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Baroness Noakes: My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing the order this morning. Before commenting on its specifics, I wish to make it plain that these Benches support the work of the General Dental Council. We believe that effective professional
The concerns that I shall raise are about the level of the fees that we are being asked to approve and the way in which the fees are being introduced. I will start with the level of the fees. Today, a dental auxiliary pays £25 in annual registration fees. In 2004, that will rise by a pretty significant 172 per cent to £68. Although it is not covered by this order, the GDC intends to raise the fee to £75 the year after, which will mean an increase of 200 per cent over two years. The Minister already mentioned that that is in excess of the general inflation rate. If we apply that rate and allow for the fact that there has been no increase in the fees since 1999, dental auxiliaries might have expected something of the order of £28. If we allow this order to proceed, the figure will be nearly two and a half times, which is a significant amount.
That increase is in stark contrast to what will happen to dentists' fees over the same period. The Minister said that they would increase from £135, but they currently pay £300. Over the next two years they will suffer increases46 per cent over that £300 level by the end of 2005. In monetary terms, therefore, the increase over two years will be relatively much less significant than for dental auxiliaries. What steps have the Government taken to satisfy themselves that the increases proposed in the order are reasonably calculated? At first sight they indicate a lack of financial planning, given the very steep rate of rise. What inquiries has the Department of Health undertaken to ascertain the reasonableness of the underlying expenditure projections supporting these increases?
There are also issues of equity. Many dental auxiliaries work part time and many are women combining home and caring responsibilities with part-time work. When dental therapists do work, their average income is only £11 an hour. That puts into context the steep rise in these fees. What inquiries have the Government made to the GDC to ensure that the way in which the fees are set reflects equity between the different components of the dental profession? Do the Government believe that the way in which fee increases have been shared out reflect ability to pay and fairness?
The Minister told us this morning that the GDC needs extra money for modernisationwhich is, as we know, one of the buttons to press to get new Labour approval. Part of that modernisation includes extending the regime to dental nurses and dental technicians for the first time. Will the fees paid by today's dental auxiliaries pay for the regulation of new sections of the profession? If so, the correct treatment would be for the new group of professionals to bear those costs, spread over a number of years perhaps if significant up-front costs were involved. The Minister quoted some costs this morning for the total modernisation package. My question focuses
Lastly, we come to the issue of consultation. Government Ministers often stand at the Dispatch Box and proclaim their allegiance to proper consultation, so today I should like to explore that. The Explanatory Memorandum to this order states quite categorically that the GDC consulted professional bodies representative of dental auxiliaries about these increases and the fee increases "were generally supported".
Our own researches with the Dental Hygienists Association revealed a real concern about the fee increases, for precisely the economic reasons that I outlined earlier. What inquiries have the Government made about the quality of the consultation carried out by the GDC? Are they satisfied that the views of the people who will actually have to pay these fees have been taken into account?
It is not the custom of this House to oppose statutory instruments and I shall not be doing so today, but the Minister said that the Government intend in future that such fee increases will be subject to the even less effective negative procedure. I have a real concern about that based on my researches for today's debate. I am not at all sure that the interests of fairness and justice for the elements of the dental profession that inevitably wield little power are served by that. As a result of today's debate, I hope that the Minister will, if nothing else, look again at whether the arrangements within the GDC warrant the proposed weakening of parliamentary scrutiny.
Lord Addington: My Lords, the noble Baroness confirmed one matter for me. She mentioned an increase of 172 per cent. That is also what I made it. The noble Baroness's skill at maths is probably a little better than mine, so I was quite reassured. The figure is the nub of the whole matter. It is a huge increase. There is an expanding number of people in a new field of dental work that is probably beneficial to society as a whole and we want those people to be regulated.
I would not disagree with any of the questions asked by the noble Baronessso this will be a comparatively short speech. However, can we have some assurance that this level of increase is a one-off? How was the figure calculated? Is it justified? Are the professionals themselves driving this increase or the Government? Paying a fee of £68 per year to be able to carry out a profession may not be crippling, but a couple of other increases of 100 to 200 per cent on top of that may stop people entering the profession, especially if they have to come up with the money all at once. We need assurance that such a thing will not happen in the future and that there is a regular way of calculating increases. That would ensure that degrees of worry would be removed. Other than that, we have no real objection to the order.
One of the checks and balances in the system is that dentists and dental auxiliaries vote members on to the General Dental Council. If they do not like the job that they are doing and the cost incurred in doing it, they can vote them off, so there is a degree of self regulation. It is a self-regulating system. We have looked at the workings and we believe that they are reasonable.
I mentioned that the General Dental Council isand this is almost inescapabletrying to modernise its procedures, particularly through investment in better IT systems. To some extent, whenever one invests in IT systems, the cost is up-front, before future generations benefit. That is an inevitable consequence for all of us. It is not easy to have a system that deals with just one bit of the profession, rather than another bit of the profession. There is probably a degree of step change in the level of investment.
They are not easy judgments. We have examined the workings. It is worth bearing in mind that we have not had an increase in fees since 1999. With hindsight, one might think that it was better to keep the fees more up to date than to leave them for a time and then have large increases. The General Dental Council might like to consider that thought for the future. The noble Baroness asked me about next year's fees. I cannot comment on them. The General Dental Council has not submitted any proposals for next year, so we have not seen the workings. I cannot comment on that.
I may be able to give the House some reassurance on consultation. There is a dental hygienist and a dental therapist on the General Dental Council. When the increases were first proposed, those two members were asked to canvass the views of their colleagues. Their responses were that the need for the increase in fees was generally accepted and that the increase in status that would result from registration was welcome. I do not claim that every member of the two professional bodies, the British Association of Dental Therapists and the British Dental Hygienists' Association, was in favour. I cannot believe that, in the circumstances, anybody said, "Hip, hip, hooray! Higher fees!". It appears that, when approached directly, people accepted that the pay and status considerations were important and that a fee increase of the kind proposed was justified.
I cannot do more than that, other than to say that we would not have laid the regulations before the House if we did not believe that the fees were justified. It is an uncomfortably large increase, but, as I said, it is all about professional self-regulation. The profession is taking steps to modernise its procedures for registering