What the Lib Dem policy on homeopathy is not

I got two rather bemusing emails today. The first was the party’s official line on what our reaction to the Science and Technology Select Committee’s report on homeopathy is. The second one was to inform me that, five hours later, it has been rescinded. I can see why.

The line (and this is not a secret – PPCs were expected to parrot this word for word to the public) was as follows:

As you may be aware, a recent report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recommended that the NHS stops paying for the provision of homeopathy. This is a decision which I fundamentally disagree with.

The NHS in England currently spends around £10 million every year on homeopathy, we believe that this should continue.

The Liberal Democrats support a review by NICE into the clinical effectiveness of all Complementary and Alternative (CAMs) therapies. It is important to note that there is extensive evidence on the value to patients of CAMs and extensive support amongst patients for their continued use on the NHS.

While the Science and Technology Committee were right to recognise there are some conditions for which CAMs are wholly inappropriate, the measured introduction of treatment with CAMs therapies at primary care level has the potential to reduce expensive secondary referrals and/or long term expensive drug therapy in a range of conditions. The value of CAMs treatments as secondary treatments also needs to be recognised.

The use of CAMs on the NHS must be subject to the same checks and balances as other NHS services, which is why we support the statutory regulation of CAMs practitioners by the Health Professionals Council. This is a vital step to ensure that standards are maintained and patients are protected from misleading claims by practitioners.

What I find really odd about this response is that the select committee were calling for “CAMs” to be subject to the same checks and balances as established medicine, and did support NICE investigating this – thus far NICE themselves have resisted this. The report notes “we cannot understand why the lack of an evidence base for homeopathy might prevent NICE evaluating it but not prevent the NHS spending money on it”.

Norman Lamb needs to make his mind up. He can’t call for established medicine and its alternative to be treated in the same way, and then protest when it is. If the evidence of the efficacy of “CAMs” (and note how this muddies the water by not talking about homeopathy in isolation – presumably he feels the point becomes stronger the more you dilute the argument) is so “extensive”, then where is it and why were Phil Willis et al unable to uncover it?

It all seems a bit rum. Hopefully they’ll have sorted out the party line by the end of the weekend. But what I really don’t understand is why it was, if Norman Lamb feels so strongly about this, he didn’t put out a press release earlier in the week and argue his case? He’d certainly have got a lot of media attention.

UPDATE: Norman Lamb has finally reissued his position on homeopathy, which can be read here.


  1. Hopefully they’ll have sorted out the party line by the end of the weekend

    And if they haven’t, what’s the deadline for emergency motions at Birmingham?

    I got the initial email as I was shutting down to go out and do stuff, I hadn’t calmed down by the time I got home, but the 2nd email did–presumably someone like Phil has had a word in Norman’s shell like and “looking like a bunch of anti-science loons” was rejected as a policy option.

  2. Why is this Norman Lamb’s responsibility anyway? I know he’s the Health spokesman, but Evan Harris is Science spokesman.

    Sigh. I don’t want us to turn into the Green party.

  3. Alex, tis whether the NHS should spend money on it, thus a health issue.

    What got to me the most is that the Greens are now making serious strides to fix their anti-science policies, a huge chunk were dumped at their last conference, if this went out unamended, we’d be the most anti-science party with a chance of winning GB seats 🙁

  4. Oh dear…

    James, you’re absolutely right to call for Norman to make up his mind – either homeopathy and other CAMs get afforded the same rigorous scrutiny as other treatments, in which case they will likely be rejected on an evidence basis, or they continue to be afforded special protection based on their popularity – either way we need to clear this up.

    MatGB, the deadline for emergency motions is March 9th, but I’m not sure the conference committee would allow a debate on something as contentious as this on the eve of an election. That doesn’t mean to say that an emergency motion shouldn’t be submitted though – twitter me @prateekbuch if you’re interested and you’re confident that we can get 10 voting reps to support it. Otherwise I’m afraid we’ll just have to keep on fighting the good fight here on t’internets 🙂

  5. I think John Diamond got homeopathy about right – he rubbished it completely for not submitting to double blind trials.

    However, just to be Devil’s advocate, the committee said its effectiveness was down to the placebo effect. If it works and helps someone cope with a difficult condition, should its use be funded by the NHS?

  6. Glad to see the policy was recalled for (hopefully) a thorough engineering service.

    Having said that, Caron makes a good point. I read an article some years ago where a doctor was interviewed and said he used homeopathy as a “legitimate” way of basically prescribing sugar pills (which I don’t think they’re allowed to do).

    The placebo effect should not be underestimated. There was a study into it recently that showed it even worked, albeit to a lesser extent, when patients knew they were taking placebos. The debate amongst doctors seems to be whether it is ethical to prescribe a placebo in the hope it will do some good, because you’re effectively lying to your patient.

    Of course, NICE should still investigate whether any placebo-style benefits are worth paying £10 million a year for…

  7. Prateek, you may be right, but I can speak for 5 reps and almost certainly one local party without having to start looking.. Have to see what the new announcement gives us.

    Caron, it’s no more effective than sugar pills. But a damn site more expensive. Prescribe the sugar pills and save a fortune.

  8. There is no scientific basis to homoeopathy at all, and if doctors need to give harmless pills to some patients they should be allowed to prescribe ?-D-fructofuranosyl-(2?1)-?-D-glucopyranoside (aka sugar).

    Same applies to most other CAMs, but probably not all of them, so putting any practical ones through NICE approved testing would be sensible.

  9. “if Norman Lamb feels so strongly about this, he didn’t put out a press release earlier in the week and argue his case?”

    Sadly, I wonder whether reactive knee-jerkery is just in the nature of how he operates. Compare his periodic tubthumping on supermarket alcohol-pricing.

  10. the measured introduction of treatment with CAMs therapies at primary care level has the potential to reduce expensive secondary referrals and/or long term expensive drug therapy in a range of conditions

    Well, of course: if the patient doesn’t survive primary treatment with CAM “therapies”, then there’s no need for anything at all to be spent in the longer term!

  11. The Lib Dems, of which I am a member, need to stick to the science on this, and the science is clear: the better constructed a study is, the more it shows that there is nothing more than placebo effect going on with homeopathy.

    We should not be supporting funding treatments that do not work. We should not be funding them however much its practitioners think it’s real. Believing it to be real does not make it so. We should not be wasting money on additional research when there is quite enough out there already on which to reach a decision.

    It is also not a good policy to equivocate in a policy statement just in case we lose some votes from a superstitious few.

    And there was I thinking it was just technology our policy was screwed up about.

  12. If the evidence of the efficacy of “CAMs” is so “extensive”, then where is it and why were Phil Willis et al unable to uncover it?”.

    Like anything else, some homeopathic treatments work, and some don’t work—but to doubt the validity of all homeopathic treatments borders on the ridiculous. If they didn’t work why can they be found in most local pharmacies? There have been several clinical studies favoring the efficacy of Homeopathy—it simply depends on what studies you want to believe.

    Also, Homeopathy will always be a cheaper, and I believe safer (maybe not as effective) alternative to conventional medicine.

  13. If you really want cheaper and safer, Tesco sell bottled water (own brand) at 9p per litre. I prefer it to tap water as I like my drinking water carbonated, but they also sell still water. Unlike the purer homoeopathic products, it may even have a beneficial physical effect as it contains some useful minerals.

    Of course if you want EFFECTIVE … well the Placebo Effect is a powerful thing. Recent research (see http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/health/4176078.stm and http://www.smartplanet.com/blog/rethinking-healthcare/placebos-work-should-doctors-prescribe-fake-pills/2532 – yes these are news stories but you can find the original papers if you want) suggests Boots should sell expensive sugar pills labelled ‘Placebo’. They’d work as well as the ones they DO sell labelled Homoeopathic.

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