For the meta-analysis of controlled clinical trials with binary outcome a test statistic for testing an overall treatment effect is proposed, which is based on a refined estimator for the variance of the treatment effect estimator usually used in the random-effects model of meta-analysis. In simulation studies it is shown that the proposed test keeps the prescribed significance level much better than the commonly used tests in the fixed-effects and random-effects model, respectively. Moreover, when using the test it is not necessary to choose between fixed effects and random effects approaches in advance. The proposed method applies in the same way to the analysis of a controlled multi-centre study with binary outcome, including a possible interaction between drugs and centres. Copyright 2001 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.