Health ministers are under fire for failing to visit dental practices – even while planning the biggest shake-up of the way services are commissioned for decades.
A Labour MP leapt on an admission that health secretary Andrew Lansley has dropped in to just one surgery in his first year in the job.
Lord Howe, the minister with responsibility for dentistry from his seat in the House of Lords, has only been slightly more active – visiting two practices.
A written question was answered as controversy continues to rage over the Health and Social Care Bill, which will hand responsibility for commissioning all dental services to an independent ‘NHS Commissioning Board’.
Last week, deputy prime minister Nick Clegg announced that the Bill would have to be sent back for MPs to reconsider line-line in committee – because such substantial changes are planned.
The almost unprecedented move throws further doubt on the timetable for scrapping strategic health authorities (SHAs) and primary care trusts (PCTs) – by 2012 and 2013, respectively.
At present, dentistry is commissioned by PCTs, with some community services arranged by the trusts and local councils pooling budgets.
Tom Blenkinsop, a Labour backbencher who sat on the Health Bill committee, said: ‘It is quite remarkable that Andrew Lansley has been to only one dental practice in the last year.
‘His record is almost as bad as when education secretary Michael Gove was making changes to further education colleges – and he hadn’t been to a single one.
‘It is becoming a pattern that this government likes to tell people what’s going to happen, without talking to people and consulting them face-to-face.’
The parliamentary question was tabled by Andrew Rosindell, a Conservative, who asked Mr Lansley how many dentists’ surgeries he had visited ‘in an official capacity in the last 12 months’.
The reply, from junior minister Mr Simon Burns, said the health secretary had visited ‘one community dental service in an official capacity’ – without stating which one.
It added: ‘Lord Howe leads on dentistry within the ministerial team and has visited two dental practices in the last 12 months, one in Worcester and one in London.
‘He has also visited dentists providing oral health promotion services for children provided in a children’s centre in Preston.’
Last week, in his speech to the British Dental Conference, Mr Lansley insisted the shake-up of commissioning had been ‘broadly welcomed’.
However, the Tory-led Health Committee lambasted the idea, in its report in April, calling for ‘accountable’ ‘Local Commissioning Authorities’ – boasting hospital doctors, nurses, public health experts and local councillors – to perform the role.
A Department of Health spokesperson said: ‘Ministers have engaged with the profession in many different ways, including at a number of events and conferences – such as the recent BDA conference in Manchester – and through various meetings with professional representatives and education and training bodies.
‘In addition, the Steering Group on dental contract reform, which includes leaders of the profession, has advised them on the set-up of the dental contract pilots. Taken together, this has enabled ministers to remain well informed and in a position to carry out their roles of forming areas of policy effectively.’