Charges for NHS dental check-ups should be scrapped, the Liberal Democrats have demanded.
The party, meeting in Brighton for their autumn conference, agreed the move as part of a package of measures designed to boost the availability of NHS dentists in England and help practitioners promote preventive oral care.
The policies included a plan to shake up the Unit of Dental Activity (UDA) by introducing a higher value for patients in greatest need, such as children and new patients, as well as giving preventive care an explicit UDA value.
The Lib Dems called for the development of personal dental plans to set out how frequently people should have a check-up and how to better look after their teeth. Patients should be guaranteed a minimum standard of service, they said.
They also backed a policy to set up a commission to examine the effectiveness of the current dental system. A motion agreed by conference delegates read: ‘One year after its introduction, the new NHS dental contract has failed on its stated aims of improving access to NHS dentistry, improving oral health and raising the quality of dental care.’
The party’s leading spokeswoman on dentistry, Romsey MP Sandra Gidley, said: ‘Eight years after Labour promised that everyone would have access to an NHS dentist, the system is in crisis. Government reforms have failed to improve access to NHS dentists or raise the quality of dental care provided. Only a third of practices across England are taking on new NHS patients. The failure to improve access to NHS dentistry is yet another broken promise by this government, which has lost all credibility on health issues.’
Mrs Gidley told delegates: ‘Fewer than half the adults in the country have access to an NHS dentist, and it is time that this gap in NHS dentistry was addressed.’ She said the lack of NHS dentists was forcing some people to go ‘unchecked and untreated’ until they were in such pain that they had to look for emergency treatment.
Liberal Democrat activists from across the country used the Conference platform to speak out about problems with access in their areas. Liz Leffman, who will seek election to Parliament in the new Hampshire seat of Meon Valley at the next General Election, said: ‘There are some parts of the country where people can access NHS dentistry quite easily but in Hampshire it’s really quite difficult. There aren’t any dentists in our area which have open lists. This is not a way to run anything.’
Ms Leffman added that the ‘enormous amount of building’ planned for parts of the county over the next five years would bring more people to the area and further increase the demand for dental care.
Mark Hunter, Lib Dem MP for Cheadle, said: ‘I have been inundated with letters from constituents whose dentists are refusing to keep them on as NHS patients and from dentists saying they are being driven out of the system.’ Not one dentist in his north-west constituency was taking on new NHS patients, he said, describing the situation as ‘absolutely appalling’.
Mr Hunter added: ‘After ten years of a Labour Government, if they have been unable to fix the dental crisis so far, which has been growing and increasing for years, they probably never will.’
Denis Healy, prospective Parliamentary candidate for Hull North, told the conference: ‘Dentists are confronted at every turn by bureaucracy and targets. This is hard for dentists because they want to provide the best possible service for patients.’ Under the new contract, he said, the time taken by dentists to explain how patients should look after their teeth was not recognised by the system.
In August chief dental officer Barry Cockcroft told Dentistry the new contract provided a ‘sound basis’ for reversing the ‘long-term gradual decline’ of NHS dentistry. But he cautioned it would take time – perhaps until March 2009 – for the changes to deliver significant improvements to patient access across the whole country.
By Andy Tate, political correspondent