Government refuses extra funding to tackle ‘appalling’ racial disparity in maternal deaths

Tory MP Caroline Nokes criticises government for rejecting cross party calls for more support

Nadine White
Race Correspondent
Friday 30 June 2023 13:49 BST

Ministers’ rejection of calls for targets and extra funding to end ‘appalling’ racial disparities in maternal deaths has been criticised by cross-party MPs.

The government has responded to the Women and Equalities Committee’s recommendation to investigate the role of racism in maternal deaths, saying that a concrete target “does not necessarily focus resource and attention through the best mechanisms.”

While it was acknowledged that the government “must do more” to ensure maternity care is consistent regardless of ethnicity, a recommendation to increase the annual budget for maternity services to £200–350 million was rejected.

Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, Caroline Nokes MP, said: “The government’s commitment to ending maternal health disparities is welcome, as is its promise to scope out a review of maternity staff training and update us on the progress of the Maternity Disparities Taskforce.

“However, I am afraid its response stops short of the significant action we need to end these appalling disparities in maternal deaths.

“Our inquiry clearly found that without further funding, it will not be possible to implement measures such as continuity of care and to combat inequalities, due to considerable staffing shortages across maternity services.

“We remain very concerned and will continue to apply pressure on the government to make progress to end the disparities once and for all.”

‘Concerned’ (PA Wire)

In April, MPs on the committee warned the role of racism in the “appalling” disparity in maternal deaths may have been underestimated by the government and NHS.

Ministers partially accepted one of the committee’s recommendations and said NHS England will “carry out a scoping exercise” on a review of training material and continuing professional development requirements for all maternity staff.

The government agreed to update the Committee on a six-monthly basis on the progress of the Maternity Disparities Taskforce, however declined to provide minutes and metrics for gauging the success of the Taskforce, saying there is “clear value” in flexibility and adaptability.

It says pre-pregnancy care will be the focus for the Taskforce for the next twelve months but will keep suggestions for future focus under consideration.

The government said each Local Maternity and Neonatal System has produced an Equity and Equality Action Plan which will be published by 31 March 2024.

In April, the Committee’s report highlighted “appalling” disparities in maternal deaths, referring to the latest available figures for 2018-20.

Black women are almost four times more likely to die from childbirth than white women, Asian women 1.8 times more likely, and women in the most deprived areas 2.5 times more likely to die than those in the least deprived areas. These disparities have increased between 2018 and 2021, according to a study by MBRRACE-UK.

Labour MP Anneliese Dodds, Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary, said: "Dying in childbirth is a thankfully rare tragedy but it is one that is on the rise. This, and the disproportionate level of maternal mortality for Black women, should shame this government.

"The Conservatives’ negligent approach to this serious issue is, frankly, a dereliction of duty. First we saw the government’s own maternal disparities taskforce go nine months without meeting. Now the Conservatives are refusing to take concrete steps to address these worrying trends. This lacklustre response shows that they just don’t get the scale of this problem.

"Labour will commit to setting a clear target within the NHS to close the gap. Labour will provide the staff, technology, and reform the health service needs, so it is there for us when we need it once again.  And we will make tackling race inequalities a key focus of government, including tackling this glaring gap, through our Race Equality Act."

Responding to the government’s announcement, UK charity Birthrights said it “ fails to recognise it is systemic racism not broken bodies that is the root cause of disparities”.

A spokesperson added: “It is an insult to blame women and birthing people for the unequal outcomes they face.”

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