Public Health Guidance and Baby Loss Debate

21st March 2017

Philip Dunne responds on behalf of the Government to a debate on public health guidance and baby loss and particularly highlights the importance of addressing smoking during pregnancy which is the main modifiable risk factor.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Will Quince) on securing this debate on public health guidance and baby loss. I also congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on scheduling it on a day when the other business, inexplicably, was so curtailed, thereby enabling some very distinguished Members on both sides of the House who chair directly relevant all- party groups to make unusually—I would not say unprecedentedly, Mr Speaker, because you would be better placed than I to say whether it was unprecedented—long contributions in an Adjournment debate, and very welcome they were too.

We know from families who have experienced baby loss that the silence that often surrounds the loss can make the experience much harder. For that reason, I join the tributes from the right hon. Member for Rother Valley (Sir Kevin Barron) and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester for the work that he does in leading the all-party parliamentary group on baby loss and for bringing the experiences that he has suffered to bear on this issue a number of times.

Before I address the specific points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester—I counted six challenges that he laid down in his speech, and I will try to address each of them—as I have the luxury of a little time, I will set the scene on the work the Government are undertaking to reduce adverse outcomes during pregnancy and the neonatal period.

My hon. Friend referred to the maternity transformation programme in England, which began a year ago. It provides an opportunity to shape services for the future. Improving women’s health requires a collaborative approach across the entire health system, including commissioners, primary care, maternity services, public health and local authorities, to meet the needs of women and their partners. The result of all that work is that England is a very safe country in which to have a baby. Sadly, a small number of babies are stillborn or die soon after birth but, according to the latest figures, stillbirths and neonatal deaths occur in 0.5% and 0.3% of births respectively.

We are absolutely committed to improving maternity care and recognise that every loss is a personal tragedy for the family concerned. As a result, it is our national ambition to halve the rate of stillbirths, neonatal deaths, maternal deaths and brain injuries that occur during or soon after birth by 50% by 2030. We are making considerable progress. The other day, I had the privilege of attending the Royal College of Midwives awards ceremony—one of the more enjoyable parts of my role in the Department of Health—where I was able to confirm that since 2010, the proportion of stillbirths is down by 10%, the proportion of neonatal deaths by 14% and the proportion of maternal deaths by 20%. Our plan is having some effect, which is very pleasing, but there is always more that we can do.

To support the NHS in achieving this ambition, we have a national package of measures with funding attached, including: an £8 million maternity safety training fund to support maternity services in developing and maintaining high standards of leadership, teamwork, communication, clinical skills and a culture of safety; a media campaign, “Our Chance” comprising 25 animations and videos targeted towards pregnant women and their families to raise awareness of the symptoms that can lead to stillbirth; and a £250,000 maternity safety innovation fund to support local maternity services to create and pilot new ideas.

The fund was allocated in the past couple of weeks. One project that secured funding will develop a one-stop multidisciplinary care clinic for women with diabetes, hypertension, morbid obesity and epilepsy. Another project aims to develop a pathway whereby all women with high carbon monoxide breath test results—this was referred to by my hon. Friend—are referred for serial ultrasound measurements to provide them with more information about the potential impact of smoking on the child they are carrying. We are also investing £500,000 to develop a new tool to enable maternity and neonatal services to systematically review and learn from every stillbirth and neonatal death in a standardised way.

The Government are seeking to put in place infrastructure to improve maternal health, but clearly young mothers, partners and families have a role to play too. The evidence shows that the national maternity ambition cannot be achieved through improvements to NHS maternity services alone and the public health contribution will be crucial. It is vital that women and their families are made aware of and understand the lifestyle risk factors that can impact on the outcomes for them and their babies, and the changes they can make to increase their likelihood of positive outcomes. Hon. Members referred to a number of them.

As soon as a lady knows she is pregnant, she should be encouraged to contact her maternity service for a full assessment of health, risk factors and choices, so that a personalised plan of care can be prepared. Women with complex social factors, in particular teenagers and those from disadvantaged groups, do not always access maternity services early or attend regularly for antenatal care, and poorer outcomes are reported for both mother and baby. Maternity services need to be proactive in engaging all women.

Early in pregnancy, a midwife will provide a woman with information to support a healthy pregnancy. This will include information about nutrition and diet, including supplements such as folic acid and vitamin D as well as lifestyle advice, central to which is smoking cessation—on which my hon. Friend focused his remarks—the risks of recreational drug misuse and alcohol consumption, which my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham focused on in his remarks.

When starting pregnancy, not all women will have the same risk of something going wrong, and women’s health before and during pregnancy are some of the factors that most influence rates of stillbirth, neonatal death and maternal death. We know that a body mass index of over 40 doubles the risk of stillbirth. A quarter of stillbirths are associated with smoking, and alcohol consumption is associated with an estimated 40% increase to stillbirth risk. In addition, the MBRRACE-UK perinatal mortality surveillance report, published in June last year, showed that women living in poverty have a 57% higher risk of having a stillbirth. Women from black and minority ethnic groups have a 50% higher risk, and teenage mothers and mothers over 40 have a 39% higher risk of having a stillbirth.

Those striking facts are why the Department of Health will continue to work closely with Public Health England and voluntary organisations to help women to have a healthy pregnancy and families to have the best start in life. Last year, NHS England published new guidance that aims to reduce the number of stillbirths in England. Building on existing clinical guidance and best practice, the guidance was developed by NHS England working with organisations including the Royal College of Midwives, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, British Maternal and Fetal Medicine Society and Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity. The Saving Babies’ Lives Care Bundle includes key elements intended to significantly impact on stillbirth rates through reducing smoking in pregnancy, detecting foetal growth restriction, raising awareness of reduced foetal movement and improving effective foetal monitoring during labour.

I now come specifically to the challenges posed by smoking in pregnancy. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester stole most of my thunder by declaring many of the statistics on the impact of smoking, but I am particularly pleased that he focused on the fact that the plan, as set out in the tobacco control plan for England in 2011, which set a target to reduce the number of women smoking in pregnancy to 11% or fewer, has now been achieved at the national level, with a rate of 10.6% for England as a whole. As my hon. Friend also pointed out, this masks wide geographical variations across the country, ranging from 4.9% across London to 16.9% in Cumbria and the north-east. There was an even greater difference at the level of clinical commissioning groups, from which I believe my hon. Friend collected his statistics. These range from 1.5% at the low end to over 26% at the higher end, which is clearly a totally unacceptable variation.

Although we have made progress in recent years, about 70,000 babies continue to be born each year to mothers who smoke—and more if we include exposure to second-hand smoke. My hon. Friend made an interesting observation about the impact of partners continuing to smoke while their partners are pregnant. My hon. Friend mentioned the figure of 25%, so for one in four pregnant women their partners continue to smoke. That is an area on which we need to focus our attention and seek to raise the awareness of the impact of passive smoking. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue.

Smoking during pregnancy is the main modifiable risk factor for a range of poor pregnancy outcomes. It is known to cause up to 2,200 premature births, as my hon. Friend said, 5,000 miscarriages and 300 perinatal deaths every year across the UK. It also increases the risk of developing a number of respiratory conditions, attention and hyperactivity difficulties, learning difficulties, problems with the ear, nose and throat, obesity and diabetes. Pregnant women under 20 are six times more likely to smoke than those aged 35 or over. Specialist stop smoking support, while available to pregnant women, clearly needs to be targeted on those higher-risk groups. That provides much of the challenge that my hon. Friend set for us in his remarks.

We are looking to take considerable action to advance the cause of reducing smoking. My hon. Friend asked in particular when we intend to publish the next iteration of the tobacco control plan. He asked me to define a well-used parliamentary term—“shortly”. I regret to say that it is way beyond my pay grade to provide closer definitions of that term. There are others, including someone who recently arrived in the Chamber, who might have some influence on the speed with which plans emerge from the Government. I very much hope that we will be able to progress with the next iteration of the tobacco control plan in the next few months.

My hon. Friend referred to the babyClear programme, which is about informing pregnant women about the risks they run from continuing to smoke. It is an important programme that has been evaluated by Newcastle University, which published some findings last month. We think that this is closely aligned with the NICE guidance, which is appropriate. It builds on the point made by my hon. Friend and by the hon. Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson) about the sensitivity involved in giving advice to pregnant women. My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham referred to the mental health challenges that pregnancy can cause for some women. I think there is a sensitivity involved in the delivery of hard-hitting messages to women who find it impossible to shake their addiction to smoking. We must be aware, in conveying the message that persisting in smoking during pregnancy may lead to long-lasting damage to the baby, that there may be mental health implications to which we need to be alert.

My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester mentioned the possibility of introducing an opt-out, rather than an opt-in, for carbon monoxide testing of women who present as pregnant to their maternity services. That is an interesting idea, and I am certainly willing to discuss it with NHS England and the Department. If it is possible for such a test to identify pregnant women who are smoking, it would be foolish of us not to introduce it.

My hon. Friend referred to the maternity transformation plan. I will write to him giving a specific response to his ideas and explaining how they might be used to embed smoking cessation in the nine elements of that plan. I cannot give him a similar reassurance about the training programmes for midwives, because they are determined independently by the Nursing & Midwifery Council and it is not for me to prescribe what should be involved in such training, but the debate will doubtless be heard by the midwife trainers.

My hon. Friend’s final request was for a warning on cigarette packets that would specifically alert people to the risks of smoking during pregnancy. Again, I am afraid that that is not in my gift, but it is a very interesting idea. As was pointed out by the right hon. Member for Rother Valley, there are already some stark and shocking images on cigarette packaging. We have just engaged in a major consultation that has led to the introduction of plain packaging. I suggest that my hon. Friend send his proposals to those who are responsible for monitoring the impact of plain packaging across Government.

I hope that I have addressed my hon. Friend’s points. Let me now respond to the requests from the right hon. Member for Rother Valley, who is the vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on smoking and health, in relation to e-cigarettes. He suggested that, as a research priority, we should ask Public Health England to consider whether they are helpful or unhelpful in encouraging pregnant women to stop smoking, and also whether the nicotine contained in them could lead to foetal damage in the future. I think that that is potentially an interesting subject for research, and I should be happy to pose the question to Public Health England.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham was able to contribute to the debate, because he is very knowledgeable about these issues. He welcomed the progress that is being made in reducing smoking, and I am glad he recognised that. However, he focused many of his remarks on another aspect of public health guidance, in his capacity as chair of the all-party parliamentary group for foetal alcohol spectrum disorder.

 

I am not the chair. I am an officer.

 

I stand corrected.

Significant health messages are being sent about the consequences of continuing to drink while pregnant, and, again, progress is being made. I do not have the figures in front of me relating to the level of alcohol that pregnant women continue to consume, but the Government share my hon. Friend’s ambition. We must continue to bear down on alcohol consumption, because it has the potential to cause lifelong harm to babies.

My hon. Friend finished with a request that we consider once more the registration date for stillbirths, and his example of the twins falling either side of the 24-week definition puts the points very concisely and starkly. Again, I am not in a position to give him comfort on that issue here and now, but I will write to him, having consulted colleagues in the Department of Health on where we stand on it.

On that basis, I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester for securing this debate and giving us the opportunity to spend almost an hour, I think, discussing this subject, which is unusual and welcome.

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