With (not very sincere) apologies to those of my friends and followers who might find my Bounty fixation a little tedious, I thought an update on my recent blogpost on Mumsnet’s campaign to shut Bounty sales reps out of maternity wards was in order.
First of all, my thanks to everyone who tweeted and shared my last blogpost – particularly those at the forefront of the campaign, including Mumsnet, its founder and CEO Justine Roberts, healthcare writer and blogger Margaret McCartney, Professor Alice Roberts, Ben Goldacre, and Telegraph journalist Amy Willis (more on Amy in a moment). If you don’t follow these people on Twitter, I recommend that you do. I also suggest following the #BountyMutiny hashtag if you want a flavour of some mums’ experiences with Bounty.
Since I wrote that blogpost, more information has come to light that is worth an extra mention. Primarily this is due to the determined investigative work of Amy Willis at the Daily Telegraph who has pursued this issue when other media organisations who initially covered it (notably the BBC, the Guardian and the Daily Mail) lost interest. Among other things, Amy found instances where Bounty reps were alleged to have posed as medical staff, offered medical advice and been aggressive or rude to mothers or where they targeted weak mothers, invaded privacy and ignored ‘do not disturb’ requests; she has reported on the concerns of the charity Safe Child UK that Bounty’s access to maternity wards might be in breach of the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 1996; and today she has published the account of a former Bounty rep who quit because she says she was encouraged to steal patients’ details from their medical notes and harass mothers into having their photo taken.
Bounty’s strategy appears to be to portray itself as a beloved institution. ‘Everybody loves to see the Bounty Lady,’ they (and several NHS hospitals I’ve seen quoted) argue. ‘The only complaints we get are from mums who have missed the Bounty Lady,’ goes the claim. They’re like freebie angels, distributing happiness. You would, by this argument, no more ban Bounty reps from maternity wards than you would shut Father Christmas out of children’s wards in December. So embedded in hospital life have Bounty reps become that Mumsnet has found a reference to Bounty in official Maternity Certificate documents for claiming statutory maternity pay or maternity allowance. Mumsnet has also found that HMRC pays Bounty £90,000 to distribute Child Benefit claim forms. Margaret McCartney has been railing against Darent Valley Hospital for listing the Bounty rep alongside medical staff as “people who you may meet” in their maternity wards.
So successful have Bounty been at depicting themselves as benign bearers of gifts that I have seen some people take to Twitter or the comments threads beneath Amy’s reports to come to Bounty’s defence. I wasn’t expecting this. It strikes me as almost beyond debate that hospital wards should be safe, secure, private places where patients should be able to receive treatment, recuperate and rest without being approached by sales reps with cameras. If we think this is acceptable, why restrict it to just maternity wards? Perhaps we should (for a fee, of course) allow ambulance-chasing lawyers to skulk around A&E, or funeral directors to wander opportunistically around cancer wards. What better time to hand a parent a Disneyland brochure than when they are sitting next to their sick child’s bedside, desperately promising him everything he asks for if it will help him get better? Why are these ideas in any poorer taste than handing out promotional goody bags to new mums?
These are the arguments I’ve seen in defence of Bounty, and why I think they make no sense:
New mums welcome the Bounty lady – they like to receive their Bounty packs. It’s a pretty sad reflection on society that a sample pack of nappies and a discount on a box-set of Beatrix Potter books is all it takes for us to willingly compromise the privacy of a maternity ward. I don’t doubt that many mums – perhaps even most of them – like to receive their Bounty pack. It’s free (to them) and they may find something of use in it. But that’s not an argument for letting sales reps into a ward. I don’t want Bounty packs abolished, or Bounty shut down – I want new mums (some of whom will be vulnerable) and their babies protected from intrusion and exploitation. Offer the Bounty pack to mums on their way out of the hospital, if you must. A hospital bedside – where they can’t easily get away – is no place for even the kindest, most considerate sales rep.
Let’s also not forget that, while Bounty may have exclusive access to wards, there is nothing they peddle that you can’t easily get elsewhere. If you’re about to become a parent for the first time, you’ll probably already have found (and maybe even signed up for) numerous online parenting clubs (including, quite possibly, Bounty’s) where you’ll have discovered how eager are retailers and manufacturers of baby products to offer you freebies to win your custom. You can also, of course, take your own photo of mum and baby – you’re as qualified to do so as the Bounty lady is. Instead of feeling like you’ve ‘missed’ the Bounty lady, go online and get the free stuff and special offers that you want and you choose.
Hardly anyone complains and we deal “robustly” with reps that break our Code of Conduct. Most people don’t complain about things – particularly days after the fact when you’ve got better things to worry about and you know nothing will actually be done about it. But, yes, I’m sure most people’s experiences of the Bounty rep are positive – see my counter-argument above. That doesn’t excuse or permit the negative experiences. How, exactly, Bounty deals “robustly” with errant reps is unclear to me. Perhaps they fire them. And then they replace them with someone else, equally desperate to maximise her sales because the commission is the only pay she’s getting. That’s not fixing the problem, it’s perpetuating it.
Cash-strapped hospitals need the money Bounty pays them. Amy Willis’ research has found that around 150 hospitals make, cumulatively, roughly £2.3 million a year from their deals with Bounty. To put that into perspective, the total budget for the NHS in England is £108.9 billion, so that £2.3 million accounts for 0.0021 per cent of the overall funding of the health service. I don’t doubt that the hospitals with Bounty deals welcome the additional revenue – and I might argue that we should be funding maternity services better from the public purse so they don’t feel the necessity of commercial deals such as this. But really it’s about what you consider to be an acceptable way to make money. Hospitals could equally boost revenues by having someone come round wards selling cigarettes, by putting wine bars and gaming machines in waiting areas and by covering all available wall space with poster advertising. They don’t do these things because they are not good for patients and they would undermine public confidence in the healthcare being provided – the same, in my view, is true of Bounty.
This is a trivial issue – we should be focused on NHS reform/funding. I think we can do both. I also think it’s only trivial if you perceive it to be an issue of what Bounty should be allowed to do, rather than what new mums should be able to expect. Protecting the security, safety and privacy of new mums and their babies strikes me as a pretty important issue.
The online petition has reached over 17,760 signatures – please sign it, and write to your MP and local hospital if you agree with me that it’s time to shut the Bounty lady out of the ward.