Scotland Yard has been called into Prince Charles’ charity, the Foundation for Integrated Health, to investigate alleged fraudulent transactions. Reports suggest that either £150,000 or £300,000 has gone missing from the charity and that the accounts could not be signed off by auditors because of transactional discrepancies. The charity has already received fines for late submission of accounts. Failure to file is a criminal offense.
This comes just a few weeks after it was revealed that a complaint had been submitted to the Charities Commission about the Prince’s direct involvement in the charity to promote his own political agenda.
The charity has been funded from Price Charles’ own business interests, particularly Duchy Originals. However, his organic food company has not made a profit in a while and had to enter into an exclusive deal with Waitrose in order to stay alive.
Details of the alleged fraud are of course sketchy at present. Undoubtedly, we will find out as the police investigation progresses. What we do know more about is the Charity Commission complaint regarding Charles’ undue influence in the working of the Foundation.
It is without doubt that the Foundation for Integrated Health follows the Prince’s fondness for pushing pseudo-medical treatments into the NHS. It uncritically supports nonsense therapies, such as homeopathy, and lobbies for their inclusion in public health provision. The complaint to the commission was made because it was strongly suspected that it was acting at the Prince’s behest rather than in the public interest. The matter came to a head recently after a dispute between Professor Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine, and Dr Michael Dixon, medical director at the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health. Dixon claimed in Pulse magazine that Ernst was a ‘leading member of science’s militant tendency’ and that he “ is not interested in whether the patient gets better”. It was a vitriolic attack.
The FIH has long disliked Ernst after he leaked an early copy of the Smallwood report that was promoting the expansion of alternative medicine within the NHS. The former chair of the Foundation, Sir Michael Peat, complained to Ernst’s employers, the University of Exeter, that he had broken a confidence. Ernst was cleared of misconduct by the University but complains that this episode tarred his reputation there and that his chair is now at threat. He was also on the wrong end of a very damning letter by Sir Richard Horton, editor of the Lancet.
Horton wrote a very condemning letter to the Times. Whilst stating that “complementary medicine is largely a pernicious influence on contemporary medicine, preying, as it does, on the fears and uncertainties of the sick”, he said of Ernst’s behaviour,
Professor Ernst seems to have broken every professional code of scientific behaviour by disclosing correspondence referring to a document that is in the process of being reviewed and revised prior to publication. This breach of confidence is to be deplored.
Peer review of draft findings by experts is a vital part of the scientific process. But it can only function effectively if draft reports are allowed to be circulated, commented upon and corrected within an environment of trust and confidence before their public release.
If that system breaks down, as it has done in this case, freedom of thought and unreserved critical scrutiny of that thought will be eroded for fear of public reaction to controversial opinions.
But Horton was wrong on two counts.
Firstly, this was not a peer reviewed publication. The report was not commissioned by the Foundation for Integrated Health, but directly by the Prince of Wales himself. It says so in its introduction. However, it would appear that originally the report’s investigators were commissioned by the Foundation. A switch occurred at some point as to who was actually commissioning the report. The aims of the Prince and the Foundation appear to be interchangeable. What became clear is that when a spokesperson said that the Prince was not involved with the complaint against Ernst, that this was misleading. Pulse reports that Clarence House said,
a complaint had been lodged with the university by the Prince’s private secretary Sir Michael Peat, but said this was in his capacity as chair of the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health and the Prince of Wales did not know of the letter.
In addition, the Foundation have also recently asserted that Peat was acting on their behalf. However, Ernst reports that the complaint letter from Peat began, “I am writing both as the Prince of Wales’ Principal Private Secretary and as Acting Chairman of His Royal Highness’ Foundation for Integrated Health.” Clearly, the Prince and his charity appear to be as one and synonymous when expressing views about alternative medicine.
But, importantly, the report was not being ‘peer reviewed’. Ernst was asked to take part in a review of the evidence of CAM for inclusion in the report. However, at some point, the need to consider evidence was dropped and the report was to become simply some case studies and that “Mr Smallwood’s plan was to submit it to UK health ministers in the hope to change health policy in Britain.” The report had ceased to be in any way scientific and was now becoming overtly political in its remit. Ernst was not breaking any bond of scientific peer trust during review.
Secondly, Horton himself has some strong views about when it is acceptable to break trust which would appear to be at odds with his condemnation of Ernst. When Sunday Times reporter Brian Deer uncovered the degree to which Andrew Wakefield had been hiding massive conflicts of interest over his paper into the links between MMR and autism, Deer and the MP Evan Harris took their findings to Richard Horton in advance of publication. Horton had originally published the Wakefield paper and the Sunday Times thought it important to get his reaction. However, after the meeting and before the Sunday Times broke the story, Horton went public with a press conference on the Friday with the ‘explosive allegations’. Brian Deer believed he had an agreement with Horton, but the Lancet editor felt that ‘the allegations were so grave that he could not allow publication to go ahead without making a pre-emptive attempt to correct the errors.’
Clearly, there are times for Horton when it might be acceptable to go public against an agreement.
In this light, Ernst is not a breaker of confidences but a whistleblower. The Prince was trying to directly influence government policy with a report that was one-sided, misleading and was deliberately ignoring the scientific evidence supplied by Ernst and others. Given the Prince’s unique constitutional position, this is a very unsatisfactory position. Ernst states his reasons for releasing the report were that the Prince was overstepping his constitutional role.
[Correction and Update: It would appear that Ernst did not leak the Smallwood Report but commented on it to a journalist who already had obtained a copy. Ernst explains in a comment below that he felt compelled to comment as the report would ‘put lives at risk’. It would also look like the Horton letter was used as the justification for the Peat complaint to the University of Exeter.]
No matter what the result of the fraud investigation or what the Charity Commission decide, the Foundation for Integrated Health ought to be disbanded. It is not a trusted authority on alternative medicine as it is only interested in uncritical advocacy. But most importantly, the explicit guiding hand of the Prince of Wales creates the impossibility of objectiveness. The Prince has the power to bestow great privileges through honours and patronage. His direct involvement in the output of this body makes it highly likely that, consciously or not, people will not act in a manner contrary to his unscientific belief in magical medicine. As Ernst has said in the Guardian, “I have repeatedly been told he cannot tolerate advice which is not 100% in line with his opinion … I think his advisors are all sycophants.”
Despite the obvious constitutional problems and uncritical one-sidedness, the government appears to listen to the Foundation. It gave them £900,000 to set up Ofquack, the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (www.ofquack.org.uk)– the quango charged with the voluntary regulation of nonsense therapies. Even this week, in a bizarre and unexpected twist, the Department decided that it was minded to ask the failing Ofquack if could regulate herbalists. A more unsuitable body is hard to imagine. It is doubtful this will happen. A new government is now likely and it would be well advised to ignore the Foundation and not allow the Prince to meddle in medical matters, either directly, or through his Toad Eaters at the Foundation for Integrated Health.