SNP manifesto launch: How will the SNP pay for their dentistry pledge?

With taxes not rising and only a finite amount of budgetary wriggle room for the Scottish Government, the addition of free NHS dentistry must come from somewhere.

The SNP said the additional costs, estimated to be around £75 million per year, will be absorbed into the budget in a phased manner over the coming parliament in a similar way to how free prescription charges were also implemented.

Overall, it would have seen the cost of the General Dental Service to the Scottish Government rise from £431m – the total cost for 2021/22 – to over £500m if the policy had been fully enacted before March.

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SNP manifesto: Party pledges to abolish NHS dentistry charges and freeze income ...
The SNP have pledged to remove NHS dentistry charges over the next parliament.

Instead, this year’s budget saw a 0.6 per cent rise for dentistry, something the British Dental Association (BDA) labelled a “real-terms cut” as it faces an “unprecedented backlog”.

Economist Emma Congreve, a knowledge exchange fellow at the Fraser of Allander Institute, and an expert in poverty, inequality and inclusive growth, said the policy was “probably unlikely” to be “fiscally neutral” in the long term.

"How spending commitments are paid for in the absence of any significant tax announcements, either means reprioritisation of the existing budget or a hope that more money is on it’s way through the Barnett formula, tax revenues or through changes to borrowing rules,” she said.

"Whilst there are predictions that there will be preventative benefits from treating issues before they become health critical, whether such a policy would be fiscally neutral in the long run is probably unlikely. The private benefit to people from better dental health is the intended prize here.

"Those on the lowest incomes are already exempt from charges, but those on moderately low incomes who are wary of potential costs are likely the intended beneficiaries.”

The SNP said a “reformed funding arrangement” for NHS dentists would also be shaped during this process, with the party set to work alongside the BDA on how the sector will be supported post-pandemic.

Responding, David McColl, chair of the BDA’s Scottish Dental Practice Committee, said any changes must go “hand in hand with needed investment” for the services to “remain sustainable”.

With dentistry procedures around 83 per cent down on pre-pandemic levels, the concern within the sector is that any further cuts to real-terms funding to pay for this policy could spell financial disaster.

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