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Dental Services

Volume 742: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2023

1. What steps she is taking to improve the commissioning of primary care dental services for vulnerable people. (900466)

16. What recent assessment she has made of the potential impact of levels of availability of dentistry appointments on other NHS services. (900482)

May I, through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, wish Mr Speaker a very speedy recovery?

As Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, I want to reform our NHS and social care system to make it faster, simpler and fairer. Dentistry is a critical part of that. Integrated care boards are responsible for identifying areas of local need and determining the priorities for investment. NHS England published guidance in October this year to help ICBs use their commissioning flexibilities within the national dental contractual framework, and I will be looking carefully at how the boards are identifying need and investment across England, including for vulnerable people.

I am glad that the Minister mentioned ICBs. Liverpool has a very high percentage of children with dental decay, and tooth extraction is the most common hospital procedure for five to nine-year-olds at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital, yet there was a £10 million underspend for primary care dentistry, and instead of investing it in preventive care, NHS England gave permission to all ICBs, including NHS Cheshire and Merseyside, to use the balance to balance their budgets. Will the Minister agree, here and now, to reinstate the ringfenced funding to commission extra capacity for the most vulnerable patients?

I am delighted to be able to inform the hon. Member that NHS England has provided guidance for ICBs that requires dental funding to be ringfenced, with any unused resources redirected to improve NHS dental access in the first instance. Interestingly, ICBs will report their expenditure against the dental ringfence to NHS England as part of their in-year financial planning, which will happen at the end of this financial year.

No, no—you do not get another supplementary question. I was about to call Layla Moran for Question 16, which is grouped with this one, but unfortunately she is not present so I shall go straight to the Chairman of the Health and Social Care Committee.

The Government previously committed to publishing a dental recovery plan, which the former dental Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Neil O’Brien), said that the Government would publish shortly. He also told my Committee:

“We do want everyone who needs one to be able to access an NHS dentist”.

We were surprised, but he said it. We were told that the plan would be published during the summer or before the summer recess. When will the plan be published, if that is still the intention? Presumably it will come alongside the response to our “Dental Services” report, which was due on 14 September.

I thank my hon. Friend and I look forward to being grilled by him and his Committee in due course—at least, I think I do. Perhaps I can assist him, first, on the very important dental report that his Committee published. I am looking through it myself this afternoon and I will be publishing the response and sending it to the Committee imminently. In relation to the dental plan, both the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Dame Andrea Leadsom), and I are looking carefully into the needs of communities in rural and coastal areas, as well as in more urban areas, to understand not just the need but the answers that we can provide to help with urgent care and, importantly, preventive care, particularly for our children and vulnerable people in our society.

Last week another dentist in my constituency told my constituents that they were no longer able to provide NHS services. These people have literally nowhere else to go nearby. I want to come back to what my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Kim Johnson) asked about the underspend, because we had a meeting with the ICB and it was specifically told that the ringfence was being disapplied. Does the Secretary of State agree that that money should be spent on dental services and that that instruction should be given by her today?

I welcome the guidance that ICBs have received. Cornwall ICB has committed to ringfencing money for dentistry next year, but the truth is that, before it took on that commitment, £4.5 million for unmet units of dental activity was returned to NHS England. What can the Secretary of State do to ensure that Cornwall gets the money that was intended for Cornwall to deliver NHS dentistry?

A theme is emerging of underspend in dental work, which is one of the things that the ministerial team and I are looking at. NHS England emphasised in its guidance to ICBs that the funding should be ringfenced. I very much understand the pressures that my hon. Friend and other south-west Members have been raising over many months on the care that their constituents are getting. To ease pressures in the south-west, NHS England has commissioned additional urgent dental care appointments that people can access through NHS 111.

I begin by welcoming the Secretary of State and her Ministers to their posts.

Last year, the Prime Minister pledged to restore NHS dentistry, including a specific promise to protect its budget, yet last month we learned that he will break that promise and allow ICBs to raid dentistry budgets to fill the gaps. Labour has a plan for 700,000 extra appointments, supervised toothbrushing in schools and a targeted dentistry recruitment scheme in left-behind areas. It is all fully funded by abolishing non-dom tax status. We have a plan, but the Government’s plan is four months overdue. Where is it?

I thank the hon. Lady for her warm welcome. I look forward to discussing these matters with her over the Dispatch Box.

Over the weekend, I was rather pleased to see the Leader of the Opposition’s damascene conversion to the Conservative cause. As the shadow Secretary of State is on his world tour investigating what other health systems are doing, the Labour party may wish to bear in mind the words of wisdom from the great lady herself: “The problem with socialism is that at some point you run out of other people’s money.”