HC Deb 04 May 1999 vol 330 cc689-90
6. Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

If he will make it his policy to restore universal free eye and dental checks. [81813]

The Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Frank Dobson)

Children, pregnant women, nursing mothers and people on low incomes have always been eligible for free dental checks and sight tests. From 1 April, we restored free NHS sight tests to everyone aged 60 and over—tests which were taken away by the previous Government as part of their policy of levying more and more charges on NHS patients.

Mr. Burstow

Although we welcome the extension mentioned by the Secretary of State, does he accept that many of us who believe in preventive health care are disappointed that the Government have not recognised the need to transfer more resources into prevention, which will save more money in the long run? More specifically, on dental care—another area in which we would like an extension of check-ups—my local health authority has seen seven out of 10 of its dentists registering increases in waiting lists. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is a further sign that the health service is under pressure and that resources are not going where they are needed? Resources are going not into prevention but into cure, which would not be needed if adequate funds were provided to detect problems and treat them early.

Mr. Dobson

It is certainly the case that this Government intend to put more and more resources into the prevention of ill-health, and we will continue to do so. However, it is our judgment, at least for the time being, that the gains to be achieved by restoring free dental checks are not as great as those that will be achieved by restoring free sight tests to everyone aged 60 and over. Priorities have to be balanced against other uses that could be made of the money, and we believe that at the moment there are better uses.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend's comments about the reintroduction of free eye tests for the elderly. Does he agree that we inherited an NHS dental service in rapid decline following 18 years of Conservative Government? Many of my constituents are unable to get an NHS dental service. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it should be a priority for this Government to ensure that we again have an NHS dental service for all of our people?

Mr. Dobson

It is certainly the case that the policies of the previous Government effectively privatised NHS dental care in many parts of the country. We are taking steps to reverse that. More than 600,000 more people visited NHS dentists last year than in the previous year. We want to build on that progress, but it will take time, because we cannot force dentists out of their private practices into the NHS.

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton)

We do not ever expect the Government to do much that they promised before the election, least of all in looking after people's eyes and teeth within the NHS. Will they do one thing for eyes that needs doing and that we would support? So far, the Government have done nothing to prepare people for the dangers of August's solar eclipse. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that he will implement a programme to inform people in schools and elsewhere about how to look after their eyes when they are tempted to stare at the sun? What are the Government's plans?

Mr. Dobson

Measures will be taken, as they have been taken in the past, to warn people of the dangers of staring into the sun during an eclipse. The way things are going it will be the eclipse of the Tory party.

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