Will the Government Bail Out Ofquack?

It does not take a lot of analysis to realise that the newly formed Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council is going to be in a desperate financial state quite soon. The CNHC, or Ofquack to its friends, was launched this year after being set up by Prince Charles’ charity, the Foundation for Integrated Health, backed by funding of about £900,000 from the Department of Health.

Ofquack is the “national voluntary regulator for complementary healthcare practitioners in the UK”. It was conceived to be a single place that the public could go to find out if their quack of choice was ‘legit’. The whole project has been a farce with most alternative medicine trades refusing to play ball. Why should a quack subject themselves to any sort of regulation voluntarily when they have existing bodies that pretend to do the job already and will never, ever actually intervene in their work?

The Ofquack project was really dependent on the homeopaths to succeed. Homeopaths represent the largest group of alternative medicine cranks in the UK and if the various homeopathic factions had played ball, the CNHC could have been secure with subscriptions from many thousands of homeopaths. But the homeopaths dug their heels in, refused to relinquish any of their independence and squabbled amongst each other as what to do on their own. The Society of Homeopaths, I am sure, want to be seen as the sole regulator of their profession and have dropped their membership fees this year in an attempt to mop up the dregs that have joined smaller ‘regulators’, such as the Alliance of Registered Homeopaths. This refusal to take part in Ofquack has grassroots support amongst the trade: the Society are a trustworthy ‘regulator’ for them in that they will not uphold their own code of practice when their members make irrational and dangerous claims to be able to treat disease, even AIDS. This story has been repeated on smaller scales with other quack bodies.
So, the government funding to the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council has been burnt over several years in setting up the body. There cannot be a great deal left. Since launch in January, Ofquack will have been taking subscriptions from newly signed  up members – and it is this income that it needs to survive.
What costs will Ofquack have? From their web site, it would appear that the organisation needs to support the activities of nine board members, a dozen committee members and three office administrators. Now, most of these people will not receive salaries. Undoubtedly, the office staff receive a salary (fairly modest, I would guess) and the senior board staff may do too. Let’s do some back of the envelope calculations and generously suggest that there are two senior full time equivalent salaries to pay and three more junior office staff – I suggest 2 x £50,000 plus 3 x £20,000. Now, as a rule of thumb, total costs for staff can be up to three times salaries when you take into account national insurance, benefit and pension payments, office space, heating, lighting, computing equipment and expenses. Let’s keep numbers down and say total costs are likely to be twice base salary and this gives us an estimated  figure of £320,000 per year. Real costs may well be higher as I have not taken into account any of the costs of administering the register, including hosting costs, design, documentation, legal advice (the lawyers have had some work) and publicity.
What income can Ofquack expect this year? Their target was for 10,000 registered members. The registration fee is between £30 and £45 and an application fee of £15 is payable. So, let’s say average first year income per registrant is £50, then Ofquack could expect an income of £500,000, which looks like the sort of income required to self-finance the body.
Three months into the year and how are the CNHC doing? Until a few days ago, it was possible to use the Ofquack web site to list all registered members (including, rather naughtily, all addresses and telephone numbers, in breach of their own data protection policy). This list suggested that there were just over 150 members. This is staggeringly low, given the publicity they have had. I suggested a few weeks ago, that they would be lucky to make 1000 registrations this year. I may even have to revise my own pessimistic estimates sharply downwards. At the moment, the problem for Ofquack is that they can only take registrations from massage therapists and nutritional therapists. And as I have said before, at least for the nutritionists, I cannot see what joining such a body would do for them when they have such a cosy membership body already that lets them take kick backs on the vitamin pill sales they make and allows them to use dodgy diagnostic tests in order to help make the pill sales.
So, their income so far from membership is in the range of £7,500 against projected costs of greater than £300,000. This is known in the start up trade as ‘burning cash’.
How will the money be made up? Of course, there are still nine more months to register members. However, one would expect a sudden surge with all the publicity followed by a sharp decline. Why would a nutritionist join later when they have had the chance to join now? What will change? Secondly, the CNHC hope to be able to get new ‘disciplines’ on board and sign up new types of registrant, such as reiki practitioners and cranial therapists (both bonkers forms of quackery). It would be unlikely that these therapists would rush to Ofquack for several reasons: firstly, most sorts of practitioners were fairly hostile to Ofquack and held deep suspicious about it; secondly, the economic climate may well be commercially testing these practitioners as the worried well concentrate on balancing their check books rather than their chakras; and thirdly, why would any of them risk an external  and voluntary regulator governing what they do in the first place? I cannot see how Ofquack can be self-funding from registration fees given the current rate of applications.
Could Ofquack increase its fees? It would have to do so substantially. Quacks, like homeopaths already pay their membership bodies hundreds of pounds per year. Pressure was put on the newly forming Ofquack to keep their fees as low as possible so as not to threaten the income to membership bodies. Without membership of the CNHC being compulsory, it is difficult to see how fees could be anything more than nominal. Even at the current small rate, it is not making registration desirable.
Prince Charles could step in. There must be pressure here as Ofquack is his baby. But would he really throw hundreds of thousands from his Princes Trust to save a dead duck? He would make an even bigger fool of himself. And additionally, cash from his businesses such as Duchy Originals is already suffering due to the economic slump as consumers realise their organic needs might not be quite so high.
Sooner or later, the CNHC will be attempting to take membership fees knowing that it will run out of cash and be unable to supply a service without a miracle cure being forthcoming. It would appear to be absurd that the Department of Health would continue to bung cash down this hole when it is quite clear the whole thing is a horribly misconceived adventure that was never going to work. When the bank is trying to bail out banks and small businesses, would the government really throw cash at this failing enterprise when the only person that really wanted it was Prince Charles?

16 Comments on Will the Government Bail Out Ofquack?

  1. Does Ofquack have meaningful regulatory powere? I thought they just insisted that members abide by the National Occupational Standards.
    Even assuming all alternative therapists are paragons of virtue and display suitable professional responsibility I’m still not seeing how they could be motivated to join?
    Any fool with a website and a dubious degree from a Nepali university can set up a regulatory body to award meaningless acronyms and get in the news.

  2. Seriously though, they are registered with Companies House (Company no 06643004) with a year end date of 31 December. Annual return is due in August.
    This information really ought to be evident from their website but they obviously aren’t getting very good advice on corporate governance.

  3. I thought that DoH had done more than just stump up the money? I remember reading something about providing “infrastructure”.

    I also thought that a subtext was that the existence of the CNHC would make it easier for PCTs to commission CAM – the existence of an umbrella body would make vetting faster and cheaper. Didn’t Old Jug Ears say something of this sort?

    (I start thinking about CRB checks again.)

    An utter waste of public money. Someone get onto the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Or the National Audit Office. Or Norman Lamb.

  4. Thanks for that link Zeno, something is certainly fishy there. My bet is plain old fashioned incompetence, but that will not be an excuse the Information Commissioner will wear. Might be an interesting one to follow.

  5. This appears to be just a modern version of the fatuous Institute for Complementary and Natural Medicine, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. The ICNM maintains something called British Register of Complementary Practitioners which claims to be a “Register of professional Practitioners and Therapists who have provided evidence to us of their individual competence to practise”, but gives no details of how they vet applicants for inclusion. Unlike Prince Charles’ group, they don’t actually claim to regulate them, but they say they are “assisting several Working Groups in the field that are considering both Statutory and Voluntary Self-Regulation”, so that’s all right, isn’t it?

  6. Yes Tony, there are a many, many groups claiming the turf as regulators for alternative medicine. Leaving aside the individual therapy groups, there are the cross therapy groups like the ICNM you mention. There is also the Complementary Medicine Association (CMA) and the General Regulatory Council For Complementary Therapies (GRCCT). These tend to be one-quack bands who make a few quid from subs and then maybe flog a few courses and vitamin pills on the side. The only difference with Ofquack is that the government paid for it to be set up and it rubs shoulders with Prince Charles. There is competition between them. The GRCCT and Ofquack have already exchanged legal letters.

  7. I’m thinking of becoming registered with the CNHC. I haven’t decided what CAM speciality I’m going to practise, but I have certificates from the School Of Hard Knocks and the University Of Life.

  8. OfQuack’s website is mostly down at the moment. Most pages give a big long error message…I wonder if they’re moving it to a properly server…

  9. “When the bank is trying to bail out banks and small businesses, would the government really throw cash at this failing enterprise when the only person that really wanted it was Prince Charles?”

    Why only Prince Charles? David Colquhoun wanted it too: http://dcscience.net/?page_id=237#latest (see 25 September 2008). Indeed – can man want evil for organization, which he sign up with? 😉

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