11:47, March 26 91 0 theguardian.com

2019-03-26 11:47:05
Coroners could get power to investigate late-term stillbirths

Stillbirths occurring in the last few weeks before a baby is due may in future be investigated by coroners under plans by the government to help families find answers to such distressing events.

Under the proposals, which have been put out to public consultation, a coroner would be able to hold an inquest into a stillbirth that takes place later than 37 weeks of pregnancy, when the baby is effectively full-term.

The consultation follows a pledge of more transparency made by Jeremy Hunt, in November 2017, when he was health secretary. Hunt pledged to halve the rate of stillbirths, neonatal and maternal deaths and severe birth-related brain injuries by 2025. He added that it was important for families that there should be a transparent inquiry into the reasons why the expected birth of their child ended in tragedy.

“The tragic death or life-changing injury of a baby is something no parent should have to bear, but one thing that can help in these agonising circumstances is getting honest answers quickly from an independent investigator,” he said.

“Too many families have been denied this in the past, adding unnecessarily to the pain of their loss.”

Campaigners and bereaved parents have been calling for coroners to be able to hold inquests. The consultation document says the Department of Health and Social Care and the NHS have taken steps to improve the quality and transparency of investigations into deaths in the last few years, but that stillbirths are not always included.

There is little independent scrutiny, says the document. “In some cases, parents do not receive a full explanation about the circumstances of their baby’s death and what the service is doing to ensure that avoidable stillbirths with similar causes do not happen again.”

Coroners can currently only hold inquests for babies who have shown signs of life after being born and, when a pregnancy that appeared to be healthy ends in stillbirth, the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch must look into it.

“We want to do everything we can to make pregnancy safer, by continually learning to improve the care on offer so fewer people have to experience the terrible tragedy of losing a child and those who do get the answers and support they deserve,” said health minister Jackie Doyle-Price.

“Rates of stillbirths in England are the lowest on record, but we’re committed to delivering on our ambition in the NHS long-term plan to accelerate action to halve this number by 2025.

“This is a complex issue and it’s important we get it right by listening carefully to those who are affected by these issues, so I urge everybody to have their say on this consultation.”

Her department is consulting jointly with the Ministry of Justice. “A stillbirth is a tragedy which has a profound effect upon bereaved families. We must ensure that every case is thoroughly and independently investigated,” said justice minister Edward Argar.

“These proposals would ensure that bereaved parents have their voices heard in the investigation, and allow lessons to be learned which would help to prevent future stillbirths.”

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