For a public affairs professional, early autumn can only mean one thing – party conferences. Throughout September and October all major British political parties gather for their annual meetings, and as in past years I headed to the two most important of these events – the Conservative and Labour Party conferences – to represent the BDA and raise issues facing dentists with key decision and policy makers.
Unsurprisingly and inevitably, this year's conferences were completely dominated by Brexit, with most of the speeches and events concentrating on the impending deadline for agreeing a deal. But despite the heavy focus on this issue, there were plenty of opportunities to discuss matters relating to health and the NHS.
Over the six days spent in Liverpool and Birmingham, I attended countless fringe events and meetings, highlighting BDA's work and explaining the state of the nation's oral health to delegates, political advisers to Ministers and Shadow Ministers, and politicians from local and national government. I also spoke with many colleagues from similar membership organisations, including the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing, the Optical Confederation, the National Pharmacy Association and the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, as well as health charities, including Cancer Research UK and Alcohol Health Alliance, to discuss areas of common interest that we can work on.
Highlighting the need for contract reform
At the Labour Party conference in Liverpool I spoke to the Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth MP about the urgent need to reform the dental contract and move away from dental activity measures, so dentists can concentrate on preventing disease rather than treating it. I was delighted to hear him say Labour was keen to develop a more in-depth policy on this issue and that he would meet with the BDA in the near future to discuss this in more detail. I was very pleased to hear him reference the importance of oral health at a number of subsequent fringe events, highlighting inequalities in children's oral health across the country and stressing that it was a scandal that a third of children in Liverpool entered school with tooth decay.
During fringe panel discussions I also got a chance to question a number of other key Labour MPs on the subjects of dental contract reform, the need for greater investment in NHS dentistry and a national oral health prevention programme for England. In answer to my questions Julie Cooper MP, the Shadow Minister responsible for dentistry, called the dental contract "a shambles" and said a Labour government would be looking at reforming it as a matter of urgency. Shadow Public Health Minister Sharon Hodgson MP referred to the numbers of hospital child tooth extractions as "shocking" and assured me oral health was an issue Labour's health team was very passionate about and keen to invest more in if they are successful at the next election. Member of the House of Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee Ben Bradshaw MP called the current situation in relation to dentistry "a disaster" and said dentistry was on the list of issues the Committee was keen to look into in the coming months.
Making the case for adequate funding for NHS dentistry
At the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham I managed to speak to the newly selected Conservative candidate for Mayor of London Shaun Bailey AM about the importance of reducing oral health inequailties in outcomes and access in the capital. Mr Bailey admitted his own experience of oral health problems has ensured he knows all too well about how important prevention is and agreed to meet with the BDA and consider including oral health measures when developing his election manifesto. I also got to ask a question to the Health Secretary Matt Hancock MP himself. I outlined the impact chronic underfunding of NHS dentistry has on its long-term sustainability and access for patients, and argued it was crucial dentistry got its fair share of the £20bn the Prime Minister recently pledged for the NHS. In his reply Mr Hancock stressed the importance of dentistry and the crucial role it plays in the wider prevention agenda. He assured me he would look at dentistry funding when developing the 10-year plan for the NHS, and that he was determined that plan delivered more resources for prevention and primary care.
This year's party conferences have yet again proved to be an excellent platform for the BDA to make the case for real investment in dental services and for NHS dentistry with prevention at its core. I will be following up on the many useful conversations I had over the past couple of weeks, and I hope they will bear fruit in the months to come as we continue to lobby on members' behalf.
BDA Public Affairs Adviser
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