My Lords, the Government are committed to increasing access to dentistry and improving oral health outcomes, particularly for disadvantaged children. Across England, access to NHS dentistry is improving. We are also reforming the current dental contract to increase dentists’ focus on preventing, as well as treating, disease and oral ill health. Alongside this, NHS England’s Starting Well scheme will help children in high-need areas to access appropriate dental care.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but dental care in England is in crisis. Charities now provide emergency dental care. A quarter of all five year-olds have tooth decay. More than half of dentists plan to leave the NHS within five years and government spending on NHS dentistry has fallen by £170 million since 2010, meaning that patients pay more and more. The NHS dental contract that the Minister mentioned needs urgent reform—something that Labour recognised back in 2009. Why, despite running pilots since 2011, are the Government now saying that they need more time—a couple of years, perhaps—before wider rollout can even be considered? By what date, therefore, do the Government expect to deliver reform to these urgently needed NHS dental contracts?
I am afraid I do not recognise the picture that the noble Baroness paints. She is quite right that 25% of five year-olds are not decay-free; obviously, that is not good enough, but that figure has been increasing over the past 10 years. I should also point out that there are more dentists practising in NHS dentistry than ever.
The noble Baroness is quite right that a pilot has been going on in 75 dentists’ surgeries. An evaluation report will be produced by the deputy Chief Dental Officer in the next few months. That will set out the path toward the full reform of the dental contract.
My Lords, dental care would be improved by the addition of fluoride to the water supply. This has been agreed by my noble friend and his department, but not all water authorities are prepared to take this step. In the last decade, dentists’ average earnings have gone down by a third in real terms. This is of great concern to dentists, who do not receive any government funding and have to cover all costs—equipment, staffing and training—unlike medical general practitioners. I declare an interest as vice-president of the British Fluoridation Society. According to a recent BDA survey, more than half of all dentists intend to leave NHS dentistry in the next five years. Perhaps my noble friend could start by looking at the current salary structures and contractual arrangements.
We have talked about fluoridation a lot in this House recently. My noble friend knows the position: it is up for local areas to come forward with proposals. On his particular issue about dentists, they are doing a fantastic job in the NHS. We have more of them than ever. I want to point out that the 1% cap that was applied—we know that was because of the fiscal retrenchment that has had to take place in this country—no longer applies; indeed, we are waiting for dental review bodies to report on it so that we can arrange future payments for dentists.
My Lords, I remind the House of my presidency of the British Fluoridation Society. The noble Lord says that we have talked a lot. We have not quite talked enough, because the problem is this: fluoridation would deal with a lot of the areas with high numbers of oral health issues. The local authority is responsible for this and for paying the revenue costs, but the benefit falls to the health service. The cost annually for an average local authority is £300,000. Would the noble Lord be prepared to convene a discussion between himself, NHS England and Public Health England to see whether there could be a way to find some resources to help local authorities implement schemes?
I recognise the benefits of fluoridation that the noble Lord has pointed out. There is no question about that. But we know that this is a very difficult and vexed issue locally—there are strong feelings either way. That is why the position was reached in the 2012 Act. The noble Lord’s idea of a discussion is a good one. I should point out that it is not a policy area on which I lead so I will have to speak to my colleague in the department, but if we can get that going and think about ways to encourage more action it would be a very clever thing to do.
My Lords, I am sure that the Minister is aware that adults with learning disabilities are also at considerable risk of tooth decay, in part because of difficulties in maintaining their dental health. What measures are being taken to improve their dental health? I declare an interest here because I published a book on the subject. I am concerned too about excessive sugar consumption as a major cause of tooth decay. This is a risk for children and adults with learning disabilities. Will the Government consider introducing a ban on advertising high-sugar products on television before the watershed?
The noble Baroness might send me her book so I can get her ideas on reaching adults with learning difficulties. Most adults with significant learning difficulties are likely to be on a range of benefits. That means that their dental care is free, if not for all, I suspect, then for some. She is absolutely right to point to sugar. We now have the sugar levy, which has had a really big impact. About 50% of drinks that would have been affected have been reformulated to either reduce or remove the application of that levy. That is a really good impact. On her point on advertising, we have very tough advertising rules in this country, including the banning of advertising of sweet drinks, sugary products and so on in children’s media. That is one of the reasons why we are seeing some hopeful signs on, for example, the number of extractions falling in primary care year on year.
My Lords, is the Minister aware that 41.5% of children have not visited the dentists for the year up to September 2017 and that many of these children are in the poorest communities of the country, many of which, as the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said, are now dependent on charity for dental care? What action will he take to ensure that all children have proper access to NHS dentistry, wherever they live throughout the country?
The noble Baroness is right. About 59% of children have seen a dentist in the last two years, but of course that leaves 41% who have not. I have to say that that is an improving picture. On her two particular issues, there is NHS England’s Starting Well programme, which is targeted on 13 local authorities that have the worst oral health outcomes for children. The range is really quite dramatic from one area to the next. It has also developed a core offer to help every local authority commission better dental health for children.
My Lords, is not the issue of fluoridation of water just like the issue of adding folic acid to fortified flour, about which even more overpoweringly conclusive evidence was published this week? The Government need to take a more robust attitude towards public health.
I return to the point that I have made: I do not think there is any doubt about the evidence on the benefits of fluoridation, but it is important to do it in a way that brings local people with you. I should also point out that a big programme of fluoride varnishing is going on for children’s teeth as well, so we are getting fluoride into children in other ways too.