HC Deb 25 July 2000 vol 354 cc1085-92

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Betts.]

3.21 am
Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

I begin by declaring an interest. I receive a modest income from agricultural land and I own a small number of horses and ponies.

May I invite Members, after our rather earnest and intense deliberations of this evening, perhaps to smile and make the odd joke during this debate? I congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and Madam Speaker and her team, for choosing this debate today, because in parliamentary time it is still 25 July, which is St. James's day, and ragwort, or senecio jacobaea, used to be called St. James's wort and was in full flower on this day—25 July.

As colleagues return to their constituencies this week, they will see a tall weed up to 3 ft high, with clusters of angry yellow flowers, growing everywhere. It can be seen on roadsides, on the verges, along railway tracks, on waste land, in hedgerows and in pasture land. I am amazed to have found out this week just how few colleagues know what ragwort is, and this ignorance extends to the media. A farmer told me at the weekend that the BBC, reporting on the impact of bypasses early this week, showed a field full of ragwort and described it as "a wildflower meadow".

Ragwort is in fact a vile and highly poisonous weed, causing more damage to animals in this country than all other poisonous plants put together. It is a biennial, producing a rosette in the spring of the first year, which flowers in July-August of the second year. Seeds can lie dormant for 20 years and each plant can produce 150, 000 to 200, 000 seeds, which travel in the wind for miles. These seeds land with a 70 per cent. germination rate. Ragwort will grow on the poorest land, and has increased dramatically in recent years.

Animals will normally not eat ragwort while it is growing if there is any alternative food. However, once it is cut and dried, as either hay or haylage, it becomes extremely difficult to detect, but it also becomes palatable to all farm animals. Ragwort contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, the best known being jacobine, jacodine and jaconine. They are cumulative in effect and cause progressive liver failure.

As may have been seen in the Bars of the Palace of Westminster tonight, the liver has an amazing capacity to absorb punishment, but once 70 to 75 per cent. of the liver is damaged, it can no longer carry out its essential functions, in particular detoxification. Despite its large functional reserve, liver damage cannot be repaired, and only 2 lb of ragwort is enough to destroy 75 per cent. of the liver of a large animal such as a horse.

Symptoms of liver damage are yawning, weight loss, poor condition, sunburn and diarrhoea. They may occur within days. Staggerwort was another name for ragwort, as, in the later stages, it affected the brain, causing unco-ordinated movement and an abnormal gait. In some cases, animals may develop a mania, attacking any other animals or humans that approach. Death soon follows. That process can be rapid or can be drawn out over many agonising months.

There is veterinary evidence that sheep, cattle, pigs and even tortoises can be poisoned by ragwort. However, because most livestock are slaughtered at a young age, the impact is not widely noticed. Ragwort is, however, taking a terrible toll of the country's horses. It is impossible to establish an exact figure as every death would require confirmation by an autopsy. However, there is hardly a person in the horse world who does not know someone who has lost a horse to ragwort poisoning.

Last year, the British Equestrian Trade Association—BETA—conducted a national equestrian survey revealing that 2.4 million people ride and that 500, 000 private households own more than 900, 000 horses or ponies. Roughly £1.5 billion is spent on horse purchases and equipment and a further £1.3 billion on looking after the horses. On top of that, professional stables look after a further 120, 000 horses, spending £200 million running their businesses. The British Horseracing Board has confirmed that racing alone employs 60, 000 people with assets of £2 billion, contributes £450 million annually to Government tax revenues and has exports worth £90 million a year. BETA calculates that total expenditure is about £2.5 billion a year.

Unless ragwort is brought under control, this huge business will be put at risk. As Dr. Derek Knottenbelt of the Philip Leverhulme large animal hospital at the university of the Liverpool has said: It is unlikely that any meadow hay could now be regarded as totally free of ragwort in the UK. This means that damage can be occurring in the horse over the winter without any sign. That point was brought home to me in a dramatic manner by my constituent, Richard Matson of Twemlows hall, Whitchurch, who has diversified from milk, cheese and pig production to a variety of horse-related activities. He grows 60 acres of grass for haylage, but this week will have to mow and burn nine acres because of ragwort that blew in as seed from his neighbour's land. The agents looking after that land deny responsibility. That will cost him £2, 800. A legal action would cost far more as would the loss of his reputation if he sold contaminated haylage.

I had a fax yesterday from Mr. Crockford of Abbott and Co., which is a large hay and straw merchant in Cirencester. He says: The changing face of the countryside means that there are an increasing number of people who do not even recognise Ragwort as a noxious weed, or may even confuse it with other plants. We have recently had a claim against our Company where, in spite of our best efforts, hay which was supplied did contain Ragwort. The customer fed this, and the resultant damage to their horses meant that our Insurance Company paid out £6, 500 in compensation. In this case you could also ask why the customer continued to feed the hay; presumably because they were unable to identify dry Ragwort in the bale. Obviously in these circumstances, our credibility as a National Forage Company is jeopardised through no fault of our own. It is absolutely essential that this notifiable weed is identified and eliminated.

I also had a fax from Bob Phillips, the company secretary of the Association of British Riding Schools and chairman of the Shropshire British Horse Society. He confirms that the biggest problem is for horse owners who have to buy their fodder in. They are at the mercy of harvesters who are at best unaware or at worse unscrupulous…I do feel that this dangerous plant should be controlled in a more managed way than at present. The British Horse Society, the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and the British Horseracing Board have all given me valuable information. They are all deeply concerned about the disastrous increase in ragwort. They are supported by the National Equine Welfare Council, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Blue Cross, the Donkey Sanctuary and the International League for the Protection of Horses. Many of those organisations have led campaigns for the eradication of ragwort and are to be congratulated on their work.

The only sure way to remove ragwort is to pull it up and burn it. Cutting will reduce seed production, but if it is left on the ground, it will still present a serious risk to animals and may still set seed. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food recommends 2, 4-D as a herbicide, but warns that it may damage clovers and other plant species. In New Zealand, a weedkiller called Escort, which is made by DuPont, is extremely effective on ragwort, but allows grass to survive. It is not currently available in Europe.

In the late 1970s, large numbers of the ragwort flea beetle were introduced to the Meander valley in Tasmania and that experiment was highly successful. It was repeated last year in King county, Washington, USA. In Victoria, Australia, where lower milk yields and reduced beef production were estimated to cost annual losses of £4 million, ragwort was reduced by 60 to 70 per cent. by the combined actions of the cinnabar moth, the ragwort flea beetle and the ragwort seed fly.

Eighteen years ago, damage to livestock in Oregon was running at $2.5 million annually, and whole areas were ungrazeable. The Oregon department of agriculture introduced the same three insects, and estimates the annual savings to be $3 million. It takes eight to 10 years to build up a moth population large enough to control the plant. What research is the Ministry undertaking into more effective chemical and biological herbicides? Is the increase in ragwort related to the reduction in the cinnabar moth population? MAFF spends £50 million on food safety and animal research; how much is spent on ragwort? The cinnabar moth has a most distinctive black and red caterpillar. Why have its numbers dropped in recent years?

In the meantime, the Government must enforce the existing law more effectively. That means applying the Weeds Act 1959. Section 1, entitled "Power to require occupier to prevent spreading of injurious weeds", states: Where the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food … is satisfied that there are injurious weeds to which this Act applies growing upon any land he may serve upon the occupier of the land a notice in writing requiring him, within the time specified in the notice, to take such action as may be necessary to prevent the weeds from spreading. Ragwort, senecio jacobaea, is listed as an injurious weed.

I have written to the Minister several times over my three years in Parliament, and on 10 December 1998, he wrote back to me, stating that long-standing Ministry policy has been to take action under the Act only where a serious threat to agriculture is confirmed. However, that is not what the Act requires. He continued: The Ministry confines any investigations to complaints from occupiers of agricultural land who consider that their land is threatened by such weeds spreading from other land nearby. Where non-agricultural land, including gardens and land used solely for horses, is under threat from the spread of injurious weeds, the local authority may be able to take action under specific byelaws (where they exist), under section 215 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 or under part III of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The Minister stressed that local authorities have the power to deal with nuisances, but he went on: However, it is for individual local authorities to decide how to use their powers taking all factors into account. It should be emphasised that the Ministry does not have any powers to compel a local authority to pursue any particular course of action here.

Frankly, that is not good enough. MAFF is utterly feeble in refusing to use the considerable powers given it in the Weeds Act, and local authorities are among the worst offenders in allowing ragwort to grow on their land and on roadsides under their control. Many are inept at using powers granted to them under existing law. As I have shown, the contamination of hay and haylage now poses a massive threat to all livestock, and the Minister must broaden his interpretation of the law. Any ragwort poses a threat to livestock production throughout the country.

The Government are keen to encourage diversification of the rural economy and must recognise the growing importance of "horsiculture". The contrast of this situation with the pollution of land by chemicals could not be more marked. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 states that contaminated land is any land to be in such condition by reason of substances in, on, or under the land…that significant harm is caused or there is a significant possibility of such harm being caused. That provision triggers the involvement of local authorities and the mighty Environment Agency.

Ragwort is a harmful pollutant and should be treated as such in law wherever it is found. MAFF's regional service centres, or what is left of them after yesterday's announcement, will continue to employ 350 officers who go out to farms. It would cost nothing to extend their remit to taking a much more aggressive stance on ragwort. It should be an integral part of their role in promoting environmental initiatives.

Education is vital. All too many people see only a pretty flower. MAFF is in constant correspondence with farmers and landowners, and material on ragwort should be included to heighten awareness at little cost. Bad publicity works. Last year, Chequers was excoriated in the equine press for having extensive ragwort. Yesterday, I diverted my journey here and drove by Chequers, and I am delighted to say that I could find no ragwort on the estate.

The law must be altered so that any landowner or public authority with land that contains the weed should be liable to a heavy fine, and that must be enforced by the police. Local authorities and agencies or companies controlling roads and railways need to be targeted.

Finally, the risk to human health should not be underestimated. Dr. Knottenbelt said: There is mounting evidence to suggest that ragwort is poisonous also to humans. The poison is almost certainly absorbed through skin. It is unknown whether it is safe to eat meat from animals that have eaten the plant but the alkaloid appears to remain stable in blood and organs.

In 1995, MAFF researched the toxicity of honey from bees that had been put in ragwort-infested fields. That proved conclusively that the honey contained pyrrolizidine alkaloids. It is also thought that milk can contain toxins. In South Africa, a disease known locally as bread disease occurs among certain native tribes where seeds of senecio isatadeus are mixed with food grains by mistake.

Ten years ago, ragwort was extremely rare. Now it is visible everywhere, spreading everywhere, seriously damaging livestock and threatening human health. The Government must act before ragwort is totally out of control and it is too late. If MAFF cannot enforce the law and get it strengthened, it should hand over responsibility to a Ministry that can.

3.35 am
The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Elliot Morley)

I congratulate the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) on securing this debate, although I would have preferred it to be a little earlier in the evening. Nevertheless, he raises important issues and I certainly assure him that, under this Government, we are determined to root out injurious weeds wherever they may be found. One insect to do with the hon. Gentleman's questions on biological control is the crown boring moth, which has been experimented with. Having heard some of the earlier debates, I think that there are a few of them in this place.

Much work has been done on biological control in Canada, the United States of America, Tasmania and New Zealand. Several studies in the United Kingdom have looked mainly at a plant closely related to ragwort—groundsel—to which similar biological controls apply. The studies include those called Botryis-cinerea kills groundsel Senecio vulgaris infected by rust; Patchiness and spatial patterns in the insects community on ragwort Senecio jacobaea; Population dynamics of Cinnabar moth— which the hon. Gentleman rightly said was a predator of the weed— and ragwort in grassland. Although the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food chief scientist's group is not currently involved in any MAFF-funded research and development on the biological control of ragwort, the hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that the Institute of Arable Crops Research at Long Ashton in Bristol is participating in a European Union-funded, multinational project, "COST 816", which is exploring biological control of a range of weed species in Europe. Although ragwort is not currently included, groundsel is. Any information discovered on the control of groundsel applies to ragwort.

I shall try to deal with the point about the way in which the law works in respect of the control of ragwort. I shall concentrate on the details, because the matter is important. I stress that, to people who have horses and donkeys, the issue is very serious. There is no doubt that horses and donkeys that eat the weed can die in a most agonising way. I do not want in any way to underestimate the importance of the matter, which is why the Weeds Act was introduced. I am pleased to see my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) with me in the Chamber, along with other Members. I know that they take such series seriously on behalf of anyone who keeps horses or is involved in horse-related businesses.

It might help if I explained the background. The 1959 Act applies to Great Britain and empowers Agriculture Ministers to take action against occupiers of any land to prevent the spread of five species of weed. Those are spear thistle, creeping thistle, curled dock, broad-leaved dock and common ragwort. Common ragwort tends to give rise to the great majority of complaints that MAFF receives.

Section 1 of the Weeds Act empowers, but does not require—that is the point that I make to the hon. Gentleman—the Minister of Agriculture to serve notice on the occupier of any land on which injurious weeds are growing, requiring the occupier in the time specified in the notice to take such action as may be necessary to prevent the weeds from spreading. At this point, I should emphasise that it is not illegal to have the weeds growing on individual plots of land; the issue is control of the weeds and the risk of seeds spreading to adjacent land and causing commercial damage to agricultural activities.

Under section 2 of the 1959 Act, where notice has been served and the person concerned unreasonably fails to comply with the requirements of the notice, he or she shall be guilty of an offence and, on conviction, liable to a fine. Those provisions might have been imperfectly understood. It is not an offence to permit injurious weeds to grow on land one owns or rents, but it will be an offence if, without good reason, one fails to comply with a formal notice served by MAFF requiring one to deal with any injurious weeds within a specified number of days.

Section 3 of the Act contains default powers that enable the Minister to take action himself if that is required because action has not been taken by the landowner. In practice, default powers are used infrequently. Most landowners approached by MAFF officials following up a complaint quickly realise that it is better and more responsible to deal with the weeds themselves than to have MAFF exercise its statutory powers of entry, employ a contractor and send in a bill for the work done. It should be emphasised that the majority of complaints investigated are quickly resolved.

It might be helpful if I explained responsibilities in respect of weeds growing on roadside verges.

Mr. Paterson

Before the Minister moves on from the Act, does he agree that line 3 of section 1(1) uses the words "any land" and that there is nothing in the Act that gives MAFF the ability to interpret that as meaning strictly agricultural land, as he said in his letter to me?

Mr. Morley

It is a question of legal interpretation. The point at issue is that the powers under the Act are designed for use in respect of agriculture and they have been given to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The land in which MAFF is interested is land that would be defined as agricultural land under the Agriculture Act 1947. Much of the land that is the subject of complaints about weeds does not fall within the definition set out in the 1947 Act, and that is part of the problem.

The responsibility for control of ragwort on highway verges rests with highway authorities. When complaints are made to MAFF, we draw them to the attention of those authorities so that action can be taken.

There is some doubt about the policy of enforcement of the 1959 Act in cases where land used to graze horses is threatened by ragwort growing nearby. That arises from the fact that each complaint about injurious weeds received by MAFF is dealt with on its own merits; however, MAFF has responsibility for farmland and farmed animals, not for animals kept for non-agricultural businesses or for recreation. Generally speaking, it has not been MAFF's practice to investigate complaints about weeds threatening land used for horses, ponies or donkeys, because priority is given to protecting livestock.

I appreciate nevertheless that, at the summit meeting for the farming industry chaired by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, it was made clear that equine-related activities were highly relevant to the Government's encouragement of diversification. MAFF now has lead responsibility for most issues relating to horses, so we need to give some thought to the way we operate the 1959 Act. Commercial equine activities are a business and one which we embrace as a legitimate form of agricultural diversification, so it is not unreasonable for us to treat them as an agricultural business. However, whether that extends to all paddocks in which people keep individually owned horses for leisure and recreation is an issue which we have to consider carefully, not least because of the huge resource implications that such an extension would have for MAFF.

There are certain issues that we need to think about, but we ensure that all complaints from farmers who have diversified into equine enterprises and to whom ragwort poses a threat are fully investigated. As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate—I am sure that he will not disagree—responsibility for all matters of horse, pony and donkey welfare rests first with those who own them. As well as ensuring the normal shelter, feed and water, owners need to be aware of the danger of ragwort and other poisonous plants.

I pay tribute to the ragwort awareness and eradication campaigns initiated by bodies such as the British Horse Society and the Country Landowners Association. Some have been local in nature and some have been national campaigns. They have been backed by bodies such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The Ministry's officials offer assistance on such points as currently recommended control methods to be included in campaign literature. As well as awareness campaigns, the educational work carried out by specialist equine organisations is of practical help to horse and pony owners. I urge those owners to follow the advice to ensure that any bought-in hay is warranted as free of ragwort before it is purchased—a point made by the hon. Gentleman.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is producing a new code of practice for maintaining its roads, and is considering a recommendation that it should adopt the same procedures for ragwort elimination as apply on motorway and trunk roads. The MAFF press release of 5 July announced that its advisory material on weeds, which was already available on request from regional service centres, has also been placed on the MAFF website. One full-colour leaflet deals with the identification of weed species. It is well produced and helpful to people who may not be able to recognise the range of poisonous weeds. The other leaflet offers general guidance on control measures. It will get some practical advice to a far wider audience than the Ministry normally has business contact with. It will be reviewed regularly to ensure that control recommendations are fully in accordance with current best practice.

There are serious issues in relation to ragwort control and a range of other poisonous weeds. We are trying through the Ministry to join in the various awareness campaigns that bodies such as the British Horse Society are involved in. We make a range of information available, and we are making that available to a wider audience. When problems with ragwort are brought to the Ministry's attention, we take action. However, it must be stressed that our priority is agricultural land, which is defined under the 1947 Act. That is where some confusion arises. Some people are not quite clear about where responsibility lies and why MAFF cannot respond immediately to all complaints.

Mr. Paterson

Give the changing role of the RSCs, does the Minister see a role for officers who are travelling from regional offices to farms to be more active when they see ragwort, by reporting back and getting something done about it?

Mr. Morley

That is a fairly reasonable point to make. There is nothing wrong when people from our various agencies, especially the Farming and Rural Conservation Agency, which will be merged into mainstream MAFF as part of the changes, look out for such infestation and draw it to the attention of landowners.

Generally speaking, when complaints are raised with MAFF and when we raise them with the landowner concerned, action is taken. It is in only a few cases that we may be forced to use the powers that we have under the Act. Although there are changes taking place within the regional service centres to which the hon. Gentleman alluded, there will continue to be a regional presence of MAFF in all parts of the country. There will still be points of contact with the Ministry so that issues of this sort can be taken up.

We recognise that the hon. Gentleman has raised an important matter, and we do not take it lightly. We are doing what we can in relation to our powers within the area of our responsibility. However, it must be understood that MAFF is not responsible, for example, for people's gardens or their allotments. Landowners have a responsibility to control weeds. Our priority is agricultural-based businesses.

We recognise that equine activities are evolving, and we are keen to promote and support them. We will give further consideration to how we can use our powers to protect the industry, especially where a commercial element is involved.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Four o'clock.