Grant Woodward: The labour market... how our hospitals profit from mothers

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WHEN the Duchess of Cambridge enters one of the most exclusive private maternity units in Britain in readiness for the arrival of her first child, there is certain to be a lot on her mind.

Giving birth to a Royal baby – one destined to become a future monarch regardless of its sex – no doubt brings 
its own unique set of pressures. Yet at least Kate can relax in a suite that 
comes complete with satellite television, fridge, bedside phone and wi-fi, along with complimentary toiletries and her choice of daily newspaper.

And, while the media interest centred on the Lindo Wing of St Mary’s Hospital in leafy West London will be predictably intense, one thing Kate certainly won’t have to contend with is a visit from the Bounty lady.

To the unititiated, this is not someone who arrives to hand out complimentary chocolate bars to grateful mothers flush with joy after delivering their offspring, but a representative from a company eagerly looking to cash in on a captive audience.

A few hours after my wife gave birth to our twins, we received an unexpected visit from one such individual, who appeared on the ward armed with what she told us were our “free Bounty packs”.

These turned out to be a moderately useful (and I’m being generous) assortment of samples of various baby products, along with the forms we needed to register for child benefit and a whole swathe of advertising literature plugging everything from framed photos to junior Isas.

The next day, when I went to see my wife during visiting hours, she told me that someone else had been round – this time asking if she wanted to have some photos taken of our new arrivals.

Having looked at some of the examples of this so-called photographer’s work, we decided against it, though it was a decision that my wife in particular agonised over in the emotional post-childbirth rush.

In neither instance were these salespeople particularly pushy, but it struck me at the time that it didn’t seem entirely appropriate for them to be trawling the wards flogging stuff to women who had just given birth and asking for their personal details.

The Bounty rep has certainly acquired an element of notoriety among those who have encountered some of the company’s more pushy operatives.

The forums on the Mumsnet website are full of horror stories of belligerent reps walking into delivery suites to take mothers’ details and hand out packs just moments after they have given birth.

Others are said to have pulled open the curtains around mothers’ beds to announce that they “need” a photograph of their newborn son or daughter.

It transpires that Bounty doles out 812,000 of its newborn packs each year – and hospitals benefit from giving the company’s reps such exclusive and lucrative access to its wards. The firm pays the NHS £2.3m in cash and equipment annually, making its money by selling on the parents’ details that it collects to other companies.

In an ironic twist, HM Revenue & Customs then pays Bounty more than £90,000 a year to distribute the child benefit forms that are included in its packs.

In doing so it insists that this is a cheap way of ensuring they are handed out. Yet child benefit forms are available online, and they could be distributed by midwives or hospitals.

Belinda Phipps, chief executive officer of the National Childbirth Trust, believes many new mothers give their name and address and even details of their life insurance to Bounty reps in good faith, thinking they’re speaking to a hospital official.

Certainly it’s easy to see how the lines between officialdom and salespeople can become blurred given how many different pairs of hands you pass through before, during and after childbirth.

Although the section on contact details that parents fill in includes the information that “by providing your email address and/or telephone number you agree to be contacted by these channels as well as post”, many parents have said that they did not understand what they were signing up to.

Furthermore, Bounty staff are allowed to park free on hospital sites while patients and relatives have to pay. Sometimes they even see newborn babies before family members because they don’t have to wait for normal visiting hours to start.

Bounty insists that it “operates purely on a basis of choice with mums and hospitals” and takes its responsibilities “very seriously”. But even as far back as 1984 a report in the British Medical Journal accused the firm of “exerting pressure on new mothers at a time when they are most vulnerable”.

Yet this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the manner in which hospitals, and the companies attached to them, cash in on patients. Taking our son to children’s A&E the other evening following a nasty bump cost us nearly £30.

This admittedly included the taxi my wife had to take to get there as I was in work, but it also took in the cost of the over-priced sandwiches we bought to feed them dinner, £2 for a cup of milk so we could put them straight into bed on our return and £5.60 to park once I managed to get there – the minimum stay being two hours at a cost of £2.80.

Meanwhile, the Shipley MP Philip Davies was appalled to discover during a recent visit to see a sick relative at Doncaster Royal Infirmary that hospital patients are charged £6 a 
day to watch television. This, he noted, is in sharp contrast to the £1 
a week that prisoners pay for the 
same privilege.

We are constantly told that such charges are essential in order to swell the NHS’s hard-pressed coffers – and most of us grin and bear them as a result. Yet that patently does not square with the salaries that are still being paid to the army of bureaucrats whose job descriptions and contributions are invariably resistant to any semblance of a clear definition.

Take the recent story of Craig Alexander, who was sacked from 
his job as an NHS director after a member of staff who had complained about his rudeness looked him up online and discovered he was a convicted armed robber.

While this was quite a revelation, to my mind the more alarming one was that 32-year-old Alexander was on a salary of £250,000. How had someone of his age worked his way up to a position that paid such a figure? And what expertise and experience could he possibly have to justify it?

It is hard not to think that if the NHS exercised more judgment in terms of the number of handsomely-paid managers it employs it would not have any need to expose new mothers to the likes of Bounty salespeople just hours – or in some cases mere minutes – after they have given birth.