The Government's chief dental officer last night accused Midland NHS dentists of scaremongering over a shake-up of the profession.

Dr Barry Cockcroft said the Birmingham Local Dental Committee had been irresponsible in its efforts to convince people there would be no NHS dentists in the city once the new system was introduced next month.

He also dismissed the committee's claim that patients would "stack up" problems to get better value for money under a new three-tier system of dental charges.

Dr Cockcroft, who lives in Rugby, Warwickshire, said: "This is the most fundamental change there's been to NHS dentistry since 1948 and obviously with any change like this there is bound to be an element of anxiety and confusion.

"When everything settles down after April 1, the new system will be seen to work better.

"We're particularly unhappy over the line suggesting there may not be any NHS services in the area after April 1, because that raised public anxiety and tensions unnecessarily.

"It was an inaccurate and irresponsible campaign that has done more harm than good."

Eddie Crouch, secretary of Birmingham LDC, accused the NHS of "sharp practice" and claimed many dentists were still waiting to receive the contracts they are expected to have signed by March 31.

"The contracts from South Birmingham PCT are still with their solicitors and I don't expect to receive mine until Monday or Tuesday next week. That will give me just over two weeks to consider and sign it," he said.

"If someone tried to sell you a house like that it would be considered 'sharp practice', because the budgets most practices have been allocated will put them close to bankruptcy."

The row came as dentists were accused during a Commons debate yesterday of "blackmailing" patients by insisting they pay for private treatment.

Birmingham MP Steve McCabe demanded they "call off the dogs" and stop pressuring elderly patients into signing up for services they could not afford.

He urged health Ministers to intervene after dentists across Birmingham wrote to patients warning they would no longer be eligible for NHS treatment.

Instead, they were asked to pay fees of up to £120-a-year to cover check-ups, with further charges for treatment.

Mr McCabe (Lab Hall Green) said: "In some cases they have been attempting to blackmail elderly people into purchasing private insurance that they do not need and cannot afford.

"Surely that is no way for professional people to conduct what is essentially a trade dispute."

Health Minister Rosie Winterton said the new arrangements would give NHS dentists salaries of £80,000-a-year and a five per cent reduction in workload.

She said Mr McCabe was "quite right" to say many primary care trusts had been worried by some of the "unnecessarily alarmist" information given to patients.

John Hemming (Lib Dem Yardley) urged the Government to review the contract.

"Some dentists have sent in a memorandum of agreement, but many dentists are voting with their feet and their patients are being told to go private"