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Herbal Medicines

Volume 723: debated on Thursday 13 January 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will introduce statutory regulation of qualified and competent herbal medicine practitioners by the Health Professions Council at the earliest opportunity.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare an interest as the unpaid patron of the Register of Chinese Herbal Medicine.

My Lords, I can confirm that, while final decisions have yet to be taken, the Government are actively exploring the establishment of a statutory register for herbal practitioners. We are currently in discussion with the devolved Administrations, the Health Professions Council and the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council about the feasibility of such a register and we expect to make an announcement shortly. I can assure the House that the Government are treating this issue as a priority.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for that reply, from which it would appear that a definite decision has not yet been taken. Is he aware that some 5.8 million British people rely on herbal medicines for their well-being, that thousands of businesses and practitioners supply them and that none of this can continue as at present after 1 May if the Government do not meet the terms of the EU directive by then? Secondly, does the Minister agree that we owe this predicament entirely to our membership of the European Union—

We do, my Lords, we do. The EU has yet again ignored its own subsidiarity law to impose this diktat. Why cannot the British Government simply tell Brussels that we will decide this matter for ourselves?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s first point, the Government are acutely aware of how important an issue this is for many millions of consumers. That is why we are working to reach what I hope will be a workable solution to ensure continuing access to popular and widely used products. I am sure that the House is well aware of the noble Lord’s position as regards the European Union. I simply say that the medicines legislation framework is set at a Community level for a good reason. It exists both to protect public health in relation to medicines placed on the EU market and to ensure a level playing field for operators. But within that European framework there is flexibility for EU member states to operate national arrangements for the regulation of medicines in situations where an authorised health professional determines that an individual patient has special needs. We are considering the case for using that flexibility in relation to herbal medicines.

My Lords, do not most of the senior professional bodies, such as the MRC, the royal colleges and the Physiological Society, oppose registration because it gives a spurious authority to practices that are not based on science? Do the Government ignore these representations and listen instead to lobbyists such as the Prince of Wales, who believes in traditional medicine? Do they not recognise that medical practice is not like a piece of antique furniture that grows in value with age?

My Lords, again I think that the House is well aware of the noble Lord’s views, which I know are sincerely held, although personally I regret his comments about the Prince of Wales. However, I am sure that, with regard to herbal medicines, he will be aware that there is an international trade in sometimes poor-quality, unregulated and unlicensed herbal preparations. Some of these have been found to contain banned substances, heavy metals or pharmaceutical ingredients or substances from outside the UK that may not be subject to any form of regulation at all, so there is a public safety issue.

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that, while statutory regulation has its place, regulation in healthcare and anything else should always be proportionate? Would he therefore endorse the concept of light-touch regulation, which is promoted by the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence? I declare an interest as its chair.

My Lords, I pay tribute to the noble Baroness for the work that she does and I entirely endorse the approach to regulation that she has outlined. Certainly, we need to adopt a targeted, risk-based approach to regulation.

My Lords, I concur with the noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, because I do, too. How many people have died from adverse reactions to herbal medicines compared with the number of people who have died from adverse reactions to prescribed drugs?

My Lords, I do not have the figures, but I am aware of a notorious case on the continent some years ago involving adulterated herbal medicines, which resulted in very serious illness for a number of women. Since 2005, the MHRA has identified 282 cases where products typically marketed as herbal or traditional remedies have been found to be adulterated with random quantities of pharmaceutical substances.

My Lords, would it not be more sensible for the noble Earl to present to the House the scientific and medical evidence that suggests that it is indeed sensible to provide any sort of regulatory framework? In the absence of that scientific evidence, would it not be simpler to make it very clear that it is illegal to make false, unfounded health claims in support of any substances and that, if they contain dangerous materials, the individuals promoting them should go to jail?

That is precisely why we want to consider the possibility of a statutory register for practitioners, to make sure that those who prescribe unlicensed medicines that have been prepared by third parties are fit and proper people to do so. When we make the announcement, as I hope we will shortly, the rationale for it will be set out.

Is my noble friend aware that it is common practice in many GP practices to make recommendations for alternative medicines, such as tea tree oil for ingrowing toenails and arnica cream for bruises? In my former constituency, one GP practice actually grew its own herbs in the garden.

My Lords, it is a long-standing practice and tradition in this country that medical professionals should be able to take it upon themselves to prescribe freely, as they see fit, in the interests of the particular patient in front of them.