Draft Dentists Act 1984 (Amendment) Order 2001

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Ms Blears: I shall certainly do my best to continue to answer hon. Members' questions. I am happy to reassure the hon. Members for West Chelmsford and for Oxford, West and Abingdon about the status and role of the education committee. Although it is being abolished as a statutory committee, the GDC would be unable to discharge its statutory duties to set educational standards and accredit training institutions without a committee that had strong representation from the education sector. The order has been agreed with all parties, and it is certainly not an attempt to downgrade education and training. The provisions in the order that relate to continued professional development illustrate how important lifelong learning is for all professions. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Gentlemen.

I am pleased to say that the hon. Member for West Chelmsford has accurately read the order as it relates to the functions of both the continuing professional development committee and the provisions in article 8. Article 8 will ensure that the rules are fair so that dentists can understand the consequences, which would have a severe impact on their practices, of not taking up continuing professional development. Indeed, dentists could find themselves ``erased''—a powerful word—which would leave them facing recertification and having to reapply to be restored to the register. We want both the committee and the rules to be clear in the order so that people know exactly where they stand, which is always important in professional matters.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon asked how future orders will come before the House. They will be subject to negative resolution because they will be orders of the Privy Council. We anticipate the matter returning to the House at some point next summer. In parliamentary terms, the seasons appear to be extremely flexible—spring, summer, autumn and winter are moveable feasts.

The hon. Member for West Chelmsford asked why it has taken so long for the order to come before the House and whether there has been procrastination. The GDC approached the previous Conservative Government in 1996 with this agenda. The Government were unable to make progress because at that time we amended Acts through primary legislation. Many professions were anxious to change and update their individual constitutions, but it was impossible to find parliamentary time. That is one reason why the constitutional position of the professions has lagged behind other developments. We took powers under section 60 of the Health Act 1999 to enable us to keep up with changes to the NHS.

Mr. Burns: When did the Department start work on the order?

Ms Blears: As far as I am aware, it has been working on it for as long as I have been a Minister. I do not know whether there was consultation before that date.

Mr. Burns: I shall help the Minister. I believe that she will find that the work was going on before she entered the portals of the Department. Perhaps her note will tell us?

Ms Blears: Well, I am able to tell the hon. Gentleman that work started in July 1999.

Mr. Burns: That is precisely the point that I made in my speech. The summer of 1999 was more than two years ago. It is no good the Minister going on about previous Governments, because Labour has been in power since May 1997. The work on the order began over two years ago. The Minister should forget previous Governments: why has it taken so long to produce the order when there was unanimity about its contents?

Ms Blears: I am delighted to reply to the hon. Gentleman. The order could not be brought before the House earlier because there was no statutory power to do so without primary legislation. This Government were sufficiently creative and innovative to introduce a power to make subordinate legislation that enables all the professions to be updated and to keep pace with change.

The order was ready in April this year to go out for consultation, but the general election intervened, which is why it is now before the House. I am delighted to confirm to the hon. Gentleman that there has been no procrastination and that the system that the Government have put in place will enable such orders to come before the House regularly and frequently, which is a more sensible way of dealing with legislation than anything the previous Conservative Government ever did.

Dr. Evan Harris: I served on the Committee that considered the Health Bill in 1999 and I would like to take this opportunity to confirm the Minister's history. It is not possible to draft an order until an order-making power is given. At what time before April 2001 did the GDC come forward with the rough draft of its plans? Was it in February, or was it a year before?

Ms Blears: My information is that discussions on these matters started in July 1999.

Mr. Burns: Will the Minister give way?

Ms Blears: No, I want to make some progress in answering hon. Members' questions.

The hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) asked about fitness to practise and the timing of other developments in the profession. Clearly, those matters will be subject to consultation with the profession. I confirm that the whole process is about partnership between the profession, the Department, outside bodies, patients and all those who have a stake in ensuring that the dental profession performs to the highest standard. It is not a question of one party issuing proposals and another reacting to them. What we want to do with all the professions, not just the dental profession, is to move forward in partnership. We shall want to raise some issues and dentists will want to raise others, but I hope that we share fundamental values. We may occasionally take different routes, but I hope that it will be a partnership process.

I am delighted that hon. Members are pressing for greater and faster progress on these issues, which concern not only dentists, but doctors, opticians and other professions. They are all anxious for change in their own system of management. We must ensure that we respond to the different pressures from the different professions and that we are fair and even-handed in making progress and providing whatever parliamentary time is available.

Michael Fabricant: I am curious about the order. Did the GDC go to the Government and say that it is the sort of thing that it is trying to achieve, or did the Government go to the GDC and say that this is what it should be achieving?

Ms Blears: The GDC said that this was how it wanted to develop. In my opening comments, I made a point of saying that in my discussions with the profession since I became a Minister I have been extremely impressed by its genuine desire to move forward in the interests not only of the professionals, but of the patients whom they serve.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon referred to the Government's commitment to professional self-regulation, which I believe is in the NHS plan--most things are. However, we want to ensure that within the ambit of professional self-regulation there is a clear and transparent commitment to involving lay people and to ensuring that patients' views are at the centre of the concerns. We must ensure that values are more shared than they were in the previous constitution, which, as I explained, had 37 dentists and only six lay members. The order dramatically increases the lay membership, from 12 per cent. to 30 per cent. The profession is anxious to involve lay members. There is a commitment to professional self-regulation, and article 4 requires the profession to have a majority of members on the council, although that will be subject to a further order.

Mr. Burns: I want to clear up something that is bothering me. I understand that the powers to make an order to amend the Dentists Act 1984 were in section 62(9) of the Health Act 1999, so the Government have had the power to introduce it for just over two years. Can the Minister confirm whether any draft orders proceeded this one?

Ms Blears: I assure the hon. Gentleman that no draft orders were issued.

Mr. Burns: Will the Minister give way again?

Ms Blears: No, I want to make progress.

Mr. Burns: But it says in the order that draft orders were issued.

The Chairman: Order. The Minister is not giving way.

Mr. Burns: Would the Minister like to give way?

Ms Blears: No, not at all.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon asked about the time scale of modernisation. I have given the commitment that we are anxious to make progress while taking into account pressures on parliamentary time. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned dentists who operate solely in the private sector. My latest information is that there are about 1,000 dentists in that category. That is a relatively small number, although I understand his concern. The order will regulate the whole profession, including those dentists, and the GDC will monitor compliance with the continued professional development requirements.

Hon. Members also raised the registration of professionals complementary to dentistry. There is a great desire, among all parties, to make progress in registering dental nurses and technicians. I am pleased to say that, only yesterday, the GDC agreed in full council that future education and training of professionals complementary to dentistry should be pursued after wide engagement with all groups. Those groups will have concerns because they are equal professionals and want to ensure that regulations that concern them are as up to date and able to provide facilities for high quality services to patients as those for other professions. The dental team is evolving, and it is important that we register everyone concerned and ensure that they have access to continued professional development.

I can confirm that the next order in the process will be prepared and published for consultation next year, but I am not sure whether that will be in the spring, summer or autumn.

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Prepared 14 November 2001