Skip to main content


Volume 744: debated on Tuesday 19 March 2013


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why the Department of Health removed from the NHS Choices website the advice that there was no good quality evidence to show that homeopathy was more successful than placebo.

My Lords, NHS Choices consults the Department of Health as necessary to ensure the consistency of its information with government policy. A recent review of the homeopathy web pages led to a change in the way the evidence was presented. Following concerns that the changes were unclear, NHS Choices has further clarified this information.

My Lords, I am delighted to hear that the passage has been restored. However, it is disturbing that inquiries made under the Freedom of Information Act revealed that officials deleted the passage as it stood in response to lobbying by a charity founded by the Prince of Wales. They seemed to be more concerned not to offend that formidable lobbyist than to listen to the advice of their Chief Medical Officer, who declared in a recent statement to a House of Commons Select Committee:

“I am perpetually surprised that homeopathy is available on the NHS”.

I have only recently learnt that a BBC South West programme found that Prince Charles’s favourite pharmacy has been selling sugar pills as vaccines against some serious diseases. I am sure that my noble friend, to whom I could not give notice of this point, will look into the matter. Will he assure the House that the policy of the Department of Health is to promote evidence-based medicine and not treatment based on nothing but water?

My Lords, I shall certainly look into the particular matter raised by my noble friend. The change in the way the information was presented on NHS Choices was as a result of a formal review, which happens automatically to all NHS Choices pages every 24 months. The page on homeopathy reached the formal 24-month review point in January 2011. The policy of NHS Choices is to provide objective and trustworthy information and guidance on all aspects of health and healthcare, and the page on homeopathy does exactly that.

My Lords, more than 10 years ago I chaired an inquiry conducted by your Lordships’ Select Committee on Science and Technology into the field of complementary and alternative medicine. We examined the evidence in favour of homeopathy, accepting that certain well qualified doctors believed in its use. However, at the time we did not discover any convincing research evidence to suggest that it was better than placebos. Over the centuries, many medicines have been used that have been shown to be no better than placebos. Therefore, has the time not come when it is appropriate for the Government to recognise that, in the light of recent research, there is no evidence whatever to support the continued use of homeopathy in the NHS?

My Lords, we have been consistently clear that no treatments should be arbitrarily rationed on cost grounds. The NHS constitution sets out that patients have a right to expect local decisions on the funding of drugs and treatments to be made rationally following a proper consideration of the evidence. More importantly in this context, it is the responsibility of the NHS to make decisions about commissioning and funding of healthcare treatments and not for Ministers to second-guess that process.

My Lords, perhaps I may be permitted to help the Minister. Many years ago, there was a very interesting study in Wales of a placebo-controlled trial that showed that, whatever was given, the best chance of a treatment working, placebo or not, was whether the doctor who was giving the medicine actually believed in it. Does the same apply for homeopathy and the Secretary of State?

My Lords, the best way I can answer the noble Lord is to refer him to the page on NHS Choices that explicitly refers to the placebo effect. As he will know, the 2010 House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report on homeopathy said that homeopathic remedies perform no better than placebos. It is important to emphasise that message. On the other hand, many people have found benefit from homeopathic medicines and, in a way, that is their privilege and right.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that homeopathy started at a time when the one treatment they gave people was to bleed them? It was effective because they did not bleed them and allowed them to recover normally; I was on the board of the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital for a good many years, where I learnt that. Does the Minister not think that, faced with a situation where antibiotics have been used too casually, it is time to look at what we should not be taking? Does he think it important that patients should have the right to whatever treatment they choose provided that homeopathy does not allow them to escape proper diagnosis for cancer or some other tragic condition, which could be overlooked if it is not combined with ordinary medicine?

My noble friend makes an important point. We are clear in recommending that patients should talk to their GPs before stopping any treatment that has been prescribed by a doctor in favour of homeopathy and before they start taking homeopathic remedies. It is important that people understand that homeopathy may not be effective in many situations.

My Lords, given that many GPs ask for training in homeopathy and become homeopaths using both conventional and homeopathic medicine, and speaking as someone who personally uses homeopathic remedies, will the Minister ensure that the views of people such as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, with which we are all familiar, are not given such credence within the National Health Service that those who wish to use homeopathic remedies do not have that choice?

My Lords, I take the noble Baroness’s point. Again, we have consistently said, in this and in other areas, that clinical responsibility for an individual’s health condition rests with their GP, who must therefore be able to justify clinically any treatment to which he or she refers someone. As she said, there are GPs who have a speciality in homeopathy. We recommend that a patient who is interested in homeopathic treatment should go to such a GP.