£220k paid to trusts by 'pushy' photo firm targeting new mums on Northern Ireland maternity wards
A company has paid more than £220,000 to the NHS to allow its sales staff access to new mothers on hospital wards over the past five years.
Bounty representatives are allowed to make bedside sales pitches to mums, even when their babies are seriously ill in neonatal units.
Information provided by Northern Ireland's health trusts after Freedom of Information requests show they have received nearly £224,000 since 2014.
A survey of women carried out by BirthWise, a charity that supports expectant and new mums, also highlighted the hard sales tactics used by Bounty as they target women at one of the most vulnerable times in their lives.
Salespeople for the company are allowed on to postnatal wards, where they approach new mums, handing out packs containing a range of information, including how to claim child benefit.
During the bedside visits Bounty employees are allowed to try and sell Bounty portrait packages, with prices starting at £20.
They also encourage women to sign up to their parenting club, asking for personal information about mum and babies.
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The latest concerns about the company come months after it emerged it had been fined £400,000 - one of the largest penalties possible - for sharing its data with marketing agencies without users' permission.
One mum told the BirthWise survey: "I felt they can be quite pushy.
"My baby had just had a seizure and was taken off by a doctor and she was there trying to sell photos despite me sitting crying and telling her it wasn't a good time."
Another woman said: "I told the Bounty worker that I did not want photos.
"She came back later when my husband was there with promises of free pictures, which he was keen on, so I accepted getting photos done.
"This involved me getting out of bed - I had to ask to get back in it and get the photoshoot cut short as I was dizzy and felt sick.
"The Bounty worker then spent ages showing us all the pictures when all I wanted was peace and sleep. We eventually settled on the cheapest package, which turned out to be twice the amount she first quoted, by which point I asked her to leave as I was about to pass out.
"Awful, awful experience and completely uncalled for.
"Not the time and place to make a mother shell out £80 for photos of their newborn baby or feel like an awful mother for choosing not to.
"Bounty should be banned from wards in my opinion."
Another mum said of her experience: "I didn't want pictures taken of my child by her.
"She basically came into my cubicle and went straight to the baby. It made me very uncomfortable.
"She announced she was going to take pictures for me.
"Having had this with my first child, I knew I could say no, however, her approach was very full-on as if I didn't have a choice.
"I sent her away, much to her horror."
Another respondent said she had watched a Bounty representative spend the whole protected mealtime with a mum, allowing her food to go cold and be taken away untouched by hospital staff.
"It's shocking that the trusts allow this to happen," she added.
A different mum said the Bounty representative pulled back the curtain while she was trying to breastfeed, while another said the salesperson was "extremely pushy" and wouldn't give her time to consider the free photograph package. She said she felt pressured into buying the pictures as a result.
Seana Talbot, BirthWise chair, said while lots of women quite liked the Bounty visit, the majority of respondents found the visit intrusive and inappropriate.
At the same time as Bounty staff being allowed to approach new mums, partners and friends are only allowed restricted access to support and visit patients and their babies.
Ms Talbot said: "Many women commented that they were disturbed to experience commercial pressure at such a vulnerable time, and that they couldn't understand how it was allowed to happen.
"BirthWise is therefore calling on all trusts to consider ending Bounty contracts. If appropriate, alternative arrangements should be made to facilitate professional photography without commercial pressure and away from the women's bedside."
According to information provided by the health trusts, only the South Eastern Trust has a specific opt-out policy in place, where patients are provided with a permission card beforehand.
Other trusts said they do not have specific policies in place, but that patients can advise when they don't want a Bounty visit.
Meanwhile, access to wards for Bounty staff vary from trust to trust, with no specific restrictions relating to mealtimes or when a patient has their curtain drawn around their bed.
It emerged in April that Bounty was fined £400,000 after admitting sharing approximately 34.4m records between June 2017 and April 2018, selling information to the likes of Equifax and Sky.
Bounty did not respond to a request for comment.