Friday, 5 January 2018

Antipathy Towards the Advertising Standards Authority #3

That UK homeopathy has problems with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is not exactly news. Indeed, this blog has dealt with the issues in this post and a following one. It is not intended to repeat the content.

Society of Homeopaths Board Minutes
It is unknown whether the Society of Homeopaths (SoH) have deliberately made these documents publically available. Several months ago, they updated their website and it seems likely that they updated their content management system. It is possible these (and many) documents are meant to be "member only" content. If this is the case, it's a huge blunder. It is quite possible by the time you read this that access will have been restricted.

These documents are very revealing of how the SoH seems to think. They also raise a lot of questions.

Minutes of the 303rd Meeting of the Board of Directors contains the following -
9A – MT gave an overview of the recent legal challenge to the Society’s accreditation. The PSA have contested any action thoroughly and the immediate threat has been withdrawn.  
9B - the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) sent a letter to the Society in November stating that new guidelines should be implemented for advertisers of homeopathy and that all members should be informed of these revised guidelines within 28 days. MT responded informing them that this was not acceptable. CAP agreed to a meeting on the 9th February, which MT, MP and VG will attend. The PSA has been informed.

Members will be notified if the ASA will contact them in relation to this. KG highlighted that if there was a positive outcome, it should be reported back to the AGM.  
The Society has responded positively to the recent attacks. It was suggested that documents should be available on the website and the recent issues should be communicated via social media. 
MP highlighted that the recent attacks and issues have proved costly in terms of resources and have consequently slowed down the ability to fulfill all the Society’s plans.  
MD thanked MT for responding efficiently to all recent attacks.
MT = Mark Taylor (current CEO of the SoH). MP = Miranda Parsons. VG = Victoria Garratt. KG = Kiran Grover. MD = Maggie Dixon.

The PSA are the Professional Standards Authority. Their relationship with the SoH is discussed here. There are some ongoing developments (or rather, a lack of) with PSA accreditation of the SoH but these will be dealt with in another post.

The story of the ASA and homeopathy goes back a long way. This story from the Quackometer blog is from 2011. Basically, all homeopaths were written to and told to comply by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) or run the risk of adjudication by the ASA. They were also told that CAP would be looking at a sample of websites to check for compliance. At the time of writing, this process was still ongoing.

Minutes of the 304th Meeting of the Board of Directors
11.3) CAP/ASA
 MT/VG have held two meetings with the ASA/CAP team. VG/MT are currently working on advertising guidelines for Society members. The aim is for the ASA/CAP team to endorse the guidelines ahead of publication. Emphasis lies on the ownership of the guidelines by the Society and 'the best we can achieve.' It will be up to the sector to decide if they are acceptable and suitable in application. The draft guidelines have already been to PCC and will be presented at both the June PSC meeting and the July board meeting, ahead of the final sign off. The ASA/CAP team have plans to approach other membership organisations in the homeopathy field. KG thanked MT for the Chief Executive report.
PSC = Professional Standards Committee.

It is curious that the SoH felt the need to issue "guidelines" (that turned out to be less than clear) when the CAP had already done so. It could be viewed as a delaying tactic.

 Minutes of the 305th Meeting of the Board of Directors 
Advertising Standards Authority The draft guidelines produced by VG have been circulated to PSC members and the Board.  
The following items have been agreed between the Society and CAP/ASA:
  • The Society will know exactly when the CAP/ASA letter is to be sent to members.
  • CAP/ASA will announce publicly that ‘the guidelines produced by the Society for its members will be helpful for homeopaths who wish to avoid breaking CAP/ASA rules’. 
Discussion took place, with some comments regarding suggested wording, and the Board concluded that providing guidelines and informing members how to adhere to them was the best way forward. SoH guidelines will be made available to members via the members’ area on the Society website.   
It will also state that the Society does not support CAP/ASA’s position and that members must make their own decision on whether to comply.   
KG mentioned that it was a great step forward to be able to hold meetings with CAP/ASA regarding this issue and any other future issues that may occur.
Which could be read as implying that the SoH had no intention of ensuring that their members comply with CAP guidance on advertising. The SoH Code of Ethics and Practice makes it clear that members "should ensure that they do not allow misleading advertising and information about their practice". Not to do so would place them in breach. And for the SoH to do nothing about such breaches?

Minutes of the 306th Meeting of the Board of Directors
MT explained that the ASA will be contacting all homeopaths in the next two weeks advising them to comply with their guidelines. 
The Society has contacted all members advising them of the situation and signposting support on the website. For further queries members are advised to contact the office. 
To date, a homeopath has never been referred to Trading Standards. 
PS pointed out that the ASA had also written to the Faculty as well as other membership organisations.
PS = Pamela Stevens

Minutes of the 307th Meeting of the Board of Directors 
The ASA have said they sent letters out in October to all homeopaths, but it is clear that not all homeopaths did receive this letter. MT said that Society was very well prepared and Liz Wootlif has handled members issues very effectively making it very clear to members that they have a choice. 
MT reported that Society members had received a letter from a small group of RSHoms, regarding the legality of the ASA and other issues.The Board agreed that while it wished the campaign well, it did not feel able to officially subscribe to it. However it was agreed to obtain legal advice on whether there was a case to question the ASA’s status and actions. It was also emphasised that the Society should keep in touch and members should be told that the Society is corresponding with this group and has commissioned legal advice.
In reality, members don't have a choice. They would be in breach of the SoH's Code of Ethics and Practice if they do not comply.

As discussed in a previous post, this "small group of RSHoms" have little understanding of advertising regulation, consumer protection legislation or medicines regulation. It is clear that whilst the SoH did not "officially subscribe" to their erroneous statements, it was supportive enough to fund legal advice.

Minutes of the 308th Meeting of the Board of Directors 

10 Possible Legal challenge to ASA
MT spoke about the background of the legal challenge. ASA haven’t been in contact recently, however they did say they would be sampling 10% of members websites and if no problems were found, then they would move on. However it is more likely that any websites that are not compliant will be contacted.There was some momentum of arguments to challenge the ASA, it was sensible that the Society acquired legal advice whether it would be successful or not to legally challenge the ASA.
Margaret Obi, a freelance lawyer was commissioned to draw up a report. Margaret concluded that a couple of the routes might work, however a high level of work, research and evidence would be required. She concluded that to take further action would lead to huge costs with little chance of success.

HF asked how this information would be communicated. MT said he had been talking to Freedom 4Health and the Society could call a meeting of relevant CAM organisations about dealing with the ASA. The Society would chair it with maybe 3<4 speakers, a reception could then possibly follow. It is important that members see that we are doing something collectively within the CAM organisations. The legal advice could be fed into that process.

KG mentioned that we should be mindful of the ASA with further actions taken.

HF = Hiliary Fairclough

So, the SoH were told any challenge to the ASA would result in huge costs with little chance of success. The SoH do not have the funds to spare. It is not clear if this information was communicated to members.

Unless other CAM organisations have more funds that the SoH, there seems little point in having a meeting. Freedom4Health was mentioned in a previous post. It seems to be run by Martin Weightman who is a senior Scientologist.

Perhaps the members of the Board SoH percieve impotently wasting their money on legal fees and pointless meetings as "doing something"?

Minutes of the 309th Meeting of the Board of Directors
Policy - following the advice that the chances of legally challenging the ASA were slim, MT approached Martin Weightman from 'Freedom 4 Health' to set up a joint meeting for CAM organisations on 28th June. The idea is to collate ideas and experience. The Society will lead the meeting. 
Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) - the last communication from the ASA on website sampling in relation to non-compliance was received 6 weeks ago. 
17/11 - ASA guidelines - SC asked for an update on the communication received from a small group of members regarding the Society ASA guidelines published on the website and an old quote used in the anti homeopathy Australian campaign. MT confirmed that the guidelines are now only available from the members area of the website and no other complaints have been received. SC raised concerns about the tone of parts of the guidelines. MT will add the review of the ASA guidelines to a future PSC agenda. 
SC = Sue Crump.

Minutes of the 310th Meeting of the Board of Directors
12.0 Policy: MT and Martin Weightman from Freedom4Health recently organised a meeting with a number of CAM organisations. MT said the meeting had proved useful and was a good way of swapping ideas/information. A meeting in July is planned with the main aim to see if there is a way to counter the terms of reference of the ASA or approach Trading Standards.
SC questioned whether if it would be worthwhile to team up with the General Regulatory Council for Complementary Therapies. Discussion took place and it was decided that the Society should look into maintaining relationships with organisations with similar standards. LW suggested collaborating with other PSA accredited organisations.
LW = Linda Wicks

A meeting so useful that another meeting is required? A meeting that will somehow overcome the problems with challenging the ASA? Again, unless some organisation has a lot of money, it is not going to happen.

The General Regulatory Council for Complementary Therapies (GRCCT) is mentioned a lot on the Freedom4Health website. It is a rather mysterious organisation. It will be the subject of a further post. Suffice to say, it is known that some of what it says is demonstratably false

Minutes of the 311th Meeting of the Board of Directors
6 Establishing A New Compliance Body MT explained the recent meetings that had taken place with various CAM organisations. The main agenda was that GRCCT was trying to establish a new compliance partner for National Trading Standards rather than the ASA. MT asked for comments from the Board. 
It was AGREED that MT would seek clarification from GRCCT about specific points raised by Board members. Unless these responses were satisfactory, the Society would not be part of this initiative and MT would then outline the reasons to members who had backed the idea. 
AW wished to record the fact that, even if there were doubts about the scheme and GRCCT, he felt the Society should continue negotiations for the moment.
AW = Andre Winkler

It is unfortunate that the specific points raised are not recorded.

Minutes of the 312th Meeting of the Board of Directors
MT explained that the ten members who had been contacted by the ASA had made minor changes to their websites following Sharon Harper’s advice. The GTS had forwarded a complaint to the PSA about the Society’s complaints procedure.
MT highlighted that there was nothing further to comment about GRCCT
GTS = Good Thinking Society

Not knowing who the members are is slightly frustrating. It is impossible to tell if their websites are now compliant.

It is unsurprising that the GTS did raise concerns with the PSA regarding the SoH's handling of complaints. Anecdotally, the SoH have not been responding to complaints regarding members' advertising except the most cursory way.

The fundamental question is what will the Professional Standards Authority make of this?


  1. Fascinating post, thanks for drilling into this.

    "Anecdotally, the SoH have been responding to complaints regarding members' advertising." - +1 from me. I wrote to them in early November highlighting misleading claims about autism from five of their members and received an acknowledgement saying that they'd look at the wording, and if they felt it was problematic, would contact members.

    Two months on no wording seems to have changed (I am using a ChangeDetection website to report automatically if the pages are updated) other than one of the five whose website no longer says they're a member. I don't know if the SoH determined that the wording was fine (I'd disagree) and took no action or if they wrote to the practitioners who then ignored them. The dropped-membership one could have been for entirely different reasons of course.

    I tweeted about this and I think it was Laura from Good Thinking Soc who replied that the SoH in fact doesn't take complaints from third parties (which seems ridiculous), perhaps that featured in GTS' complaint.

    I'm not really sure what to do next. I could write again in a couple of weeks to SoH reiterating my concerns at their lack of concern (or their members' lack of compliance) about people claiming to solve / resolve / remove / cure / treat autism.

    I'm not sure if the PSA is interested in this, or if the ASA would take action (it's a sectoral thing, the 5 homeopaths I wrote about are examples of a wider problem), or even the MHRA as it's not just homeopathy but other things that are included in part of the CEASE protocol.

    It also amazes me that the SoH included CEASE as something their members had expressed an interest in having CPD (continuing professional development) in, in one of their newsletters - rather than saying "it has come to our attention that" and following up with concerns that this protocol has no good evidence in its favour and it is risky to offer this treatent to vulnerable families of children with autism.

    We've previously chatted about that on Twitter

  2. Thank you for pointing out a typo. Now corrected.

    The SoH do reserve the right to ignore "vexatious" complaints.

  3. Re 312th minutes: I see no mention of the GTS or the para re members'website changes. Edited out?

    1. Where are you seeing it? Yes, it is likely that the SoH are editing their Board minutes. The PSA took note of content disappearing from their website.