Rotten policies make for rotten teeth

My latest article for Conservative Woman looks at Labour’s high-profile announcement of free dental check-ups.

HAVING been an NHS dentist for over 22 years, I am fed up with hearing politicians of every colour spouting meaningless soundbites and implementing ‘sticking plaster’ strategies in the field of NHS dentistry. 

The Labour party pledge of £450million for free dental check-ups is more of the same. Jonathan Ashworth’s claim that free check-ups are the answer to ‘DIY dentistry’ and oral health inequalities is frankly fanciful. In light of the responsibility his party bears for the dreadful state of the nation’s teeth, such gesture politics are insulting and betray ignorance of the real problems. 

These are fundamental and structural and they have been deepening for decades. Addressing them requires a holistic, large-scale reform programme – starting with the change of the Labour-imposed contract of 2006.

The contract was designed to fulfil Tony Blair’s promise in 1999 that everybody would have access to an NHS dentist in the subsequent two years. It did not, with the result that only about 50 per cent of the population sees an NHS dentist, and this figure has stayed the same for decades. 

The contract is driven by tick boxes and targets, rather than by patient need. NHS dentists are forced to spend too much of their time filling in pointless forms, which reduces their time with patients, and the morale of the profession is at an all-time low.

This great reform has been accompanied unsurprisingly by a reduction in dentists’ pay of over 35 per cent over the same period. It is not difficult to understand why there is a shortage of dentists willing to do NHS work.

The biggest problem NHS dentistry faces is the difficulty of recruitment, and it’s a problem that is getting worse. Three-quarters of practices struggle to fill vacancies and the more NHS work you do, the more difficult it becomes.

The problems experienced by DentAid, the dental charity cited by Jonathan Ashworth which has been providing a service in Dewsbury for years, are not down to the question of payment but to patients’ inability to access an NHS dentist – in other words, staff shortage.

The postcode lottery for dentistry is worse than it has ever been. In parts of Cornwall people have a 120-mile round trip to see a dentist, and in parts of Cumbria people have to travel 80 miles to see one.

People ‘pulling out their own teeth with pliers’, which Mr Ashworth is concerned about, like us all, is not primarily down due to the cost of dental check-ups. It is the direct result of the cost of treatment and the terrible lack of NHS dentists across the country, both of which problems are entirely overlooked in the Labour Party’s glossy new policy proposal.

Astonishingly for a party that claims to have such concern for the poor, Labour’s proposals blithely ignore the fact that the most common cause of general anaesthesia for children is to have rotten teeth removed.

I have seen these problems first hand, and the pain and suffering which tooth decay and poor oral health in children causes, and they should not feature in the 21st century in Britain. Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal is not a solution, let alone the solution.

Millions of pounds is spent every year by the NHS on this entirely preventable disease. It is an extremely stressful experience both for the child and the parents which will not be solved by Labour’s free dental check-ups scheme. For a start, all dentistry, including check-ups, is already free for everyone under the age of 18. 

And, Mr Ashworth, in case you were not aware, all NHS treatment costs include a check-up, so a patient needing treatment will pay exactly the same amount with or without Labour’s new proposal. People with toothache who resort to DIY dentistry will be no better off with this new proposal. 

We are facing deep-rooted, structural inequality of oral health in the UK and this proposal from the Labour party is a distraction, not a solution, to a problem of their own making.

Why don’t we have a real discussion about the oral health of this country, rather than just throw money at it and try to gloss over it with meaningless soundbites?

Labour’s pointless dentistry policy

Last weekend, the Labour Party announced that if elected it would scrap ‘band one’ dentistry charges, which cover a check up, a scale and polish, and any X-rays that may be needed. 

The shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, claimed that these charges put people off getting checkups, allowing dental problems to build up and leading to greater expense for the NHS in the long run. ‘With 135,000 patients presenting at A&E with dental problems every year, it’s time we put prevention at the heart of our approach to health.’ The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, also indicated that this was just the start. ‘This is the first step towards making all dentistry services free of charge.’ 

We have an NHS dental crisis in this country, and this ill thought through, measly proposal from Labour barely scratches the surface. All it does is highlight the Labour Party’s lack of understanding of the magnitude of the problem.

1. The biggest cause of general anaesthesia for children is having rotten teeth removed. Earlier intervention by dentists and better advice on oral care could prevent many of these extractions. Labour claims that parents are put off going to dentists by the cost, but all treatment and check-ups are already free for children, so cost can’t be the issue. The Labour Party’s new policy solves nothing.

2. As Ashworth has said, people are resorting to ‘DIY dentistry’ to fix their toothache – such as pulling teeth out with pliers. But people with toothache will still have to pay for extractions even if the initial checkup is free. The Labour Party’s new policy solves nothing.

3. Across large swathes of the country, people do not have local NHS dentists they can register with. Some have to travel up to 80 miles (round trip) to access an NHS dentist. Free checkups does not increase access. The Labour Party’s new policy solves nothing.

At the core of the NHS dental crisis is the 2006 dental contract imposed by the then Labour government. It has encouraged large-scale purchases by US corporations of local dental practices, made it unattractive to dentists to work in the NHS with a pay reduction of 35 per cent and has destroyed morale.

In short: the biggest problem with NHS dentistry in this country is a lack of dentists willing to work in the NHS.  The Labour Party’s policy announcement is a distraction from the deep-rooted, structural inequality of oral health in the UK. Why don’t we have a real discussion about oral health rather than glossing over it with meaningless soundbites?

Brexit Party MEP exposes shocking EU expenses scandal – ‘Receipts? Never heard of them!’

The Express covers my comments to an election rally in Carlisle.

‘On becoming on MEP in May, the EU sent me over 100 pages on how I could claim taxpayers’ money for all sorts of things. I’m sure these will really cheer you up. Did you know that MEPs can claim foreign language classes and private healthcare?’

I continued: ‘Rest assured, I’m keeping a tab. Monies unspent will be given to a UK-registered charity in the north west. At least we’ll get some of the wasted tax money back to the constituency.’

Watch the video here.