New birth injuries compensation scheme announced

A newborn baby's foot Image copyright Science Photo Library

Parents in England whose children are injured at birth may benefit from a new government compensation scheme.

The voluntary scheme is intended to settle complaints more quickly and allow medical staff to speak openly about maternity care failings and learn from mistakes.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said, currently, families could wait more than 11 years for a court settlement.

He said he wanted speedier resolutions and to get away from a "blame culture".

But he insisted that parents who believe medical errors have caused severe damage to their children, such as cerebral palsy or brain damage, would still be able to take their cases to court if they wanted to.

The new Rapid Resolution and Redress scheme, which is out for consultation, would investigate the 500 cases of avoidable harm to babies, during birth, which happen each year in England.

Felix's story

Felix Thompson-Bland was born prematurely at the Royal Surrey County Hospital and developed complications soon after.

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Media captionMum speaks out about compensation for son permanently disabled at birth

Sadly, his condition, called jaundice, was not spotted and treated early enough.

Felix's condition worsened and he suffered brain damage.

Now aged 14, Felix is wheelchair bound and has uncontrollable spasms due to cerebral palsy.

His parents won a legal settlement against the hospital.

His mother, Victoria, told the BBC: "It was a very, very long, very painful process while trying to come to terms with what had happened.

"The fight was worth it because we have a package of care for him which means he's safe, ultimately."

The NHS spent more than £500m last year on resolving legal disputes after mistakes by maternity staff.

The Health Secretary has also announced other measures designed to improve the safety of maternity care in the NHS.

These include:

  • £8m for training
  • a £250,000 fund to pilot new ideas for improving maternity care
  • maternity ratings for every clinical commissioning group across the NHS
  • a national quality improvement programme involving all maternity units

The Health Secretary has set a target of halving stillbirths and neonatal deaths by 2030.

At present, for every 1,000 births in England, more than seven babies are either born dead or die soon afterwards, giving it one of the worst records of any developed country.

He said the UK could learn best practice from countries like Sweden, which has halved its rate of avoidable birth injuries in recent years.

'Fear of litigation'

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said NHS maternity staff "did a fantastic job under huge pressure".

"But even though we have made much progress, our stillbirth rates are still amongst the highest in Western Europe," he said. "Many on the frontline say there is still too much of a blame culture when things go wrong - often caused by fear of litigation or worry about damage to reputation and careers."

He said the measures announced would help trusts to improve their approach to safety and create "an open and transparent culture", and he wants the courts to become a last resort.

Clea Harmer, chief executive of Sands, the stillbirth and neonatal charity, said: "We're delighted that the importance of a clear national strategy for a sustained reduction in deaths has been recognised, and resources have been committed to achieve this.

"We pay tribute to the parents across the country who, by speaking out about their personal experience of bereavement, have helped us raise awareness that much more can and should be done.

"Their voices must continue to be heard as these new measures are rolled out," she added.

James Taylor, head of policy and public affairs at the disability charity Scope, said finding out that your child has been affected by a birth injury can be very traumatic.

"It is very positive that the government will be listening to disabled people and their parents on how the NHS can better support families when serious issues do occur during birth," he said.

"We would encourage families to share their experiences and contribute to this consultation."

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