Black Maternal Healthcare and Mortality Debate

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Department: Department of Health and Social Care

Black Maternal Healthcare and Mortality

Marsha De Cordova Excerpts
Monday 19th April 2021

(3 years, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Marsha De Cordova Portrait Marsha De Cordova (Battersea) (Lab)
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It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Gary. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for leading the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I also congratulate the formidable campaigners Tinuke and Clo, the founders of the Five X More campaign, who got the petition debate in Parliament today. The petition received more than 180,000 signatures. It is not before time that such a huge injustice is finally receiving the attention it deserves.

We have heard some powerful contributions from right hon. and hon. Members this evening, including my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), the Chair of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. Just last year, the Committee published its report “Black People, Racism and Human Rights”, which contains shocking findings, particularly that the care that many black people receive is unequal to what is given to white people. I urge the Minister to accept all the recommendations of that report.

My hon. Friend the Member for Edmonton (Kate Osamor) highlighted, as others have done, the choice made in the report of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities to sideline the institutional and structural racism that exists across society, but more so in the health service. My hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) made a powerful contribution sharing her lived experience. I thank her for doing so, but also for her tireless campaigning on the issue. She has been brave, and I thank her for that.

More importantly, my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi) highlighted some of the issues related to underlying health conditions in her own experience of being diagnosed with fibroids and also of being a sickle cell carrier. I also urge the Minister to listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen), to give 20 minutes of her time to her and her constituent and to hear their experiences.

I also want to mention the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), who highlighted the fact that we need to focus more on issues relating to research. Unless we do the work, we will not move forward and bring an end to this crisis.

As we have heard, it is absolutely shameful that black women continue to be four times more likely to die in childbirth and pregnancy than white women. That inequality has existed for decades, with little action being taken to address it. [Interruption.]

Gary Streeter Portrait Sir Gary Streeter (in the Chair)
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Order. Does any Member present have to go to vote physically, or is everyone on a proxy vote? If everyone is happy, let us continue.

Marsha De Cordova Portrait Marsha De Cordova
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Last week I met campaigners, obstetricians, midwives and black, Asian and ethnic minority women with lived experience of maternal health complications. They were very clear that socioeconomic determinants such as income, housing and occupation and comorbidities only partially explain the inequalities affecting black maternal health. It is absolutely clear that structural racism is a driver of disparities in treatment, and it is a missed opportunity that the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities chose to sideline that important issue. I hope the Minister will choose to ignore and reject that view.

Black and Asian women, and their partners, regardless of their socioeconomic status, are not being listened to, not being respected and not being cared for. When they voice pain or concern during pregnancy or childbirth, they are branded as “aggressive” or “angry”, while dangerous stereotypes about “strong black women” mean that black women are often not offered the same treatment as white women.

It is outrageous that racist myths about black women having higher pain thresholds than other women continue to affect their treatment. Meanwhile, the lack of cultural competency in medical training means that complications experienced by black women are not spotted early enough. For example, black women have shared accounts of how their anaemia was not picked up soon enough because of the colour of their skin.

So I ask the Minister what action she is taking to tackle structural racism and to build trust in maternity services for black, Asian and ethnic minority mothers and their partners and for healthcare professionals, including midwives, as many have shared their experiences of occupational discrimination, as was highlighted in the Public Health England report last year. I would really like the Minister to address this issue. Additionally, cultural competency and unconscious bias training is an essential part of ending these inequalities, so will she commit to improving training in the health service and in medical schools?

We are all aware of the importance of data, which as we have heard is central to closing the maternal mortality gap. Many mothers and medical professionals have shared accounts of how pregnant women are recorded as being white if they do not disclose their ethnicity, meaning that it is difficult to track complications. Therefore, the recording of data is essential, so will the Minister commit to ensuring that all maternity services record the specific ethnicity of all mothers?

It is clear that fatalities are just the tip of the iceberg, with many women speaking of the near-misses and poor treatment they have experienced. I have heard from many medical professionals that data on near-misses could easily be made available, but it is not being. Will the Minister therefore commit to collecting and publishing data on maternal near-misses by ethnicity, and, if so, can she set a timeline for that commitment, with some clear milestones?

Midwives consider the continuity-of-care model as a way to help bridge some of these inequalities. A 2016 study found that women who see the same midwife throughout their pregnancy are 16% less likely to lose their baby. The NHS standard contract for 2019-20 stipulated that 35% of women will be booked on to a continuity-of-care pathway by March 2020. Can the Minister confirm whether that target was met? Can she also say what is being done to meet that target in the NHS long-term plan, which aims to provide continuity of care for 75% of black, Asian and ethnic minority women by 2024?

Before I close, I want to mention how the hostile environment is exacerbating this problem, as mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) and for Dulwich and West Norwood. Charging for maternity services and no recourse to public funds conditionality mean that many women are either becoming indebted as a result of their pregnancy or are turning away from health services all together for fear of being reported to the Home Office. Many women subject to charging are destitute and unable to pay, and three of the 209 women whose deaths were investigated in the 2019 MBRRACE-UK report were affected by charging for NHS maternity care. Does the Minister agree that charging women for maternity care is cruel and dangerous during this pandemic?

I want to make it clear that black maternal health and mortality is an avoidable inequality, and it is scandalous that the Government have not yet set a target to end this injustice in the NHS long-term plan, so will the Minister commit to doing so today? The NHS long-term plan sets many targets for other issues, so why not for black maternal health?

Let me be absolutely clear that a Labour Government would be committed to ending the crisis in black maternal health and mortality, and that the Government must take urgent action now. We need a national strategy to tackle health inequalities as a matter of urgency, which must include a target and a commitment to end the mortality gap between black, Asian and ethnic minority women and white women and to tackle structural racism once and for all, not deny its existence. We cannot afford for this not to be a priority.

Nadine Dorries Portrait The Minister for Patient Safety, Suicide Prevention and Mental Health (Ms Nadine Dorries)
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I thank all Members of the House who have taken the time to attend and speak in today’s debate, and particularly the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) for having secured the debate. Along with everyone else, I also thank the co-founders of the Five X More campaign, Clo and Tinuke, for their incredible work. Their petition to Parliament has generated a huge amount of interest and support, and their work to improve maternity mortality rates and healthcare outcomes for black British women is inspiring and brings this deeply important issue the attention it deserves.

Every woman deserves to have safe care, to feel that her voice has been heard and to be an informed decision maker in her own care. The NHS is one of the safest places in the world to have a baby. Few women in the UK die during childbirth. Between 2016 and 2018, 217 out of 2.2 million women died during, or up to six weeks after, pregnancy from causes associated with their pregnancy. That equates to 9.7 maternal deaths per 100,000 pregnancies. We also know from the MBRRACE-UK maternal mortality reports that some of these deaths could have been prevented. Sadly, evidence shows that, currently, there remains a more than fourfold difference between maternal mortality rates among women from black ethnic backgrounds and among white women in England. There also remains an almost twofold difference between women from Asian ethnic backgrounds and white women. Those disparities are worrying and must be addressed, and I have heard all of the calls to do that today.

However, let me address the points that have been raised by speakers today—many of which have been raised repeatedly—beginning with the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). We need to fundamentally understand why this issue occurs and why we have these disparities. The statistics tell only part of the story: the lived experiences of black women need to be understood, appreciated and heard for us to really gain an understanding of the full picture. I think it was the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) who read out some of the reasons for these disparities that are given in the report. As we know, and as we could tell from that report and from the list that she read, which was just the tip of the iceberg, the reasons are incredibly complex.

That is why, last month, I announced that the Government are embarking on the first women’s health strategy for England. That strategy is, first and foremost, about listening to women’s voices. The call for evidence that launched on International Women’s Day seeks to understand women’s experience of the health and care system, and we have already seen an incredible response to it. Many thousands of women across the country have come forward to share their experiences through the online survey, which takes just a few minutes to complete, so I will unashamedly make another call in this debate for any woman who has not yet completed the online survey to do so.

However, women from black and other ethnic minority groups are under-represented in the responses we have received so far, and today’s debate has reiterated just how important it is to ensure that the health and care system is listening to women of all backgrounds. I encourage any woman listening to this debate, and in particular women from black and ethnic minority groups, to come forward and have their voice heard. By better understanding women’s experiences, we can ensure that the health system truly meets the needs of women as they should be met. The complaint that women’s voices are not heard—that women are not listened to and are spoken down to in the healthcare sector—is a common one across the board from women, and was highlighted in Baroness Cumberlege’s recent “First Do No Harm” report.

Disparities in maternal mortality rates among women from different ethnic groups have been well documented for many years. The numbers are just not acceptable, and the Government are committed to reducing those inequalities. The charity Five X More has campaigned to make the NHS commit to a target to reduce inequalities and close the current gap in maternal mortalities. There are considerable limitations on producing an England-level indicator of maternal mortality by ethnicity. Many Members raised that point. The fact is that maternal deaths are rare, even among women from black ethnic groups. Because of the very low numbers, even a large reduction in mortality rates for a particular ethnic group would not necessarily be attributable to a genuine improvement in the quality of care.

Marsha De Cordova Portrait Marsha De Cordova
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The issue is that there is a need for a target. When a target is set, work can take place towards a reduction. The Minister says it might be difficult to record the figures by ethnicity. Could she explain why it would be difficult?

Nadine Dorries Portrait Ms Dorries
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I will go further and explain what we are hoping to do to make a difference. We know that for every woman who dies, 100 women have a severe pregnancy complication or a near miss. That has been mentioned a number of times. When that woman survives, she will often have long-term health problems. Disparities in the number of women experiencing a near miss also exist between women from different ethnic groups. Because near misses are more common than maternal deaths, we can investigate those disparities at local and regional level, to better understand the reasons for disparity, to assess local variation and to identify areas with less disparity and, hence, best practice.