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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Tuesday 25th October 2016

You only have to take a look at the index to the right of this piece to see that I haven’t written very much this year. This is not the place to go into the reasons for that but I mention it to explain why I didn’t notice, when it happened, that the code of practice on how to prevent the spread of Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort, was withdrawn on 12th April 2016.

Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort

The DEFRA website doesn’t offer any explanation for its withdrawal. All I can find is the suggestions that it is technical rather than any change of mind about the provisions of the COP. That is, changes in the Common Agricultural Policy mean that references to things like ‘Set aside’ are no longer relevant.

There are a number of things I find interesting about this. First, the COP is still available on the DEFRA website but with the following note overprinted (rather indistinctly) on the title page;

‘This statutory Code of Practice has been retained for reference purposes. The most up to date guidance on preventing harmful weeds and invasive non-native plants spreading, is available on GOV.UK’

That guidance deals with the control of ragwort in 288 words rather than the 55 pages of the COP making it much more open to interpretation not that that matters because, unlike the COP where evidence of non-conformance could be used to support a prosecution (or, for that matter, evidence of conformance could be used as a defence), the new guidance has no such effect.

Saying that it is the most ‘up to date’ guidance does, however, suggest that some at least of the COP is no longer considered to be best practice. What those parts are, however, is a mystery that DEFRA has created by not being clear about what is going on.

Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort

A second point of interest is the question of whether it has been withdrawn or not. Though the DEFRA site says it is withdrawn it is still available to be read suggesting it has not been withdrawn. That’s an important confusion because, on 11th May 2016, George Eustice, a minister of state at DEFRA, answered a question from his Labour shadow saying ‘The Code of Practice on How to Prevent the Spread of Ragwort is not being withdrawn’. He went on to say it will remain available on the GOV.UK website.

Now, if it has been withdrawn, as stated on 12th April on the DEFRA site, then Mr Eustice has mislead the House of Commons and that makes a trivial matter very serious. But if it hasn’t been withdrawn because it is still available on the DEFRA website then he’s fine.

So, when is withdrawn not withdrawn?

Finally, I wondered about who had the power to withdraw it. The COP as the overprinted note above says is a statutory document. The Ragwort Control Act 2003, a Private Members Bill, sponsored by the British Horse Society and adopted by the government, is usually said to have required the establishment of the COP and you would think that it would need the repeal of that act for the COP to be withdrawn.

That thought sent me to read the Ragwort Control Act 2003 where I found that ‘The Minister may (my emphasis) make a code of practice…’ not ‘must’. It also says ‘The Minister may revise the code…’ but says nothing about whether the Minister can withdraw it. It seems to be one of those situations that was not envisaged and, therefore, not included in the legislation.

Jacobaea vulgaris (syn. Senecio jacobaea), common ragwort

Since the Minister ‘may’ rather than ‘must’ there is, presumably, no requirement for a new or revised COP to replace the now withdrawn 2005 original.

So, we’re left with a situation where the full COP can no longer be relied on because there has been more ‘up to date’ information issued but that information has no statutory underpinning and there is no indication whether there is any intention to produce a revised COP with clear guidance.

Not to mention a Minister of State who either doesn’t know what his department is doing or is happy to obfuscate in the hope of avoiding scrutiny of its activities.

Additional 27th October 2016

I received a Tweet from Neil Jones giving a link to a Web Archive shot of a Tweet, dated 24th May 2016, from someone called Paul Bowsher saying 'My task this morning: withdrawing guidance on dealing with the spread of ragwort'.

I'm not one for conspiracy theories but I did think it was worth looking at this.

Just to remind you, the key dates are 12th April 2016, the date the advice was withdrawn according to the UK government website, the 11th May 2016, the date the Minister of State answered a question from his Labour shadow, and 24th May 2016, the date of the Tweet saying the guidance was being withdrawn that day.

I tried going back along Paul Bowsher's timeline but could only get back to 31st May 2016. What I did find is that, during June, he didn't Tweet about any other specific tasks he was doing that day. I Tweeted Mr. Bowsher but received no response meaning I couldn't pursue my other query; why the Tweet was sent at 0058 BST.

I then looked at the Internet Archive and found that the GOVUK site showed the withdrawal on the image captured on 10th May. Looking at the properties of the COP pdf also showed it had been modified on 10th May. Why Tweet, on 24th May, that you are going to do a job that was completed by 10th May?

I think I might ask my MP to ask some questions about what happened.

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