Plans for a dental hit squad met howls of derision from MPs last week.

Junior health minister Lord Hunt outlined the proposal in oral evidence to the health select committee inquiry into access to NHS dentistry, set up to investigate whether the recent strategy paper, Modernising NHS Dentistry, is likely to be effective.

Under the strategy, health authorities were due to have submitted a plan this month detailing how they intended to provide access to NHS dentists in their area.

'Those HAs who appear to be struggling or who are not producing an action plan will receive a visit from Department of Health officials, ' Lord Hunt warned.

Irate committee chair David Hinchliffe said: 'You can send all the visitors you want, but it doesn't overcome the problem. What I am concerned about is how we help authorities in an area like mine to develop a strategy.

'You have got to have the people to do the work. You can send your people from Richmond House to wherever, but if you haven't got the dentists, you are not going to be able to do it. '

Lord Hunt defended the government's policy, arguing that some HAs had been 'very successful'. He said: 'The whole point is to take the good ideas and get them implemented around the country. '

The committee heard evidence from Birmingham and Cornwall & Isles of Scilly HAs about how they had tackled the shortage of NHS dentists.

Lord Hunt said new powers giving HAs the ability to make extra sessional payments - essentially buying in appointment time for NHS dental treatment - were a major breakthrough and must be used much more widely to address problems of access.

He also signalled that the government was pushing the British Dental Association to back down on its stance over the need for sixmonthly check-ups. This would free far more appointment times for new patients.

'There is emerging evidence that for many patients it is too short an interval, ' he said.

John Renshaw, chair of the British Dental Association, told HSJ: 'We have no problem looking at the issue, but I have to say we are not convinced. What we have to do is persuade dental practitioners it would make more sense to see more new patients. '