HL Deb 08 October 2003 vol 653 cc283-5

Baroness Knight of Collingtree asked Her Majesty's Government:

What steps they are taking to tackle the shortfall in recruitment to academic dentistry.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner)

My Lords, from the start of this academic year, the Higher Education Funding Council for England has increased its funding to universities for the training of dental undergraduates following a reassessment of the cost of training dentists.

Baroness Knight of Collingtree

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the dental profession is seriously alarmed about the shortage of clinical academics? Not only do they spearhead dental research, they are absolutely essential to the training of dentists, who are demonstrably in extremely short supply. Have any of the recommendations made in the 1997 Richards report been put into practice? If not, why not? If so, why has the situation become so much worse?

Lord Warner

My Lords, there are longstanding problems in the recruitment of academic dentists which go back a long way in time. We have been working with the deans of the dental schools on how improvements can be made and my original Answer sought to reflect that work. We have now received a further paper from the deans dealing with some remaining problems and we are working on that.

Despite all those difficulties, I can assure the House that dental courses continue to receive some of the best higher education ratings from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and have an international reputation which continues to attract students from all over the world.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, while much of what the Minister has said is welcome, in particular the new funding for academic dentistry and many of the provisions contained in the new Health and Social Care (Community Health and Standards) Bill relating to dentistry, in 1999 the Prime Minister pledged that everyone who wanted it should have access to NHS dental care by 2001. What progress is being made in that respect?

Lord Warner

Good progress, my Lords. I correct that: extremely good progress. Since 1997 we have seen an interesting increase in the number of dentists working in general dental services. The number has increased from 16,728 to 18,400, but alongside that we have increased very substantially the number of training places and numbers of dental therapists now practising. Therapists can carry out routine fillings as an alternative to seeing the dentist. Furthermore, the number of training places for dental therapists is to rise by 300 per cent over the next two years. These developments are making a major contribution to the improvement in dental services under the NHS that the Prime Minister promised.

Lord Tomlinson

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we could greatly assist the dental profession if we followed the sound advice voted for in this House concerning the addition of fluoride to drinking water, thus helping dentists in terms of prevention? Perhaps my noble friend can indicate the progress that might be made in that regard.

Lord Warner

My Lords, I was pleased to be associated with moving the amendment contained in the Water Bill earlier this year. That legislation is now progressing well.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, while it is true to say that the position is quite serious as regards the recruitment of people to university departments of academic dentistry, does the Minister agree that the same kind of serious situation exists in academic clinical medicine? This issue has been raised on many occasions in the House by myself and others. Two years ago it was highlighted in the Savill report of the Academy of Medical Sciences, after which the Government promised to take action. Can the noble Lord tell the House what action has been taken?

Lord Warner

My Lords, that goes a little wider than the Question. All I would say to the noble Lord is that the level of vacancies in academic medicine is considerably lower than it is for academic dentistry. That is why we are concentrating hard on dental issues.

Lord Elton

My Lords, I understand that the anxiety expressed by my noble friend concerns the specific shortage of heads of clinical dentistry departments. Can the noble Lord say how many vacancies there are nationally at that level?

Lord Warner

My Lords, I cannot give a detailed response to that question. However, there is a vacancy rate of around 16 per cent in academic dental posts.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied with the standard of careers advice being given, in particular that being offered to girls, on scientific careers such as dentistry? It is known in this House that I am patron of the WISE campaign— Women into Science and Engineering—so I declare an interest. The same is true for engineers. However, very rarely do careers advisers offer advice to girls to go into such professions. We want more of them. What are the Government doing to improve careers advice services?

Lord Warner

My Lords, careers advice is not part of my portfolio or that of the Department of Health. However, I can assure the noble Baroness that dentistry has become an increasingly popular career for women to pursue. By 2005, more women than men will graduate from dental schools. That suggests that careers advice services are working rather more effectively than in the past.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, how will the money put in by the Government be used? Will the salary scale of academic dentists be increased? If it is not, the problem will continue because you can make more money by being a dentist than by being an academic dentist.

Lord Warner

My Lords, the way in which the funding system works is that the Higher Education Funding Council gives money to the universities. It is then for the universities to allocate that money within their own organisations. The Higher Education Funding Council has made clear what extra funding is being provided for the training of undergraduate dental students. That involves an increase of about £4,680 per student per course.

Earl Howe

My Lords, the British Dental Association recently estimated that to achieve the necessary number of new recruits into the dental profession, as mentioned by the Minister, it will be necessary to increase the number of dental schools. What is happening about that?

Lord Warner

My Lords, plans are afoot to improve the quality of the buildings in many of the existing schools. As I said earlier, we have had considerable success in the development of dental therapists as a way of reducing the load on qualified dentists. It is worth bearing in mind that over the past three years £100 million has been spent on dental access centres, which are treating 300,000 patients per annum.

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