Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Is Benyon usurping Parliament over ragwort?

One of the great benefits of living in a parliamentary democracy is that we live under the rule of law and even the government has to follow it. They cannot just make it up as they go along. Well it does seem that with regard to ragwort that Richard Benyon the biodiversity minister is rather pushing the boundaries on this and doing things that are rather differently from the will of parliament.

I should mention that Benyon's previous perverse statements on ragwort , including a Guardian article on his being crucified  over his rank ignorance over ragwort by the scientific community on facebook ,  have been a subject of a previous blog entry.

Some years ago the British Horse Society, whose misinformation about ragwort has fallen foul of the Advertising Standards Authority's regulations, tried to get the law changed to force public bodies to control ragwort. The draft bill said.

1A Duty on relevant occupiers to control ragwort on relevant land
(1) A relevant occupier must take all reasonable steps to remove ragwort
from relevant land occupied by him and to prevent the growth or
regrowth of ragwort on such land.
(2) For the purposes of this Act a relevant occupier is—
(a) a highway authority within the meaning of Part I of the
Highways Act 1980 (c. 66); or
(b) a statutory undertaker within the meaning of section 262 of the
Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (c. 8);
(3) For the purpose of this Act relevant land is—
(a) highway (including carriageway, footway, verges and any other
area) maintainable at the public expense; or
(b) operational land of a statutory undertaker within the meaning
of section 263 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 (c. 8).
(4) In carrying out this duty under this section a relevant occupier shall have regard to any code of practice or other guidance issued from time to
time by the Minister

Fortunately for the conservation of nature parliament decided to remove that clause from the bill. There is still no legal obligation to control ragwort on anyone unless they are ordered to do so.

Now we come to Mr Benyon on ragwort.  On the 12 June he said this as part of a written answer to a question in Parliament.

 In February 2013 I wrote to over 500 public bodies, including the Highways Agency and Shropshire council, reminding them of their responsibilities in relation to the Weeds Act (1959) and the Code of Practice on Preventing Ragwort Spread (2003). I have placed a copy of this letter in the House Library.
Now then let's ask ourselves what the legal responsibilities actually are in relation to the Weeds Act (1959). Well parliament was very clear when it wrote the Weeds Act. There are no responsibilities placed on any government body to do anything. There are only responsibilities placed on anyone to do anything if the government orders them to do so in specific circumstances, this is what parliament decided and they did so twice, once with the Weeds Act and then with the Ragwort Control Act.

 Here are excerpts of his letter with my comments.

With the growing season fast approaching, I am writing to a number of public bodies to remind of them of their responsibilities in relation to the Weeds Act (1959)
It is quite clear that parliament decided, as you will see from the text that was removed from the legislation more recent legislation,  that the only legal  responsibilities that were to be placed on public bodies were to follow compulsory orders. This was the will of parliament.

Defra takes its responsibilities under this legislation very seriously. We are committed to working in partnership with our colleagues in the public sector to ensure these responsibilities are fulfilled.
Let's be  clear Defra has no legal responsibilities to do anything under the legislation. It is implied strongly in the letter  that it does, but the law is clear. They "may" act but they have no responsibility under the legislation to do so.
First, let me be absolutely clear about what those responsibilities are.
The Weeds Act specifies five 'injurious weeds'. The best known of these is the species senecio jacobaea(sic), better known as Common Ragwort.
It is really quite clear that neither Benyon nor the mandarins advising him know very much about botany. They don't understand how to use the terminology properly which is a real give away.
It is the custom that the name of the genus is capitalised so it should be "Senecio jacobaea". Also the latest taxonomic research has led to the name being changed to "Jacobaea vulgaris". The reason that it is now so well known is because of people like Benyon making an unnecessary fuss as in my previous blog article mentioned above. As I have previously blogged, most of the fuss about ragwort, including the arguments use to get the rather poorly named Control Act through, has been made up.
 The term 'injurious' means that the plant poses a potential threat to agricultural land and/or activities. In the case of ragwort, which is toxic, this threat often means that there is a risk that animals may be poisoned.
Well at least they understand what "injurious" means but if you look at the biology carefully the only risk of poisoning is from hay or from animals being so starved that they will eat anything. Ragwort poisoning is, all the evidence tells us, rare.

The letter goes on to mention the Code of Practice that Defra has drawn up. Superficially this looks reasonable until you actually look at the detail. It is an example of what is known as, "cargo cult science."  That is to say, something which superficially looks like science but is in fact pseudoscience.
I intend to write something a lot more detailed about this , in what will likely be several blog posts, but here are some of the essential details: -

It ignores evolutionary biology and the science of mammalian taste senses to assume that animals normally eat the growing plant.

It imposes control distances which appear entirely arbitrary because they bear no resemblance to the data on seed dispersal.

It uses statistics that are just dreadful. There is no evidence that they asked for the data behind them and they are used in a way that scientists call,"Not even wrong." They are so bad they aren't science at all!

So we have a government minister placing emphasis on legislation apparently in contradiction to the will of Parliament. He shows ignorance of the scientific terminology and usage in writing it and then guides hundreds of public bodies to guidance containing obvious pseudoscience. Surely any sane person would say that this is unacceptable?

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