It is an honour to follow my good friend my hon. Friend Mary Kelly Foy. I also raise an issue related to the integrated care board, which may be of interest.
I am sure you are far too young, Madam Deputy Speaker, to remember the school dentistry service but some of us of more senior years will recall the annual visits from the school dentist. Each year, the dentist and dental nurse would attend school assembly, class after class would line up, and every child would have their teeth inspected. At home time, anyone requiring further treatment would receive the dreaded letter asking parents to make a follow-up appointment. This was a simple, efficient, and productive process. The system allowed thousands of children to receive annual dental check-ups. The day was also an opportunity for children to be educated on the importance of dental hygiene—Selaine Saxby mentioned the special tablets that highlighted plaque on teeth—and how to avoid the dreaded follow-up letter the following year.
I recently asked the integrated care board about reintroducing this scheme, but despite the NHS North East and North Cumbria integrated care board taking over responsibility for commissioning dental services, it passed the buck on this question to the local authority, stating in its reply:
“Commissioning responsibility for dental public health falls under the remit of Public Health, which is hosted by the Local Authority. As such, the ICB is unable to comment on the school dental screening programme and this would need to be raised directly with Durham County Council.”
This silo mentality is a disgrace. I will mention some statistics on opportunity cost in a moment. Although annual school screening would not necessarily be popular with the children, it would ensure they are all seen by a dentist, and it would free up space in dental practices.
Currently, our children are paying the price. Data from NHS Digital shows that 44% of children have not received an annual check-up with an NHS dentist. I looked on the NHS “Find a dentist” website today and there is not a single dentist accepting children aged 17 or under in my Easington constituency. Ministers should be ashamed that after they have been in power for 14 years, NHS dentistry is catastrophically failing our children.
I say to my constituents watching this debate that there are dentists accepting children in neighbouring constituencies—in Wheatley Hill, Easington Lane and Houghton-le-Spring. However, those dependent on public transport will find accessing these services almost impossible due to the appalling state and unreliability of our bus services. That is another story and another catastrophic failure of Tory neglect and mismanagement.
The situation for adult patients in Easington is also dire. There are no dental practices accepting adult patients within a 10-mile radius of my constituency. Within a 15-mile radius, there are only three. Again, that is completely inaccessible for those who are dependent on our unreliable and infrequent local bus services.
The Prime Minister says he is proud of his record on dentistry and has boasted that there are now more NHS dentists across the UK, but he must inhabit a parallel universe. In the real world, data shows that there were 24,151 dentists performing NHS work in 2022-23—more than 500 down on pre-pandemic levels. Moreover, as colleagues have pointed out, the headcount does not show the level of NHS treatment, because a dentist working in the private sector and doing a single NHS check-up in a year counts just the same as a full-time NHS dentist.
There are some scary statistics. One in 10 people have attempted their own dental work, with Healthwatch, the patients’ voice, reporting patients pulling their own teeth out with pliers. That might seem ridiculous but my mother is 87 and very frail, and she did this out of desperation. It is appalling. Here is another terrible statistic—every day is a school day, Minister: tooth decay is the most common reason for hospital admission for children aged between six and 10. Oral cancer is one of the fastest rising types of cancer and kills more people than car accidents in the United Kingdom. Limited access to dental services means that fewer oral cancer cases will be detected early, which will lower the survival rate and further widen health inequalities.
It is time for the Government to get control of this problem and to deliver for the British public, who are being let down time and again by the dysfunction at the heart of the Conservative party.