NHS dentists still not available to all – despite Blair's pledge

A million fewer patientsare being seen by NHS dentists, despite Tony Blair's pledge almost a decade ago of "access for all" to an NHS dentist within two years. The damning indictment of the Government's failure to deliver its promises on dental care is contained in a report by the Labour-dominated Commons Select Committee on Health.

MPs on the committee say a new contract in 2006 has failed to deliver improvements in access to NHS dental care, and that there are signs dentists are carrying out more extractions or referring patients to hospital rather than spending time on complex treatments such as caps.

There is now a danger that some low-income patients are storing up dental problems and delaying visiting their dentist, thus putting at risk their long-term dental health, rather than pay for expensive private treatment.

Kevin Barron, the Labour chairman of the committee, said the Government had failed to fulfil the promise made by Mr Blair in 1999 that all patients would have access to an NHS dentist within two years. "It was not met," he said. "I can't say it was broken – but it was not met."

The dental contract simplified payments to dentists for NHS work and followed reports of people queuing when a dentist opened for NHS business in Scarborough. But the report says that getting access to an NHS dentist is becoming more difficult.

"The Department of Health's goal that patient access to dental services would improve from April 2006 has not been realised... Various measures of access all indicate that the situation is deteriorating," the report says.

The total number of patients seen by an NHS dentist fell by 900,000 in the two years to December 2007, the MPs said. "This figure possibly underestimates the decline," they added.

Mr Barron said he hoped the Department of Health would outlaw the practice by some dentists of refusing to treat children unless their family signed up to a private dental plan. "We believe this is wrong," he said.

The MPs also found that the number of complex treatments involving laboratory work fell by 50 per cent during the first year of the contract, and the number of root-canal treatments fell by 45 per cent from 2004, while the number of extractions had increased.

Citizens Advice has estimated that up to 7.4 million people wanted to be treated by an NHS dentist but had been unable to do so because they could not find one.

Susie Sanderson, of the British Dental Association, said: "This is a damning report which highlights the failure of a farcical contract that has alienated the profession and caused uncertainty to patients. For the past two years, dentists and patients have told the Department of Health that it got it wrong. Now MPs have agreed with the BDA."

The profession said that the MPs had found unrealistic targets had been set for many dentists and urged health ministers to make urgent changes for the sake of patients.