The Charity Commission has said it will review the law on the advancement of health as a charitable purpose, following the threat of a judicial review over its approach to homeopathy charities.
The Good Thinking Society, a charity set up by science writer Simon Singh to promote scientific thinking, last week threatened the Commission with judicial review because it said the regulator was failing to address concerns that some health charities were not providing a public benefit.
It said that some bodies on the register promoted medical treatments which were medically proven not to work, or which were unproven, and that these organisations should not be allowed charitable status. The society specifically singled out homeopathy for the purposes of the judicial review.
The charity said it had been driven to the threat because two years of lobbying by scientists, led by Les Rose, a retired clinical researcher, had not produced a satisfactory response.
Commission agrees review
The Commission has now agreed to conduct a review, which will consider whether it has taken a lawful position on charities promoting alternative medicine.
A Commission spokesman said: “We are planning a review of this area, which we expect to complete by July 2017. As the registrar and regulator of charities, the Commission has the task of deciding which organisations are charities, but we recognise that we are not the authority in the efficacy of non-traditional medical treatments.
“These are issues of substantial debate with a variety of opinions. They require careful consideration and we will carry out our review constructively, consulting with the relevant people where appropriate, to determine whether to change our guidance on this topic. For the time being, our existing guidance continues to apply.
“If we do conclude that the law in this area has changed, or that our guidance should be revised, we would then need to consider whether the registrations of any individual organisations may be affected, on a case-by-case basis looking at each organisation's purposes.”
Judicial review on hold
The Good Thinking Society welcomed the Commission’s response, and said it would not proceed with the court case for the time being.
Michael Marshall, project director of the Good Thinking Society, said: “It is highly encouraging to see the Charity Commission make a clear commitment to reviewing how it applies charity law in relation to alternative medicine. We have very serious concerns regarding a number of charitable organisations which are promoting treatments that are based on no good evidence at all, and in some cases are comprehensively disproven.
“By law a charity must offer a public benefit. Clearly the promotion of an ineffective treatment, especially to very ill and vulnerable people, cannot be of benefit to the public. For these organisations to continue promoting such treatments with all of the financial and reputational benefits that being a registered charity offers fundamentally undermines the credibility of the Charity Commission, and by extension the many highly-respectable and worthy charities regulated by it.
“After the review has concluded in July and the Commission takes the necessary action based on the findings, we hope the public will once again be able to trust that when they give their money to a registered charity, they are funding an organisation that will make a positive contribution to society, and – in the case of health charities – offer a genuine benefit to the public’s health and wellbeing.”