MPs call for halt to public funds for homeopathy

Science committee says placebo effect is only benefit of alternative treatment. Zoë Corbyn reports

February 23, 2010

There is no evidence that homeopathy has any benefit beyond a placebo effect, and public investment in treatments, regulation and research should stop.

That was the message in a report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee following an “evidence check”, in which MPs examined whether government policies on homeopathy were in line with the scientific evidence.

“We could find no evidence outside the placebo effect that homeopathic medicines had any efficacy,” said Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat MP and chair of the committee.

He questioned why homeopathic medicines were available on the National Health Service and were regulated by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency.

“There is a real contradiction between the Government saying there needs to be an evidence base for prescribing and then funding a set of treatments that has no [scientific] basis at all,” he said.

The report, which was backed by most of but not all the committee members, calls on the Government to stop funding homeopathy treatments. Mr Willis said the money invested “could be better spent elsewhere”.

The committee’s report also asks the Government to clarify the total amount it spends on the treatments and to set out its view on the “ethics of prescribing placebos”.

“Is it ethical to prescribe placebos under the NHS?” Mr Willis asked, adding that the Government had been “reluctant to even address this”.

The document also recommends that no further money be spent on homeopathy research.

“There has been enough testing of homeopathy and plenty of evidence showing that it is not efficacious,” it says.

“Competition for research funding is fierce, and we cannot see how further research on the efficacy of homeopathy is justified in the face of competing priorities.”

The report adds that it is “unethical” to enter patients into trials to answer questions that have already been settled.

The committee also criticises the scientific advisory system. It notes that although John Beddington, the Government’s chief scientific adviser, has been clear about the lack of evidence for homeopathy, David Harper, the chief scientific adviser at the Department of Health, has appeared more equivocal.

It recommends that the two “get together” and try to reach an agreed position and also to consider the question of research funding.

Yet the report was not adopted unanimously.

Ian Stewart, Labour MP for Eccles, dissented from the recommendations.

He said there was not enough evidence to rule out the efficacy of homeopathic treatment and raised concerns about the balance of witnesses called by the committee.

“We should remain sceptical but certainly not have closed minds,” he said.

It has been estimated that the NHS spends £4 million a year on homeopathy.

But the report says this figure does not include maintenance and running costs of the homeopathic hospitals or the £20 million spent on refurbishing the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital between 2002 and 2005.

It recommends that the Government set out its annual spend in the field over the past ten years, broken down into the various elements.

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