NHS patients have paid £4.5 billion in dentistry charges since 1997 despite almost two million people losing their dentist, according to the Conservative Party.
The annual amount paid in dental charges has risen 22%, with NHS patients now paying an average of £26.50 a year compared with £19.60 in 1997, the Tories claimed.
But the government disputed the figures, saying charges had stayed the same in real terms and the Tories had got their calculations on the numbers of patients wrong.
The Tories said patients were paying far more despite there being fewer patients overall. Charges were £388.9 million in 1997/98, when there were 19.79 million adults registered with an NHS dentist in England, according to the Conservatives’ calculations.
For the two years to March 2006, charges were £444.1 million, but there were only 17.95 million people registered with a dentist, a fall of almost two million people.
In 2006/07, charges were £475.4 million, up 7% in one year, the Conservatives added. Over the years 1997 to 2007, the total paid by patients was £4.5 billion, the Tories said.
But the government argued that the calculations were incorrect. It said the 19.79 million adults registered with an NHS dentist in England covered a 24-month period to March 2007.
Meanwhile, the 17.95 million people figure related to the 15-month period to March 2006, so the figures were not comparable.
A two-year figure for that period would show that 20.35 million people were registered with an NHS dentist, reflecting an actual rise, the Department of Health said. It also argued that charges had only risen with inflation and had actually stayed the same in real terms.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: ‘These statistics are misleading and not comparing like with like.
‘The number of adults registered with an NHS dentist has actually increased by over half a million if you compare the two years leading up to March 1997 to the two years leading up to March 2006.
‘Patient charges have stayed the same in real terms as they have gone up in line with inflation.
‘Our reforms and total investment of over £2 billion in NHS dentistry is allowing new NHS dental practices to expand and open with dental companies as well as individual dentists bidding to provide more NHS dental services around the country.
‘This never happened under the old system and is evidence that NHS dentistry is getting better.’
Shadow Health Minister Mike Penning said: ‘Labour’s dental legacy is one of shameful failure.
‘Not only are people now paying 35% more when they see their NHS dentist, but Labour’s botched policies mean that millions of hard-working families have completely lost access to affordable dental care.
‘Labour ministers need to own up to their mistakes, stop dithering and take action now to rectify the mess they’ve got the country into.’