We regard access to dental care as a serious and urgent matter. We are now investing more than £2 billion centrally in the NHS dental service. Access has steadily increased over the past five quarters, with 939,000 more patients being seen in the 24 months ending in September 2009.
I thank the noble Baroness for that Answer, which sounds very encouraging. Access has improved, but far too slowly to honour Mr Blair’s pledge of full access by September 2002. In the past two years, 3 million people have tried but been unable to get a dental appointment and 4.5 million have given up. The NHS operating framework 2010-11 places a clear duty on PCTs to ensure that everyone who wants access has it by April 2011. Can the Minister confirm that this is endorsed by the Government? What plans do the Government have to pilot and implement the Steele review, which focuses on registration and health outcomes, rather than numerical levels of access?
The 2009-10 operating framework does indeed set out the NHS goal of providing access to those who seek it. We absolutely endorse that. We have set ourselves a goal of delivering this by March 2011 at the latest. As I have just said, access has been rising over the past five quarters. We think that rising trend will continue. The noble Lord is right; we had to catch up on the fall in access and we intend to do that. As regards the Steele review, we have established a Steele implementation programme. We are working closely with a number of stakeholders, including the BDA, I am pleased to say, to implement those recommendations. We anticipate that the first pilots will be launched in spring 2010.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Dentistry, along with the noble Lord, Lord Colwyn. I tabled a Written Question two months ago about the fact that many NHS trusts do not collect public data on dentists who tell trusts they will deliver NHS treatment, but then tell people who ring up that they take only private patients. Will my noble friend persuade NHS trusts to collect statistics on this matter?
The key point is that people access their dentists through the information which is readily available from their PCTs about which dentists provide NHS treatment. Those dentists are on that list because they provide NHS treatment. Therefore, we would not expect them to give the answer that was mentioned. We would prefer to approach this from the point of view of maximising people’s access to NHS dentists.
I am very grateful to the noble Baroness for her endorsement of the increasing access to dentistry. Of course we are very concerned about children’s dental health, which, I am pleased to say, has been steadily improving over the years. We and colleagues in the DCSF looked at introducing school dental examinations. The noble Baroness will appreciate that we felt at the time that this was not the right way to go because of the complexity of getting permission to inspect children’s teeth in schools and all the bureaucracy that that might involve. We thought that it would be better to ensure that parents were taking their children to the dentist and following proper dental hygiene.
That is a very important matter. There is no point in having increased access if you do not have enough dentists to do the job. I am very pleased to say that we have seen a steady increase in the number of dentists who are available. All 700 or 800 dentists who qualified in the past year have found positions. We have increased the number of students entering dentistry schools. Obviously we need to make sure that we are keeping up the supply of dentists to match the fact that there will be increased demand on our dentistry services.
PCTs have been given ring-fenced funding to provide dental services and in the past year 96 per cent of that funding was, indeed, spent. Part of our monitoring of PCTs’ effectiveness is about making sure that they not only spend the ring-fenced funding that they have been given to provide dentistry services, but that they do it effectively.
My Lords, one problem for consumers is knowing how to find an NHS dentist. Have the Government considered using the NHS Choices website for that and making its online search function more user-friendly so that consumers can identify which dentists are accepting NHS patients?
The noble Earl makes a good point. I am surprised to learn that NHS Choices and NHS Direct do not provide that kind of information and I undertake to look into that. These services point people in the direction of local helplines, but the noble Earl makes a good point and I will certainly look into it.