'Plausible that people register with an NHS dentist, but then do not visit them due to costs and other reasons. These people are discounted...'
Labour is demanding a shake-up of the way NHS dentistry data is collected, warning that the plight of poorer patients is being missed.
The Opposition wants ministers to order reliable figures for the number of patients who are registered – as well as statistics for the numbers actually treated.
Labour claimed the current system – overseen by the NHS Information Centre – fails to record patients who fail to visit dentists, probably because of the feared costs.
But the Department of Health (DH) has insisted it has no plans to change the system, pointing out the current dental contract does not require registration to take place.
The latest statistics, released last month, showed that a total of 29.7 million NHS patients were seen in the two-year period ending December 2012.
Ministers quickly pointed out this was an increase of 135,000 patients on the previous quarter – and a rise of 265,000 on the same quarter in 2011-12.
Furthermore, it meant that, by the end of last year, a total of 1.25 million more patients had been treated since the Coalition came to power, in May 2010, the DH said.
But, speaking to Dentistry, Jamie Reed, a Labour health spokesman, said data on the number of registered dentists would provide 'a better barometer of the real demand'.
Mr Reed added: 'It is entirely plausible that people register with an NHS dentist, but then do not visit them due to costs and other reasons.
'These people are discounted through the current method of data collection.
'In order to be able to fully assess the level of demand for dentistry services within the NHS, we need to know how many people are registering for these services.'
Mr Reed tabled a written parliamentary question to try to obtain the statistics, but, health minister Dan Poulter replied: 'This data is not held in the format requested.
'Under the existing dental contract, patients do not register to receive National Health Service dental care.
'Access to dentistry is currently measured through the number of patients seen by an NHS dentist over a 24-month period. This information is published quarterly by the NHS Information Centre.'
The latest statistics also showed that:
• An extra 1.5 milion patients have been treated by an NHS dentist since the March 2006 baseline, when the new contracts were introduced
• That represents 56% of the population – compared with the March 2006 baseline of 55.8%
• The percentage of the population now seen by an NHS dentist – at 56% – is 0.2% points up on the March 2006 baseline.
By Rob Merrick, parliamentary correspondent