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Health Inequalities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:17 pm on 4th March 2020.

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Photo of Judith Cummins Judith Cummins Shadow Minister (International Trade) 6:17 pm, 4th March 2020

It is a pleasure to follow Edward Timpson. I would like to focus on one particular area of health inequality: the lack of access to NHS dentistry and the damaging effect that this is having on people’s health. I fundamentally believe that we cannot continue to treat dentistry as the Cinderella service of the NHS. It is underfunded, undervalued and in need of reform. There is a crisis in access to NHS dentists, and significant inequality in the availability of access. This is having an adverse effect on the health and wellbeing of our children, in particular, with tooth decay remaining the biggest cause of admission to hospital for five to nine-year-olds.

Unfortunately, there is a regional and socioeconomic divide in both the availability of NHS dentistry and in good dental health outcomes. Nearly 50% of children in the worst performing local authority area have tooth decay; in the best performing area the figure is just 4%. In Bradford, the figure is far too high at 40%. We also see wide regional inequalities of access. In Bradford, 88% of people who tried to do so got an NHS dental appointment, compared with 95% nationally.

Locally, I have had some success in campaigning for more investment in local NHS dental services. An access pilot scheme that ran in 2017 provided an extra 4,200 appointments. The scheme significantly cut waiting times for dental care in Bradford. More than half of those extra patients had not seen a dentist for more than two years. The “Stop the Rot” campaign with the Bradford Telegraph & Argus resulted in over £600,000 of clawback funding being reinvested in Bradford over three years. May I thank two former Ministers, Steve Brine and Alistair Burt, for their help with this?

Will the current Minister take the hint and please confirm that, given the proven need, this reinvestment will continue into Bradford South? However, it is clear that this is not the long-term fundamental solution that is needed. First, we need to see reform of the dental contract, which is simply not fit for purpose. Secondly, the Government must get a grip on dental recruitment, which threatens to make access even harder. Thirdly, the Government must roll out the starting well programme across the country. Currently, it is limited to a handful of wards across 13 local authorities.

Finally, the Government must commit to fully funding NHS dentistry. It is operating on a budget that has remained essentially static since 2010. The scale of oral health inequalities in this country, in particular among our children, requires significant investment. The Government need to step up, never mind level up, and stop the crisis in NHS dentistry.