Jane Hunt – 2022 Speech on NHS Dentistry

The speech made by Jane Hunt, the Conservative MP for Loughborough, in the House of Commons on 20 October 2022.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) on securing what is clearly an important debate.

I take this opportunity to thank those in the dental profession in Loughborough and across Leicestershire for everything they have done over the past few years and particularly for the way they adapted to implement the huge changes needed to ensure the safety of their patients throughout the covid-19 pandemic. This year I have met with nearly all the dentists in my constituency, who have highlighted a number of issues they face and the impact they have on the profession and the patient experience more broadly.

Richard Graham

The points my hon. Friend is making are particularly important to constituencies such as hers, which have towns but are also rural.

Jane Hunt

I thank my hon. Friend, who is a true hero in every way.

One concern is about the UDA system, with the recurring message being that the system in its current form is not fit for purpose. I welcome the package of initial reforms to the NHS dental contract announced in July, in particular the introduction of enhanced UDAs to support higher-needs patients.

However, the reforms do not address my local dentists’ concerns that the current system is based on rewarding reactive treatment, rather than preventive, meaning that dentists are driven to do the minimum necessary to meet the terms of the target. That is a source of frustration for some, who have expressed their preference for being remunerated for using their initiative and working in the best interests of their patients.

Furthermore, while it is welcome that a minimum indicative UDA value of £23 has been introduced, UDA payments are not rising in line with increasing overhead costs, which is devaluing contracts and, in some cases, leaving dentists out of pocket. That was highlighted recently during a conversation I had with Bupa in Loughborough. Bupa expressed that that is compounded by the fact that UDA payments vary geographically, so that a UDA is worth £36 in its Sheffield practices but only £24 in its Loughborough one. Finally, the reforms do not address the issue of dentists not being given leeway under their contracts for last-minute cancellations and no-shows, even though they can lead to missed targets. I ask that this be urgently reviewed, so that we do not punish dentists for trying their hardest to continue to provide the care needed.

It is clear that there is still a way to go to make NHS dental contracts more attractive, both in terms of the nature of the dentistry performed and the level of financial reimbursement received for services performed. I fear that if the Government do not continue to work at speed, we will lose even more NHS dentists through early retirement, a reduction in time spent completing NHS work, or a full move into private practice. That would be detrimental to patient care and the availability of NHS appointments. I know that the former Minister of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield), was working hard to review UDA contracts, and I would welcome confirmation from her successor that they will continue that hard work.

As well as difficulties retaining dentists, I have been informed that locally, we are having difficulties recruiting them. One reason for that is that there is no dentistry school in the east midlands, our nearest being in Sheffield and Birmingham, and students are choosing to enter into the workplace close to where they study. That is causing supply issues in the NHS service, and has created a gap in the market that is being filled by private dentists with a focus on cosmetics. We therefore need to ensure we are training up enough dentists and providing them with incentives to move away from where they are studying to areas with greater demand. Bupa has also advocated for putting dental practitioners on the shortage occupation list in order to increase overseas recruitment and fill shortages, then upskilling those practitioners via short courses to meet UK standards. Could the Minister please comment on the actions being taken to increase the number of dentists from overseas?

I am very concerned that NHS England has proposed closing the intermediate minor oral surgery service in Loughborough, meaning that local residents will have to go as far as Leicester for treatment. That city is some considerable way away, and there has been a recent cut in bus services, the No. 2 bus service in particular. Loughborough is effectively Leicestershire’s county town, so there is more than enough demand there for that service. Closing the centre will only increase pressures on the Leicester centre, extending waiting times and further impacting on patient care. That centralisation of services does not meet the needs of the patient, and I ask that the Minister look with some urgency at local services’ availability throughout the country, especially throughout Leicestershire.

Having listened to the whole of today’s debate, it has been very interesting: there are a small number of points that need to be addressed, which have been made by Members from all across the Chamber and all over the country. I do not think this is an insurmountable problem to solve, and I feel sure that the Minister will be able to address it.