Complementary Medicines

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 17th July 2002.

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Photo of David Tredinnick David Tredinnick Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Select Committee), Chair, Statutory Instruments (Joint Committee) 9:30 am, 17th July 2002

I am grateful to be called to speak in this debate, Madam Deputy Speaker, not least because it is in my name. The debate is on a matter that is crucial for the health of the nation, and I am delighted to see present not an Under-Secretary but the Minister of State, Department of Health. I pay that short compliment to him, because it is good to see him.

While preparing for this debate, I reflected on the fact that 25 years ago I was working in the House of Commons as a research assistant for the then Member for Hastings and Rye, Sir Kenneth Warren. I remember examining issues of police accountability and related matters, and going through Hansard and background papers trying to find definitive moments of change in the political process. It is my belief that, for complementary medicine, today is one of those moments.

There have been three defining moments for complementary medicine in recent years. The first was the publication of the King's fund report. Next was the Lords report. The latest is this morning's debate. It is a defining moment because this is the first time that the official Opposition have got behind this issue and started to consider it from the policy point of view. That should send warning signals to the Government, because it illustrates how the issue has moved up the agenda. I should declare an interest in the matter. Since the 1970s, when I was injured, I have been through the process of learning of just about all the therapies, some of which we shall debate today.

I believe that it is a Conservative issue as much as anything else. I can say to my hon. Friend Mr. Heald that it is natural Conservative territory, and I am pleased that we have the party with us. It is about choice and self-improvement, as it is about the better use of resources in the national health service and better value for money for Her Majesty's Government. It is also about taking the pressure off doctors and surgeons. It is about using less invasive techniques when possible and about using less toxic treatment when appropriate. In addition, it is about giving doctors new means of treating patients. Further, it is about spreading the burden of health care.

The debate is also about highlighting Conservative achievements in the field and drawing the attention of the House to the woeful shortcomings of the Government's policies. The Conservative Government had three main achievements in this area. The first was in the 1987 Parliament, when a Standing Committee of which I was a member regulated to put osteopaths on a statutory footing, which was hugely beneficial. Secondly, we did the same for chiropractors in the 1992 Parliament; I was a member of that Committee also. Thirdly, it was decided to bring GP fundholders into being, which gave doctors new powers to decide how to spend their money, and many GP fundholding practices went on to employ complementary therapists, or to build a link. That came about because of the decision made by my right hon. Friend Mr. Dorrell, then the Member for Loughborough, when he was Under-Secretary at the Dept of Health, that doctors could channel patients to complementary practitioners provided that they took clinical responsibility. That decision was supported by Tom Sackville, the then hon. Member for Bolton, West, who is sadly no longer in the House. It started the process of introducing complementary medicine into the health service.

I should say as an aside, however, that the person who really got the process going was Aneurin Bevan, who had a homeopathic doctor—Claire Ward is looking quizzically at me, but that is true. Bevan said that homeopathy would be brought into the health service and made available through doctors, and qualified doctors can now prescribe homeopathic medicines on the health service. The only slight problem at the moment is that they cannot get those medicines up on their computers, and the Minister might want to examine that problem. None the less, that was the decision that Bevan made all those years ago.

Whatever shortcomings the Government claim the GP fundholding system had, it gave doctors a certain freedom to take on complementary practitioners in the health service. That was a valuable step in the right direction, which increased supply and choice. Regrettably, the availability of complementary therapies on the health service has declined since primary care groups and primary care trusts came into being. That is because they are under other pressures and do not see integrated health care, complementary therapies and the range of treatments that come under that heading as priorities. It is rare to find a primary care trust that gives priority to such issues, although the Hinckley and Bosworth primary care trust, which is in my constituency and which will cover west Leicestershire, is seriously considering providing acupuncture for pain relief, and a qualified doctor in the constituency wants to use that treatment. The Minister should take that on board, and if he can find a way of encouraging primary care trusts to increase the supply of services rather than reduce it, he will be doing us all a favour. I have written on numerous occasions about the way in which homeopathic services especially have been cut as a result of the introduction of primary care trusts, and we should study the issue.

It is a sad fact that the Government are generally reactive, not proactive, when it comes to complementary therapies, and there is plenty of evidence for that. When the Labour Government came to power, one of the first decisions of the then right hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr, now Lord Rooker, was to restrict the available dosage of vitamin B6. That was a catastrophic decision, which was blown away in the end. The limits that he wanted to impose were based on flawed research and never came into being. There was a huge wrangle over the issue: the industry mobilised, there was an enormous amount of activity, there were parliamentary motions and much energy was expended. It was important that doses were not limited to the lower level, because that would have discriminated against poorer people who would have had to buy more of the vitamins that they wanted. That was nonsensical and did the Government no credit.

Two years later, we had the ghastly MLX249 problems. It was proposed that the Medicines Control Agency should be able, on appeal, to redesignate a vitamin supplement compound as a medicine—I may not have the terminology quite right, but it is along those lines. That decision would have placed huge costs on the industry, because supplements that are reclassified as medicines must go through extensive trials, which can cost £100,000 a shot. To get rid of that ludicrous proposal, we had to march from Marble arch to Trafalgar square, where I spoke from between the lions. I heard a crowd of a thousand chanting, "Tony, we want the right to choose." That could be heard in Downing street, and I am told privately that it sent some tremors through the structure at No. 10. Action was soon taken and the proposal was knocked on the head. Now, in the year of our Lord 2002, we have a double threat—the threat to vitamin supplements and the threat to traditional remedies or medicines. The relevant European directive keeps changing its name so I might change my description of it.

I saw the Under-Secretary of State for Health in Committee the other day and I told her that I was grateful to her for having agreed to talk to me, as treasurer of the parliamentary group for alternative and complementary medicine, with an industry expert and a couple of other colleagues the day before. However, I had to warn her that if the issue was not taken seriously, there were people—I did not use the term lightly, it just came out of my head—who were tooling up for war. She looked at me as if to say, "I don't like the sound of that, and I don't like the way in which it has been put across," but when our eyes met, she knew that I was sincere. I was speaking for the vast number of people who see a serious threat to their well-being. Under this European directive, about 160 nutrients, supplements, medical treatments—call them what we might—will be removed once and for all.

My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire might want to develop the point further, so I shall just say to the Minister that he got it wrong on vitamin B6 and he got it wrong on MLX249. He should be careful this time; it is a big issue.