The deaths of 17 new mothers in London have been attributed to poor maternity care, an independent inquiry commissioned by the NHS has revealed.

The unpublished report, revealed on BBC's Panorama last night, looked at 42 deaths over an 18-month period from January 2009, and found that in the case of 17 women, substandard treatment was found to be a major factor.

A number of maternity wards struggled to cope, with the report attributing several deaths to where "activity in a maternity unit was high and one-to-one care could not be delivered."

NHS London's chief nurse, Trish Morris-Thompson, said: "The report indicates that care less than optimum was given and death did occur, however we need to look in the context of those 200,000 births in that period of time.

"A lot of women with very sick poorly conditions were cared for and a lot of babies were delivered very safely."

One of the biggest factors, claimed the BBC1 programme, was that one in five midwife places remains unfilled in the capital.

Cathy Warwick, general secretary of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), said: "The most critical issue facing maternity services is that they are desperately short of midwives.

"We estimate that we need at least 4700 more midwives in England to catch-up with the tidal wave of births that has engulfed maternity services over the past decade. There has been a 22 per cent rise in births since 2001, 2.9 per cent from 2009 to 2010 and midwife numbers are trailing way behind. Also births are also becoming increasingly complex demanding more of midwives' time.

"This is not all that needs to be done of course. The way services are organised, the level of skill and experience on a unit, how midwives and other health professionals work together and ensuring midwives get access to ongoing training are also important. However, midwife numbers is the nut that needs cracking before all the other elements can work effectively."

Posted by Robert Mair on 26.7.11 Please send your comments on this article to: