Labour has pledged to scrap charges for dental checkups, giving everyone in England the right to a “free teeth MOT”.
The proposals, estimated to cost £450m a year, would eliminate band-one dentistry charges, which were introduced by the NHS in 1951.
The party said the cost of a checkup, set at £22.70, was putting people off going to the dentist and leading many to resort to “DIY dentistry” – using cheap kits bought online, leading to “huge complications”.
Speaking on Sky News on Sunday, Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, said: “More and more people are doing DIY dentistry because they cannot afford to see a dentist and they try to do fillings on their own teeth.
“We have charities that usually operate in the poorest parts of the world operating in mobile dental clinics in places like Dewsbury. We have people trying to pull out teeth with pliers or trying to superglue in dentures.”
The party pointed to figures suggesting that one in five patients delay going to the dentist because they cannot afford to see one.
The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said: “This is the first step towards making all dentistry services free of charge – part of our ambition to deliver free dentistry as part of a truly universally free health service.”
Official statistics show that 41% of children have not been to an NHS dentist in the last year. The figures do not include those who pay to see private dentists or receive care from specialist community teams, such as those with learning disabilities.
There are three bands for dentistry treatment. Band one covers a check, scale and polish and any x-ray. Band two covers fillings, extraction and root canal treatment, as well as all treatments in band one, costing £62.10. Band three includes bridges, dentures and crowns, as well as all treatments in band one and two, set at £269.30.
Pregnant women, people receiving low-income benefits, all under-18s and any under-19s in full-time education are exempt from NHS dental treatment charges.
However, this system has been criticised by the National Audit Office as being “overly complex”, causing patients to face penalty charges after accidentally claiming free services they are not entitled to.
Labour’s policy covers only England because health is a devolved matter. Charges exist in Wales and Northern Ireland but not in Scotland.
The British Dental Association welcomed Labour’s pledge but also warned of a shortage of dentists. Three-quarters of NHS practices struggled to fill vacancies last year, according to a survey by the union.
Mick Armstrong, the BDA’s chair, said: “Sadly prevention is impossible when families on moderate incomes need to think twice about seeking care. Dentists are health professionals, not tax collectors. These charges are designed to discourage attendance, while providing cover for government cuts.”