The Women and Equalities Committee has called on the Government to set a definitive target to eliminate “appalling” disparities in maternal deaths. Black women are almost four times more likely to die from childbirth than white women. Maternal death rates in deprived areas are on the rise, with women in the most deprived areas 2.5 times more likely to die than those in the least deprived areas.
In a new report, MPs conclude the current Government and NHS measures to address the disparity in maternal deaths are “necessary but insufficient”. The Committee is “concerned” that the Government and NHS leadership have “underestimated” the extent to which racism plays a role in perpetuating inequalities.
The Committee highlights maternity staffing shortages as a barrier to tackling inequalities and implementing safety measures such as continuity of carer. It backs the call made by the Health and Social Care Committee, when Jeremy Hunt was its Chair, for an annual uplift of £200-350 million to appropriately resource maternity units.
The report is critical of the Government’s handling of the taskforce set up to tackle disparities in maternity care. This was intended to meet every two months but hasn’t met for nine months. The Committee “remain concerned” that the taskforce’s terms of reference do not reflect the multiple and complex reasons underlying the disparities, including no mention of racism. It recommends the taskforce publish tangible metrics for its success and update the Committee on a six-monthly basis.
MPs highlight missing and inadequate data collection on ethnicity as a persistent challenge as well as frustration that black women are regularly underrepresented in research. The Committee calls on the NHS to prioritise capturing ethnicity data and reduce delays in data delivery. It also asks the Government to make ensuring black women are better represented in maternal health research a focus of the Maternity Disparities Taskforce.
Chair of the Committee, Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP, said:
“NHS births are among the safest in the world and yet we continue to see appalling disparities in maternal deaths. It is shocking that black women are almost four times more likely to die from childbirth than white women.
Thanks to the tireless work of campaigners more attention has been paid to maternal health disparities in recent years, but improvements are not happening quickly enough.
One of our biggest concerns is staffing shortages in maternity care. We need to see a sustained uplift in funding to bolster a workforce that has been stretched to its limits. We are also afraid the Government and NHS have not fully grasped that racism has played a key part in the complex reasons underlying the disparities, and that eradicating it is part of the solution.
It is unacceptable that we consistently hear poor quality data on ethnicity is hindering efforts to address inequality. The onus is on authorities to improve data collection practices. We cannot let these women remain invisible to the systems supposed to serve them.
Government must be more ambitious and set a national target to end disparities. It is frankly shameful that we have known about these disparities for at least twenty years. It cannot take another twenty to resolve.”