The third question this morning in the House of Lords Question Time managed to cover astrology, alternative medicine, the views of Prince Charles, mumbo jumbo and quackery, provoked an intervention from the Astronomer Royal and from myself on psychotherapists and so-called “Schools” of psychotherapy and other therapies.

The question and the subsequent supplementaries demonstrated concerns from all parts of the House that alternative therapists need to be regulated in order to protect the public from unscrupulous practitioners and highlighted the importance of better understanding of real (as opposed to pseudo) science by the public and young people in particular.

The full exchanges were as follows:

“Alternative Medicine: Astrologers

Question

11.21 am

Asked By Lord Taverne

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, following their proposals to regulate practitioners of alternative medicine, they plan to regulate astrologers.

Baroness Thornton: No, my Lords, the Government have no plans to regulate astrologers.

Lord Taverne: My Lords, I declare an interest as chairman of the charity Sense About Science. The forms of alternative medicine which the Government propose to regulate have as much scientific basis as astrology. As official regulation is likely to give such practices a spurious scientific reliability and respectability, is it not unfair to leave out astrologers? More seriously, will the Government note that august bodies of proper scientists—the Medical Research Council, the Royal College of Pathologists, the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges and other eminent professional bodies—strongly oppose the proposed regulation? Will the Government ignore the assiduous lobbying for pseudoscience from Clarence House?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, I am aware that the noble Lord is making a wider and serious point about alternative therapies. At present there is no statutory regulatory system in the United Kingdom to govern the practice of complementary and alternative medicine, with the exception of chiropractitioners and osteopaths who are regulated by statute. We are undertaking a consultation exercise to determine whether and, if so, how to regulate the practitioners of acupuncture, herbal medicine and traditional Chinese medicine. The Science and Technology Committee of this House suggested that we should address that issue. No other complementary therapies, including medical astrology, are within the scope of this consultation and we have no proposals to regulate in any of these other groups.

Baroness Pitkeathley: My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence. I remind the House and the noble Lord who asked the Question that the purpose of regulation is to protect the public, and that is what we try to do. However, in order to help me do my job better, can my noble friend give me a definition of medical astrology?

Baroness Thornton: My Lords, medical astrology is traditionally known as iatromathematics and is an ancient medical system associated with various parts of the body, diseases and drugs and the influence of the sun, moon, planets and the 12 astrological signs. For example—I did the research on this issue myself—the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, and I share the same birth sign, Libra, which apparently rules excretory functions through the kidneys and skin. I could go on about lumbar regions but noble Lords will get the picture. I am happy to say that the underlying basis for medical astrology is considered to be a pseudoscience and superstition as there is no scientific basis for its core beliefs. The Government remain neutral on this issue.

Earl Howe: My Lords, does the Minister share my view that this is an uncharacteristically flippant Question from the noble Lord, Lord Taverne? Does she accept that statutory regulation is not a badge of rank but exists, as the noble Baroness, Lady Pitkeathley, has just said, to safeguard the public? The key regulatory bodies—the Health Professions Council and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency—have both concluded that acupuncture and herbal medicine practitioners should be subject to statutory regulation.

Baroness Thornton: The noble Earl is quite correct and I concur with him that this is a very serious matter. Although we do not specifically promote or endorse the use of complementary or alternative medicine, we have to appreciate that a high proportion of the population actually uses these medicines, and our concern, as my noble friend said, is to protect patients. Responsible complementary practitioners adhere to codes of ethics, know the limits of their competence and make appropriate referral of patients to orthodox practitioners where there is potential risk to their health and well-being. However, the noble Earl is completely correct—we have to look to how best to safeguard patients in respect of those complementary medicines such as acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicines that have the potential to cause harm. Therefore we need to take serious action to make sure they are regulated in the correct fashion.

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, I confess to being an Aquarian, and share my birth date with Copernicus and my Auntie Ivy, although I have to say that my Auntie Ivy had much more influence on me than my birth sign. However, on a more serious note, does the Minister agree that the popularity of mumbo-jumbo such as astrology and many forms of alternative medicine is due to the fact that people have very little scientific education at school? Will she say what this Government, in their 10 years in power, have done to further education in science and mathematics?

Baroness Thornton: We have done a great deal for further education in science and mathematics, although that is not exactly what this Question was about. I agree with the noble Baroness that of course people often turn to things like medical astrology because they do not understand the basis of whatever ailment it is they are looking at, and that can be a risky thing to do. However, I simply do not accept this Government have not put a significant amount of investment into mathematics and science in our schools.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords—

Lord Rees of Ludlow: My Lords—

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, we have not heard from the Cross Benches yet.

Lord Rees of Ludlow: My Lords, I declare an interest as Astronomer Royal, and therefore as someone who could enhance his income hugely by becoming an astrologer and offering horoscopes. Does the Minister agree that, even though were we in India it might be appropriate to regulate astrology because government ministers there, one is told, are heavily guided by it, in this country to do so might imply that the problem has rather more seriousness that it really deserves?

Baroness Thornton: The noble Lord is completely correct.

Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we should indeed have no truck with pseudoscience? As it happens, I have some sympathy with the point that the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, raised about the teaching of science and mathematics. None the less, there are, as Hamlet observed,

“more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy”,

and some very respectable branches of medicine were once alternative in their day. Therefore, it is important that we keep an eye on the things in which people invest confidence, and make sure, as my noble friend Lady Pitkeathley observed, that they do not cause harm.

Baroness Thornton: My noble friend is right. Complementary and alternative medicine therapies have proven to be effective, cost-effective and safe. Decisions about which treatments to commission and fund, for example, are the responsibility of the NHS locally, and indeed primary care trusts often have their own policies about funding complementary medicine such as osteopathy or chiropractic. Indeed, we are funding research into complementary therapies, for example in the care of cancer patients.

Lord Harris of Haringey: My Lords, I speak to the Minister as a fellow Libran. Is she satisfied with the quality of regulation of therapies such as psychotherapy? Is it still the case that anyone can set themselves up as a college of psychotherapy or any other therapy, and offer diplomas and apparent validation to practitioners whose skills may be negligible?

Baroness Thornton: My noble friend raises an important point, which the House has discussed in the past year. I had a huge postbag about that; I was inundated by suggestions from psychotherapists of all different kinds on this issue. My noble friend is quite right that there is an issue, and the department is looking at it.”

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