Commons Hansard
1 Mar 2006

Dentistry Debate

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): Does the Minister agree that the reason why we can recruit dentists from all over Europe is that even those dentists who work for the NHS are among the highest paid in Europe?

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Ms Rosie Winterton): My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I believe that 12 new dentists have been recruited to his area recently. A dentist with a fairly high commitment to the NHS can expect to earn about £80,000 a year, with practice expenses on top of that. That is not a bad deal.


Mr. Martlew: Will the hon. Lady condemn the dentists who have caused so much suffering to her constituents?

Julia Goldsworthy (Falmouth and Camborne) (LD): Many of the dentists to whom I have spoken feel that they cannot offer their patients the level of service that they deserve under the current contract.


2.08 p.m.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): Thank you for calling me, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Before I get into my speech, I should like to thank all the hard-working dentists in my constituency and throughout the country who work well with the NHS. Sometimes, in my local skirmishes with some of my dentists, I have perhaps forgotten that.

Did not the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) think it odd that the dentist whom she mentioned treated only his family on the NHS? Did she not think that that was a bit of sharp practice? Perhaps I am naive. Perhaps she can put his name on the record so we can all know who it is.

I have sat and watched the Opposition - the major Opposition, because there is no one here from Lloyd George's party. One of the Conservative Members who attended the debate was a Minister in the previous Government and a practising dentist. The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) has just left, but he was in the Cabinet when the Conservative Government closed two dental schools. It is no good Conservative Members putting up their hands up and saying that that was 10 years ago. They did it and they also cut fees by 7 per cent. So do not imagine that dentists, even though they are angry with us, believe the Conservatives. They remember what being a dentist was like under the Conservatives. The haemorrhage of dentists away from the NHS started during their time in office, whether by accident or design; I leave Members to figure out which it was for themselves.

There was a severe problem in Carlisle when four dental practices decided to resign from the NHS. They resigned before they saw the contract, so that was not their reason for doing so. The hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) mentioned people queuing to sign up for private treatment, and that did indeed happen at a particular practice in my constituency. The dentist in charge of it sent out a letter saying, "If you don't queue up and sign up, bringing your bank details with you, you won't be able to get a place." That resulted in hundreds of my constituents queuing from 5.30 in the morning, waiting to sign up. [Interruption.] If the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire will contain himself, I will get to the point. That dentist was even handing out raffle tickets in another part of Cumbria. He said that he was going to cut the list, and that those who did not sign up early would be unable to get on it.

A lady came to my constituency office on Friday and told me that she phoned that dentist four months later. The receptionist was over the moon that someone had actually phoned to ask whether they could sign up. In fact, the dentist had plenty of places left. Some dentists who have gone private will have a problem when -

Mark Pritchard: The hon. Gentleman and I share a concern about animal welfare issues, and I want to make the serious point that, unfortunately, because of these changes, it is easier for my constituents' pet dogs to get dental treatment in Shropshire than it is for my constituents to get such treatment.

Mr. Martlew: I do not know about the situation in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but the reality is that in most cases - leaving aside the valuable work done by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals - those of us who take our animals to the vet have to pay for such treatment. I presume that pets in the hon. Gentleman's constituency are not treated on the NHS; if they are, there should perhaps be an inquiry.

The dental practice to which I was referring offered the caveat whereby the children of patients who signed up and set up a direct debit would be treated for free. That is an absolute disgrace. Unfortunately, neither the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire nor the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) condemned such practice; hopefully, they can put that right during the wind-ups.

Let us not be too concerned about dentists' earnings. Back Benchers are paid about £60,000 a year and most of us manage to live quite well on that. As the Minister said, an independent dentist with a good commitment to the NHS - and who probably does a little private work as well - earns in excess of £80,000 a year and gets a further £60,000 toward practice costs. A dentist who works for the NHS, but not as an independent contractor, could expect, after two years, to earn more than a Back-Bench MP - some £65,000 - but with no practice costs. So dentists in my area, which is a low-wage area, are not badly paid.

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman is very lucky that only four dentists in his constituency are refusing to take on NHS work. The NHS Direct website has a list of all the dentists in Bedfordshire and, as of today, 20 of those 41 dentists are refusing to accept any new NHS patients for treatment; of the remaining 21, only 11 will register children. So many of my constituents will be unable to find NHS treatment.

Mr. Martlew: The hon. Lady is obviously a very good MP but I am sure that she does not represent all of Bedfordshire. To compare my constituency to Bedfordshire is to compare apples and pears, which is what the Conservatives usually do.

Let us look at why dentists are saying that they want to leave the NHS. They say that they do not understand the new contract and that they are concerned about the loss of independence, but the reality is that they realise that it is a question of supply and demand. They realise that they can make more in the private sector, and that they can probably work less hard for that money. Also - Members have yet to pick up on this point - they are being targeted by the insurance industry. They are being asked, "Don't you realise how much you could make if you use our particular plan?" Let us never forget that the insurance industry is the enemy of the NHS. Those who want to see where the big money in insurance is should go to America. We must treat with caution the private insurance companies working in this field.

The dental reforms are welcome. An extra £360 million or more is being spent on improving dental services, and when a dentist leaves the NHS, the primary care trust in question will retain the relevant funding. At this point, I should congratulate my local PCT - Opposition Members have offered little thanks to PCTs - which has worked hard to ensure that people can access NHS dentistry. In particular, I congratulate the senior manager, Michael Smillie, on the tremendous work that he has done. Last week, we announced the provision of eight new dentists in Carlisle and Penrith. They will take on 20,000 patients and in doing so will probably clear the waiting list. Extra dentists will also be provided in Workington and Whitehaven - I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) is in his place - so we are tackling the problem. It will not be solved in a day, and I am not saying that all dentists are happy with the contract, but the vast majority are working with it and people will see the difference.

The Minister has announced a new dental school - she kindly sent me a copy of the press release - for north Lancashire and Cumbria. That brand new facility, to be located at the Cumberland infirmary, will add to the excellent work already being done by its education centre. In training new dentists, it will thereby make up the shortfall. Be it dentists or doctors, the view is that, where they are trained is where they stay, so in four or five years' time we will have new dentists in our region. That said, I have no problem with dentists coming over from, for example, other parts of Europe. Patients tend not to have big conversations with their dentist.

I congratulate the Minister on the points that she made about the contract and I am glad that she has decided to review it. The Conservatives failed dentists when they were last in power, and they have failed to cost their current proposals. I doubt whether the people of this country, even if they are concerned about dentistry, will turn to the Conservatives.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the House that there is a 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

2.19 p.m.


Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): If the Government are serious about listening to professionals, let us see them listen to dental professionals on this point.

Mr. Martlew: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mark Pritchard: If the hon. Gentleman's intervention is brief, I shall certainly give way.

Mr. Martlew: I shall be extremely brief. The hon. Gentleman says that we should listen to professionals, and I accept that. Did he vote against part of the Terrorism Bill?

Mark Pritchard: I am tempted to go down that route. I know that Labour Members do not want us to address serious issues on dental care. That being so, I shall stick to the substantive points that other Members have raised. I shall be happy to discuss the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised outside the Chamber at a later stage, at his cost, over a cup of tea.


Mr. Martlew: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): Oh good gracious me. Yes, I will.

Mr. Martlew: I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not get too excited. Will he admit that closing two dental schools was a mistake by the previous Conservative Government?

Dr. Murrison: I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman rose to that cue. Does he seriously suggest that a decision that the university grants committee made 19 years ago is germane to the argument today? I do not think so - let us knock that one on the head.

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On behalf of Eric Martlew, 3 Chatsworth Square Carlisle Cumbria CA1 1HB