a survey conducted by the National Childbirth Trust, show that in some areas commerce has gone far too far.

The first has to do with contracts that allow commercial photographers exclusive access to maternity wards. Given the precautions many hospitals have in place to prevent abuse and abduction, and the way adults who come into contact with children are increasingly controlled, for instance by CRB checks, it seems extraordinary that commercial photographers are given such untrammelled access.

The second concerns the soliciting and sale of personal data. For years now, companies have bought the right to distribute information packs to expectant and new mothers, including free samples of goods. The benefit to the companies is clear: a captive audience for their brands. But the advantage does not stop there. Many of the distributors collect personal details, including recipients' names and addresses, then sell the lists on to others. A particularly dubious aspect is the inclusion in the packs of the government form to claim child benefit – which may lead families to believe the packs have official endorsement.

This points to the first step that should be taken: if child benefit forms are distributed in maternity wards, this should be quite separate from the distribution of samples packs, whose purpose as a marketing tool should also be made clear. By effectively selling access to new mothers, who may spend 48 hours or less on the maternity ward, hospitals are exploiting women at a particularly vulnerable point in their lives. This is a travesty of the protection they should expect from the NHS.

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