On 13 March, the UK Charity Commission published the following announcement:

This consultation is about the Commission’s approach to deciding whether an organisation which uses or promotes CAM therapies is a charity. For an organisation to be charitable, its purposes must be exclusively charitable. Some purposes relate to health and to relieve the needs of the elderly and disabled.

We are seeking views on:

  • the level and nature of evidence to support CAM
  • conflicting and inconsistent evidence
  • alternative therapies and the risk of harm
  • palliative alternative therapy

Last year, lawyers wrote to the Charity Commission on behalf of the Good Thinking Society suggesting that, if the commission refused to revoke the charitable status of organisations that promote homeopathy, it could be subject to a judicial review. The commission responded by announcing their review which will be completed by 1 July 2017.

Charities must meet a “public benefit test”. This means that they must be able to provide evidence that the work they do benefits the public as a whole. Therefore the consultation will have to determine what nature of evidence is required to demonstrate that a CAM-promoting charity provides this benefit.

In a press release, the Charity Commission stated that it will consider what to do in the face of “conflicting or inconsistent” evidence of a treatment’s effectiveness, and whether it should approach “complementary” treatments, intended to work alongside conventional medicine, differently from “alternative” treatments intended to replace it. In my view, however, this distinction is problematic and often impossible. Depending on the clinical situation, almost any given alternative therapy can be used both as a complementary and as an alternative treatment. Some advocates seem to cleverly promote their therapy as complementary (because this is seen as more acceptable), but clearly employ it as an alternative. The dividing line is often far too blurred for this distinction to be practical, and I have therefore long given up making it.

John Maton, the commission’s head of charitable status, said “Our consultation is not about whether complementary and alternative therapies and medicines are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but about what level of evidence we should require when making assessments about an organisation’s charitable status.” Personally, I am not sure what this means. It sounds suspiciously soft and opens all sorts of escape routes for even the most outright quackery, I fear.

Michael Marshall of the Good Thinking Society said “We are pleased to see the Charity Commission making progress on their review. Too often we have seen little effective action to protect the public from charities whose very purpose is the promotion of potentially dangerous quackery. However, the real progress will come when the commission considers the clear evidence that complementary and alternative medicine organisations currently afforded charitable status often offer therapies that are completely ineffective or even potentially harm the public. We hope that this review leads to a policy to remove such misleading charities from the register.”

On this blog, I have occasionally reported about charities promoting quackery (for instance here, here and here) and pointed out that such activities cannot ever benefit the public. On the contrary, they are a danger to public health and bring many good charities into disrepute. I would therefore encourage everyone to use this unique occasion to write to the Charity Commission and make their views felt.


9 Responses to Organisations promoting alternative medicine – can they have charitable status?

  • British Heart Foundation
    ‘We spend 77p of every £1 we raise on life saving research and support for heart patients.’
    ‘Our vision is a world in which people do not die prematurely or suffer from heart disease. Thanks to you, we’ve made great progress. With you, we’ll beat it.’

    Cancer Research UK
    ‘We are committed to funding cancer research of the highest international calibre.’

    ‘The Homeopathy Research Institute (HRI) is an international charity dedicated to the facilitation of scientific research in homeopathy. The institute was founded by Executive Director Dr. Alexander Tournier who holds a PhD in Biophysics in addition to being a qualified homeopath.’

    The Good Thinking Society could consider changing its name to the ‘Organisation that hates homeopathy’ (OHH).

    In the UK, the charity business is a huge industry – the Commission would be better off assessing this sector as a whole (non discriminatory against any belief approach).

    • You miss a key point. This is not about belief, it is about evidence. There is no robust evidence that homeopathy is effective for any condition. If the HRI is genuinely asking research questions, and not simply making false claims of efficacy, then it will not fall within this consultation. This is about charities which mislead donors and beneficiaries by making false claims.

      • yes, he is excellent at missing points.

        • Let’s wait and see what they do.

          Edzard is excellent at writing books without doing the research first. Sorry, and that IS funny.

          • yes, I almost fell off the chair laughing!

          • 1. So 400 peer reviewed papers is not doing the research?
            2. Anyone who knows what evidence is can assess its validity. They don’t have to have done the research.
            3. Unfortunately “doing research” too often these days means surfing the web for inflammatory sites that support one’s prejudices.
            4. Humans didn’t evolve to understand the facts. They evolved to copy actions that seemed to be a good idea. Sometimes the ideas are wrong. This is why it’s hard to change minds with facts.

    • OHH is not a bad term, though not politically correct. Most honest people with integrity hate lying,corrupt, swindling and cheating individuals and organizations that support and promote them. Homeopathy should be against the law according to many.

  • I see this today and could not believe the BBC is promoting nonsense.

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