Sarah Teather has been speaking in Parliament today about a new report by Maternity Action and the Refugee Council which highlights the treatment of pregnant women and their new babies in the asylum system. You can read her whole speech here, and I warn you it will make you upset and angry in equal and consuming measure. The description of a woman who had just given birth being made to carry her newborn baby home by foot in the snow was harrowing. There are many such similar stories in the report.
These vulnerable women suffer both poor physical and mental health and their pregnancies can be higher risk because they often don’t see a midwife until later in their pregnancies than is recommended.
I have referred to the deeply upsetting report, “When Maternity Doesn’t Matter”, which the Refugee Council and Maternity Action produced this week. They submitted evidence to our inquiry that the impact of dispersal on women’s lives is catastrophic if they are pregnant. The four weeks’ protected period that UKBA agreed to introduce is an advance, but still woefully inadequate. Women are moved away from their partners so they may have no one with them when they give birth and no one to look after their other children. A single mother in the study reported that she was separated from her partner so she had no one to look after her children and she considered leaving her children with a local shopkeeper before she went into labour because she had no other options for child care. Midwives told us that it makes their lives incredibly difficult because they are unable to provide continuity of care.
We would not expect any British woman to experience such conditions, but these women have specific extra difficulties and they should receive more support, not less. Many have suffered female genital mutilation and sexual violence in their own country as well as torture, which exacerbates the risk of flashbacks when giving birth. They have a much higher rate of maternal death than we expect in the general population. They make up 12% of all maternal deaths, but only 0.3% of the overall population. Those figures are staggering and worrying, and the Government must get to grips with them.
She went on to talk about the need to give people enough money for a basic standard of living:
Given the complexity of section 4 and section 95 support—it took us some considerable time to produce the spreadsheet to work out exactly what families in different circumstances would get—it beggars belief that someone in a situation of war, violence or persecution would spend a couple of days researching that on the internet before deciding which travel company to book their flight with. We need to get that into perspective. The answer must surely be to set levels in line with other benefits. Deducting accommodation costs if necessary, we should make a clear commitment to uprate benefits so that people who have fled war, persecution and violence can live—as the hon. Member for Scunthorpe said—a basic, dignified life.
I understand the political difficulties of raising benefit levels for asylum seekers, in particular when there is much debate about wider benefit levels—full stop. Surely it would be more sensible and take an awful lot of political grief away from the Minister if they were simply pegged to other benefit levels and automatically uprated each year. Ministers would then not have to go through the agony of having to work out on which full-news day to introduce a measure; they could simply get on with doing the right and humane thing.
The Minister said that he would look feed this report into the Government’s own review. Sarah Teather needs to ensure he lives up to his word.
* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings