If the coalition is committed to families, why are maternity services being cut?

The strain of austerity is beginning to show on maternal care provision.

Recent news that the health of pregnant women and new mothers is being negatively impacted as a result of the coalition’s budget cuts strikes an odd note:  like them or loathe them, if there’s one thing you can rely on Conservatives for, it’s proclaiming their allegiance to the family. When the brutality of the cuts began to show in areas like refugee services or young people from non-privileged backgrounds no longer applying to university, there was at least the grim ring of consistency – have the Tories ever credibly claimed to care about such constituencies? Similarly, when feminist groups like the Fawcett Society demonstrated that women were facing a double-burden of the recession and government cuts in the workplace, one didn’t need to stretch one’s imagination too far to place this in the broader picture of a Conservative Party who seems to prefer women both at home and "in their place". “Families” though, were safe in the arms of the Conservatives’ paternal concern. Never mind that the whole gamut of austerity measures, from the game-changing overhaul of higher education to the cutting up of the NHS, daily and tangibly corrode the wellbeing and future prospects of parents, children, communities – families, in short, of one kind or another.  Still the amorphous ideal of the "traditional" family unit was one the governing party claims to hold close to its heart.

It’s striking, then, that the latest area in which the government’s cuts are being felt is in maternal care. Framing its concern largely in terms of children, the Daily Mail (that other "family" cheerleader) recently reported that breastfeeding rates have been directly hit by the cuts to healthcare services, citing research by health data analysts SSentif that post-natal women living in areas where cuts to maternity services have come into effect are more likely to stop breastfeeding in the first eight weeks, due to lack of available support from midwives and healthcare visitors. Given the wealth of scientific evidence on the life-long benefits, for children, of being breastfed, the logic follows that there may likely be a long-term negative impact on a future generation’s health.

The blog FalseEconomy has detailed further reasons for, and consequences of, the increased strain on maternal care provision, including demographic shifts towards later pregnancies as a reason for an increase in "complex pregnancies" taking more time for midwives, and the "knock on" effect of cuts in other areas such as violence against women provisions and services to the homeless. It cites the Royal College of Midwives’ State of Maternity Services report to lend credence to the claim that the government cuts have combined with demographic changes to stretch maternity services beyond their capacity. The Valuing Maternity campaign by Maternity Action is calling for greater commitment from the government to ensure this vital aspect of public health is addressed.

Aside from the inherent concern of the reduction in maternal care, and the worrying evidence suggesting its impact on a decline in breastfeeding, the example of the over-stretching of reduced maternal services is also a chilling reminder that no reduction of a public service happens in a vacuum. Women’s experiences of the recession are a prime example of the knock-on effect of one area of government policy to another, and how the recession and the cuts introduced under the guise of "austerity" have combined to corner women into a position of less work, less pay, fewer benefits and fewer rights. (Meanwhile urgent calls to address issues such as gender-inequities in public life and pre-recession concerns about the continuing pay gap are dismissed as a luxury "in these difficult times". As Susan Faludi outlined so eloquently in The Terror Dream’s analysis of the Bush-Blair years, that women’s concerns were dismissed along the lines of “not now dear, there’s a war on”, in the post-financial crisis era this is modified: not "now dear, it’s the austerity – but we’re all in this together"). 

Not only was this the first feminised recession in terms of the sectors hit hardest by job losses, but measures introduced under the guise of "austerity" doubly-targeted women, as women were both a larger proportion of public sector workers with jobs on the line, and some of the main users of state-provided services. (To add a further grim footnote: just as women needed financial independence the most, research from IPPR suggests that banks, too, turned on women, arbitrarily denying mortgages and other loans to female customers, using the new excuse of "new stricter regulations").

Eventually, as the new evidence on maternal health provision in the UK indicates, the knock-on effect manifests even in an area the Conservatives claim as their own: protecting the "family" and women as child-bearers. The painful cycle being played out in dominoes as one service after another is gutted by the cuts reveals the inherent flaw even in ideologically-driven cuts – while wealth may not trickle-down, corrosion of communities and services does trickle up, and into areas the Tories claim are their priority.

It also reveals what a sham it is to say you care about "families" when your policies show little if any concern for women.

Follow Heather McRobie on Twitter as @heathermcrobie.

 

A young boy is weighed after being born in an NHS maternity unit in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder