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The new contract in 2006 gave primary care trusts the power and the responsibility to shape local dentistry services to fit the specific needs of their communities. Many have risen to that new challenge and are providing excellent NHS dental services. I could give many examples; some have been given in the Chamber this evening. South Tyneside primary care trust, like much of the north-east, has a history of ensuring good access to NHS dentistry, but now the PCT is working with local
dentists to improve the quality and efficiency of the services that it provides. The aim is to improve services for patients while providing best value for money.
Although places such as South Tyneside are good, other areas are not as good, as we have heard today. Where progress is uneven, we need to go further. That is where Professor Jimmy Steele's review has proved so valuable. It has helped us to understand further the modern landscape of dentistry and the needs of the population, and that the focus of modern dentistry must be on prevention, the maintenance of oral health and quality. It also helps us to understand that different generations can have very different needs. We are asking our dentists for different approaches in light of that. We are starting to test the recommendations. PCTs that tender for new contacts so as to increase access to dental services are starting to place qualitative measures in their contracts. Depending on the results of piloting, we will start to roll out the Steele recommendations on quality to all contracts for dental services.
In the past two years, funding for NHS dentistry has increased by the best part of £400 million a year. That is extra money going to the front line, and that gives more people better access to high-quality dental care. However, the issue is not only about spending more; it is about spending better. The national dental access programme is helping PCTs to get the most out of existing services, looking at how things are organised on the ground and offering advice and guidance on how they can be improved within existing budgets.
The last time I stood at this Dispatch Box to debate dentistry was in December last year. I assured the House that access to NHS dentistry was about to increase. If I remember correctly, the Opposition did not share my confidence. Well, I am delighted to say that I was correct. The NHS information centre's latest statistics show that the number of people who have been able to see an NHS dentist has risen by 720,000 over the past year. I hope the House will believe me now when I say that the growth in access will continue in the years to come. We are on course to achieve and, indeed, surpass the Opposition's rather unambitious target of an extra 1 million people. Trust the Government and this party to do the job properly. Trust this nurse. People should always trust the nurse when she is telling them what we will achieve.
We are well on the way towards replacing the access lost when a minority of dentists decided not to accept the new contracts in 2006, but we aim to go much further. Every strategic health authority is committed to making sure that by March 2011 everyone who wants a dentist can access an NHS dentist. We are committed to implementing Professor Steele's recommendations to improve both the quality of dentistry for patients and the working lives of dentists.
In the time that we have left, I will endeavour to answer as many as possible of the questions that hon. Members raised. As is traditional, if I fail to answer any questions we will write to the Members who participated in the debate. The hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), speaking from the Front Bench for the Liberals, made a positive contribution and spoke
about quality, prevention and inequalities. He reminded us of the importance of good negotiations with the BDA, and I take note.
My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins), who is known for championing dentistry in the House, and in particular fluoridation, spoke about TLC 4 Smiles for herself. She also mentioned a Mr. and Mrs. Keen, who were making a valued contribution to dentistry in her area. May I say to all in the House and to any journalists who may be present that I have only the one job. On this occasion I can also vouch for my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston (Alan Keen).
The hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), who spoke from his experience as a dentist and brought much experience to the Health Committee and the all-party group on dentistry, referred to the BDA survey. That survey also stated that relations between PCTs and dentists was very good indeed, citing 87 per cent. of cases that were reported. That report was published yesterday and we should acknowledge its findings.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) for his comments on the improvements that have been made. He mentioned the important matter of charges, which is dear to the hearts of all Members, especially those on the Labour Benches. All children and about 30 per cent. of adults are exempt from charges.
The hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) raised with typical forcefulness and passion the subject of regulations. I should point out that those regulations were passed in the House on a free vote. I cannot go further as the matter is subject to a judicial review.
The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) highlighted important topics. From next spring the PCT responsible for Saltash is commissioning new services that will offer care to all sections of the population. He also mentioned that the new dental school in the south-west peninsula, part of the development of a dental education centre, is under construction in Truro. For the first time, dentists will be trained in Cornwall.
Speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) stated that should the Conservatives be in government, dentists would be required to work in the NHS. I should be grateful if he would explain how long they would be required to do so and how he intends to achieve that.
Mike Penning: If someone is trained by the NHS at taxpayers' expense, they will have to have a built-in loyalty to the NHS. We have said, and not just today, that they will have to work in some shape or form for five years in the NHS in order to pay back its contribution to their training.
Ann Keen: Those are very interesting comments, indeed. That proposal is similar, of course, to registration, because registration was in fact a payment to register. Our dentists today recall patients, and they have continuity of care.
We have been very clear about our proposal and have made it before: a five-year tie-in for NHS, state-trained dentists so that they remain in the
NHS. The Liberal Democrats agree with us, and it is practised in Scotland. Will Ministers agree with that proposal?
Mr. Martlew: I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend, but the Opposition would not give way to me. Does she know anything about the policy on making dentists work for five years? Will it apply to doctors as well? Would that not seem fair? Are the Conservatives going to make doctors work for five years for the NHS?
Ann Keen: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. The proposal is certainly news to Government FrontBenchers today, but I think that we should expand on it; perhaps it is something that we should look at. It will be interesting to see how negotiations on it go with the BDA. Perhaps the Opposition will keep us informed, because much has been said today about the professionalism of our dentists. In fact, accusations have been made about the number of extractions that are deemed unnecessary.
We admire our dentists and congratulate not only them on the real hard work that they do, but all the team who play such a role, including hygienists and, in particular, dental nurses. We note also their approach to health inequalities and their serious work with us and Professor Steele to implement the new contract. I have heard nothing from Opposition Members about inequalities.
Mr. Lansley: In my speech I made it very clear that we want people to have greater access to preventive care, and we have made it clear that we will allow people to visit dental hygienists without the requirement of a dentist's referral via a prescription. Will the Minister agree with that proposal?
Ann Keen: I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman would be able to achieve that, because regulation might come into play. He cannot make such statements just to please himself this evening; he has to be able to fulfil them. [ Interruption. ] I am sorry, but he does have to look at his subject area again, because it is just not possible to make that proposal tonight.
We are talking about a team of people who work in our primary care system and are respected and valued in the community. Interesting points have been made today about dentists being asked to work up to five years for the NHS, and it would be very interesting to see how that might be expanded to include other health professionals and members of the health service work force.
We want to congratulate all the dentists who have worked with the contract. It was a difficult contract to introduce, and it has been difficult for some people to implement, but our PCTs, along with our commissioners, are working for dentistry to be accessible for all. We have made a commitment that by 2011 all those who want a dentist will have access to a dentist.
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