Lord Warner, a health minister under Tony Blair, hit out after the Department of Health (DH) appeared to concede that it no longer measured the level of fraud.
Yet, at the same time, the DH revealed that past investigations had uncovered big losses from dental contractors (£73 million in 2009-10) and dental patient charges (£36.3 million in 2007-08).
The only larger loss – in a three-year period between 2007 and 2010 – was in patient prescription charge fraud (£100 million), a written parliamentary answer revealed.
Earl Howe said the figures had been uncovered by NHS Protect that he described as ‘the unit that leads work to tackle crime in the Natioanl Health Service.'
However, quizzed by Lord Warner about fraud losses in each of the last five years, the minister was unable to give any statistics later than the 2010 general election.
Instead, he replied: ‘The information is not available and could only be obtained at disproportionate cost.’
Speaking to Dentistry, the former Labour minister said he was surprised and alarmed by the response from the department.
And, perhaps controversially, Lord Warner suggested a close watch needed to kept on possible fraud in dentistry because of the way that taxpayers’ money was handed over.
He said: ‘Under Labour, there was a fraud management unit in the department of health, but I suspect it’s gone the way of lots of other things under this coalition.
‘I don’t think that’s satisfactory. This is a government that loves talking about scroungers and immigrants ripping off the NHS – yet it is laissez-faire about fraud.
‘My memory of anti-fraud activities, when I was a minister, is that they more than paid their way in terms of the money they recouped, that they were a good investment.’
Lord Warner explained that effective fraud detectors looked out for patterns of claims from practices that were ‘out of the ordinary’.
And he added: “Dentistry has always been at risk of fraud, because payments are made for items of service, rather than for a salaried service, where it is quite difficult to perpetuate fraud.
‘It is much more difficult to detect fraud when payments are on the basis of how many fillings, or extractions, have been done.
‘Therefore, it doesn’t surprise me that the fraud losses from dentistry are quite high and I will certainly be pursuing this further.’
Lord Warner said he would seek to put a minister on the spot in the House of Lords, either by tabling an oral question or by seeking a debate.
By parliamentary correspondent Rob Merrick