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Charity commission says it has no powers to act against a UK charity putting out dangerous misinformation on AIDS

with 9 comments

I recently blogged about a UK registered charity called the “Immunity Resource Foundation”, whose official objectives include:

“To advance the education of the public in the fields of medicine, health care and medical science”

and

“To relieve sickness and assist sick and disabled persons… by providing them with access to information concerning diseases and medical conditions (and in particular AIDS)…”

But the information promoted on the charity’s website includes the claim that “the AIDS edifice is built upon a false hypothesis”, that AIDS “is not an infectious disease” and that “HIV cannot cause AIDS”. The charity also provides links to a range of AIDS denialist websites, including “Living Without HIV Drugs” – which urges HIV-positive patients to stop taking conventional medications.

As has been well-documented elsewhere, this kind of misinformation around HIV and AIDS has already done enormous damage, with a grim roster of HIV-positive AIDS denialists dying after refusing to take medicines that could have saved their lives, and many thousands more deaths resulting from the application of AIDS denialist ideas by the South African government.

Far from advancing the “education of the public”, any organisation which promotes these ideas is disseminating dangerous misinformation. And far from relieving sickness, the promotion of AIDS denialism under the guise of providing health information can have deadly consequences.

The Charity Commission exists to ensure that charities registered in England and Wales benefit the public interest and act in accordance with their stated objectives.  However, when contacted about the activities of the Immunity Resource Foundation, the Commission stated that:

We do not have the remit or expertise to judge whether they are providing the correct advice. We can only become involved in matters where our regulatory powers permit us to intervene and unfortunately this issue falls outside of that remit.

The upshot of this seems to be that a registered charity is free to make false, misleading and dangerous scientific claims about a major public health issue – even where this runs directly contrary to the charity’s official objectives – because the government body that regulates charities does not have access to the technical expertise necessary to evaluate such claims.

This seems like quite a big loophole, and also something of a double-standard. Whereas a private business that makes false scientific claims about its products is answerable, at least in principle, to the Trading Standards Institute, it would appear that UK registered charities are currently free to disseminate pseudo-science more or less with impunity.

Written by Richard Wilson

August 4, 2009 at 2:38 pm

9 Responses

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  1. As always, a great article.

    Does this mean that if I decide that I don’t like people who are bald, could I get away with setting up a charity to “help” those with alopecia, with links to pro-suicide websites?

    Carmen

    carmenego

    August 4, 2009 at 3:29 pm

    • I wouldn’t put it past ‘em – although you might need to dress it up just a little bit; it sounds like the key is that you affect to honestly believe that you’re helping rather than harming people, however ludicrous and dangerous the beliefs you’re advocating – eg. following this logic you could presumably get away with telling people that ingesting large quantities of deadly nightshade will cure baldness within 6 weeks or something, and that the evidence for this has been Suppressed For Political Reasons…

      Richard Wilson

      August 4, 2009 at 6:36 pm

  2. I wrote to the Commission to complain about Frontline Homeopathy, which collects funds to promote homeopathy as a supposed treatment in developing countries. I got this reply. The Commission’s criterion is ‘charitable’, which apparently has nothing to do with ‘true’ or ‘effective’.

    [quote]

    Thank you for your request.

    The Commission’s policy on registering charities who pursue practices which constitute alternative and complimentary medicine was made following our Decision on the application for registered charity status from the National Federation of Spiritual Healers. Please see the link below for more details (you may need to scroll down to see the specific case and our findings).

    http://www.charitycommission.gov.uk/tcc/issueguidesum.asp

    I trust you will find this useful.

    eveningperson

    August 4, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    • That’s bonkers! Even in its own terms, that position doesn’t make sense. The commission decided that one particular pseudo-medical practice (faith healing) may offer some sort of benefit (presumably making people feel a bit better about themselves or something), therefore any pseudo-medical claim on any subject is permissible, however dangerous or misguided. I think we may have hit on something really interesting here…

      Richard Wilson

      August 4, 2009 at 6:23 pm

  3. [...] Posted on August 4, 2009 by eveningperson [BPSDB] Richard Wilson wrote this about a registered charity that is actively promoting AIDS [...]

  4. This was the reply I got:

    Unfortunately, we can’t offer any assistance here. The purposes of the charity do include the advancement of education and relief of sickness and, whilst you disagree with their ideology, they are achieving the objects of the charity. Unfortunately, the Commission do not have a role in making the trustees of a charity pursue their objects in accordance with a particular ideology or train of thought.

    CC47 booklet, available on the publications page of our website, provides further advice on our role and why we cannot become involved in your complaint. In summary, we can consider complaints that indicate charity law, or provisions within the charity’s governing document, are being breached – and there is no evidence to indicate that is the case here. Also, we have not been provided with any evidence to prove serious harm to a beneficiary/beneficiaries that we could assess.

    Now come on, a stated purpose is “relief of sickness” and “they are achieving the objects of the charity”? Really? It looks like if we have concrete evidence of harm they will investigate, which is presumably what they would find if they, um, investigated. Any examples from anyone, please pass them to the Charity Commission. I’ll do a bit more digging.

    Naomi Mc

    August 4, 2009 at 11:46 pm

    • That’s really embarrassing – so established medical science is now an “ideology” or “train of thought”, according to the charity commission?! Sounds like someone there’s been taking their polytechnic postmodernism a little bit too seriously…

      Richard Wilson

      August 5, 2009 at 5:51 am

      • Charity commission seems to have a better understanding of true science than the medical scientists and people like you do Richard. Maybe you should contact AIDS Truth and initiate a campaign to burn the commission members, that would meet your needs. Then you can build your own commission and proceed to execute Joan Shenton too.

        I’ve gotten a bit angry that you went as far as trying to make even the lives of people like Joan Shenton harder, who are clearly very sincerely trying to help people, despite admitting that you’re not an expert or anything. And then you wonder why people think of medical science as an ideology…

        I suggest that you adopt the commission’s philosophy in the future:

        “We do not have the remit or expertise to judge whether they are providing the correct advice.”

        Repeat it to yourself. Over and over again…

        Sadun Kal

        October 26, 2009 at 12:25 am

  5. Fantastic blog post, I will bookmark this post in my Clipmarks account. Have a awesome day.

    Alton Newsom

    June 14, 2010 at 5:25 am


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