Tony Blair has acknowledged that the government has failed in its promise to provide access for all to an NHS dentist.
In September 1999 the Prime Minister pledged that within two years everyone would have an NHS dentist no matter where they lived. Eight years later, less than half of the adult population is registered.
After being directly challenged at Prime Minister’s question time by Liberal Democrat MP Mark Hunter, who asked when the promise would be fulfilled, Mr Blair replied: ‘It is and has been a real problem. I entirely accept that.’
But he went on to add that he was powerless to prevent dentists leaving the NHS for the private sector, saying: ‘The reason for it is very simple: even though we have increased the number of NHS dentists, we cannot stop dentists going outside the NHS if they wish to do so.
‘They are entitled to do that and despite the fact that we are paying far more and hiring far more within the NHS, we have not been able to fulfil that pledge. However, the majority of people are actually within their area able to access an NHS dentist if they want to, but that is not 100 per cent, I accept that.
‘It will only be dealt with ultimately by increasing still further the number of NHS dentists and that is what we intend to do.’
A recent Citizens Advice survey found that around two million people in England are unable to get access to an NHS dentist.
Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley said: ‘The reality is that in many places across the country, people can barely access an NHS dentist at all. ‘In the last year since the new contract, things have got worse not better. We are heading towards a two-tier dentistry unless policies change.’
Liberal Democrat health spokesman Sandra Gidley added: ‘The Prime Minister cannot shirk responsibility for the exodus of dentists from NHS work. It is very much his fault.
‘It was his ill-thought out and rushed dental reforms which have caused so many dentists to opt out of the NHS and which left many dentists with no money to carry out NHS work just a few months ago.
‘Rather than yet more empty promises, we need real action. The government must start listening to dentists’ concerns and introduce more flexibility into the system, so that dentists have the resources to focus on prevention and getting treatment to groups currently missing out on dental care.’
A Health Department spokesperson said: ‘We are turning the corner in improving access to dentistry. However, in some cases, we accept that the change may not be happening as quickly as we would like.
‘As the new arrangements settle down, there is clear evidence that the reforms are beginning to improve access.’