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NHS Dental Care Services

Volume 716: debated on Tuesday 14 June 2022

2. What steps he is taking to improve the availability of and access to routine NHS dental care services in (a) Weston-super-Mare constituency and (b) England. (900463)

The best way to improve access to NHS dental services nationally is through our reforms of the NHS dental contract, which will aim to pay dentists more fairly for their work. Specifically on Weston-super-Mare, a number of measures are taking place in Somerset to open up dental access there, including a nurse-led dental helpline to open up the available appointments.

I thank the Minister for her answer. Even before the pandemic, the NHS commissioned enough dentistry to cover only about half the population of England. Covid has massively increased backlogs and inequalities in Weston-super-Mare and many other parts of the country. Dentistry is now the No. 1 problem raised with Healthwatch, and four in five people say that they cannot find timely care. I agree with her that reforming the NHS dental contract is absolutely essential and urge her to redouble her efforts to fix it as fast as possible.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the nub of the problem is the dental contract. Negotiations have started and the details are with the British Dental Association as we speak. We expect to make an announcement before the summer recess.

Like the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), I have a number of constituents who have had real problems reaching dentists before and since covid, but there have been some particularly distressing cases since covid. There has never been the right package to pay dentists to do the work, which is driving them out of the business, but the inefficiencies of having to go through the central NHS systems for an emergency appointment are costing the taxpayer dear. When will we see proper certainty around the measures that the Minister just described, so that dentists know that it is worth their while sticking with NHS patients?

As I said, the contract is the nub of the problem; it is currently a perverse disincentive for dentists to take on NHS work. We are serious about reforming it, we are in discussions with the BDA, and we will make the announcements before the summer recess.

I thank my hon. Friend for her work on pushing that contract reform through, because it is key to shifting the dial. In areas such as mine, where people are waiting to get on to waiting lists for dentists, there is a huge dearth of dentists to provide treatment. Can she speak about the recruitment challenge that we will have to meet when the reform comes through?

My hon. Friend is right that the issue is not just about the contract, although that is a key aspect of trying to get more dentists to take on NHS work. We are working on a number of incentives to increase recruitment, including working with Health Education England on centres for dental development to train more dentists in those hard-to-reach areas, which tend to be coastal and rural areas.

We are also looking at how we can reform the overseas dentist policy. We are working with the General Dental Council on that and may be bringing legislation forward towards the end of the year to improve that, too.

Kathryn Townsend got in touch with me about her son Max, who has severe complex sensory issues and learning difficulties. He waited up to two years for an appointment. In that time, several rotten teeth have had to be removed. Conservative Governments have had 12 years now to get things right. When will the Minister get an urgent grip of the situation?

The hon. Gentleman says that we have had 12 years, but he may recognise that, during the pandemic—two of the years that he talks about—routine dental appointments were not available because of the type of aspiration procedures that they involve. Only urgent appointments were available. We are now enabling 95% of the usual activity to take place, and that will soon be 100%. That means that there is still quite a backlog to get through, but we are in a better place than we were this time last year.

Like colleagues, I have many constituents struggling to access an NHS dentist. I recently met with Uttoxeter Dental Practice, which has significant concerns about the UDA—units of dental activity—system, as it is not working for dentists or patients. I understand that a review has been promised for many years. Can my hon. Friend update me on when it might take place?

My hon. Friend is right: there is a perverse disincentive in the current contract in that under the UDA dentists are not paid in relation to the level of activity or work they have to do for an appointment. That is the nub of the problem and we are in discussions with the British Dental Association right now; it is reviewing our proposals and we hope to have news very soon.

People with dementia deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. There are ways to enable those living with dementia to lead the lives they want. This is what the all-party group on dementia inquiry is currently investigating. Will the Secretary of State commit to attending the all-party group’s inquiry—

I cannot jump questions; this question is about dentistry so I now call the shadow Minister, Feryal Clark.

Members across the House have been calling on the Minister to fix the crisis in NHS dentistry, but she seems intent on burying her head in the sand. The Government have no plan, with the Minister running scared from even talking to dentists at a conference last week. Patients are suffering as a result, with a third of adults and half of all children not having access to an NHS dentist. In Wakefield alone, a child under 11 is admitted to hospital every day for tooth decay. Does the Minister agree that the people of Wakefield should bear this in mind next Thursday?

I am sure the people of Wakefield are as frustrated as I am that the Labour dental contract, put in place in 2006, is the nub of the problem. If the hon. Lady were to meet with dentists, she would hear loud and clear that the dental contract is causing the problem. [Interruption.] She might not have listened to my previous answers because she is not listening now, but we will be announcing changes before the summer recess.

At the start of this year the Government announced £50 million to create some new dentistry appointments, but that money resulted in exactly zero new appointments in my constituency. I wrote to every single dental practice in my constituency and they said that was because the funding offer was too limited in scope and time and they were given only a week to reply.

On 25 April, I wrote to the Minister asking how many appointments had been created from this money across England and where that money had gone. I have not received an answer. Will we get one today?

I am very disappointed: that £50 million of funding was for dentistry to access and be able to afford more appointments, and if local commissioners in an area did not bid for that money or ask dentists to take that money on, that is extremely disappointing—those in other parts of the country certainly did. We are putting £3 billion a year into dentistry. Local MPs have a role to play in this: if there was a problem, I would have expected the hon. Lady to have come and seen me before now to lobby for more funding for her local area.