Maternity care matters. There are three-quarters of a million births here in the UK every year, and maternity care remains the single biggest reason for admission to hospital.
Overall, in England alone, EU midwives provide direct NHS midwifery care to tens of thousands of women from all backgrounds every year. Their contribution is immense, and we are very fortunate to have them.
As the chief executive of the Royal College of Midwives, the biggest threat to the provision of maternity care I’ve witnessed first hand is the almost-total collapse in the number of midwives trained on the Continent coming to the UK to work in the NHS. In the twelve months to March last year, just 33 individuals who’d trained elsewhere in the EU registered to practice as midwives here in the UK. Before, it would have been hundreds.
And what’s more, the number of EU midwives leaving has shot up. We used to attract European midwives and nurses; we now repel them. Make no mistake about it. Brexit poses an unprecedented threat to maternity care in our country.
It’s not because there are any additional bureaucratic barriers now than there were then. It is a mixture of uncertainty over what the future arrangements may be, probably – I suspect – combined with a sense that, sadly, they no longer feel like this is a country that welcomes them.
After Leave campaigners exploited the public’s love and affection for our National Health Service during the referendum campaign three years ago, many have realised just how shameless those campaigners were. More and more people realise that the best way to protect our NHS is not to go ahead with Brexit at all. Brexit will cost us money, shrink our economy, and drive away European medics and other healthcare staff.
I am very conscious too of the threat posed by Brexit to workplace rights. The right to equal pay, including for work of equal value, for instance, is protected by EU legislation. The rights of part-time workers, including access to pension rights, parental leave entitlements, uncapped compensation in discrimination claims, and protections for pregnant women at work – such as the right to paid time off to attend antenatal classes – can all be attributed to the EU.
These things are locked in as part of our membership of the European Union. Out of the EU, they are up for grabs.
If we are not part of the Single Market and not part of the Customs Union then to attract inward investment our politicians may be tempted to scrap these rights to try to appeal to foreign investors to open factories and businesses here. There are certainly politicians who would like to take the country in a more deregulatory direction – and it is people in lower-paid work and in part-time jobs who have most to fear.
There is a draft Withdrawal Agreement, of course, and that seeks – when it comes to workplace rights – to put a floor on what the UK can do. But that proposed deal has been rejected by MPs in the House of Commons multiple times and the RCM also rejects it.
The EU has made it clear there’s no further scope to amend the proposed deal, so it looks like our politicians will face a choice to address any deadlock in Parliament, if we are to avoid having to go to Brussels every few months to beg for permission to put off decision day. We will have to choose between crashing out chaotically without deal at the end of October, revoking the whole thing and cancelling Brexit, or giving people the final say with a fresh public vote now that we know what the exact terms of any Brexit deal look like. And with Best for Britain polling showing that 422 of 632 UK constituencies now have majority support for remain, it’s clear that going back to the public is now the most popular option on the ground to break the Brexit deadlock.
At the Royal College of Midwives, we support a final say on any Brexit deal that Parliament can agree on. We think about it like this: when unions ballot their members for industrial action, we ballot them at the start to give us the authority to begin the process, and we ballot them at the end when we have a proposed deal to see if they agree with the fine detail of what has been hammered out. That’s a fair process, and it’s a process that we should see mirrored in this instance.
Gill Walton is the general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives