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The most recent assessment of dentists' numbers was the 2004 "Report of the Primary Care Dental Workforce Review". Since April 2004, we have recruited the equivalent of an extra 1,100 dentists in the NHS. Last year, we announced that we would increase dental training places by 170 each year, and in January we announced the opening of a new dental school at the Peninsula medical school.
I welcome the resources that my hon. Friend and her Department have found for the new dental school in Plymouth, especially as it will bring 150 jobs and capacity equivalent to about 20 dentists even in the early years. However, does she agree that preventive health care will make the biggest difference to dental treatment and the availability of dental health care to our constituents? Will she urge the new dental school to consider what it can do to drive that agenda forward?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her assiduousness in pressing for the dental school in her constituency. She is absolutely right to say that that preventive care is extremely important. Not only do we have a public health strategy for oral health, but an important part of the new contract is that it allows dentists to spend time on preventive health care, as well as other treatments.
I declare an interest—it is becoming a habit. I am fascinated by the Minister's reply. She will be aware that dental students need academic clinical teachers. Does she agree that the 6 per cent. reduction in the number of academic clinical teachers over the past year could present a problem? Some 20 per cent. of those teachers are over 55, and 33 per cent. of them are aged 45 to 55. Does she agree that we must face the fact that there is a possible problem with a new school, more places and more students, but fewer teachers?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, which we have been looking at in relation to the way that we deliver dental training. As well as training to recruit more academics, we can consider other things, such as outreach schools, where students spend more time perfecting their skills in the community, as well as in the school. He is absolutely right to suggest that this issue is important, and I can assure him that we are looking at it.
Is not one of the immediate problems about the supply of NHS dentists the fact that those who opt out of the service are writing to patients inviting them to opt into a Denplan contract on a first-come, first-served basis, before those patients know whether there will be any NHS re-provision in the area? Would that not have been prevented if the cut-off date for agreeing the contract had been somewhat earlier?
We had the cut-off date for the contract fit in with the financial year, which also gave the NHS time to prepare for it. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, however, to say that some patients have found the position misleading, which has angered many people in the primary care trusts. The impression has been given that NHS dentistry is not going to continue if a dentist withdraws, but the fact is that the PCT will, under the new system, have money locally. Whether a dentist decides to take up a new contract is up to the dentist, but the primary care trust will re-provide dentistry from elsewhere, and many NHS dentists are coming forward to say that they want to do that where others do not.
Given that NHS dentistry is largely unavailable in Lincolnshire, and given further that there is a precedent for the national health service paying for operations that cannot be performed within it within a stated time, why is the same principle not applied to private dental fees incurred by patients who cannot get NHS dentistry because it is not available? Why, in those circumstances, does not the NHS pay those private dental fees?
Most NHS dentists are, in fact, independent contractors. The NHS contracts with them, and in future that will be done in an improved way. We have had no control: if a dentist left the NHS, there was no way in which the local primary care trust had the money to recommission local dentistry. The reforms that we are introducing change all that.
I am aware that there are particular problems in Lincolnshire, which has received substantial access money to increase availability. As I have said, however, that money will be available locally. Meanwhile, it would be interesting to know whether purchasing in the way that the right hon. and learned Gentleman outlined is now Conservative party policy.