HC Deb 11 July 2003 vol 408 cc1494-522
Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley)

I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 1, line 4, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 6, in page 1, line 7, after 'appropriate', insert— 'including the National Farmers Union, the Local Government Association, the Bridleways Association, the Pony Club, Riding for the Disabled, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the National Trust, and the Country Landowners Association.'.

No. 7, in page 1, line 9, after 'code', insert— 'at any time, but must revise it not later than five years after it has been laid before Parliament'.

No. 4, in page 1, line 14, at end insert— '(7) The requirement in subsection (1) shall apply from 31st March 2004.'.

Sir Paul Beresford

The Government's attitude to private Members' Bills varies. In some instances, they say no and scupper a Bill. In other instances, they say yes because they have written the Bill, or they say, "Perhaps," because they quite like the Bill but they do not want to do too much to it. Sometimes, as on this occasion, they scupper the Bill by putting in the word "may". My amendment would change "may" to "shall".

My thinking is to a large degree informed by background in agriculture, albeit not in this country. The accent keeps creeping out no matter what I do. I think my country benefited from immigration, although I accept that one or two of the Maoris might not agree with me. But with immigration came bits and pieces of debris from this country. We did not get foxes in New Zealand, but we got many other pests. We got gorse—that was one of the classics—and we also got ragwort. I am therefore somewhat familiar with ragwort and with the struggle to deal with it in New Zealand. When I came to the United Kingdom I was astonished to find that exactly the same problem existed here.

When I came to this country I was disappointed to find that there was a much less positive attitude towards dealing with ragwort than existed in the antipodes, where it was recognised as being especially damaging to cattle and horses. It was not so damaging to sheep, although I understand that there is evidence in this country that it can be damaging to them.

In New Zealand, ragwort was less important when we were predominantly farming sheep. However, as the wool price dropped—likewise the meat price—there was a swing away from sheep, with changes in style and changes in pumping water. The result was huge cattle stations. One of the areas where I worked and where I went shooting had been predominantly engaged in sheep farming, but moved across to cattle. There had been very few sheep to the acre, but the number of cattle per acre was enormous. Whereas the sheep cropped the grass quite low and tight—effectively they prevented ragwort by eating it—ragwort was extremely damaging to cattle.

Until fairly recently, the care of horses was vital. Horses in Australia and New Zealand were used on farms. They were not used for pleasure to the same degree as in the United Kingdom. Their use in farming is not so widespread since the advent of motorbikes and helicopters.

In dealing with noxious weeds in a country that is predominantly agricultural, there is a real determination to succeed. Given the measures set out in the Bill, it is clear that that determination does not yet exist in the UK. As I have said, I am always suspicious when the Government say "may". Even when they say that they will—I have in mind a Bill that recently passed through the House, with support from hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber—

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston)

Given the hon. Gentleman's antipodean experience, he may be familiar with a paper produced by D. A. McLaren, entitled "Biological Ragwort Control in Victoria". The process of control is there described, and particularly biological control, which I would like to mention later if I catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In his paper, D. A. McLaren says specifically that landowners who do not control ragwort "may" be served with a land management notice. The hon. Gentleman is trying to draw parallels with the antipodes, but as I understand the published data, a "may" is associated with the Australian regulations.

Sir Paul Beresford

There are two problems with that. First, Victoria is not the same as New South Wales or other areas of Australia where farming is extensive. Secondly, the relationship between Australians and New Zealanders is traditionally a difficult one. My daughter, who has just returned from New Zealand, stuck a big postcard on my wall which says, "I support two teams—the New Zealand All Blacks and anybody playing Australia." However, in the parts of Australia where farming is important—in Victoria, dentistry seems to be more important than farming—the hon. Gentleman would see that there is a firmer policy.

To return to my main argument, "may" suggests that the Government do not really care.

Mr. Miller

The hon. Gentleman is being a little disingenuous about his neighbours in Australia. There are 825,000 hectares of Victoria where ragwort grows, so the problem is serious.

Sir Paul Beresford

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that I was being slightly tongue-in-cheek. The relationship between Australia and New Zealand is in fact very good, and I utterly denounce the rumour that the Australians think that the word "aperitif" means a set of dentures.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the House may benefit from a prolonged visit of several months to the antipodes by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), who could then report on his experience?

Sir Paul Beresford

That is probably a very good idea. If the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) went during our winter and their summer, I would be more than happy to accompany him as a translator, as the phraseology there is rather different from the phraseology here. We could even make use of the practice commonly called pairing, which was used in the past and will be used again very soon, I suspect.

To return to ragwort control, a key part of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000—that measure was introduced before the election under the aegis of the Home Office and deals with commercial interests and is vital to the police—has been sat on. It looks as if its provisions will not be enforced, so questions need to be asked—and that is leaving aside the use of wishy-washy words like "may".

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I am following the hon. Gentleman very carefully, and trust that he will now come on to the amendments before the House.

Sir Paul Beresford

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Your timing was perfect, as I was just about to deal with the use of the word "may".

In my area, the Mole Valley and, in fact, all the way down the A3, we have difficulties with ragwort. The prospect of the Bill being enforced is extremely positive, as landowners can then be pushed to deal with the problem of ragwort. Such enforcement is needed, and I was intrigued to learn how it would be done. However, when I picked up the Bill, I saw the word "may", which should be changed to "shall". My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) and I felt that we needed to go a bit further, so we tabled amendment No. 4, which specifies that the measure shall apply from 31 March 2004.

There has been a huge effort to try to get individuals to try to deal with the problem. I have worked closely with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for a long time, but there has been no action from the Government. I urge the Government either to change "may" to "shall" or to explain clearly the timetable for the Bill and how long it will be before its provisions are enforced. I wish them to say, in no uncertain terms, that they really mean action.

9.45 am
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) for expressing his interest in, and support for, this important Bill. I agree wholeheartedly that action needs to be taken.

As for the question of whether the Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality should be under a statutory requirement to issue a code of practice or whether the Bill should be permissive, we considered that in Committee. I made a joke that the Minister and I, when we both had the home affairs brief—we were in government and he was a shadow home affairs Minister—had many arguments in Committee about the use of "may" and "shall". It is an old device for taking up time but, equally, it is a valid argument. My hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley was essentially asking whether we can trust the Minister to introduce a code if we use the word "may" instead of "shall". I should like to give him some encouraging news, as I believe very sincerely that we can trust the Minister. We have discussed the matter at length, and he is as committed to doing something about it as me, my hon. Friend and other Members who are here to support my Bill.

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael)

I am tempted to tease the hon. Gentleman, and remind him that we often argued about "may" and "shall" when the Conservatives were in power because getting action on law and order was like pushing rocks uphill. However, work on the code is almost complete. We have been working closely with the British Horse Society, and I intend to publish the code so that it can be consulted on and discussed by everyone who is concerned about the issue before the Bill becomes law. It could then be implemented in the shortest possible period, because we will already have had the opportunity to discuss and improve the code, should that be required, before the formal consultation required by the Bill.

Mr. Greenway

I am grateful to the Minister for confirming that point, which is also relevant to the question of whether the Bill should specify 31 March 2004, as specified in amendment No. 4. I hope that we will have action before then. Indeed, the Minister was unnecessarily modest in his intervention, because I know that he intends to make an announcement about the code within a matter of weeks, if not days. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend is reassured that that amendment is not necessary.

On the issue of whether or not the Bill should be permissive, when any piece of legislation requires a Minister to consult, one should never pre-empt the outcome of that consultation. My hon. Friend did not refer to another amendment that he tabled in which he lists a number of organisations that should be consulted. I agree that they should all be consulted, as we need a broad consultation. However, the problem of putting lists in Bills is that some people who ought to be consulted, but are not included in a list, never get consulted. I therefore hope that my hon. Friend accepts my assurance that we intend to consult widely, and listen to all the interested parties.

In conclusion, my hon. Friend's amendments have served a useful purpose in teasing out just how definitive is the Government's commitment to doing something about the problem. We have made tremendous progress in the six months since I first announced that I would use my place in the ballot to introduce the measure. On Third Reading, I shall pay tribute to various organisations, but at this juncture I simply say to my hon. Friends who have tabled amendments and to others who will shortly try to catch your eye to speak to them, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I am grateful for their support for urgent action, but ask them to accept that the Bill will provide the way forward that we seek. Tricky as it is to get a private Member's Bill on to the statute book, I am optimistic that, before long, the Bill will receive Royal Assent and the code will be introduced, making a significant difference to the control of ragwort in Britain.

Alun Michael

We are in danger of a mass outbreak of agreement on this issue. I agree with the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) that we want to see action, not delay, and I certainly agree with the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) that the Bill is a useful vehicle for moving in precisely that direction.

On the issue of replacing "may" with "shall", I hope that the hon. Member for Mole Valley will accept that we are moving ahead of the necessity to do that in legislation. We are working closely with the British Horse Society to produce a draft code, which I had undertaken to do in advance of the opportunity for legislation arising. The draft code has been prepared and is a reality, so there is no need to impose an obligation on the Secretary of state to produce a code; we are already virtually there. It will be published on a voluntary basis in advance of the legislation. Nor do I believe that a mandatory requirement is necessary for the future. There will be a code, and statutory obligations need to be proportionate. None of us knows what the future may hold and circumstances may change. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will accept that the modern approach to legislation is to be permissive rather than prescriptive, and that is the approach that we should follow in relation to the code of conduct.

Amendment No. 6 refers to including the National Farmers Union, the Local Government Association, the Bridleways Association, the Pony Club, Riding for the Disabled, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the National Trust, and the Country Landowners Association in consultation. It is already a requirement for the Secretary of State to consult those bodies as are considered appropriate. The Secretary of State must consult; it is not discretionary. But including a list of bodies to be consulted is a bit of a hostage to fortune, because those bodies not specifically included may well be offended and feel that we value their comments less. The amendment is slightly inappropriate in that it omits not just several of the key stakeholders but the British Horse Society, which has done most to produce the Bill and has done a great deal of work with us on the preparation of the code. I hope that the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) will agree that it would be rather unkind to the British Horse Society to include others in the consultation and to leave it out. However, I undertake specifically to consult those named in the amendment, along with others that it is appropriate to consult on the code.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne)

As the author of that list, I think the Minister is right to chastise me for leaving some organisations out, and when I speak to my amendment I shall explain why it is there. No offence was intended to those that I should have known about but did not include in the list.

Alun Michael

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that clarification and I am sure that various organisations' feelings will be assuaged by his comments. As I say, we are perfectly prepared to give the undertaking here today that each of those organisations in his list will be among those consulted, as well as the British Horse Society, which has been working with us already on this, and any other appropriate bodies, so that all those who have an interest in the matter have an opportunity to comment fully on the code, initially on the voluntary basis to which I referred and subsequently in the formal period of consultation that is a requirement within the Bill.

Amendment No. 7 refers to revision after five years. It is appropriate for there to be a capacity to revise the code of practice, and that is allowed for in the Bill, but it does not lay down a time scale for doing so. It may be necessary to revise the code from time to time, but that should be based on the experience of those who are concerned with the issue, and it should be proportionate. In other words, if it ain't broke, we should not bother to fix it. If there is a need to update and revise the code, that should happen, and it should happen in less than five years should that be necessary, but I am not convinced of the need for a statutory time scale.

Amendment No. 4 is linked to amendment No. 3 and requires the code to be laid from 31 March 2004. As there is no requirement in the Bill to prepare a code, the amendment would automatically fall. An obligation to make a code by a specific date would not be consistent with the permissive power to make a code. It is worth pointing out that, were it successful, the amendment could hold up our proceedings, which I am sure is not the intention. As I have said, we have already prepared a code and a draft is being published shortly. I hope that we will be in a position to lay the code before Parliament early in 2004 consistent with the Bill and to introduce it in spring 2004. If we were required to make the code from 31 March 2004, we would not be able to lay the code before Parliament before that date and that would risk holding up the timetable of events. I am certain that that is not the intention and I explain it merely to encourage hon. Members to agree that we should complete the informal work on the code as quickly as possible, obtain agreement on it, and then proceed at a fast clip through the formalities as soon as the legislation reaches the statute book. Because of the work that will have been done in advance, the ground will be clear for the code to come into effect in the shortest possible time required under the Bill.

Mr. Greenway

When we discussed this some months ago, the Minister made it clear that he would ensure that Parliament would see a copy of the draft code. Will he place a copy in the Library of the House at the appropriate time?

Alun Michael

As soon as the code has been finalised, we will publish it and place a copy in the Library, and we shall obviously be interested in the comments on it of hon. Members as well as of the bodies that have been formally consulted.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater)

Given our proximity to Ireland and the number of horses that move backwards and forwards between the two countries for racing and so on, and the dangers of ragwort to horses, will the Minister consider allowing the Irish Government to see the code? That is not under the Minister's direct control, but it will give them some idea of what we are trying to do control ragwort on this side of the Irish sea.

Alun Michael

The formal consultation will be with directly affected organisations in Britain, but the code will be in the public domain and we would be perfectly happy for it to be available to others in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggest.

I hope I have been able to reassure hon. members that it is our intention, as it as been the intention of the hon. Member for Ryedale, to proceed as quickly as possible to effective action in order to improve the eradication of ragwort and the nuisance that it poses to livestock in general and to horses in particular.

Mr. Wilshire

Given the more relaxed mood of a Friday morning, I am tempted by the last intervention about consultations with the Irish Government to say that formal consultations with a foreign Government, particularly when it comes to the Belfast agreement, do not appeal to me, but I am sure that I would be ruled out of order were I to develop my thoughts on that, so I shall resist the temptation.

I am wholeheartedly in favour of the Bill, although it could be made tougher than it is, and I have no wish to prevent it reaching the statute book. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) because being in the Opposition Whips Office means that one does not have the time to do some of the things that one would like to do, otherwise I would have been willing to be a member of the Committee had he been able to tolerate that. I shall not ask him to answer in public.

10 am

Nevertheless, having not participated in the Committee, I should like to explain why I feel strongly about the Bill. In doing so, I want for the avoidance of doubt to set out some information that is not quite a declarable interest, but which is relevant in that context. Some 10 years ago, I became the joint owner of four acres of farmland. Until I acquired my interest in the land, it had been grazed by sheep, which my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) has mentioned. I did not have any knowledge of farming and I acquired the land because it was attached to a house as part of a joint lot. I did not set out to become involved in such matters. When I bought the house, I did not buy the sheep, which had departed. As the sheep had gone, the grass grew, as did the ragwort. I did not know what it was at the time. I thought that it was pretty and that it would look decorative if one gathered it and put it in the house—an attitude of which I was soon disabused.

The problem was that the four acres with which I was involved were surrounded by lots of other fields full of horses. As is patently clear from the point made by the Minister, I am not a horse person, which is why I did not keep horses and why I do not understand who represents what in terms of riding. None the less, I rapidly discovered that ragwort is a problem. In that regard, I have some further observations about the Bill as a whole that I would have made on Second Reading if I had been able to do so. Perhaps I can do so on Third Reading, but I shall not try your patience just now, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I need to speak about the amendments.

I should like to deal with the amendments in the order in which they appear on the selection list rather than to speak to my own first, as that seems the logical way of proceeding. Amendment No. 3, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley, seeks to delete the word "may" and insert the word "shall". I always like the recurrent debate about "must" or "shall" in the context of time wasting, but that point does not arise in this discussion, and I am perfectly happy to settle for "shall".

The amendments raise a general issue. There are occasions when I thoroughly enjoy kicking the current Government around the place as hard as I possibly can. It would be possible to lay some blame at their door in respect of some of the amendments, but this is a Friday morning and I am in a more charitable mood. For the purposes of the amendments, my castigation of the Government is a castigation of all Governments. For 10 years, until I was put into the Whips' Office in the hope that it would shut me up, which it patently has not, I was a dedicated Back Bencher who was suspicious of all Executives, whatever their political colour. I still have that attitude in the back of my mind.

If we believe that it is worth having a code of practice—I believe that it is—we must be sure that the Government will proceed with it. I have never been willing to take it on face value that any Government will get round to something if it does not have to do so. Governments have far better things to do, such as social engineering, than worry about horses. Perhaps that it is not true of the Minister, who worries about foxes, but never mind.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

Perhaps we can get the Minister off the hook. If he genetically modified the ragwort and the foxes ate it, would that help him in other deliberations?

Mr. Wilshire

I suspect that if I tried to answer that question, you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would not let me continue. I am a little disappointed that my hon. Friend is trying to get a Labour Minister off the hook; I would rather leave him dangling, if I possibly could.

The House agrees that the code of practice is a good idea, as does the horse fraternity.

Sir Paul Beresford

Is my hon. Friend aware that anyone who drives down the A3 will pass on the left hand side a farm that predominantly farms sheep, but has introduced llamas to keep the foxes away. It is possible that ragwort is poisonous to llamas—hence the link to foxes.

Mr. Wilshire


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Sheep are one thing and foxes are another, but llamas are beyond the pale.

Mr. Wilshire

The best that I can say is that I understand the difference between them, but I know nothing about any of them. I shall not pursue that train of thought, partly because you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, do not want me to do so, and partly because I am not sure what I can say about llamas at this moment.

If a code of practice is worth having, the Government of the day must have an obligation to do something about it, and I wish to test the Minister on that point. He told the House that he had already acted, that there was no problem and that we did not need to worry. If we do not need to worry and he is going to proceed, why does he wish to resist an amendment seeking to insert the word "shall"? As he is going to proceed anyway, can he not make a gesture in accepting an amendment so as to indicate that his total commitment can be put beyond all doubt?

Amendment No. 6, which stands in my name, deals with this provision: Before making the code the Minister must consult such persons as he considers appropriate. In my 16 years in this place, I have come across such provisions regularly. Falling back on my somewhat suspicious attitude to Governments of all persuasions, I am never quite comfortable with the idea that we should leave such matters to the Minister. We might be told that the current Minister is sensible and reasonable, but how am I to know that that is the case or be sure that his successors will not be entirely different? It therefore seems sensible that, as there are some obvious people who should be consulted, the Minister should have an obligation to consult them.

The fact that the list that I propose is not the right list does not affect the point that I am trying to make. I will not burden the House with the provenance of the list, but I point out that it was drafted in rather a hurry, which is why some people are missing. The fact that I am not a horse person means that I left out some people who should have been included, but that does not relate to the point that I am seeking to make. Initially, I thought that I would include only one organisation so that we could have a debate. If my list is wrong, but the principle is accepted by the promoter, the other place can put the matter right.

Mr. George Osborne

My hon. Friend should not be too hard on himself. By tabling the amendment, he has obtained from the Minister an assurance that the organisations that he did include in the amendment, albeit in haste, will feature in the list of consultees.

Mr. Wilshire

I am always glad to be rescued from my self doubt, so those are helpful remarks. None the less, whatever one makes of my particular list, the principle of making it an obligation for the Minister of the day to consult certain people is correct.

Mr. Miller

The hon. Gentleman admits that, as a country landowner, he did not know what ragwort was, and he gets his list wrong. He claims to represent the party that claims to represent the countryside. Clearly, he has proven beyond any doubt that that is a complete fallacy.

Mr. Wilshire

I set out at the beginning of my speech to be conciliatory and generous and to suggest that any criticism of the Government was a criticism of all Governments. If the hon. Gentleman wants to start along that track, however, I shall rapidly remind him of the iniquities of this Labour Government in its jackboot attitudes to democracy. If that is what he wants, let him say so, and we will have a good kick-about. On the specific points that he makes, I pointed out that I discovered what ragwort was 10 years ago. I may be a slow learner, but 10 years later, I understand the issue. Unlike the Labour party, which will not ever bother to listen and learn, I do so. He also spoke about my representing a party, but this is a private Members' Bill morning. That is why I am not down on the Front Bench. I am speaking in my own capacity, and, for better or worse, there are not many animals on the grass around the runways of Heathrow or in the gravel pits or reservoirs in the area that I represent. In fact, it is very difficult to find any green space left in my constituency.

Mr. Miller

Plenty of ragwort.

Mr. Wilshire

I shall come to that in a moment, but I point out that, for practical purposes, I am an urban MP rather than a rural one. I shall put that to one side for a moment, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene again, I shall willingly listen and have another go at him.

The particular list that I proposed was an attempt generally to detail some agricultural and animal organisations. However, I included one of the organisations very deliberately, as I wished to comment on it—the Local Government Association. An important aspect of the ragwort problem is the amount that one finds, certainly in my constituency, in the middle and on the verges of dual carriageways. That should be a matter for local councils, but I am not certain who owns the land: is it the Queen or the local council? I do not know, but if we are to deal with verges and dual carriageways, the Local Government Association is likely to be the body that is most able to come up with a satisfactory way of placing an obligation on those councils that do not understand the problem and are not willing to do anything about it. I apologise for leaving some organisations out of the list—I am fully aware that some very deserving ones should be there—but that was my reason for including the Local Government Association.

Norman Baker (Lewes)

It is sometimes not so much the case that councillors do not understand, although that may be so in one or two councils, but that they do not have the necessary money to deal with the problem, which will come way down the list of priorities in comparison with social services or transport matters. If we are to get councils to tackle it, we must ensure that they have a ring-fenced pot of money for the purpose.

Mr. Wilshire

I would enjoy a debate about the Government's failure to fund Spelthorne council and Surrey county council properly, but I suspect that even on a Friday, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would not want me to go down that route. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. We have to engage in the debate on priorities. All of us—whether Members, Governments or parties—are fond of saying, "This is a good idea: we must do it", then forgetting to fund it properly.

Mr. Greenway

I want to make two points to my hon. Friend. First, the Local Government Association is being consulted. Secondly, because ragwort is a controlled weed under the Weeds Act 1959, local authorities already have an obligation on local authorities to clear it from their land. The code is merely intended to give them some help as to how they should do it and to provide that if they do not, they will find themselves in trouble.

Mr. Wilshire

I appreciate my hon. Friend's point. That is why I flagged up the fact that some matters—that is one of them—should be discussed on Third Reading rather than in the context of the amendment. If he will forgive me, I shall leave it until then.

Amendment No. 7, which stands in my name, would make it obligatory for the Minister to revise the code after five years. I have learned to distrust Governments of all sorts; if they say that they will or should revise a provision in future, history teaches that they sometimes never get round to it. Time moves on, science moves on, and the problem of ragwort will probably move on. There should be a cut-off point beyond which it is not acceptable for a Government to drag their feet. If the Minister, or any Minister, says, "We are on the side of this attempt to control ragwort", they should be willing to accept the amendment. If the Government say, "No, we are not prepared to accept that we have to revise this every five years", that suggests to me that they have no intention of doing so and that that possibility could disappear.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

Given the Government's success with public service agreement targets over the past few months, is there an opportunity for a target for ragwort-pulling in England and Wales?

Mr. Wilshire

We have had numerous opportunities for ranging far and wide in the debate. I would love to have a debate about the Government's targets stupidity, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I guess that you would rise from your seat to tell me that it is not a matter for today. I agree with my hon. Friend that there should be such a target: we could then mock the Government when they fail to meet it.

10.15 am

Amendment No. 4, which stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley, would impose a time limit beyond which the code of conduct cannot be left unpresented to Parliament. That seems completely innocuous in view of the remarks of the Minister and the Bill's promoter. The code of practice is almost ready to be published in draft for us to comment on. If the Government are going to do it before 31 April 2004, why not stipulate it in the Bill? This Minister is a kind and generous man—he is smiling, as I thought he would, but perhaps he should worry about that remark coming from me—and I readily accept that he will do as he says. He has given us his word; I do not quarrel with that. However, he works for a Prime Minister who regularly botches reshuffles, and it is possible that he might be moved between now and the deadline that my hon. Friend suggests. The Minister could do us the favour of underscoring his sincerity by ensuring that any successor cannot wriggle in the way that he has promised not to. I am sure that he will recognise that I am trying to help him to go down in the annals of history as the person who actually put integrity before party politics.

Alun Michael

The hon. Gentleman's kindness in trying to help me is transparent and greatly appreciated. I can tell him that the work has already been done, not by the Department alone, but jointly with the British Horse Society. It is not a question of giving undertakings to do the work—it is virtually complete.

Mr. Wilshire

Yes, I know that. When the Minister said initially that the work had been done, I wondered whether it was on ragwort or the next reshuffle, but he made it clear that it was the former. I entirely accept what he says. I know what is going on and what is going to happen. Given that, what is so objectionable about simply setting a date? That would help the Minister if, as he fights the battle to do it now, somebody else—his boss or Downing street—says, "No, there are other things to do; we want to put it off." If he accepts the amendment, it will be impossible for it to be put off, so it might help him to deliver what he has promised that he is trying hard to deliver.

All the amendments have merit, and none would weaken the Bill in any way or hold up the implementation of what we all want. On that basis, I sincerely commend them to the House.

Norman Baker

I am relatively new to the Bill, which was previously dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). That has advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps one advantage is that I am able to look at the matter objectively and afresh, whereas other hon. Members have been ensconced in it for some time.

Although I agreed almost entirely with the Minister—he is a very reasonable chap—I disagree with him profoundly about one point: namely, his defence of the word "may" rather than the preferable word in the amendment, which is "shall". If the word "may" survives, it is possible that nothing at all will happen. The Bill could be passed and become law, then, in theory, nothing might happen. The Minister said that he is doing the work, that it is nearly completed, and that we will have the code of practice—in other words, that everything that the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and others want will happen. We can all agree that that is good news. Nevertheless, the wording of the Bill is such that there is no requirement on the Government to do anything when it becomes law: that cannot be right.

Why are the Government resisting the word "shall"? That is an important point not only in relation to this Bill and this amendment, but more widely, as the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) suggested. I would love to know how many pieces of legislation exist that, having had Members of Parliament agonise over their wording, have been duly passed into law, yet nothing subsequently happens: they sit there on the shelf with whole sections of good intentions gathering dust. I suspect that there are more such Bills or parts of Bills than we would like to think. That also brings me to question our use of time in this House.

As a matter of principle, notwithstanding the Government's preference for permissive legislation, we should insert requirements such as the word "must" or "shall" where it is clear that that is the will of the House. Not doing that leaves open the possibility that nothing will happen in specific circumstances. The Minister said in his defence of "may" that circumstances may change and that that was the reason for permissive legislation. Although that argument may be appropriate for some occasions, it is not for the Bill because we are considering a code of practice. The Bill requires the Minister to undertake now to act in the future. Once he has fulfilled the undertaking, the requirement is discharged. The idea that the requirement will present difficulties in future does not hold up logically.

I fear that I share the cynical view of Governments of the hon. Member for Spelthorne. They are always busy, full of good intentions and have something other to do than act when they have discretion to do nothing. That is the reality of government. If Governments have the opportunity to do something that is not a requirement, they might not follow through.

Alun Michael

If the hon. Gentleman considers the general purpose of legislation, redundant parts require the use of parliamentary time to remove them. Permissive requirements can be used when appropriate. Earlier, I said that there was currently a need for the provision and that the Government will therefore act on the "may". However, the hon. Gentleman should reflect that it is bad parliamentary practice to make requirements when "may" suffices. We are considering a minor example, but it is not bad practice to ensure that legislation is generally permissive rather than prescriptive.

Norman Baker

The Minister may have a case in specific legislation. I accept the point that legislation that provides for a requirement that becomes redundant takes up parliamentary time. However, the Bill places only a one-off requirement, to be fulfilled now, on the Government. It will therefore not become redundant. The amendment does not require the Minister to produce codes of practice continually but simply to introduce one when the Bill is enacted.

Sir Paul Beresford

The Minister says that he will fulfil the requirement by the time the Bill becomes an Act. The hon. Gentleman's comments are therefore redundant. We know that the code of practice will be introduced; the Minister said that that will happen. We therefore get a finite conclusion.

Norman Baker

That is true, and it reinforces my point. I do not want to take up hon. Members' time, but the hon. Member for Spelthorne asked about the Government's motivation in rejecting the amendment. It is not to be found in the Bill, which the Government are prepared to accept. However, they do not wish to concede the principle that the word "shall" should be accepted occasionally.

The Minister's comments on the other amendments made sense. There is no reason to include a date of March 2004, especially when the Minister has got so far ahead. He also gave a fair answer about consulting groups. I hope that we shall listen to other hon. Members and get on to Third Reading, and that the Bill is subsequently enacted.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon)

I want briefly to contribute to the debate on "may" and "shall". Perhaps I can assist my right hon. Friend the Minister by reminding him of a specific case from the time when he was Opposition spokesman on Home Affairs and my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick), the Whip, was a member of the national executive of the Fire Brigades Union. The case was the Crown v. the Home Office ex parte Fire Brigades Union and others. I was a solicitor in the case. The House of Lords, in ruling in favour of the union, also ruled on the definition of "may" in legislation. It said that if a Minister did not act on a "may" provision, an obligation remained to keep the power under regular review. I am sure that my right hon. Friend remembers the case because it led to the Conservative Government's introducing emergency legislation to correct their proposed changes to the criminal injuries compensation scheme.

Mr. Wilshire

I am conscious that the hon. Gentleman has legal expertise and I therefore seek some free advice from a lawyer. I should like some clarification. I understand from his remarks that the House of Lords ruled that there was an obligation to keep the provision under review, but not to do anything about it.

Mr. Dismore

The hon. Gentleman is correct. I have often argued for similar "shall" or "may" amendments on Friday based on my understanding of the law as set out by the House of Lords in the case that I described. However, my right hon. Friend's earlier comments illustrate the point. He said that he would act on the provision. However, if there are special circumstances and he does not do so, the fall-back obligation to keep the legislation under review remains.

Sir Paul Beresford

The next Bill that we will debate includes a provision that states: Not later than 31st October 2004, the Secretary of State shall lay before each House of Parliament a report". Is it a case of horses for courses?

Mr. Dismore

The hon. Gentleman is right. It is a case of horses for courses. Their performance on the course may be affected by whether they have eaten ragwort. However, my right hon. Friend has explained why "may" is appropriate in the case that we are considering. We shall have to wait and see what happens to the next Bill.

Mr. George Osborne

Since it is my first opportunity to do so, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) on steering the Bill through our proceedings with skill, characteristic good humour and flexibility. Consequently, we have a Bill that we all hope will become law. My hon. Friend is too modest to say that he is the hero of the horse world for introducing the Bill, and too coy to say that, like some Greek warrior, he wants to receive his laurels at York races at lunchtime today. He is therefore keen for us to proceed quickly. I note that he is wearing a special tie, with horses on it.

Mr. Greenway

I have been counting the horses on my tie while listening to the debate. There are more than 500 horses on it, and that is important because 500 horses died from ragwort poisoning last year and double that number will die this year.

Mr. Osborne

My hon. Friend makes a good point and demonstrates another way in which we can pass the time in the Chamber when matters proceed slowly.

We should fail in our responsibilities if we did not give the amendments due consideration. Let us consider amendment No. 6, which my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) tabled. He lists the organisations that he would like the Minister to be required by statute to consult. As I said in an intervention, he is too hard on himself. He has secured an assurance from the Minister that the organisations will be consulted. I am sure that they will all be delighted about that. He made an error, to which he was happy to admit, in excluding the British Horse Society. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale and the Minister said, that society provided much help in drafting the Bill. Horse owners and horses will benefit most from the measure.

Mr. Wilshire

My hon. Friend mentions errors. In the hope that it will save me a thousand e-mails, I apologise for not including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals on the list.

Mr. Osborne

For reasons not connected with the Bill, I am currently keener on the British Horse Society than the RSPCA. However, my hon. Friend has done us a service in at least getting the Minister to assure us that the organisations will be consulted and he should therefore be proud of his work today through the amendment.

Amendment No. 7, which my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne also tabled, is excellent. It does not set an arbitrary time for reviewing the code of practice but states not later than five years". That gives the Government much flexibility. Several uncertainties remain about the spread of ragwort and the best means of dealing with it. When I was preparing to speak today, I read the debate on Second Reading and learned all about the cinnabar moth and what has happened to the moth population.

Of course, we do not know how the code of practice will work once it is implemented. It would therefore be right to review it within five years to see whether it is having a significant impact on the spread of ragwort and whether it is imposing excessive regulatory burdens on local authorities and the rural economy. I know that, when my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale introduced the Bill, he was particularly keen to minimise its regulatory impact on the countryside. Indeed, he presented the Government with a menu of options that they could discuss with him before choosing the most appropriate vehicle.

Amendment No. 3 was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford). I am not such a veteran of the "may" and "shall" debate as other hon. Members, but I have been told that I soon will be. It seems to me, as a novice, that my hon. Friends the Members for Mole Valley and for Spelthorne have made some very good points on this issue. If we are to take the Minister at his word—I have no doubt that he means what he says—it is puzzling that he will not accept the amendment, because he is going to establish a code of practice. Clause 1 contains many "musts". For example: Before making the code, the Minister must consult such persons as he considers appropriate. The Minister must lay a copy of the code before Parliament. It therefore seems strange that the only conditional provision is that The Minister may make a code of practice", because that is the whole point of the Bill. Perhaps the Minister could give us a watertight assurance that the code of practice will be introduced, and that if it does not prove effective, he will look at the provisions again and revise them within five years.

10.30 am
Alun Michael

I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman that assurance now. It is our intention to publish the code within the next few weeks, so that it can be consulted on during the remainder of the summer. We shall leave the consultation period open-ended because the statutory period of consultation has to start when the Bill is enacted, but I can assure him that it will be completed at the earliest possible date consistent with the requirements of the Bill, so that it can have effect during next year's ragwort season.

Mr. Osborne

It is good to have that assurance, and particularly good to know that that will happen before next year's ragwort season. It has been pointed out that the time to strike is before the ragwort comes into flower and everyone can see it.

Sir Paul Beresford

I presume that my hon. Friend noted that, in the Minister's assurance, he said that it was the Government's "intention" to publish the code. He did not say "the Government will" or "the Government shall" publish it. He merely spoke of an intention, which is still dubious.

Mr. Osborne

My hon. Friend is even more of a cynic than I am. Perhaps the Minister can clear this matter up.

Alun Michael

I should be happy to do so. In this House, it is very unwise to presume that a Bill will complete its passage, but, so long as this Bill completes its passage, I am happy to use the words "the Government will".

Mr. Osborne

I am grateful to the Minister for that assurance. I can see my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale getting all excited by this talk of the Bill completing its passage so that he can get on his train to York and go to the race meeting.

Today's debate marks the end of a long parliamentary campaign in which many Members—not all of whom are here—have taken part. We have had Adjournment debates on the matter, and early-day motions have been tabled. Today's debate has strengthened the Bill. I finish by passing on the apologies of the person who would normally speak for the Opposition on this matter, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). It is his wedding anniversary today, and he told me that if he missed that in order to be with us, Mrs. Hayes would cook up some ragwort and feed it to him for supper this evening. He therefore sends his apologies, and I am happy to have taken his place and to have spoken to these amendments.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

Two organisations that affect my constituency quite a lot are not mentioned anywhere in the Bill. One is the National Trust, which has enormous holdings throughout the greater Exmoor area. The other is Forest Enterprise, the commercial arm of the Forestry Commission, which also has enormous holdings in the area. I am sure that the Minister knows that it is difficult to get ragwort out of woodlands, and I wonder whether there has been any consultation on the issue with either of those organisations.

I have the good fortune—or misfortune—to have an incredibly long coastline in my constituency, which I believe is Crown property, and we have a ragwort problem there. Who is responsible for dealing with ragwort on such Crown property? Speaking as a border Scot whose family farm crosses two miles over the border into Scotland, I am aware that the problems of ragwort do not stop at borders. My family's horses cross the border regularly. Unless Scotland adopts the same code in relation to weed control, it will not be bound by the code of practice. The role played by the British Horse Society crosses all borders, but, unfortunately, so does ragwort. Unless we can depend on the cinnabar moth or the ragwort flea beetle to deal with the issue in Scotland, we are going to have a problem. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that. I know that Wales is included in the provisions, but Scotland is not.

Mr. Miller

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that ragwort is indigenous to the whole of northern Europe. On his logic, should we not have a European directive?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

The thought of Mr. Berlusconi coming up with an agreement with the Germans on ragwort control is almost a complete new film. On that logic, I do not think that Herr Schröder will be holidaying anywhere in Europe. Perhaps Mr. Berlusconi and his marvellous media empire could publish Ragwort Weekly featuring those great stars, the cinnabar moth and the ragwort flea beetle.

There is a 22-mile steam railway in my constituency. Railways transport ragwort seed, and they travel quite fast—unless they are in west Somerset, where they travel quite slowly. The county council owns the railway, so the logic is that the council is responsible for the embankments—that is, when it is not setting fire to thatched cottages in my constituency. Who will be responsible for picking the ragwort? I cannot believe that the Liberal-controlled Somerset county council—which does not get many things right—will be able to get the ragwort problem sorted out. Has the Minister given any thought to the question of who will be responsible for railway embankments? This one does not come under the Strategic Rail Authority; it is run under an agreement between a voluntary body and Somerset county council. Twenty-two miles is an enormous distance in this context. The point also affects the North Yorkshire Moors railway and others.

Alun Michael

We are seeking to deal with ragwort where it is a threat to horses and livestock. The issue therefore arises in a particular location only if such a threat is posed. We are not seeking to eradicate ragwort completely from these islands but to ensure that it is eradicated in the locations in which it could cause problems for livestock, which is particularly important for horses because of the impact that it has on their digestive system. I hope that that explanation assists the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

I thank the Minister for that. He will be aware that there are one or two horses, and one or two hounds, in my constituency. The railway that I mentioned runs through a large area of the Quantocks, greater Exmoor and the Brendons, where there are a great many horses, which I hope will stay there for a long time to come. The Minister is right that we are not trying to eradicate ragwort completely; we could never do that. It would be a fallacy to suggest that we could. Horses are prevalent in that area, however, and he should look at that area in particular, if possible, and include it in the code.

By and large, the people in my constituency look after their horses very well, but there are one or two who do not. We know that we can enforce a code because the legislation is there to do it, and a code is only as good as its enforcement. We could argue about "may" and "shall", the Fire Brigades Union, the Home Office, Berlusconi and everything else, but the matter comes down to enforcement. If an owner will not comply because he believes in organics or whatever, that will cause difficulties. That is a flippant point, but it will be difficult to achieve enforcement. Is the Minister prepared to put power behind enforcement?

Mr. Greenway

My hon. Friend is making an important point that I was going to raise on Third Reading, but I shall deal with it now if I may. The code makes it abundantly clear that it may be taken into account in any court case and the power of enforcement already exists in the Weeds Act 1959. If somebody does not comply with the code, that could be used in evidence in any prosecution that followed under the 1959 Act. For that reason, the Minister and I believe that it will greatly strengthen enforcement. Equally, if someone can show that he has complied, he may wish to use that in his defence if he is prosecuted under that Act.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I do not want to prevent him from heading off to pastures north with his 500-horse tie. He knows that it is good when people will comply, but in places such as Exmoor, Dartmoor and the more sparsely populated areas of this nation it is sometimes difficult to achieve enforcement. Those areas are very large and people have an attitude that is not always, shall we say, compliant with the law. I know of people in the constituency up on Exmoor and the Quantocks who are not complying. Also, we have horses, and my wife, who goes across those areas, tells me that a lot of people do not comply.

The British Horse Society should be commended for all its super work. I have been a member of the society, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) for all his work with it and with the Minister to try to get this important Bill on the statute book.

Sir Paul Beresford

The most fascinating thing about this discussion, which has been brief considering the seriousness of the matter, is that the Minister has learned. He recalls, from his time in opposition, why there is so much concern and a determination to try to substitute "shall" for "may". He has responded by increasingly moving towards accepting "shall", which is the logical conclusion of what he has said. One must recognise that he has moved in that direction and that he has been as firm as he is allowed to be. I cannot see his officials from this vantage point, but I suspect that there was some twitching as he moved closer and closer to accepting the proposal. However, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Order for Third Reading read.

10.43 am
Mr. Greenway

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

As much as I would like to catch an earlier train, I have resisted the temptation to move Third Reading formally because I think it important at the end of a long process to place one or two thoughts on record. First, it is obvious from the preceding debate that all Members present know only too well both the pernicious damage being done to our horse and pony population by ragwort and the urgent need for something to be done about it.

I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), who has just withdrawn his amendment, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) that I would have liked the Bill to have a few more teeth for enforcement, but in the practical world of private Members' Bills, I am satisfied that, with the Minister's help, we have gone as far as we can.

We want the Bill to go to the other place and return unamended, in which case it would get on the statute book by prorogation. That would be a great day for horse and pony owners throughout Britain. We should not underestimate the fact that the code will have teeth and that it will make a difference, as I pointed out to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger). We intend to help public authorities and landowners to take their existing responsibilities more seriously. For example, they already have a responsibility to control ragwort.

I hope that as a consequence of the code, which the Minister will announce soon, we do not have to return to the matter in Parliament ever again. We want events to run their course and we hope that there will be no need for further legislation. However, if that does not work—I make no threat to the Minister, as it will take a few years to work things out and we may have a different Government if we ever have to revisit the matter—it is patently obvious that Members from all parts of the House will make a fuss for more to be done, as has happened in the past two or three years.

I commend the Bill to the House and to the other place, where Baroness Masham has agreed to promote it. I thank the Minister formally for his help and for his co-operative and flexible approach. I thank also my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) and congratulate him on his appointment to the Front Bench. I do not know whether this is his first major outing, but he has acquitted himself extremely well. He has a rosy future in our party, not just in opposition, but in government, I dare say.

I thank Members who are here, and many who are not, for their support, as well as, in particular, the British Horse Society, the British Horseracing Board and the National Farmers Union. Everyone inside and outside Parliament who supports the Bill does so for one overriding reason—the welfare of the horse. The former Member for Ealing, North, Harry Greenway, whom you will remember, M r. Deputy Speaker, although he is not a relation of mine, was known in the House as the friend of the horse. It is a fitting tribute to his time here to say that I am delighted that another Greenway has followed in his footsteps by introducing this measure.

10.47 am
Alun Michael

May I briefly indicate the Government's support for the Bill and congratulate the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) on steering it successfully through the House of Commons? As he said, it is no small thing to succeed with a private Member's Bill, and I very much hope that this one completes its remaining stages quickly.

When the Bill started out, it was not at all clear that we would achieve such a happy result, but its fate in Committee shows what can be done when there is a will on both sides of the House to work together. The central measure is the authority given to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to develop a code of practice to control the spread of ragwort. I want to make one or two things clear. The Bill misleadingly refers to "the Minister". That is a legal quirk dictated by the fact that Weeds Act dates back to the 1950s, when the Minister responsible was the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. With the creation of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the functions previously exercised by that Minister transferred to the Secretary of State. Those include the ability to develop a code of practice under the Bill.

I said in Committee that we were already working with the British Horse Society on what would have been a voluntary code. Indeed, if anything happens to the Bill, there will still be the capacity for that voluntary code to come into being. The initial stage of the work has been carried out with the help of a small steering group, which has included representatives of the British Horse Society, local authorities, Network Rail and English Nature. That work has concluded, and a draft code of practice will be made available later this month. It will be a comprehensive document, and I intend to put it in the public domain at that early stage so that stakeholders and interested parties have plenty of opportunity to study its contents and comment on them. That will fulfil the indications that I gave in our debate on the amendments.

The Bill requires the Secretary of State to consult such persons as he considers appropriate". before introducing a statutory code. We do not want that to delay publication of the final code, and the informal stage of consultation will expedite the Bill's eventual implementation. We shall have to undertake formal consultation on the draft code as a consequence of legislation, and will do so as soon as the Bill is enacted—which I hope will be soon after the summer recess.

Norman Baker

I know that the Department is trying to deal with other invasive weeds, such as Japanese knotweed and other unwelcome countryside species. Will that work run in parallel with the Bill's progress?

Alun Michael

We are working on the Bill separately and specifically. I shall explain why in a moment.

The Bill requires the code of practice to be laid before Parliament. That is a formal step that cannot be taken until the Act comes into force, three months after it is passed. We should be able to lay the code before Parliament early in 2004, thus ensuring that it is in place before the start of the 2004 ragwort season. I described that as an intention when I intervened earlier, but as long as we keep to the legislative timetable it will certainly happen. If anything prevented the Bill's enactment—after all, such things cannot be taken for granted—the code would already be available on a non-statutory basis.

To ensure that we meet our better-regulation obligations, a formal consultation on the regulatory impact assessment will take place later this month. Early publication of the draft code will ensure that comments on the assessment are made in the knowledge of the obligations that the code will place on statutory bodies and other businesses. An initial regulatory impact assessment has already been circulated informally among key stakeholders before the code's preparation, and they have indicated that they are broadly content. Again, we are moving expeditiously in the right direction.

The code will provide clear guidance for all landowners and occupiers, including local authorities and statutory organisations, on best practice in controlling the spread of ragwort. It will advise on how to develop a strategic and, we hope, a more cost-effective approach to weed control. That will enable organisations to focus their resources more directly, and to plan more effectively on a longer-term basis. The code will give information on all the different methods of weed control, and will advise on the most suitable method, taking into account efficacy of control, value for money and environmental considerations. I know that some people are interested in biological methods, and I can confirm that the code will take account of those.

I can tell those who are concerned about biodiversity that the code will not seek to eradicate ragwort—or, more accurately, common ragwort. It will recognise that in the right circumstances common ragwort contributes to the diversity of flora and fauna in the countryside. It will apply only to common ragwort, and will include advice on how to distinguish it from rarer types such as Oxford and marsh ragwort.

As I have said, the code will give detailed advice on control methods, risk assessment, environmental considerations and weed identification, but the Bill confers on it another useful purpose. The Bill enables it to be used as evidence in enforcement proceedings under the Weeds Act. Under the Act, the Secretary of State may serve notice on an occupier of land on which injurious weeds are growing, requiring the occupier to take action to prevent the spread of weeds. If the occupier unreasonably fails to comply with the notice, he or she will be guilty of an offence.

The code will provide a yardstick against which compliance with such a notice can be assessed. That will help both parties, who will know in advance what is considered reasonable action to comply with an enforcement notice, and a person who can show compliance with the code will be in a better position to defend himself against action taken against him under the Weeds Act.

Mr. Wilshire

Can the Minister clarify a point that I raised earlier? Who is the occupier of the central reservation of a dual carriageway, or the verge of the Queen's highway?

Alun Michael

The point is that whoever is the occupier in any particular circumstances will be the person on whom a notice is served. I understand that in some circumstances the occupier will be the highways authority, while in others it may the local authority. It will depend on local arrangements. I assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that there will be no doubt about the application of the Bill in either case.

The Bill is a valuable amendment of and addition to the Weeds Act. I earnestly hope that landowners and occupiers will act to clear ragwort before enforcement proceedings begin. We want to reduce the amount of bureaucracy involved in dealing with the weed. When such measures are necessary, however, the code will clarify the enforcement proceedings and make things more straightforward.

Questions were asked earlier about the code's application only to common ragwort. It does not extend to the other four injurious weeds specified in the Weeds Act—the curled dock, the broadleaved dock, the spear thistle and the creeping or field thistle. Ragwort is the subject of the vast majority of complaints received by DEFRA under the Weeds Act. The fact that the hon. Member for Ryedale has focused on it reflects the concerns of the wider public, particularly horse owners. Just 10 per cent. of the complaints that we receive involve the other four weeds, while each year ragwort generates numerous letters from MPs and members of the public. It has also been the subject of frequent parliamentary debates. In other words, ragwort is the colossus among the five weeds covered by the Weeds Act.

More seriously, ragwort is the only specified weed that poses a significant threat to the health and welfare of animals. We feel that that is where we should concentrate our efforts, and where a code of practice would have the greatest impact. The hon. Member for Ryedale has struck the right chord where priorities are concerned.

Norman Baker

I agree with the Minister, especially about the threat to animals, but would it not be sensible to extend the code to enable it to deal with other species in the future? I am thinking particularly of Japanese knotweed, which I mentioned earlier.

Alun Michael

I do not think that that would be appropriate, given that we are dealing with a specific element of the Weeds Act and a specific threat to horses. We wanted to co-operate with the hon. Member for Ryedale on this particular issue, and that is what we have done.

On Second Reading, I promised that DEFRA would review the way in which we investigate complaints under the Weeds Act. We are doing that, and will shortly complete the process that will enable us to implement a new approach. I hope to be able to give full details later this month. Our aim is to streamline our procedures, and to focus our efforts more effectively on where the problem is greatest. I am sure that that is the right way in which to eradicate the nuisance caused by ragwort, and the concerns raised with us by organisations such as the British Horse Society, which estimates that several hundred horses die every year as a result of ingesting ragwort. That means misery as well as costs for their owners.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Ryedale would want me to acknowledge, as he did, the role of the British Horse Society in pressing for action and in producing the Bill. It is largely owing to the society's concerns that concern has also mounted in the House, and that the Bill has reached this important stage. I know from the many letters I have received supporting the Bill that not just horse owners but farmers and other members of the rural community will be pleased with its progress. I hope that all landowners and occupiers will find that the code of practice helps them to understand their responsibilities for weed control, and will act on its advice.

I thank all who helped to draw up the code—the British Horse Society, Network Rail, local authorities, English Nature, and the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service. The co-operation shown by that diverse group suggests that the Bill and the code will be widely supported. I also thank the hon. Member for Ryedale for his co-operation, and I commend the Bill.

10.59 am
Mr. Wilshire

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway). I well understand why he would prefer not to be here at this moment but I am glad that he is here to hear people say, "Well done. Congratulations." The House is doing him a favour because, if he were to have caught the 11 o'clock train, he would have been in York in time to lose money on the 2 o'clock. At this rate, we will save him money on the 2.30. He will start losing at about 3 o'clock, or whatever time he gets there.

I support the Bill. I know from experience that ragwort is a real problem. My only reservations are as to whether the Bill will solve the problem as effectively as we all hope it will. When I look at the extent to which the Bill modifies the Weeds Act 1959, I personally think that there are one or two missed opportunities.

I understand why it is that a private Member can only go so far with a Bill. Therefore, I make no criticism of my hon. Friend for not going further. My main concern is that, although the Bill enables more effective court action to be taken by the code of practice being an admissible matter in any court action, it does not make it easier to take court action. The Weeds Act says that any court action must be authorised by the Minister. I would have preferred it if any principal council were able to do so. I accept that some councils are villains but some are not. If we are to tighten up and to use the Bill and the code of practice to take more effective action, the mind boggles at the Minister having to rush around the country signing orders all over the place. That could slow down progress. I would have liked to see some extension to the powers of various authorities to institute court proceedings.

I have not had a chance to talk to the Minister about the work that has been done on the code of practice but I sincerely hope that the main focus of parts of the code will be on the unthinking and the uncaring. I know the problems from bitter experience. I said on Report that I acquired some land. I am not a horse person and therefore do not keep horses on it. I am here so much of the time that I have not been able to keep any animals on it. Therefore, it seemed sensible to have a hay crop.

I had the misfortune to have someone next door who could not care less. The weeds just grew and the wind blew. If one is growing hay, the wretched stuff does not appear until it is very big and over the top of the crop. The problems of getting it out and of complying, if one cares about it, are enormous. I can assure hon. Members that my efforts with a fork to get the wretched stuff out was no happy experience. Therefore, I hope that the focus of attention will be on those who let their land run amok and just let the stuff grow, and that those who are already trying to do something, even if what they try to do is not as effective as some people would like, are not singled out. The real targets lie elsewhere.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) asked why the measure applies only to England and Wales and not to Scotland, with his horses going to and fro. Unless the Scottish Parliament acts, we will do something in England and horses can be poisoned effectively a mile up the road. Earlier, comment was made about consulting with the Irish Government. I do not want to reopen the issue that I was tempted to reopen, but the measure does not apply to Northern Ireland. The point has been made about the Irish horse industry. If we are not to take the same view of the situation in Northern Ireland, particularly with Stormont suspended at the moment, are we missing an opportunity to do something in that part of the United Kingdom, too?

There is just one other thing that I cannot resist the temptation to mention. I think that it is the lot of most hon. Members to be bombarded from time to time by organisations that want to preserve the world as it is. My mailbag, postcards, e-mails, telephone calls and surgeries are full of people saying, "Please leave the countryside alone." It is interesting that no one, not even the great carers for the past and our heritage, have leapt to the defence of ragwort, saying, "It is part of our heritage, leave it alone." If that voice is silent, if those who would have us not do anything else ever again to upset the countryside are not prepared to jump to the defence of ragwort, it is entirely proper that my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale is doing what he is doing. I congratulate him and wish the Bill well.

11.05 am
Mr. Miller

This could go down as the potential title of a J.K. Rowling novel: "John Greenway and the Ragwort Menace." I congratulate the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) on the way in which he has dealt with the Bill. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend the Minister not only for his positive approach to the Bill but for being proactive and dealing with some of the issues at an early stage.

I chastised the hon. Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) earlier but having listened to his Third Reading speech I could find barely a word with which to disagree. Clearly, he has learnt his lesson from his acquisition of land 10 years ago. I was going to offer him the services of Mrs. Miller, who could identify the plants on his land for him. I am sure that her price would be lower than that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore).

Mr. Wilshire

If the hon. Gentleman is offering the services of Mrs. Miller to help to dig the wretched stuff out, can she come round with her fork this afternoon?

Mr. Miller

No. Biological identification was what I was considering but, on a serious point, we should encourage landowners to look carefully at DEFRA's website, where the identification leaflet can be seen, including some pictures and line drawings of the plant. The hon. Gentleman is right. There are a lot of new landowners, people buying parcels of land, speculating about its future use in terms of construction and in some cases not looking after it terribly well.

Mr. Greenway

indicated assent.

Mr. Miller

I see the hon. Member for Ryedale acknowledging that. It is proving a problem where we have people who do not have the traditional husbandry skills and do not recognise the plant at an early stage. As a small landowner, I am in exactly the same position as the hon. Member for Spelthorne.

Mr. Wilshire

Join the Tory party.

Mr. Miller

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Tories do not have custodianship of the countryside. Considerably more Labour MPs fit the bill there. I say seriously to him and to landowners that, having taken care to identify the nature of the plant, one way of dealing with it—he is right that, if one leaves it until the grass is at the level of hay, it is a serious problem—is to get at it earlier. Walk the fields much earlier.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Miller

I will not. I do not want to go on for too long.

Inspect the fields very early and pull the weed at a very early stage. The alternative control methods raise some interesting points. There has been some interesting work on the use of the cinnabar moth, flea beetles and so on—biological control agents. I referred earlier to a paper published in Australia, where that is described in great detail. Those can be an effective biological control agent. Where there are horses on the land or nearby, the most effective method is pulling.

Herbicides can be used, and the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) may be familiar with a paper written in New Zealand not long ago that evaluated the trials of sulfonyl urea herbicide in some detail. That commercial product proved effective in respect of spot killing, but dangerous for widespread use on pasture because of the damage to the underlying grass. I urge landowners to concentrate on the physical methods, which are the most effective. But there are fallbacks, in terms of carefully controlled herbicides, that can be used. I should prefer the former method. We need more research on the biological control agents, and that will now start.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ryedale on proposing a particularly important Bill, given the change in ownership of land in the countryside. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that the code is in force at the earliest possible opportunity.

11.11 am
Mr. Osborne

I shall be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I see the Members whose Bills are next on the Order Paper are sitting in the Chamber. It was useful to hear the Minister's speech on Third Reading, in which he fleshed out what will be in the code of practice; we look forward to seeing it. The Minister is modest, because he is also Minister for the horse, which sounds like an 18th century court title. That is better than Roman emperors who used to make their horses ministers—[Interruption.] I suspect that was my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger) disagreeing.

I am sure that I speak for everyone when I say that we are grateful for the support and help that the Government have given to my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) in proposing his Bill and in taking it through the House. We wish it speedy progress in the other place. I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words about my debut at the Dispatch Box. By the end of the day, I shall be a veteran, because I am covering quite a lot of subjects. In opposition, we can handle these matters with one person, while the Government need several Ministers.

I shall end by saying that the entire rural community is grateful to my hon. Friend who, as I said earlier, is the hero of the horse world. I shall end with a quote from Kay Driver, chief executive of the British Horse Society, who said: This society has campaigned hard for the past five years for effective control of ragwort. It is the responsibility of every landowner to control ragwort and we hope that this Bill is the first step in ensuring that they recognise the need for that control. We are indebted to Mr. Greenway for his support for the Bill. So is the House, and I hope that my hon. Friend can now catch his train and at least get to the latter half of the racing at York.

11.13 am
Sir Paul Beresford

I can hear my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) sigh as the prospect of lunch disappears over the horizon. I am sure that the bar will still be open by the time he gets to the racing.

I genuinely congratulate my hon. Friend on this important Bill. I accept that it could have been stronger and that he would have liked it to be stronger. I am sure that my local branch of the National Farmers Union would back that, as well as those who are involved with horses. My constituency has a large number of horse owners and a local authority that is aware of the problem because it uses its property for cutting hay. I have cattle and dairy farmers in my area but, being close to London, we also have a number of very small landowners.

The problem is that ignorance can come with that. If one has horses—or hay, like the local authority—next to a small section of land that has become progressively dominated by ragwort, and the owner shrugs his shoulders and says, "So What?"—that has happened to me, and to the RSPCA and the local authority—one ends up feeling hopeless. We now have a code of practice and an opportunity to press the Minister. For once, I hope that when the season comes around the Minister is not reshuffled, so that we can approach him directly. I hope that he will remember his words and his almost-promises and that we can count on action. That action will be on the basis of the Bill going through, as I sincerely hope it will, and on the code of practice that comes from it.

I hope my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale enjoys what is left of the day, even if it is just the evening.

11.15 am
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire)

I shall be brief, and I draw the attention of the House to my entries in the Register concerning agriculture and agricultural land.

On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, may I say how much we welcome the Bill? I congratulate the hon. Member for Ryedale on his work; certainly horse owners in Wales will be grateful for his efforts on their behalf, as will the broader population of the countryside.

Landowners have a responsibility to keep their land free from ragwort, particularly where horses can enter that land; sometimes that entry is accidental and everyone has a responsibility in these matters.

As I travelled down from Wales yesterday, on the English side of the Severn bridge people were vigorously digging up ragwort; at least I took it to be ragwort. That drew to my attention the fact that the Bill affects England and Wales. However, the Bill amends the Weeds Act 1959, an Act that was subject to a transfer order to the National Assembly for Wales. Perhaps the Minister could write to me on this point. Will the code that he intends to produce cover England and Wales or is the code just for England?

Mr. Greenway:

England and Wales; it is in the Bill.

Mr. Williams

As I understand it, the Weeds Act is a devolved matter and the Bill amends a devolved Act.

Alun Michael

The code of practice is intended for England and Wales. That was the basis of consultation, and is a matter that we discussed with the Assembly.

Mr. Williams

I am pleased to get that assurance. This is the first time I have taken part in debates on the Bill, but I am extremely supportive of it. Will the Minister add the Farmers Union of Wales to his list of consultees in drawing up the code, because obviously it would like to make an input? I wish the Bill well, and I am sure that it will make a major contribution to the countryside of England and Wales.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

Mr. Wilshire

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Would it be in order to wish my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale a safe journey to York racecourse, to ask him if he has a good tip for the four o'clock and, if he gets there on time, to put a few quid on for us?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not expect the Chair to comment on such matters.

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