Accessibility to Dental Services

Health and Social Care – in the House of Commons at on 23 January 2024.

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Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

If she will make an assessment of the potential impact of the level of accessibility to dental appointments on urgent dental and oral surgery services.

Photo of Giles Watling Giles Watling Conservative, Clacton

What recent steps she has taken to increase capacity in NHS dental care.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

What progress she has made on introducing a dentistry recovery plan.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I am determined to ensure that everybody who needs NHS dental care can receive it. We have already implemented a package of reforms to improve access and provide fairer remuneration for dentists. That has had an effect, with 1.7 million more adults being seen, 800,000 more children being seen and a 23% increase in NHS activity in the past year. We know we need to do much more, and our dentistry recovery plan will be published shortly, setting out a big package of change.

Photo of Layla Moran Layla Moran Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I listened carefully to what the Minister said. That change has not come to Oxfordshire, for sure—it is in a dire state. An Oxford resident wrote to me saying that when his NHS practice closed, he rang a dozen others across the county. Each one said they were offering NHS services but, in fact, they were not; they were only offering private care. In this cost of living crisis, people simply cannot afford that. As a result, they are waiting in A&E rather than getting treatment, and that ends up in their having oral surgery. What is the Minister doing now to improve the situation in Oxfordshire and across the country?

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I am incredibly sympathetic to what the hon. Lady says. In fact, in Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire West integrated care board, the number of adults seen by an NHS dentist rose in the 24 months to June 2023 from 448,000 to 485,000, with a similar increase in the percentage of children seen. The situation is improving, but I completely agree with her that we need to do more, and we will be coming forward shortly with a big package of dental recovery plan reforms.

Photo of Giles Watling Giles Watling Conservative, Clacton

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. Following my very productive meeting with her only a few days ago, will she confirm that NHS England locally has finally been unblocked and that my constituents in Clacton will soon benefit from more dentists practising on NHS patients?

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

As my hon. Friend will know, this is a local matter, and it is for his ICB to determine whether it wishes to support the excellent pilot proposal for overseas dental students in Clacton. At the same time, it needs to ensure that its actions are compliant with current legislation and within the delegation agreement with NHS England. I have just written to my hon. Friend about that, and my letter should address his concerns, but of course I would be happy to see him again if he has any further questions.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

We were promised “before the summer”, we were promised “after the summer”, we were promised “before Christmas”, we were promised “soon” and now we have been promised “shortly”. The reality is that Labour has a plan and the Government have not. In York, we cannot get an NHS dentist either. Blossom Family Dental Care is just handing back its contract. My constituents have nowhere to go. What is the Minister going to do to ensure that my constituents can access NHS dentistry?

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

As I said to Layla Moran, I absolutely understand the challenge for some people. The situation has improved over the last year. Since the covid pandemic, where almost every dentist had to stop working altogether, we have not seen the recovery we want. We are putting in plans—not a paper ambition like the one Labour has put forward, but significant reforms that will enable many more people to be seen by NHS dentists. I say gently to Rachael Maskell that a recent Health Service Journal article states that Humber and North Yorkshire ICB

“have indicated in board papers that dentistry funding will be squeezed to help them balance their books.”

I encourage her to talk to her ICB about that too.

Photo of Paul Bristow Paul Bristow Conservative, Peterborough

For new patients, accessing an NHS dentist in Peterborough is almost impossible. Should a new medical centre wish to establish a new NHS dental practice, doing so would require flexibility in units of dental activity rates and the ability to recruit dentists from overseas. Would the Minister give that effort her enthusiastic support and encourage NHS bosses to do the same?

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

My hon. Friend is pushing against an open door. He may be aware that in 2023 we made some legislative changes to give the General Dental Council more flexibility to expand the registration options open to international dentists, tripling the capacity of three sittings of the overseas registration exam from August 2023 and increasing the number of sittings for the part 2 exam in 2024 from three to four.[This section has been corrected on 23 February 2024, column 14MC — read correction] (Correction) That will create an additional 1,300 places overall for overseas dentists aiming to work in the UK. We will also be bringing forward measures to enable dental therapists to work at the top of their training, which will expand the capacity. He is right that reform of the UDA is also required and we will be bringing forward our plans shortly.

Photo of Preet Kaur Gill Preet Kaur Gill Shadow Minister (Primary Care and Public Health)

I want to share with Ministers the experience of Emma from Grimsby, who said:

“NHS dentistry is a joke in the town at the moment. Thankfully I managed to get an emergency appointment in Scunthorpe (after being offered one in Doncaster originally) and I’ve now been referred to hospital to have 3 wisdom teeth removed. My dentist closed at the onset of the pandemic and I’ve not been able to register with an NHS dentist since.”

What does the Minister have to say to Emma and the millions like her who cannot get an appointment when they need one?

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to point that out. Emma has my absolute sympathy and apology for the fact that since the covid pandemic we have not seen the recovery of dentistry that we would have liked. I can tell her that in July 2022 we brought in significant reforms to encourage dentists to take on more NHS patients, but we recognise the need to do more. The long-term workforce plan will increase training places and the overseas registration will improve capacity, as will the changes to dental therapists’ programmes. All those things will improve the situation, but in the meantime we will be bringing forward our recovery plan very soon, which will immediately expand the incentives to NHS dentists.