HC Deb 27 October 1987 vol 121 cc153-4
4. Mrs. Fyfe

asked the Secretary of State for Social Services what steps he takes to ensure that the number of available maternity beds is sufficient for comfort and safety during confinement.

Mrs. Currie

It is regional health authorities in England who are responsible for maternity services, and this includes determining the number of maternity beds. I am satisfied that we have plenty of beds. The Health Service in Scotland, which covers the hon. Lady's constituency, is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Mrs. Fyfe

Will the Minister agree to conduct a review of existing maternity services both in England and Wales and in Scotland? Many women thoughout Britain would dispute her complacent response to this matter. They know from direct experience that the service is not always satisfactory. Does the Minister agree that it is vital that women should feel confident that the service offered is safe and secure for them and for their babies? Therefore a review would be in order. The Government should consult not only the area health authorities but women's groups.

Mrs. Currie

The hon. Lady asked me about beds. We have plenty of maternity beds throughout the country. Occupancy of maternity beds ranges from 59 per cent. in the Trent regional health authority area, which covers my area, to 70 per cent. in Glasgow. The average maternity bed produces only one baby per week. That does not suggest overcrowding or excessive pressure on resources.

Mr. Redwood

Is my hon. Friend aware that in the West Berkshire district health authority area one of the problems in keeping beds open is the high cost of recruiting labour, which is extremely difficult given the national average rates agreed? Does she have any proposals for breaking the log-jam so that we may recruit the staff that we need to keep the beds open?

Mrs. Currie

For some time it has been our policy to pay to our staff—including midwives—the rates of pay that the review boards recommend. That includes a 9 per cent. pay rise this year. As a simple matter of fact, there has been a large increase in the number of midwives whom we employ, from 20,000 when we took control in 1979 to nearly 23,000 in 1985.

Mr. Beith

Will the Minister note that if the Northumberland health authority goes ahead with its plan to close down all the maternity beds in Alnwick many babies will be born, not in maternity units, but in ambulances on 40mile journeys to a distant hospital? Will she take careful note of that when the matter eventually comes before her?

Mrs. Currie

If the community health council objects to any major proposal for such a change, the matter will come before Ministers in due course. We treat each proposal on its merits and we try ultimately to base our decision on the interests not only of mothers but of babies.

Ms. Harman

Will the Minister take steps to improve maternity services so that pregnant women do not have to wait for hours in ante-natal clinics to see a different doctor or midwife on each visit? Will she ensure that extra resources are rapidly provided to regional health authorities when there is a sudden increase in the birth rate, to avoid women being left not knowing in which hospitals their babies will be born? Will she also increase the number of special care baby cots so that all low birth weight babies have a fighting chance of survival?

Mrs. Currie

I could not agree more with the hon. Lady's first sentence. The way in which pregnant women are made to wait is sometimes a disgrace, but that is a matter not of resources, but, frequently, of the need for careful management and treating the individual as a human being rather than just as a patient.