The Charity Commission – from bad to worse

It’s well over a year since I complained to the Commission about charities that promote homeopathy. The total lack of progress with that was documented recently. So far I have learned nothing about the Commission’s undertaking to review its policy on the public benefit obligation of such charities. To test whether anything has changed, on 30th July I sent in another complaint, this time against Homeopathy In Africa (charity number 1125981). Here is the complaint as I entered it on the Commission’s website (using their headings):

Identify which of the below best represents the concerns that you wish to report:
Serious non-compliance in a charity which, left unchecked, could damage public trust and confidence in the Charity Commission as an effective regulator

Do you have evidence of this?
Yes

Please provide a summary of the evidence
This charity’s stated activity is “Provision of homeopathic education and clinical training in Ghana”. Homeopathy is not effective for any condition, as stated by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, the Chief Medical Officer, the Chief Scientist, and many other authorities. Hence the provision of services related to homeopathy cannot possibly be of benefit to anyone.

Please set out any additional facts and information about the serious issue that you wish to report
All charities must operate for the benefit of the public. The Charity Commission’s guidance states that to satisfy the benefit aspect:

* a purpose must be beneficial – this must be in a way that is identifiable and capable of being proved by evidence where necessary and which is not based on personal views
* any detriment or harm that results from the purpose (to people, property or the environment) must not outweigh the benefit – this is also based on evidence and not on personal views

As it is clear that homeopathy offers no concrete benefits, this charity must be violating this obligation. Furthermore, by engaging with the public by promoting homeopathy (which the charity admits to), this presents a serious risk to vulnerable people with potentially life-threatening conditions, who should be seeking evidence based treatment.

Developing countries contain some of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in the world. They may not have the benefit of sufficient education to understand what evidence is, and are more easily attracted away from effective treatment. Like the tobacco companies, the homeopathy sector is making increased efforts to penetrate these countries. This is not in any way a charitable purpose.

Details of attempts you have made to get the charity to address this issue. Please provide details of when you reported this issue to the charity and the outcome:
On 21st July 2014 I asked the charity to justify its promotion of homeopathy, in the light if its statutory obligations. I received no reply.

Details of any previous correspondence or contact with us:
I submitted a general complaint about homeopathy charities in July 2014 which has still not been addressed by the Commission.

Details of previous correspondence with any other public body about these matters:
None

Is the issue that you wish to report the subject of any legal proceedings or litigation? If so please give details:
No

This time I was extremely careful with the wording, quoting the Commission’s own guidance on the public benefit test. As they specifically say that evidence of public benefit must be provided, there can be not a shadow of doubt that this charity fails the test. Note that I gave the charity a whole year to reply to my request for evidence, which is surely long enough!

Today I received the Commission’s reply:

Thank you for your email

We note that you are writing in regard to the charity’s objects for Homeopathy in Africa 1125981

The Commission is established by law as the regulator and registrar of charities in England and Wales. Our aim is to provide the best possible regulation of charities in England and Wales in order to increase charities’ efficiency and effectiveness and public confidence and trust. For the most part the day to day running of charities remains the responsibility of charity trustees. Where things go wrong our action will be evidence based and proportionate, taking into account the issue and the risk involved to the charity and its beneficiaries.

Our publication CC47 (Complaints About Charities) sets out in more detail when we will, and when we will not, take up the issues reported to us. Please click the link below: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/complaints-about-charities

When considering charities related to complimentary or alternative medicine, each case is considered on its merits but the House of Lords Report 1 on complimentary (sic) and alternative medicine provides a useful guide. The House of Lords Select Committee determined that Homeopathy is a ‘Group 1’ therapy. Charitable organisations that provide therapies that fall within the Group 1 category of ‘well known’ therapies do not generally need to provide further evidence of efficacy before we accept that these therapies are effacious in the relief of illness.

The House of Lords Select Committee report still remains relevant despite the date that it was published and the Commission can take account of its findings when considering new applications for registration as appropriate.

The Commission’s approach when considering whether or not a particular alternative or complimentary method is capable of promoting health or relieving sickness for public benefit is based on case law. The law requires a link between the benefit claimed and the purpose, and that the purpose is for the public benefit. The law also requires that benefit be demonstrated by evidence. For some treatments this evidence is already accepted by the law and case law and in those cases there is recognition that the particular method is capable or promoting health or relieving sickness. This is the current position in relation to homeopathy but each case is considered on its facts.

On the basis of the information you have provided we do not consider there to be sufficient evidence to justify any action on our part.

I hope that I have explained why the Charity Commission will not be taking any further action on this matter and thank you for contacting us.

Yours Sincerely

Shirley Banks

Charity Commission

Does this sound familiar? It’s almost a year to the day since the Commission wrote to me with virtually the same words. In reply to that, I pointed out how outdated they were to rely on the House of Lords Report and not the much later House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Report, as well as their errors of fact. A year later, they carry on ignoring all that.

Coincidentally, today I am due to hear from the Commission about my previous complaint. You will recall that this is officially in the hands of the Parliamentary and Health Services Ombudsman (PHSO), which has also hardly covered itself in glory. Three weeks ago my exasperation boiled over and I phoned the PHSO. The case worker was sympathetic and courteous, and promised to chase the Charity Commission. He emailed me to say that if I didn’t hear anything from the Commission by 14th August I should let him know. No prizes for guessing that I heard not a word. After I emailed the PHSO case worker again as requested, he replied to reset the deadline to 21st August, ie today. Have I heard anything? Of course not.

I appreciate that these times of austerity must have an impact on service levels in public bodies, hence my patience. But I don’t think that excuses obtuseness, incompetence, and downright disdain for the citizens who fund their salaries. As a scientist I expect disagreement to be resolved by intelligent debate. Yet some public bodies operate by ignoring evidence-based arguments and repeating the same old boiler-plate statements.

It’s transparently obvious why the Charity Commission is stonewalling. If they accept the evidence about homeopathy and other quackery, and apply it to their own rules, they will have to de-register at least 20 charities by my reckoning. The quacks will kick up merry hell of course, and the Commission wants a quiet life. It’s not unlike the attitudes of various other public bodies, such as the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency which conveniently forgets its own responsibilities by allowing homeopathic products to carry labelled indications. These people seem to have learned a lot from Sir Humphrey Appleby, and know how to use weasel words.

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3 Responses

  1. since when is house of lords report the final word of efficacies of medical treatements?

  2. […] you are new to this saga you’ll need to read my previous posts on the subject here, here and here. If you have done that, you will not be surprised to learn that the Commission still refuses to […]

  3. […] when they clearly fail the public benefit test. For the full back story read my posts here, here, here and here – in reverse […]

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