HC Deb 21 January 2002 vol 378 cc722-8

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

10.32 pm
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

We discover many things when researching for debates that we hope to instigate, and I came across a couple of surprising facts when researching for this debate. I was surprised to find, for instance, that the word "quidditch" in the Harry Potter book—which I had assumed to be made up—clearly derives from the name of a place in Devon called Quoditch, where ragwort grows. I mention that because it allows me to give a plug. J. K. Rowling wrote a lot about places in Devon in her books, having studied at Exeter university. She referred to the Chudleigh Cannons, the premier quidditch team. Chudleigh is a town in my constituency, and we are proud to have the country's premier quidditch team.

Our last debate on ragwort took place on 25 July 2000. It was initiated by the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), who pointed out that the debate was taking place on St James's day, and that St James's wort was another name for ragwort. It has other names—staggerwort and, less pleasing, stinking willie and mare's fart.

This debate takes place somewhat earlier than the last, which began at 3.21 am. The Minister will get home to his night-time cocoa, put on his jim-jams and get to bed a little earlier than he did on that occasion. Before he does, however, let me tell him a story. It concerns Georgina Norton, a nine-year-old girl who, like many nine-year-old girls, was fairly horse mad. She was lucky enough to own a pony called Topic. One day her mother went to turn Topic loose, but he appeared to have had a good night out: he was unco-ordinated, perhaps even appearing slightly drunk. They sent for the vet, blood tests were carried out, and it emerged that Topic had acute liver damage caused by ragwort. Topic had to be put down. Georgina said: Topic was my best friend, and I spent ages talking to him. When he died, it was the most awful time of my life and I still miss him. Topic was poisoned by ragwort.

Ragwort is generally considered a biennial weed but in fact it is a facultative perennial. It grows to about 1 m in height. As most people will be aware, it is a yellow-flowered weed. As I am sure the Minister is aware, it will grow almost anywhere: on verges, embankments and waste land. It is highly toxic, particularly to horses. I understand that 2 lb of fresh ragwort is enough to kill a horse. It is also toxic to young stock, cattle, pigs and sheep. Of course, we do not tend to see the effects of ragwort on those animals because they are slaughtered early, whereas horses live to a ripe old age, so the effects of ragwort on them can be seen all too often.

The symptoms are weight loss, poor coat, impaired vision, staggering and a changed gait. The horse will tend to circle, suffer blindness, and collide into other obstacles. It may be unable to swallow. Ultimately, the condition will lead to collapse and death.

Ragwort weed is remarkable in other ways. It has unique wildlife which most people recognise: the cinnabar moth caterpillar with its rugby-top-like banding of black and gold and the cinnabar moth itself, with its dramatic red and black. Both are poisonous because they feed off the plant. That pretty plant and its insects are all deadly. That is due to the pyrrolizidine alkaloids.

It is a difficult weed to remove. Usually in the United Kingdom, one would spot-spray the young rosettes in April to May. One can dig it up, but that is harder and obviously difficult when there is a large number of weeds.

The biological experiments elsewhere were well covered in the previous debate, so I will not go into those. It is a pernicious weed. It is hard to remove and it is becoming more common. The question is: what should be done?

In 1959, Parliament thought that it had the answer. It passed the Weeds Act 1959. It named ragwort and four other weeds: spear thistle, creeping or field thistle, curled dock and the broad-leaved dock. However, common ragwort is the most pernicious and dangerous of those and causes the most problems.

I quote from the Act: Where the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food … is satisfied that there are injurious weeds to which this Act applies growing upon any land I emphasise "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. So why is ragwort invading virtually every pasture and meadow still?

The previous debate took place a year after Topic died. The Government have good intentions. I note a lot of what the Minister said in that debate. Baroness Hayman has been an active supporter of the "root out ragwort week", but there are questions from that debate. I am pleased to see that the Minister present is the Minister who attended it, so he knows the topic well. He said: we are determined to root out injurious weeds wherever they may be found. He went on to say that the 1959 Act applies to Great Britain and empowers Agriculture Ministers to take action against occupiers of any land to prevent the spread of the five species of weed. He explained the scope of the Act and said that it empowers, but does not require". I take the point.

The Minister also said: 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. What measures has he taken? Why were other parts of the horse industry—livery—ruled out? Was there one rule for one and one rule for the other? The horse industry is worth well over £2.5 billion.

We now have the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is broader and more all-embracing than MAFF, and is meant to cover all the countryside. Should not DEFRA now say that it will look after the horse industry and take care of pernicious weeds?

Has the Minister resolved the problem that he referred to when he said: we ensure that all complaints from farmers who have diversified into equine enterprises and to whom ragwort poses a threat are fully investigated"? How many cases have been investigated?

The Minister said: 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". That is vital, but has the hon. Gentleman considered the plight of organic hay growers who cannot use spray? Imagine the difficulties of trying to remove the weed by hand from hundreds or thousands of acres. Surely it would be better if we could take more action to prevent the spread of the weed.

The Minister said: It is in only a few cases that we may be forced to use the powers that we have under the Act."—[Official Report, 25 July 2000; Vol. 354, c. 1089–92.] In a later written answer, he said: During 1998, staff at MAFF Regional Service Centres, acting on the Minister's behalf, served one notice under section 1 of the Weeds Act 1959; one notice was served in 1999; and one has been served so Far this year; default powers were exercised last year in respect of the 1998 notice."—[Official Report, 31 October 2000; Vol. 355, c. 379W.] Why so few? That seems remarkably few, when the weed is so common.

My securing this debate has raised a few eyebrows, as people have said to me, "Isn't ragwort a pretty weed that grows in the hedgerows?" It may be pretty, but it is dangerous. People do not realise that, apart from the risk to horses and livestock, there is a risk to human health. About 18 months ago, it was reported that a Tasmanian man who had been weeding ragwort by hand for about two weeks was taken seriously ill, and I am told that there is at least one other case of serious poisoning.

Derek Knottenbelt, senior lecturer in veterinary science at the university of Liverpool, went out and removed ragwort by hand on the campus, then took a blood test two days later. He says that his liver enzymes were clearly elevated. I accept that that was not a scientific test, and there may have been other reasons for that, but it is indicative of the fact that ragwort has an effect on humans.

That man went on to report that he had seen ragwort in a cornfield being harvested with the corn. May I remind the Minister that in 1995 the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food carried out research that showed that where bees had been in a field containing a lot of ragwort, the honey would be polluted with the alkaloids? I hope that the Minister will sleep well after this debate, but perhaps he should be careful about the bread and honey that he may eat in the morning, because it, too, may contain those alkaloids. I do not say that there is an immediate risk and we should all stop eating honey and bread, because that would be nonsense; I am simply pointing out that there is a growing risk, and the more the plant invades, the greater the risk will be.

Derek Knottenbelt has said: It's a real killer and has got to be got rid of Fast: every plant should be pulled out roots, boots and all". That is what I am asking the Minister to ensure happens.

I started by talking about Georgina and her horse, and Derek Knottenbelt advises that up to 500 horses a year may die of ragwort poisoning. I do not know—and I am sure that the Minister does not know either, because when I asked the Department how many horses were affected by ragwort it could not give me an answer. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will be able to enlighten us further in his response tonight. However, documents from the British Horse Society report tragic cases of horses dying from ingesting the weed.

Many people who are concerned about ragwort have written to me. I cannot quote all of them, but I shall give the last word to the National Farmers Union, because it clearly states what we all hope will happen: The NFU urges DEFRA to be more positive in its use of the Weeds Act so that effective action can be taken early, and over a number of seasons to control ragwort before it becomes an agricultural nuisance. This means the Highways Agency, highways authorities and Railtrack being particularly vigilant in relation to land in their responsibility. It means that each responsible public authority should have a specified contact point for weed problems that Farmers can contact. Finally it means that authorities need to take early and regular action to control 'weed hotspots' so that the young plants are removed or killed before they become a problem.

I hope that the Minister will heed those words, and that we shall hear a positive response this evening.

10.48 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) on securing this debate about ragwort, which is indeed a serious issue, and one which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs takes seriously. He is right to say that at least we are having this debate at a more reasonable time than our previous debate on ragwort, which did indeed take place at 3 o'clock in the morning. My hon. Friends the Members for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) and for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey)—the latter is here again this evening—sat through that debate too.

We put great emphasis on animal Welfare in DEFRA. We are aware of the fatal consequences that may arise for animals as a result of eating ragwort, and we take seriously the powers available to the Secretary of State under the Weeds Act 1959.

I would like to put on record my regret at hearing about the case of Topic, who was owned by the Norton Family, and I appreciate the distress that the loss of their horse will have caused them. That is one of the reasons why ragwort needs to be taken seriously by all concerned. We will continue to treat each case on its merits and investigate complaints about ragwort where it threatens farmland, farming activities and diversified equine enterprises on farmland.

I must be absolutely honest with the hon. Gentleman: my Department does not have the resources to investigate every complaint about ragwort on every piece of land. The 1959 Act was designed to protect agricultural premises. We have extended its application to embrace diversified equine enterprises on farmland, and that is the distinction between those enterprises and the others that the hon. Gentleman asked about. We are trying to be flexible about the application of the Act in line with the way in which the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was set up, to take a more integrated approach towards countryside activities and businesses. The vast majority of complaints are resolved satisfactorily through co-operation and persuasion, without the formal powers of the 1959 Act being invoked.

The hon. Gentleman asked what we have done since last year. We have taken a range of actions to deal with ragwort. I do not underestimate the difficulties or the scale of the problem because of the spread of the weed and the wide range of land on which it grows. In consultation with the Rural Development Service and the Rural Payments Agency, we have examined ways to improve the discharge of our responsibilities under the 1959 Act and to ensure an efficient and consistent approach.

We recognise, as the hon. Gentleman said, that ragwort has environmental benefits. It supports a range of biodiversity, and that is important for the countryside in the right place—away from livestock and horses.

I listened with care to the hon. Gentleman's points about human health. DEFRA and, I think, the Food Standards Agency have no evidence to suggest that there are dangers to human health either from direct exposure to ragwort or from consumption of meat or other products, including honey, from animals that have eaten ragwort.

The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions last year produced a code of practice for verge maintenance which, following representations, specifically included control of ragwort. Railtrack has been made aware of the importance of the need to control ragwort. Last year, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—which has since become DEFRA—commissioned Agricultural Development Advisory Service research projects on ragwort and its control, with particular reference to horses. It also provided a schedule of control measures, which DEFRA has already made publicly available and will put on its website.

DEFRA has also produced a useful colour leaflet on the identification of ragwort and other injurious weeds. That is useful for those who are not familiar with ragwort and who may not be aware of the serious consequences that it can have for livestock. Information on that can also be found on the DEFRA website, and we are revising our leaflet on the 1959 Act.

It is important to stress that responsibility for ragwort control lies on landowners, including in the provision of such things as hay. People making hay must take into account the fact that ragwort can be dangerous, and it is their responsibility to ensure that it is not in the hay. It is also important for owners to check as Far as possible that hay is not contaminated. We recognise that the Government have some responsibility, but landowners and horse owners have responsibilities too.

Richard Younger-Ross

Does the Minister agree that when silage and hay are brought in, it is difficult to pull out all the weeds, even though the hay is sifted? Where the weed becomes more endemic—almost epidemic—that will become a greater problem. It is difficult for organic farmers to eradicate ragwort, and greater prevention to stop it spreading would be greatly appreciated. I understand what the Minister has said about some of the measures taken, but I hope that more pressure can be brought on such organisations as Railtrack, particularly when it comes to clearing verges that pass through agricultural land.

Mr. Morley

Yes, those are reasonable points, and I also accept that, of course, it is very difficult for horse owners to check through deliveries of hay to ensure that it has not been contaminated with ragwort, but it is important that those who are cropping hay or silage ensure that it is not contaminated in that way. I accept that there are challenges—for example, for organic farms—but as I shall mention in moment, there are ways to deal with ragwort. We are trying to spread that information around by supporting the work of organisations—the British Horse Society, the Country Landowners Association and the National Equine Welfare Council—that have been active in promoting the awareness of ragwort contamination.

I was pleased to give the opening speech at the National Equine Welfare Council seminar on ragwort in September last year. That useful forum brought together not only equine interests but countryside and environmental organisations, and a range of information was available on the various techniques to control ragwort in various ways and situations. It is important that such organisations spread that information around so that people are aware of best practice, and we are playing our part in DEFRA to make that information available.

I accept that it is very difficult to deal with ragwort, and the Department finds doing so costly and time consuming. In the past year, the Department has been seriously distracted with the foot and mouth epidemic, which, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, has made it very difficult for us to give our full attention to such problems, but I assure him that we will continue to support bodies such as the National Equine Welfare Council, which does an excellent job in relation to this issue. Where appropriate, we will pursue complaints about ragwort, within our farmland and agricultural enterprise priorities, which can include equine activities. I also assure him that we shall continue, through our various agencies and Departments, to try to promote good practice in controlling the weed and, wherever possible, to try to disseminate that information.

Richard Younger-Ross

I appreciate the Minister's comments. This question was asked in the previous debate on ragwort, but is DEFRA considering any research programme on ragwort? Two years ago, the answer was negative, but having moved on two years, I hope that DEFRA has considered funding some research, especially into the equine side of the issue. Will he consider funding research into the possible risks to humans? It is a worldwide problem, so other people may be working on it elsewhere—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. An intervention should be just that, and the Minister has very little time left to reply.

Mr. Morley

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I am not aware of any current research into the effects on human health, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will check with my Department and tell him in writing what we know about the situation. I repeat that the Department has commissioned an ADAS research project on ragwort and its control, with particular reference to horses. We are funding research into the most efficient ways to control the weed, and I very much hope that that helps the livestock sector.

Although I would not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman about the difficulty, costs and resource implications to DEFRA in relation to ragwort control, I want to assure him that we take it seriously, that we will continue to work with interested organisations on research and development, and that we will do what we can to play an appropriate role, alongside the responsibility of landowners and livestock owners, to minimise the risk to livestock that the weed presents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Eleven o'clock.