The Nurses, Midwives and Health Visitors Act: Nursing Notes, November 1979

This month’s post is taken from Volume 92 of Midwives Chronicle and Nursing Notes, 1979.

The midwives of November 1979 were officially disappointed. The implementation of the Nurses, Midwives and Health Visitors Act, which had been passed that year, was officially put on hold. The new statute provided a framework for nursing education and reorganised the administration of the qualification and registration of nursing staff, including midwives. It was developed by the co-ordinating Committee which had been established in 1976 following the Briggs Report on nursing, and was finally implemented in July 1983, establishing the United Kingdom Central Council for Nursing, Midwifery and Health Visiting and four National Boards. Its core functions were to maintain a register of UK nurses, midwives and health visitors, provide guidance to registrants, and handle professional misconduct complaints. The main functions of the National Boards were to monitor the quality of nursing and midwifery education courses, and to maintain the training records of students on these courses. This framework existed until 2002, when the Nursing and Midwifery Council was established.

As to be expected, the Archives of the RCM and the RCOG hold records relating to both the Briggs Report and the legislation which followed it. Files of correspondence from the RCM General Secretary, Brenda Mee and later Ruth Ashton [Archive References RCM/E3/2/5/7 and RCM/E3/2/6/2] reveal both the position of the College and the concerns of midwives, who were worried and confused about their status and right to practice following the proposed repeal of the Midwives Act. This was probably Brenda Mee’s last major issue in which she was to represent the RCM before her tragic death in a walking accident in August 1979, and she fought throughout 1978 and 1979 for amendments to the legislation to ensure that each standing midwifery committee would have a majority of midwives on it, and that Central Council would include the views of the midwifery committees when putting forward proposals concerning midwifery.

In a letter to Sir Henry Yellowlees, Chief Medical Officer, Sir John Dewhurst, RCOG President, expressed the sentiment:

‘We are anxious…to protect the status of the midwife as an independent practitioner and, of course, to protect the public from indifferently qualified or unqualified practitioners, which is what the Central Midwives Board has done for a very long time.’ (20 February 1978) [Archive Reference: RCOG/A4/17/27]

John Tomkinson FRCOG and Secretary General of FIGO at that time, was nominated by the RCOG as a point of contact in ministerial discussions and he wrote to Sir John Dewhurst in August 1978:

‘…I stressed the separateness of midwifery and nursing. I also emphasized most strongly that the RCOG is supporting the midwife to the full in her determination to carry on being a professional in her own right and that midwifery has an element of medical activity more important than the nursing content.’

After such efforts made to amend the legislation to safeguard the interests of midwives, there is little wonder that postponement and delay to the Act was met with dismay.

This post ends with a brief look at other topical issues of the late 1970s. Notices include reports of a conference held in Perth, Scotland to look at Scotland’s poor infant mortality and handicap rates, the WHO initiatives into reversing the worldwide decline in breastfeeding, and increases in child benefit and family income supplements. The front cover of this issue is tending towards the celebrity magazine, showing a photograph of Welsh rugby player J P R Williams handing over a cheque for over £2,000 to RCM President, Agnes Andrews. John Peter Rhys Williams was an orthopaedic surgeon when he wasn’t playing rugby for Wales, and was part of the fund-raising efforts by the RCM Welsh Board for the College’s Centenary Celebrations. These celebrations took the form of ‘the world’s longest fashion show’ with ‘some exclusive way-out fashions’ and finishing with a disco. Who wouldn’t want to take a trip back in time and witness that??!

J P R Williams and RCM President, Agnes Andrews on the front cover of Midwives Chronicle, November 1979: Midwives Chronicle reproduced by permission of the Royal College of Midwives













Penny Hutchins, College Archivist

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