Stopping the Government from Backtracking on their Herbal Practitioners Promise

You don’t have to work in politics to realise that the Government sometimes promises something with the maximum of fanfare and then, after a suitable period of time has elapsed, quietly shelves whatever it had been planning to do.

Often this is because there is much more opposition out there than the Minister supposed, opposition that produces hostile headlines and makes a Minister’s life difficult. Sometimes it is because the policy announced had proven rather more complicated to implement than Ministers had imagined, or attention had turned elsewhere or even because personnel had changed: Ministers have their own interests and prejudices, most of which are not shared by their successor.

The proposal to bring forward a statutory register of herbal practitioners ticks all of these boxes. This proposal was first announced by the then Secretary of State for Health Andrew Lansley MP in February 2011. Consultation and legislation was promised in 2012. Since then, the silence has been overwhelming.

This is puzzling: when the register was announced it was warmly welcomed by virtually everybody. Consumers were pleased that the register allowed an exception for herbal practitioners from the Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products Directive, an EU law that became fully applicable in April 2011 and would have meant the banning of all unregistered herbal medicinal products – at the time, this was virtually all herbal medicinal products. A register would have allowed practitioners to access unlicensed products, thus preserving choice in safe and effective products for thousands of consumers.

Industry was pleased too. Naturally practitioners were delighted that they would still be able to use products that they had used for many years and would not see consumers drift away, disappointed by the sudden restriction on what they could buy.  Manufacturers and retailers were also pleased for the same reason.

So where is the register? The truth is that, reassured by the Government’s words, campaigners’ relaxed pressure to bring the register forward. The Government, meanwhile, let itself be distracted by the messy Health and Social Care Act, which saw Mr Lansley lose his job. The new Secretary of State, Jeremy Hunt MP, is dangerously close to heeding advice from officials to drop the whole idea.

This would be a mistake. Many safe, well-established and effective herbal medicinal products would finally disappear from shops, delivering another blow to the retail sector.  Consumers would, once again, turn to unmonitored, poorly-regulated internet sites, as we have seen so often before.

Campaign group Consumers for Health Choice is pushing Ministers to ignore officials and fulfil promises made; more information can be found at Government has already announced the solution to this problem – now we need you to help ensure it actually lives up to its promises.

By Chris Whitehouse

Political affairs commentator
Christopher Whitehouse is MD of leading political and communications consultancy and is an adviser to Consumers for Health Choice and the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance.