Dentistry: Access for Cancer Patients

Part of Antimicrobial Resistance – in Westminster Hall am 5:16 pm ar 17 Ebrill 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Yasmin Qureshi Yasmin Qureshi Llafur, Bolton South East 5:16, 17 Ebrill 2024

It is a pleasure, Mr Dowd, to serve under your chairmanship.

First, I thank my hon. Friend Andrew Western for securing this very timely debate, and I also thank Michele for the wonderful campaign that she has been running on this issue. I declare an interest, as I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on dentistry and oral health. Hopefully, that will remind the Minister that is a cross-party issue and that many of her party colleagues are concerned about it.

Dentistry is in crisis across the country, whether in Devon, Somerset or in constituencies such as mine—Bolton South East. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston has detailed the importance of free dental treatment for all cancer patients. I listened to my hon. Friend Mrs Hamilton, who has just spoken, about the details of the effects of this crisis on cancer patients, which she knows because of her experience of being a nurse. I also listened to what Richard Foord said about his dealings with a constituent who had a cancer issue and who then had to take out his own teeth, which really is not acceptable in 21st-century Britain. I strongly support an exemption for people who are suffering from cancer and who therefore should be able to receive all the treatment that they need.

In fact, I was contacted by a constituent who had breast cancer. She told me how confused—indeed, how overwhelmed—she had felt. The last thing on her mind was dental health. However, a dental check-up should be essential for cancer patients; indeed, it should happen before anyone starts chemotherapy. Imagine the complications in treatment for someone with a suppressed immune system who is recovering from an infection. There are countless horror stories out there about the expensive dental work required by many cancer patients and they simply cannot afford it, especially given the cost of living crisis and the rising cost of bills.

I urge the Minister to get things done so that free dentistry is made available. The reality, however, is that even if the Minister made such a commitment today, as I am urging her to do, many people will not be able to access the service due to the ongoing crisis in NHS dentistry. For example, pregnant women and new mothers theoretically enjoy free NHS dentistry, but official data shows that over the last three years 1.2 million of them missed out on this entitlement because they were not able to access an NHS dentist.

It is crucial for all patients that this crisis is addressed urgently. The Minister will be aware that in 2021 about 2,000 dentists quit the NHS. In 2022, a BBC survey found that nine out of 10 of the dental practices still offering NHS services were not accepting any new adult patients, and eight in 10 were not taking on any more children, even though children are supposed to be a special category. Many of them have been left without access to basic healthcare, resulting in “dental deserts” across England. The problem is getting worse because many dentists are leaving the profession. For those who have stayed, morale has reached rock bottom.

What are the Government doing about this? They have been in power for 14 years. Recently, they introduced a so-called dental recovery plan, which many dentists have said is not even worthy of the title, because it will not stop the exodus from the workforce or offer hope to the millions who are struggling to access care. If the whole point of this plan was to stop dentistry becoming an issue, I am afraid the Government have failed. This is a crisis that will remain a burning issue in our communities across the country until we get real change. Constituents like mine in Bolton South East can see that NHS dentistry has been abandoned and left to rot by this Government. The system is not working. Many constituents write to me about trying to access NHS dentistry, and I have personally made phone calls trying to get them an appointment. It has been impossible to get an appointment until my office writes and persuades them to accept someone.

When the NHS dental recovery plan was introduced, the Health and Social Care Secretary assured the House of Commons that the plan was backed by £200 million in new funding. She very clearly said:

“There is £200 million on top of the £3 billion that we already spend on NHS dentistry in England.”—[Official Report, 7 February 2024;
Vol. 745, c. 264.]

She reiterated that the £200 million was additional money. I was therefore very surprised to hear the Minister who is here today explain to the Health and Social Care Committee that the plan to deal with crises in NHS dentistry was not in fact backed by any additional investment. She stated that it was

“all coming out of the £3 billion that is currently” being “underspent”.

I hope the Minister understands that these two statements contradict each other. On 20 March, I made a point of order in the Commons Chamber in which I raised this matter with the Deputy Speaker. I asked the Minister to return to the House to correct the record. So far, she has not done so; I hope she will do it today.

Saving dentistry is not rocket science. We need an NHS contract that is actually fit for purpose, with funding that means practices can be sustainable. We need real reform now.