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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 16th November 2011

I could never be a politician. I’m not saying I don’t have the intelligence though that is true and I’m not thinking about how my views on different things run right across the political spectrum so I could never ally myself with any one party. No, my failing is that I like to explain things.

In case this gets read by my friend, the ex-teacher, who I have been trying to get comfortable with computing for several years and who frequently tells me I could never have been a teacher, I should say that I’m not nearly as good at explaining things as I would like to be. But I do try.

Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort

Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort

To be a politician, however, it is important not to try and explain anything but simply to answer a question as put. If a politician’s wife rings him to ask “Will you be home by 6pm” his answer will be ‘No’. The fact that it is obvious that the question was meant to be “What time will you be home?” is of no concern to the politician. He has answered the question as put and that is the end of the matter.

Andrew Rosindell is the Conservative MP for Romford. He was one of the 77 MPs who signed the Early Day Motion (EDM) in 2002 containing wildly inaccurate figures for liver damage in horses due to Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort. That EDM preceded the Ragwort Control Act of 2003. The EDM began ‘That this House is concerned that 500 horses died from liver damage due to ragwort poisoning in 2001 and that 1000 deaths are predicted in 2002’. It is clear, not least from this blog entry about Prof Knottenbelt, that those figures are completely unjustified.

Mr Rosindell, it seems, has maintained an interest in ragwort. The order book for the House of Commons shows that on 19th October, he was due to receive written answers to two questions. These were;

‘To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, what steps her Department is taking to reduce the incidence of ragwort poisoning.’

‘To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, how many cases of ragwort poisoning have been reported in each of the last five years.’

In the event, these questions were not answered on the 19th. The first was answered on 31st October and the second on 14th November.

The answer to the first question was;

‘DEFRA’s policy under the Weeds Act 1959 is to control injurious weeds where there is a threat to animal welfare or agricultural activities. However, it is the responsibility of livestock owners, in the first place, to ensure that their grazing land is free of ragwort infestation.

‘The Weeds Act 1959 allows the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to take statutory action to control the spread of injurious weeds such as Common Ragwort. Natural England investigates complaints about injurious weeds on DEFRA's behalf and issues enforcement notices where appropriate.’

And to the second;

‘The Weeds Act 1959 allows the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to take statutory action to control the spread of injurious weeds such as common ragwort. However, DEFRA does not hold figures on the number of animals suffering from ragwort poisoning.’

I’ve reproduced the answers in full though the first part of each is just to establish the bona fides of the minister providing the answer. It is the final sentence of each that is important.

On the face of it, going only from the dates of the answers, it might seem that Rosindell didn’t get what he wanted from the first question and asked the second. Knowing, however, that the two questions were put down at the same time changes that.

As I said, written questions are answered as put. No additional information is volunteered. It would have been helpful if the minister had explained that the number of cases was so low that it had been decided it wasn’t worth trying to collect them but that would be to go beyond the scope of the question.

Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort

Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort

MPs know how questions are answered and should be able to phrase their questions to get what they want. According to the website, Andrew Rosindell has asked 5,912 question for written answers in his parliamentary career to 15th November 2011 so he ought to have some skill in drafting by now.

I think it is fair to assume that what Mr Rosindell wanted to be told was that the ministry has given someone else the job of looking after ragwort and that the ministry doesn’t know what is happening to horses as a result of ragwort poisoning.

That looks to me like the beginnings of an attack on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) on the basis that it is failing horse owners but not dealing with this issue. It will be interesting to see what Mr Rosindell does next.

Thinking about this topic led me to check on the British Horse Society (BHS) website. I was sure I would have heard but I wanted to be sure that there has been no mention of the yellow plant survey results. (It is not a ragwort survey because people were not asked for any evidence that the yellow flowering plant they had seen was ragwort.)  It seems to be taking a long time to produce the results of the survey so I assume that the BHS is waiting for the right moment to announce its findings.

Those of us familiar with the distortion of figures long practised by the anti-ragwort lobby fully expect the BHS survey to find that ragwort is spreading out of control. Cynical me wonders if being able to say that DEFRA has said it is doing nothing about it and doesn’t know the scale of the problem will be part of its eventual press release.

It’s a shame that DEFRA didn’t give the other possible answer to Rosindell’s second question. ‘How many cases of ragwort poisoning have been reported?’ could, legitimately, be answered by saying ‘None’ because answering the question as put would not have required the explanation that DEFRA has no reporting procedure so, logically, no reports can be received.