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Government Maternity Disparities Taskforce Only Met Twice Last Year

The Maternities Disparities Taskforce was set up in 2022 (Alamy)

5 min read

The government taskforce responsible for tackling disparities in maternity care only met twice in 2023, despite its terms of reference saying it would meet every two months.

In a letter to Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities Anneliese Dodds, Minister for Women Maria Caulfield revealed the Maternity Disparities Taskforce last met on Wednesday 31 January, and before that had met on 5th September 2023 and Tuesday 18 April 2023. 

The taskforce was established in 2022, stating in its terms of reference that meetings would be held every two months for an hour and a half discussion on key priorities and progress with delivery of interventions.

Senior Labour figures have criticised the taskforce for not taking “immediate action” and have warned that the Government is on track to miss its ambition to halve maternal mortality between 2010 and 2025. According to MBRRACE-UK, the annual investigation into the deaths of women during pregnancy and childbirth, the 2019-21 maternal mortality rate was 11.66 per 100,000 maternities. This is an increase from a rate of 10.63 ten years ago in 2009-2011.

Abena Oppong-Asare, Shadow Minister for Women’s Health and Mental Health, said: “The rate of Black and Asian women dying in pregnancy or childbirth has been too high for too long. In fact, the number of women dying has reached its highest level in almost 20 years.  

“Instead of taking immediate action to address this unacceptable reality, this Government’s Maternity Disparities Taskforce only met twice in 2023.”

The objectives of the taskforce were to tackle disparities in maternity care by improving access to effective pre-conception care and maternity care for women from ethnic minorities and those living in the most deprived areas. It also set out that it would explore how to reduce rates of smoking, drinking and drug use in pregnancy, and improve access and support for informed decision-making during childbirth for women.

Labour's Oppong-Asare and Shadow Women and Equalities Secretary Anneliese Dodds recently visited the Motherhood Group in South London and last week, Oppong-Asare addressed the Black Maternal Health conference. The shadow minister set out how Labour’s plans for a Race Equality Act would introduce a new target to close the maternal health gaps experienced by Black and Asian women and those living in deprived areas.

“Mums dying in childbirth is an awful tragedy,” Dodds said. 

“The fact that these figures are rising shames this government. And the fact that Black and Asian women are more likely to die in childbirth shows how much more needs to be done to close this gap.  

“The lack of action from the Government is inexcusable. Labour would set an explicit target to close this gap and reverse these worrying trends.”  

Sandra Igwe, founder and CEO of The Motherhood Group said there was an “urgent need” for such disparities to be addressed.

“I am deeply committed to addressing the stark disparities in maternal health outcomes for Black women in the UK,” she said.

“My personal experience as a Black mother, combined with the countless stories I've heard from other women in our community, has highlighted the urgent need for action on this critical issue. We need bold leadership and concrete actions to ensure that no more Black women lose their lives needlessly during what should be a joyous time.”

Dodds had already criticised the taskforce last year for the infrequency of its meetings. Responding to Dodds in Parliament in April 2023, Caulfield said: “We absolutely recognise that these disparities have existed for decades, and we are the first Government ever to recognise that and to set up a maternity disparities taskforce to tackle the problems. 

“We met on 18 April, and have set about introducing the toolkit that will enable us to look at pre-conception care. As we know, many women face disparities long before they become pregnant and long before they give birth, and it is tackling those pre-conception disparities that improves their outcomes.”

The Maternity Disparities Taskforce also declined to provide minutes and metrics for gauging the success of the Taskforce to the Women and Equalities Select Committee last year, after a committee report highlighted “appalling” disparities in maternal deaths.

In June last year, Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee and Tory MP Caroline Nokes said the government's response had "stopped short of the significant action we need to end these appalling disparities in maternal deaths". 

"We remain very concerned and will continue to apply pressure on the Government to make progress to end the disparities once and for all," she said.

Responding to the latest update, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring all women receive safe and compassionate care from maternity services and we’ve made progress in improving outcomes.

“The Maternity Disparities Taskforce will help us make further improvements by bringing together experts from across the health system, government departments and the voluntary sector to tackle disparities in maternity care.

“The taskforce met most recently in January 2024, and continues to make good progress against its objectives – this is not just a matter of holding meetings, work is also carried out between meetings, for instance devising and testing the upcoming toolkit on pre-conception care.”

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