Access to NHS Dentists

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:46 pm on 12th September 2017.

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Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Opposition Whip (Commons) 10:46 pm, 12th September 2017

I absolutely do.

Dental practices in working-class areas, facing spiralling overheads and a decline in their income, are struggling to stay afloat. In better-off areas, dental practices have been able to cushion themselves through extra revenue from privately paying patients. That extra income makes a difference. In working-class areas, the realities of life are hugely different. After many families have paid their rent or mortgage, covered day-to-day essentials and put food on the table, a visit to the dentist has now become one of life’s luxuries.

Research by the BDA supports that idea. Figures reveal that four in 10 patients have delayed a dental check-up because of fears about the high cost of treatment. That is understandable when we realise that the patient charge for treatment in the highest band—such as crowns or bridges—is £244.30. Working-class people, such as those in Bradford, are being hit the hardest. They have been abandoned by the Government, and they suffer failing oral health and chronic pain day in, day out. Worst of all, they are powerless to do anything about it because they find it difficult to access an NHS dentist. There is a clear human cost of poor dental health, which affects every part of a person’s day-to-day life.

The BBC spoke to a Mr Oldroyd during their investigations. Mr Oldroyd, a middle-aged man, has been trying to find an NHS dentist for four long years, during which he had suffered from chronic pain caused by his terrible tooth decay. He told reporters:

“The state of my teeth has made me depressed and I’ve literally begged to be taken on by an NHS dentist, but every time I’ve been turned away.”

Mr Oldroyd told reporters that his pain became so unbearable that, in the end, he resorted to self-extraction. He pulled out his own teeth. This is simply unthinkable. Mr Oldroyd believes that his poor dental health has contributed to him being out of work. As he puts it:

“The tops of my teeth are gone. I’m on benefits and trying to get a job, and when someone sees my teeth they just think I’m another waster.”

This crisis has been a long time in the coming. It has not crept up on the Government; it has been visible and in plain sight. The Government were put on notice when they came to power in 2010. There have been repeated warnings from dental professionals working in the sector, from within Parliament, and from the British Dental Association. All have warned that inaction is not an option, but sadly that is what we have seen.

It was not long ago that I, and many other Members, spent the afternoon right here in the Chamber in a Back-Bench business debate about health inequalities. During my remarks I set out a number of simple, uncontroversial steps that promised to improve access to NHS dentistry. First among those steps was to expedite reform of the NHS dental contract. Time and again when challenged about the reform of this contract, the Government have done little more than lay the blame at the door of the previous Labour Government. With respect, if that excuse was ever persuasive, it is now threadbare following seven years of a Conservative Government, two Conservative Prime Ministers and three general elections.

Reform of the contract is critical, as it promises to spend taxpayers’ money more effectively. The current dysfunctional contract sets quotas on patient numbers, fails to incentivise preventive work, including effective public information campaigns, and implicitly places an ever-growing reliance on dental practices to pursue private charging as a means of staying afloat. This Government are forcing dentists to make a terrible decision: either to stop providing NHS services altogether and go private, disregarding those who have less ability to pay, or to provide overstretched NHS dental treatment to their patients—or a combination of the both. That is a toxic choice for the dental profession.

Since first being elected in 2015, I have campaigned for more funding for Bradford. The city has among the worst oral health outcomes in the country, despite the hard work of local public health officials. We have received additional funding, to the credit of the previous Minister, Alistair Burt, but frustratingly this was only temporary. Despite my efforts, the Government still have not announced whether any permanent funding will be put in place. That is simply unacceptable. Official figures reveal that a five-year-old in Bradford is four and a half times more likely to suffer from tooth decay than a child in the Health Secretary’s constituency of South West Surrey. According to figures, a third of children in Bradford have not seen a dentist for more than two years. Children should be given a check-up every six months.