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News Item

Minister makes statement on the future of herbal medicine

On July 9th, 2013, in a parliamentary debate on herbal medicine, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Health, Dr. Daniel Poulter, announced his intention to set up a working group in September of this year to look again at the best way to create a legal framework for the ongoing practice of herbal medicine in this country.

Dr. Poulter said:

“To ensure that we take forward the matter effectively, we want to bring together experts and interested parties from all sides of the debate to form a working group that will gather evidence and consider all the viable options in more detail… to ensure that the legislation is fit for purpose.”

Members of the public will no doubt wonder why yet another working group to “gather evidence” and “consider viable options” is necessary, when there have already been three thorough investigations into this matter. In 2000, the Science and Technology Select Committee of the House of Lords produced its Report on Complementary and Alternative Medicine recommending that herbalists should be state registered and that proper controls on the supply of herbs should be put in place. Two years later the Government established a working group on the regulation of herbal practitioners under the chairmanship of the eminent biologist Professor Michael Pittilo, who made specific proposals for the regulation of herbalists in his report, Recommendations on the Regulation of Herbal Practitioners in the UK (2003). This was followed by a public consultation in 2004 on the Regulation of Herbal Medicine and Acupuncture in which an overwhelming proportion of respondents (98.5%) were in favour of statutory regulation.

But nothing was done. In 2006 the Government decided that another committee should be set up to investigate the question of the regulation of complementary medicine, including herbalism. Once again Professor Michael Pittilo led another exhaustive enquiry over the course of two years, between 2006 and 2008. His Report to Ministers from the Department of Health Steering Group on the Statutory Regulation of Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Other Traditional Medicine Systems Practiced in the UK (2008) concluded: “We are firmly of the view that, in the interest of public safety, statutory regulation should now proceed with all possible speed” (p.10). The Government, however, dragged its feet. In 2009 another public consultation was launched, with a series of questions – many of which were extremely technical and difficult for the ordinary lay-person to answer. Nevertheless, approximately 6,500 members of the public responded and once again an overwhelming proportion (85%) of respondents were in favour of statutory regulation.

At last, on February 16th, 2011, the Secretary of State for Health, Andrew Lansley, announced that the Government would introduce statutory regulation, and that this would be in place by April 2012. But to the dismay of all concerned, again nothing happened. Given the thirteen year history of parliamentary committees and working groups, reports and public consultations, all pointing unequivocally to the need for herbal medicine to be statutorily regulated, and given the Government’s landmark decision in 2011 to implement statutory regulation, the latest statement by Dr. Poulter that he intends to set up yet another working group to “gather evidence” and “consider viable options” must lead us to question whether the Government really has the will to act on this important issue.

This is not a question of party politics, but it is a question of ideology. There are influential individuals and interest groups that are opposed to complementary medicine in general, and they are especially hostile to the granting of “authorized healthcare professional” status to any complementary medicine practitioners, which of course includes herbalists. In the House of Lords, Lord Taverne has been outspoken in his opposition to herbal medicine. The organization of which he is patron, “Sense About Science”, along with such inveterate opponents of complementary medicine as Professors Edzard Ernst and David Colquhon, has over the last ten years devoted itself to attacking complementary medicine of all types.

The present Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Health, Dr. Daniel Poulter, is a medical doctor who specialized in obstetrics and gynaecology. As far as we are aware, he has no interest whatsoever in complementary medicine. He was first elected to Parliament in 2010, aged thirty-two, and took up his present post in September 2012. Could it be that his reason for seeking to delay the implementation of statutory regulation is that he is more sympathetic to the views of “Sense About Science” than to the evidence and conclusions of the previous reports into the future of herbal medicine, published long before he took on his present job? Could it be that his purpose in establishing another working group “to bring together experts and interested parties from all sides of the debate” is to make sure that this time the views of the opponents of complementary medicine finally prevail?

We hope not. But meanwhile we urge all those who wish to protect the future of herbal medicine to make their views known to their MP, to Dr. Poulter and to Jeremy Hunt, who succeeded Andrew Lansley as Health Secretary in September 2012. We do not need any more working groups! We cannot afford any more delays! All we ask is that the Government keep its promise to implement the statutory regulation of herbalists, for this alone can ensure the future of herbalism in this country.



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