Homeopathy: Veterinary Medicine

Part of Petition - Royal Bank of Scotland Closure in Saltcoats – in the House of Commons at 10:14 pm on 8th May 2018.

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Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 10:14 pm, 8th May 2018

I congratulate my hon. Friend David Tredinnick on securing this important debate. With a name like Tredinnick he could only hail from Redruth, where it is a very common name. Anything that begins with the letters “tre” tends to be from Cornwall.

I recognise that my hon. Friend has been a very long-standing campaigner for alternative medicines in general and homeopathy in particular. I do not have any particular strong convictions one way or the other on this issue, but I recognise that the consensus among veterinary opinion is one of scepticism. Before addressing the specific issues he raised, I want to start by making a couple of more general points.

As a point of general principle, I do not agree that contrarian viewpoints in science should be deemed or labelled as some form of scientific heresy. Those who, like me, believe in an enlightened approach to evidence should always welcome and engage in debate, and should never tolerate the tactics of bullying, abuse or ridicule. I recognise that my hon. Friend has suffered a lot of this behaviour himself in this sometimes fraught debate. Let me say that I say that I find that unacceptable, irrespective of one’s views on the issue. Even those who believe strongly and passionately disagree with homeopathy and disagree with the evidence supporting it should recognise the value in discussing it so that it provides a reference point for their own version of the truth.

Traditionally in science it has been very important to observe, through scientific trials and scientific evidence, to try to discern patterns and then, having discerned and observed patterns, try to build a more precise body of evidence in the form of statistics. I think it is fair to say that in recent decades there has been a tendency in science to neglect those basic skills of observation and instead to just resort to narrow statistics and what can be measured. The hon. Gentleman, irrespective of different views we might have, raises a valid point about that tendency in modern science, which can mean that we sometimes miss things that are important.

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons has a role in maintaining a register of qualified vets. This is, effectively, a system of self-regulation underpinned by statute. It has a royal charter that dates back to 1844. The Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 established a statutory role for it to recognise qualified vets. Under the 1966 Act, the RCVS has a role in maintaining a register. It also has a role in regulating the conduct of its professional members, supervising the registration of its members and suspending registration where it believes there has been a breach of its code. However, it is not the role of the RCVS to make decisions on veterinary medicines or indeed veterinary treatments. The Veterinary Medicines Directorate is a Government agency that makes evidence-based assessments of veterinary medicines.

Homeopathic products are not formally assessed for their efficacy, but they are assessed for their quality and safety. Their use is therefore lawful. I know that the RCVS statement in November 2017 caused quite a lot of controversy. As my hon. Friend pointed out, there have been protests and much disquiet among some of those vets who practise homeopathy. I should perhaps point out an interest here. In my constituency of Camborne and Redruth I have a fantastic charity called the Cinnamon Trust. It mobilises thousands of volunteers right across the country to visit the homes of the elderly who are no longer able to walk their own dogs and to walk those dogs for them. This fabulous charity means that the volunteers give social contact to those elderly people by taking their dog for a walk and they make sure that elderly people, often suffering from loneliness, can enjoy the companionship of pets with the help of volunteers.

That charity engages a conventional vet who occasionally uses some homeopathic therapies. I am told by veterinary practitioners of homeopathy that they believe they see results for a number of particular conditions. Cushing’s disease in horses is mentioned—a condition that afflicts older horses and can lead to lameness—and I am also told that it can be effective when dealing with arthritis in older dogs and in managing some symptoms of certain cancers. Practitioners argue that for certain conditions that principally affect older animals, when conventional medicines have run their course and they have run out of options, homeopathy can help to manage a condition. I am told that homeopathy is at times quite useful when there may be side-effects from using more conventional veterinary medicines, or when there are allergies from their use.

A debate has always been had about the evidence and the quality of the evidence base, but as my hon. Friend pointed out, there are practitioners out there who believe that they see some results in some circumstances, and they can see they do not see those in all circumstances. Certainly, some of the vets that I have spoken to who practise homeopathy are very clear that this complements their approach to conventional medicine. When they believe that conventional veterinary treatments have run their course and can offer nothing further for a particular animal, or are not giving them the results they want, they will sometimes choose, as an alternative, to use complementary approaches and practices.

The RCVS statement, having sparked controversy, has been the subject of some discussion between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the RCVS, which has confirmed it is not at all its intention to ban the use of homeopathy. I understand that its concern is that in some instances, some vets, rather than using homeopathy as a complementary approach alongside conventional medicine, are perhaps refraining from using other, possibly more effective, conventional medicine in preference to homeopathy. In some cases, the RCVS believes that that may be affecting the welfare of the animal. It assures us that that is what it is attempting to address and that it has no intention to ban the use of homeopathy by its members. I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend that that is the position that the RCVS has set out to us.

Since I have the luxury of time, I want to pick up on the point made by Jim Shannon about antibiotic use. He is right: this is something that we are keen to reduce, and the O’Neill report set out some detailed approaches for doing that. It is also the case that adopting a different approach to livestock husbandry and using vaccines in a more effective way, rather than antibiotic treatments, is part of the key to getting down our use of antibiotics.