Key Points:

Maternity services have been given low priority in New Zealand's health system, a review has found.

Professor Peter Stone, an Auckland University expert in maternal fetal medicine, was one of four people appointed to review Wellington's maternity services following the death of a baby in June at the Kenepuru Hospital maternity unit.

Their review, commissioned by the Health Ministry, found the region's maternity services were as safe as those elsewhere in New Zealand, but problems existed in Wellington, such as a shortage of midwives and obstetricians.

Their report, issued yesterday, also commented on maternity services nationally. "Maternity services in New Zealand have been accorded a relatively low priority and there is no national strategy for maternity services. A strategic plan is due for release shortly."

The ministry released a draft Maternity Action Plan yesterday and called for public submissions.

The draft plan acknowledges that "some women have difficulties accessing maternity services, particularly in rural and provincial areas".

Among 10 goals for maternity services, the draft suggests, regarding women's access to services, that the ministry works with district health boards "to develop mechanisms for women to access lead maternity caregivers and to monitor access".

Associate Health Minister Steve Chadwick said the Government would spend an extra $1.75 million a year to support the midwifery workforce. Most will be spent on post-graduate training.

Mrs Chadwick reiterated that the Government expected there would be up to 80 new places for first-year midwifery students from next year, that it had last year increased funding for midwives by $11.4 million annually and was spending $4.7 million over two years for a mentoring programme for new graduates.

The Medical Association's maternity spokesman, Dr Mark Peterson, welcomed the prospect of a more strategic approach to maternity services, but said he was disappointed the need to bring primary maternity care into the framework of Primary Health Organisations had not been recognised more explicitly.

Doing so would promote a closer connection between general practice and maternity services.

National Party health spokesman Tony Ryall said the draft action plan was a "nonsense" response.

He pointed to his party's plan to start tackling the health workforce crisis, which included the voluntary bonding of midwives in hard-to-staff areas in return for student debt write-offs.