Lack of midwives despite baby boom
Half of English regions have cut their spending on maternity services despite an on-going baby boom, according to figures obtained by the Royal College of Midwives (RCM).
Only one English region is also meeting the recommended minimum staffing level for midwives, the union said.
The first set of figures, from a parliamentary question by Lib Dem MP Andrew George, showed five English regions cut spending on maternity services in 2012-13.
The East Midlands had the biggest cuts, with a 15% drop in spending over the year. London saw a 6% fall and Yorkshire & Humber, the North East and South West also had small spending cuts.
Some regions, including the south east coast region, did increase spending.
Separate figures also obtained by Mr George showed that just one English region is meeting the recommended midwifery staffing levels.
The RCM recommends maternity services have, as a minimum, one midwife to 28 births per year. The region with the worst ratio was south central with 40 and the east of England at 35.8.
The RCM said the figures are set against a backdrop of a 40-year high birthrate for England.
The last decade alone saw a 23% increase in births, it said.
The new figures were released at the RCM's annual conference in Telford.
Health minister Dr Dan Poulter said there was "a historical shortage" of midwives but added investment was already reversing that trend, with hundreds of new staff being trained each year.
Speaking at the conference, RCM chief executive Cathy Warwick said: "There is not one midwife practising today who has seen this level of births and demands on maternity services."
She challenged the Government to act urgently over the figures showing big shortages in midwives and spending. The RCM estimates there is a shortage of 5,000 midwives in England, and a shortage of specialist mother and baby units.
Dr Poulter said there was a "historical shortage on the ground in midwives" and acknowledged the best way to improve care was "to get more bodies on the ground".
He pointed to increased training rates, with 500 new midwives per year, but accepted there needed to be more support for trainees to ensure they completed their courses.
He said: "The number of midwives has increased by over 1,300 in the last three years, and the number of health visitors by over 1,000, with more than 5,000 now in training."
Dr Poulter added: "We have very safe care and high-quality care, and the challenge is that we continue to increase that care."
During a question-and-answer session with delegates, Dr Poulter was also asked whether there would be jobs waiting for student midwives at the end of their training.
"We now see about three quarters get jobs in the areas where they train," he replied.
Dr Poulter added matters had improved since his experiences in 2007 when "some midwives were going to work in Australia and New Zealand, which was an unacceptable state of affairs".
Mrs Warwick said: "I am constantly meeting midwives and far too often they are telling me of the unprecedented demands on their time and their struggle to deliver the safe, high-quality care they aspire to.
"Though some of these cuts were small, they are cuts nonetheless."
She added: "Health bosses are cutting spending blindly and we have yet to see the impact of this on staff numbers and on the care women are receiving.
"We recognise many regions are working hard to improve maternity services but these figures show there is still much to do."
Also addressing the conference was Labour's shadow health secretary Andy Burnham.
He said as the then minister he had left plans to train more midwives, who had now entered the workforce, but staff numbers were currently "nowhere near enough".
"Only one English region has an acceptable ratio of midwives to births and that should be worrying to all of us," he said.
"Cutting midwives is, in the end, a false economy because you see the spending on insurance premiums and legal claims going up if there aren't enough people on the ground to provide safe care.
"So this promise the Government made of 3,000 extra midwives has to be honoured and we will hold them to that promise and indeed when Labour's back in Government we'll ensure there are enough midwives to deliver safe staffing."