The speech made by Holly Lynch, the Labour MP for Halifax, in the House of Commons on 21 June 2022.
In the time that I have this afternoon, I will focus on the incredible difficulties my constituents have had in accessing NHS dentistry. As others have said, the pandemic has intensified problems in our dental healthcare system, but the architecture for those problems was in place long before the pandemic. We have heard from the British Dental Association that more than 43 million dental appointments were lost between April 2020 and April 2022, including more than 13 million appointments for children.
Helen Hunter, chief executive of Healthwatch Calderdale, which serves my constituency, has argued that the pandemic has made
“a significant problem even worse”.
At a national level, dentistry is now the No. 1 issue raised with Healthwatch. Almost 80% of people who get in contact with the organisation say that they find it difficult to access dental care, with the General Dental Council saying that almost a quarter of the population—24%—report having experienced dental pain in the last 12 months.
Healthwatch Calderdale has been relentless in its campaigning on this issue. In August last year, it contacted every dental practice across Calderdale to establish whether it was willing to accept new NHS patients, whether it would register a child and whether it was offering routine appointments. Every dental practice told Healthwatch that it could not currently register a new NHS patient of any age. When neighbouring Healthwatch Kirklees did the same, it had the same outcome.
As others have said, having people get in touch with us, as MPs, because they cannot find a dentist is one of the most difficult issues that we are asked to contend with from a local casework perspective. As things stand, there is simply nothing we can do to help people. We speak to the CCG, we call the dentists, we speak to NHS England and we write to Ministers, but the capacity is not there because the system is so broken, and no amount of pleading from local MPs can fix it for someone in need.
One constituent rang more than 30 dental practices, each of which told them that it was not accepting new NHS patients. My constituent could find no available practices in Halifax and none across Calder Valley. There was not even a dental practice available in Huddersfield or Bradford. We have already heard a passionate argument from my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain). People are encouraged to look further afield, but those practices are overwhelmed with their local demand, so going further afield does not solve the problem. When we have made representations on behalf of patients in Halifax, we have been advised to search for practices in Leeds, Barnsley and Wakefield. Members can imagine making that kind of journey to get to a dentist. Parents of children, for example, are asked to book appointments that do not impact on the school day. For them to be asked to travel 20 miles to try to speculatively get an appointment is just not good enough.
I recently met Rachel Dilley, chief operating officer of Town Hall Dental, which has dental practices in Calderdale, to gain a better understanding of the problems that they are experiencing. Town Hall Dental has had to set up a charity alongside its private and NHS work to help to fund dental treatment, check-ups and the vital oral cancer checks that dentists undertake. That is all necessary, but it goes underfunded. I commend Town Hall Dental for its charitable and fundraising work, but that should not be necessary.
In my desperation to get Government to act, I started a petition on my website for constituents, calling on the Government to improve NHS dental care provision in Halifax, so that residents can access care easily and locally. The petition has more than 500 signatories, and I will be presenting it in the Chamber in the days to come.
One local parent said to me:
“I have been making weekly phone calls to all Calderdale dentists in an attempt to (at the very least) get my children into a dentist as I value oral health greatly. However, I am yet to be successful in my goal which is becoming quite time consuming, as I now have a three year old daughter that has never even visited a dentist and 4 other children who have been without a check up in 5 years. That is half a decade with zero dental care.”
Another constituent got in touch to tell me that, since they had had no luck finding a nearby practice that would take NHS patients, they were forced to make a five-hour round trip to the Berkshire dentist that they had been registered with prior to moving to Halifax.
Such long waiting periods are also undermining what is functioning within the system. One constituent had to wait five years just for braces. When they finally got their braces, the orthodontist informed my constituent that they would need four teeth taken out. Having tried everywhere to find a dentist, my constituent told me,
“if I don’t find one, I won’t be able to keep my braces on.”
It is just madness. Another of my constituents, who was already dealing with mental health challenges, had been in pain and needed urgent medical treatment. Her friend got in touch to tell me that she was sent to A&E and advised she needed to see a dentist. She ended up seeing an NHS dentist in Elland for treatment, but they would not see her on the NHS and told her she had to pay for private treatment. Her friend could not believe that that could be allowed to happen, saying:
“How can this be the case when a young lady with mental health issues and no savings, in a medical emergency, needs to seek help from me, her friend to pay for urgent dental treatment”?
During the pandemic, I organised a roundtable discussion with local dentists, who shared with me the perverse ways in which NHS contracts are broken down into units of dental activity. The UDA system is just not functioning. If we needed any further confirmation, data from the BDA reveals that around 3,000 dentists in England have stopped providing NHS services since the start of the pandemic. Perhaps even more worryingly, for every dentist leaving the NHS entirely, 10 are reducing their NHS commitment by 25% on average. A BDA survey from May 2022 shows that 75% of dentists plan to reduce the amount of NHS work they do next year, with almost half planning to change career, seek early retirement or enter fully private practice.
That is where the current, broken contract system has got us. I urge the Minister, if she believes in being able to see a dentist on the NHS, to scrap the current system, start again and find a way to make the contracts work. One third of people see a dentist privately, but 71% of those people say they do not do so through choice. As the cost of living crisis continues to affect families, more and more people will be priced out of private treatment by inflation and rising bills and living costs.
My hon. Friend the Member for Washington and Sunderland West (Mrs Hodgson) earlier described this as an existential crisis, and it very much is. I say to the Minister, “Please, please fix it.”