Page last updated at 11:51 GMT, Monday, 4 January 2010

Tories promise 'real choice' to women over childbirth

David Cameron
The Tories say health will be their top election priority

Conservative leader David Cameron has promised "real choice" to women in England over childbirth and unveiled plans for new maternity networks.

He wants a personal, local offering for expectant mothers, not centrally run "bigger and bigger baby factories".

And linking local childbirth-related services will help meet mothers' needs.

The proposals are part of the Conservatives draft election manifesto plans for the NHS in which they pledge better care without funding cuts.

They also promise to focus NHS spending on the poorest communities by diverting billions of pounds to healthcare in the most deprived areas of the country.

By introducing new 'maternity networks', we will offer mothers access to the kind of childbirth and other services they want
Shadow Health Secretary Andrew Lansley

But Professor John Appleby, chief economist of the King's Fund health think-tank, said budgets were already allocated based on needs.

And the Liberal Democrats said the Conservatives could not explain their spending promises. Labour accused them of having a £34bn gap in their overall spending plans.

Turned away

Speaking at a launch in London, Mr Cameron said childbirth was one of life's "most daunting experiences" and that it was best to conduct this in a "non-emergency setting" where possible.

Labour's policies had "given us bigger and bigger baby factories where mothers can often feel neglected, with some even being turned away on the doorstep while they are in labour", he added.

Mr Cameron said that "parts of Europe have a system that's more flexible and local, with more choices, and they have lower rates of infant mortality".

He said that, if his party won the election, it would ensure that all maternity-related services in areas of England would be placed under the control of single, local bodies.

Local hospitals, GPs, charities, community groups, maternity consultants will all be linked up so they can share information, expertise and services, he said.

Wider choice

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said: "By introducing new 'maternity networks', we will offer mothers access to the kind of childbirth and other services they want."

He said many mothers with low-risk pregnancies were taking highly medicalised care in hospitals against their wishes.

This mismatch of need and supply exacerbates the overstretch experiences by many units, which are often turning away mothers in labour, he said.

The Royal College of Midwives said service changes were already underway and that it was hard to see what was different in the Conservative offerings.

General secretary Cathy Warwick said midwifery-led units were not closed because of government policies, rather because of challenges to offer a full range of services in the face of economic pressures.

"The RCM believes that change is starting to happen. The question is whether or not this can be sustained in the current economic downturn."

Health Secretary Andy Burnham said the opposition's plans on the NHS were not credible and could not be trusted.

"Cameron promises no NHS cuts - but in the very next breath pledges to cut the things that matter most to patients - their right to see a cancer specialist within two weeks or to be treated within a maximum of 18 weeks."

Labour MP Ann Keen said the proposed changes to maternity services would put at risk vital life-saving changes backed by clinicians and midwives.

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