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Children: Oral Health

Volume 796: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to tackle the oral health problems of hard to reach children, especially those in deprived areas of the country, through the Starting Well Core scheme.

My Lords, Starting Well Core allows commissioners, where they identify local need, to establish schemes similar to the National Starting Well scheme, which runs in 13 high-need areas. Starting Well Core has a particular focus on children up to two years old; practices engage with a wide range of partners to promote the importance of early preventive care. Areas that have so far introduced the approach include London, the West Midlands, Shropshire and Staffordshire, Cheshire and Merseyside, and Greater Manchester.

My Lords, too many five to 10 year-olds in deprived areas undergo general anaesthetic in hospitals to have their decayed teeth removed. Starting Well Core is therefore a welcome first step towards ensuring that children are seen by a dentist, preventing them from developing decay at a young age. Unfortunately, this scheme contains no educational element, only posters and leaflets available at dental practices, seen by those already attending. There are no measures to get the hard-to-reach children through the dentist’s doors. How do the Government plan to encourage all carers to take their children to the dentist, even before their first birthday? Will they please introduce supervised tooth brushing in nurseries and primary schools to combat this epidemic?

The noble Baroness asks some very important questions. I am pleased to say that 77% of five year-olds now have no visible decay, compared to 69% in 2008, which is a welcome reduction. We accept, however, that while these figures represent a significant improvement, there are unacceptable inequalities in children’s oral health. She is right that the Starting Well Core scheme is operating in areas of high need and the crucial issue is how children are sign-posted to these practices. Practices are using a mix of advertising, linking with other health professionals and actively engaging with local communities in schools and shopping centres and at local events. I hope that she is reassured by this answer.

My Lords, there are greater unmet oral health needs for people with learning disabilities. These are issues that start in childhood and continue into adulthood. Does the Minister agree that the educational methods proposed for children should be adjusted to be suitable for children with learning disabilities and extended into adult life, as suggested by the Faculty of Dental Surgery? I welcome the new government guidance that was published last week on the oral health needs of children and adults with learning disabilities.

The noble Baroness makes a very important point about ensuring that dental care is available and accessible to all. Dental commissioning responsibilities are for NHS England, which is responsible for ensuring that dental services meet local needs and helping individuals who are unable to access a dentist. She has raised a very important point about access for those with learning disabilities and I shall ensure that this is raised within the department.

My Lords, we will not reduce oral health inequalities if we do not ensure that every child is able to get their free NHS dental check-up. Dentists’ morale is so low that every week NHS dental practices are closing, leaving some patients facing a 90-mile round trip to find a dentist. A recent survey showed that three in five of all NHS dentists are planning to scale down or leave the NHS in the next five years. Government funding has fallen in real terms and we are waiting for the rollout of the new dental contract, work on which started eight years ago. Will my noble friend comment on these important changes? Programmes such as Starting Well Core will not able to help any children if there are no NHS dentists left to deliver them. I declare my usual interests, which include vice-presidency of the British Fluoridation Society.

I thank my noble friend for his question; he is of course very expert in this area. We want NHS dental services to be attractive for the profession and we remain committed to reforming the dental contract, which should help, but we recognise that there are a range of reasons for contracts being handed back, whether it is retirement, a decision to concentrate on private work or, in some cases, reorganisation of the companies providing the service. It is important that NHS England works with other local dentists to ensure that patients can continue to access dental care. There is a level of concern about recruitment and retention of dentists, and those difficulties need to be addressed by NHS England in its role as the commissioner. It is continuing to ensure that it works collaboratively with the profession and the department is keeping a close eye on this.

My Lords, tooth decay is a major source of health inequalities, as the noble Baroness has acknowledged, with 33% of the most deprived five year-olds having tooth decay, compared with 13.6% of the least deprived. In some parts of the country—the north-west, the West Midlands and Yorkshire—tooth decay rose for the first time in the last 10 years. How much investment will the Starting Well Core scheme have and for how long? When will we learn from the Government whether this has provided the right kind of remedial action for the most deprived children?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I shall write to her on the exact amount of investment, but there are some reassuring figures coming forward: 77% of all five year-olds now have no visible decay, compared to 69% in 2008; there has been a fall in the number of extractions per 100,000 finished consultant episodes for the first time in the last decade; and more children accessed dentistry over the last year. All this is reassuring and we are committed to improving access and equality of access to dental care—that is what the Children’s Oral Health Improvement Programme Board, led by PHE, is intended to do. It brings together 20 stakeholder organisations specifically focused on oral health. There is a significant amount of activity targeting exactly the issue the noble Baroness raises.

My Lords, children get tooth decay because they eat too much sugar and too many sweets. How far are the Government getting with the commitments they made in chapter 2 of the obesity plan to restrict advertising of high-sugar products on TV before the watershed, and price and location promotions in supermarkets?

The noble Baroness is exactly right, in that improving children’s oral health is a wider picture: it is about not just access to dentistry but a preventive approach, which is a core government priority. This is exactly why we introduced the children’s obesity plan, one aspect of which is a consultation on advertising. Proposals on that will be brought forward shortly.

My Lords, what is the Government’s assessment of the number of children receiving dental care from Dentaid, a peripatetic charity that provides emergency care in third-world countries? Does she consider this an acceptable way of safeguarding children’s oral health, and what will she do about children’s lack of access to NHS dentists in many parts of the country?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. I shall have to write to her about access via Dentaid, which I was not aware of; it is a very important point. We are committed to driving down inequality of access and are pleased that the number of young people accessing dentists has increased. One of the key measures in reducing inequality is the Starting Well Core programme, which has targeted areas of highest need, and its performance is encouraging. However, she is absolutely right: we must drive out inequality of access to children’s dentistry and the Government are committed to doing that.