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 am sorry, I do not have time.

One core theme that emerges time and again, as borne out by Bradford hospitals’ admission, is that the Government are paralysed by inaction when it comes to oral health and NHS dentistry. They are indifferent towards even the simple task of requiring a countrywide collection of the most basic statistics on how many children are being subjected to the dangers of general anaesthetic. Time and again, the only sensible conclusion that can be drawn is that this Government are paralysed by inaction. Oral health and dentistry services truly are the Cinderella service of our NHS.

Across our country, tooth decay remains the leading reason for hospital admissions among young children, despite being almost completely preventable. The Government should be ashamed of the fact that almost 40,000 children were admitted to hospital to have multiple teeth extracted under a general anaesthetic because of tooth decay in the last year alone. On the Department of Health’s own figures, the average cost of a tooth extraction is £834. Overall, the NHS is calculated to have wasted more than £50 million on tooth extractions. This crisis is wasting the NHS millions upon millions of pounds each and every year in tooth extractions for our children. As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. That was never truer than in oral and dental health. The Government should be ashamed of the fact that, under their watch, tooth extractions are up by 25%. It is beyond doubt that that £50 million would be better spent on prevention activities. Spending the money in that way would free up scarce NHS time and limited beds, while saving tens of thousands of our children from the trauma of hospital admission and general anaesthesia.

I want to touch upon the real scandal at the heart of those 40,000 hospital admissions. NHS dental treatment is free for our children and young people. Every child and young person should be receiving good quality NHS dental treatment, but recent figures published by the Royal College of Surgeons faculty of dental surgery reveal that 42% of children did not visit an NHS dentist in the year prior to 30 June 2017, and a staggering 80% of children between the ages of one and two did not visit a dentist at all. That may perplex some Members. Why are so many of our children and young people not receiving the treatment that they are freely entitled to access under our NHS? A recent survey published by the BDA reveals the truth. The survey found that 25% of parents did not know that routine dental check-ups were free for their children. More to the point, seven in 10 parents were not aware that treatment for their children would also be free of charge.

In theory and in name, we operate an NHS dental system for our children and young people—one that is based on need, not on ability to pay. It is free at the point of need and free at the point of delivery. In reality, however, when seven in 10 parents are not aware that treatment for their children is free; and when, on the ground, 40% of NHS dentists are unwilling to take on children as new NHS patients, I ask this question: can we really say with any certainty that we continue to operate a free NHS dental system for our children in this country? Is it not true that, following seven years of inaction, the Government have, de facto, displaced our NHS dental system with a burgeoning private system?

Although the working class are, beyond doubt, being hit the hardest, the crisis in dentistry transcends social class, ethnicity and age. Although the people in my home city of Bradford are being hit hard by the lack of access to an NHS dentist, evidence from the profession, patients and the British dental association makes it clear that the crisis is a national one, which is hitting all areas of this country. Therefore, I ask the Government to get on with dental contract reform and, more broadly, to bring forward a coherent strategy to tackle the inadequacies and inequalities I have set out this evening. Indifference is not an option; Government need to act now to stop this crisis.