HC Deb 21 March 2003 vol 401 cc1221-47

Order for Second Reading read.

11.41 am
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

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

I did not expect quite so many Members to be in the Chamber. I am sure that the fact that so many are now leaving does not show any lack of interest in the issue that we are about to discuss.

This is the second occasion during my 16 years in the House on which I have had the good fortune to be placed in the ballot for private Members' Bills. I have always been in the "teens", never up in the giddy heights of the first seven. On the first occasion I was able to put on the statute book the Criminal Procedure (Insanity and Unfitness to Plead) Act 1991. Now I am introducing a Bill to control ragwort for the welfare of horses.

Hon. Members may wonder what the second Bill has in common with the first. Certainly, they cover a wide interest in various subjects, but the first Bill dealt with a grave injustice in the way in which mentally disordered offenders were dealt with—it has proved extremely effective in eradicating much of that injustice—and, in my view, the issue of ragwort control also involves injustice. I am thinking of the injustice perpetrated by ragwort on the owners of horses, many of them children who, through no fault of their own, lose a horse or a loved pony for a reason that could have been avoided. And if we in this place can make law to deal with problems that could be avoided, we do a great service to those whom we are here to represent.

This is not the first time that ragwort has been debated in the House, but it is, I believe, the first time since 1959 that a Bill has been introduced to control the spread of that insidious weed. I thank hon. Members on both sides of the House who have strongly supported my proposals. On 21 January last year, the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross)—who, I am glad to see, is present—led a debate calling for action to control ragwort. There was also a debate on 25 July 2000, initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), on much the same lines, and last June an early-day motion was signed by, I think, 61 Members.

Why has there been so much interest of late, when there had been none for more than 40 years? More to the point, why has nothing happened, given the interest that the House has shown?

The deadly effects of common ragwort—or, to give its proper title, Senecio jacobaea—have been well recognised by those who care for equines and other livestock. In 1959, when the Weeds Act was introduced, it classed the plant—along with spear thistle, creeping or field thistle, curled dock and broad-leaved dock—as an injurious weed. Ragwort, however, is the most pernicious, and has caused endless heartache and agony to many a horse owner. Only when the Root Out Ragwort campaign—that is a good name, is it not? It rolls off the tongue—was started just over five years ago was greater awareness raised of the havoc caused by the plant. The campaign has been led by the British Horse Society, to which I pay tribute for all its work and support. It has been taken up by several other organisations, including the Country Land and Business Association, the Donkey Sanctuary, the Animal Health Trust and the Home of Rest for Horses.

Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

When they cover this debate, should not the media—especially television and the press—show what ragwort looks like, so that those not familiar with it know what is being discussed?

Mr. Greenway

Had I been three or four lines further on in my speech, that would have been an extremely pertinent point. If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will reply to his comment about the prettiness of the plant shortly. The new BBC 1 "Politics Show" covered the issue in its Yorkshire and Lincoln opt-outs on Sunday, and showed some film of the plant. I agree that more people should be able to see what it looks like. Several regional newspapers have also taken an interest. I am not sure whether my hon. Friend's constituency contains the headquarters of the West Sussex Gazette. It appears that it does. Will he please thank its staff for their interest?

Despite that publicity, it appears that ragwort is on the increase. Horse owners and farmers spend many hours attempting to rid their land of it. The Highways Agency spends some £1 million a year on controlling the weed, yet it still proliferates. In the summer, our main trunk roads, railway embankments and countryside are ablaze with the pretty yellow flowers described by my hon. Friend—and every plant means the potential agonising death of equines.

Even a small piece of ragwort ingested by an equine will, over the years, cause deterioration of the liver. Further ingestion will continue the damage, but outwardly it will not be possible to see what is happening—not, that is, until the liver is 75 per cent. damaged, beyond repair. By the time the clinical symptoms of ragwort poisoning show, it is too late: the animal is doomed to die a painful, distressing death, unless humanely destroyed by a veterinary surgeon.

Symptoms of liver poisoning are varied but can include depression, loss of appetite, chewing of fences, restlessness and staggering, leading to loss of consciousness and eventual death. Horses have been seen leaning their heads against walls and walking into objects, seemingly oblivious to their surroundings. Cattle become aggressive and exhibit manic behaviour. Pigs can suffer from fever and respiratory distress.

Although ragwort has a bitter taste, in circumstances such as drought or poor grazing, equines will consume it and can even develop a taste for it. Once cut and dried, it becomes even more palatable to animals but no less deadly. Most recent cases have occurred from ingestion of conserved forage rather than from grazing of the live plant. It is estimated that about 500 equines died from ragwort poisoning in 2001 and figures available to the British Horse Society indicate that the number is likely to have doubled in 2002. Those are conservative estimates, based on known or suspected cases, extrapolated for the whole country by Dr. Derek Knottenbelt, the UK's leading specialist in ragwort poisoning, who is based at Liverpool university.

In West Sussex, the Liphook equine hospital and the Arundel equine veterinary hospital report that they have dealt with 25 cases each in the past year. West Sussex is only a small area of the country, so there is no reason to suspect that Dr. Knottenbelt's conservative estimate is incorrect. We applaud his work and that of the veterinary clinics. When I told one of my colleagues that I planned to introduce the Bill, he instantly said that Dr. Knottenbelt was the expert to contact. That advice was certainly correct.

Like many Members, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maples) has received letters from constituents about the issue, including one from Mrs. Mclrvine, a vice-president of the International League for the Protection of Horses and of the National Equine Welfare Council. This good lady has a lifetime's experience of horses and said that she had come across many cases where there was every reason to believe that the horse had suffered disastrously from the ingestion of ragwort.

I want to refer to one of cases described by the hon. Member for Teignbridge in the debate in 2002. He spoke of a pony named Topic, which belonged to a nine-year-old girl who adored him. Almost overnight, Topic went from being an apparently healthy animal to one suffering from ragwort poisoning. He became uncoordinated and staggered about. A blood test confirmed the vet's fears and Topic was humanely destroyed before he could suffer further. His little owner was naturally devastated.

In 2001, the British Horse Society reported on the death of another beloved horse, Scirocco, a bay gelding living in Wales. His owner had been meticulous in removing ragwort from her fields. Sadly, Scirocco had consumed ragwort in conserved forage, which led to his untimely death. Later in the same year, Mrs. Victoria Shaw from Derbyshire watched in horror as first one and then another of her horses died from ragwort poisoning. Her prize-winning colt was only three years old and her gelding was aged four.

Another pony, Domino, was much loved by Catriona who spent two and a half years looking after him and enjoyed competing on him. When she grew too big for Domino he was sold to Ross who also fell in love with him. However, Domino had eaten ragwort when he was younger and in 2002 he started to lose weight, became listless and no longer wanted to jump. In just two weeks, he became extremely ill. Blood tests revealed considerable liver damage and to save him from further pain he was put down.

The other day, I received a telephone call from a lady who runs a riding school in West Bromwich. Through an intermediary, she and her friends lease land owned by the local authority. The land is infested with ragwort and they are losing horses. Those are real examples of the effect of that pernicious weed not only on horses but on the lives and sensibilities of many of our constituents.

Shona Melsaae (Cleethorpes)

Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that we are talking only about the common ragwort and not about other varieties of the plant, such as fen ragwort and Oxford ragwort? Do they contain the same poisonous alkaloids?

Mr. Greenway

We are talking only about the common ragwort. I am not aware that the varieties of ragwort to which the hon. Lady refers cause a problem. Perhaps some other species of ragwort are rare and need to be protected, but I am talking about the common ragwort that one sees on grass verges, sprouting beautiful yellow flowers.

The main problem with common ragwort's effect is that many animals may appear to die from other or similar diseases. Unless there is a post-mortem, there is no way of knowing whether the animal is already suffering the effects of ragwort ingestion. Due to the insidious nature of ragwort, advanced damage to the liver can take many years to occur—sometimes, as many as 10 to 15 years. Given the conservative estimate, in 2002, of 1,000 deaths a year, and if no action is taken to control the growth of ragwort, how many horses will die in 2012 or 2017? That does not bear thinking about. Given the Minister's responsibilities within the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he will know that some of the illnesses and diseases that have affected our livestock over the years start in a small way, but can quickly escalate because of the time that it takes for the symptoms to show.

The horse industry's value to the economy is estimated at £2.5 billion. It is a hugely important industry in my constituency. At the last count, we had some 28 racehorse trainers and several breeders. One need only go to the Ryedale show each July, which has no fewer than seven rings for gymkhanas and horses, to realise just how important the horse is to the rural economy. I know that the Minister, whose responsibilities include the horse, recognises this only too well. Indeed, I am very grateful to him for the manner in which he has discussed this issue with me, and for being here today—on a Friday—to respond to my Bill.

There are some 900,000 privately owned horses in the UK, and a further 65,000 professionally owned animals. Almost 1 million horses are therefore at risk. With farmer diversification and riding increasing in popularity—some 26.5 million riding lessons took place in 1999, the last year for which figures are available--the use of the horse for all manner of leisure pursuits will increase. If we do not do something now to control the growth of ragwort, the number of horses dying from its poison will increase.

Why has the Weeds Act 1959 failed to protect these animals? Under it, it is not illegal to allow ragwort to grow. The Act allows the Secretary of State to serve a notice on an occupier of any land on which one of the five specified injurious weeds is growing. They include the common ragwort, but not the other types referred to by the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac). The notice requires the occupier to take action to prevent the weeds from spreading. The Act also permits DEFRA officials to enter the land to establish whether an enforcement notice has been complied with. Only if the occupier has unreasonably failed to comply with the notice can he or she be found guilty of an offence.

By its own admission, the Department does not investigate a complaint unless it relates to agricultural land, or to agricultural land that has diversified into horses. The process is reactive, not preventive. In 2002, DEFRA stated that 1,212 initial reports resulted in 490 complaint forms being issued, just 200 of which were returned. No notices were served in 2002 or in the previous year. The failure of the 1959 Act is that it only empowers the Secretary of State to take action; it does not require him to do so. It provides no structure to enable landowners, particularly public authorities, routinely to establish a mechanism through which they can deal with this problem.

I turn now to control and why the weed is so pernicious. There is no quick and easy way to control ragwort. Several methods are available, but no single one suits all scenarios. One of the main problems has been that ragwort control often takes place when the plant is highly visible, during the flowering season of July and August. It is too late then, because the seeds are already on their way. Each plant can produce between 150,000 and 250,000 seeds that, once airborne, can gravel up to 10 miles. The seeds can lie dormant for 20 years in the soil before germinating.

New motorways being built now--although there are not many, given the Government's transport policy—and other new developments disturb the soil, through the creation of embankments, and will produce a forest of ragwort in the next few years. Mr. Deputy Speaker, I suggest that you drive from the top of the M1 in north Yorkshire to Brent Cross and Staples Corner in April and May, because you will see a 200-mile carpet of dandelions. The hon. Member for Cleethorpes will have used the road and she will know what I mean. The same potential problem exists for the dreadful ragwort. Crawley in Sussex is apparently rife with new ragwort, as developers snap up land and leave it for future development, awaiting the go-ahead for the thousands of new homes proposed by the Government.

Control methods for ragwort need to be applied in the spring, during April and May, when the plant is at the rosette stage of growth. Current methods of cutting do not destroy the plant. It will grow again the next year, more prolifically than before. Hand pulling must ensure that the whole root is removed, otherwise it will return. Fland pulling or digging is labour-intensive. Spot spraying with herbicides is a popular method of control, but operators need to be trained to know which plant they should be spraying. Biological methods of control, such as using the cinnabar moth, are under investigation. I understand that a report on that issue will be presented to DEFRA soon.

During my research, I have discovered that there are now fewer cinnabar moths around than there used to be. That may be one of the reasons why it is more difficult to control the spread of ragwort. The moths are a natural predator for the plant and it has been claimed that if we get rid of all the ragwort, we will have no cinnabar moths. However, the spread of ragwort is so great at the moment that I regard that prospect as extremely unlikely.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his important Bill. I have seen for myself the horrendous spread of ragwort along verges next to agricultural land on which horses graze. It is especially insidious because the weed can be harvested with the hay and is equally poisonous when it is dried out. Can he confirm that people who pull up ragwort should wear gloves, because it can be damaging to the human liver to pull it up with bare hands for prolonged periods?

Mr. Greenway

I can confirm that. It is amazing how one's hon. Friends who intervene can anticipate the very next paragraph in one's speech.

Mr. Wiggin


Mr. Greenway

There is no need to apologise; the intervention was timely. I was about to say that no matter what method is employed to control ragwort, operators need to be fully trained and protected with suitable clothing, such as gloves, because the poison from ragwort can enter through the skin. Pretty the plant may be; pretty deadly, it most certainly is.

What is the Bill about, and what are we trying to achieve? We lack a structure within which land occupiers can work to control ragwort. We want not to impose new burdens on public authorities and landowners, but to make life easier by setting up a structured system that occupiers may follow to deal with what I believe is a moral obligation to ensure that the weed is not on their land. A code of practice to control ragwort is being produced and may provide the mechanism that will allow people to comply with the Bill. Public landowners support the process, and I have had letters and representations of support from Hampshire county council, which takes the issue seriously because of the many wild horses and ponies in the New Forest, and from Oxfordshire county council. An Oxfordshire member sits on the code of practice steering group, as does a member from Network Rail.

I was glad to receive from Oxfordshire this week a letter from the area engineer, Colin Carritt, which outlines the work that the county council is doing to deal with the problem. I shall read several paragraphs from that letter because they show precisely what we think the code of practice—guidance to help the authorities—might contain. The letter states: From the Local Authority point of view, we have been mindful of the limitations of budgets and the huge demands for our services across the entire environmental and road safety spectrum. As a former member of North Yorkshire county council, I know only too well the truth of that. It goes on: Over many years we have developed policies which limit the use of chemical treatments to roadside verges, in an attempt to improve bio-diversity and the aesthetic appeal of countryside verges. This has been extremely effective, but it does mean that in dealing with outbreaks of Ragwort (and other problematic weeds) we are invariably tied to manual methods of removing infestation. You will appreciate that for large organisations with significant overheads, such labour intensive operations are extremely expensive. We have, therefore, developed ways of working with volunteer organisations from the equine world, who can supply labour at minimal cost. We, for our part, can provide transport and disposal facilities. The next stage of our campaign in Oxfordshire is to investigate the use of community service work through the Probation Office. I hope that we can use this route to further manage the Ragwort problem on highway verges. We have also developed a system for notifying landowners where infestation occurs on private land. This has involved mail shots to every Parish Council in Oxfordshire, and asking for them to nominate a Ragwort Watcher for their Parish. We have supplied Parish maps so that when infestation is identified, the Ragwort Watcher can contact this office with a precise location together with the landowners name and address so that we can then send a standard letter drawing the attention of the landowner to the problem, and seeking their co-operation. That may sound amusing, but, Mr. Deputy Speaker, since you, like me, represent a rural area, you will understand that it provides an extremely effective way of making use of people in the community at effectively no cost to the Government or to local authorities.

The letter goes on: We have made it clear that we are in no position to take enforcement action, but we are happy to use our good offices to persuade and encourage others to fulfil their responsibility. For their part, the Oxfordshire branch of the British Horse Society has been active in promoting publicity through local media, and local schools, as well as providing the nucleus of core volunteers for Ragwort clearance in public areas. I hope that the House will forgive me for quoting from that letter at such length, but I hope that I have illustrated very precisely the point that the Minister and I discussed in his office on Monday morning. I think that it was his very first meeting of the week—it was certainly mine.

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life (Alun Michael)

It was my third.

Mr. Greenway

That is one of the burdens of high office. In our meeting, we discussed our desire to avoid giving the impression that the Bill would impose lots of new burdens on local authorities, which, like it or lump it, they would have to deal with. That is not what we are about, because we know that we would run into difficulties with our colleagues in the Local Government Association and with other Departments that have responsibility in this area.

Our primary intention is that the Bill should draw attention to the problem, which is one of the great opportunities that success in the private Member's Bill ballot provides. Beyond that, we want to demonstrate that we can, through a simple measure, make it easier for authorities and landowners to deal with the problem, and the code of practice is an important way of doing so. Some landowners are showing that they are willing to control ragwort—I have clearly demonstrated that that is happening in Oxfordshire—but others need to make a greater commitment. We want the Bill to provide that commitment, supported by the code of practice. That approach will produce an effective piece of legislation.

As it stands, the Bill offers three options. It can impose a duty on relevant occupiers to control ragwort on relevant land; it can impose a duty to report annually on measures taken to control ragwort; or it can issue a code of practice and other guidance as to the control of ragwort. One issue that we have to address in the code of practice is its status in any enforcement proceedings that may follow if a landowner or local authority does not take appropriate action and there is a prosecution under the Weeds Act 1959, albeit that such prosecutions are extremely rare.

Mr. Wiggin

My hon. Friend is particularly gracious to give way twice. Can he inform the House what procedures will take place in view of the fact that local authorities have often been the perpetrators of the greatest ragwort crimes? How will it be possible to prosecute local authorities?

Mr. Greenway

My hon. Friend makes a good point, but I am not sure that we are in a position to answer him, as that is one of the issues that the Minister and I agreed that we would like to thrash out in Committee. That is one reason why I want to ask the House to allow the Bill to proceed into Committee. We have identified the problem, and I hope that in this lengthy—I am sorry— but wide-ranging speech I have made the case that something must be done. As we know from bitter experience—I have been here for 16 years—we often get knee-jerk reaction legislation imposing impractical measures that ultimately do not work. We want to avoid that.

Even if we ended up with a Bill that provided a code of practice to be given by the Minister's Department to all public landowners and local authorities, that would give them a structure to help them to deal with the problem. Instead of enforcement, we would be taking preventive measures. The attitude that has been adopted by Oxfordshire, Hampshire and other local authorities indicates that they want to do the right thing, but we need to determine what is the right thing and how they can make changes. That is why the Bill is so important.

This is not a Government handout Bill; it has been drafted by the British Horse Society and, in an ideal world, is what we would want. We know that, in the real world, we will not get it in full. However, the Bill follows on from a detailed review of the current situation. If the Government would adopt just one of the options—and I describe the three different aspects of the Bill as options—it would go a long way to improving the situation. I know from conversations with the Minister that there is an ongoing discussion between him and the LGA with the aim of arriving at the right solution through a code of practice.

The code and this Bill have been initiated by the British Horse Society. I would like the House to give all parties the opportunity to pursue this issue and to allow the Bill to go to Committee. If, at that stage, we can agree that at least one of the options could be adopted in a way that would avoid the problems that I have outlined and would bring about the solutions that we all want, we would have the makings of a very effective piece of legislation that could come back the House and, I hope, be approved on Third Reading. The most important thing is to enable those responsible to benefit actively the welfare of the horse.

12.16 pm
John Mann (Bassetlaw)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) on introducing this Bill. It may be a new regulatory burden but I wholeheartedly support it. I shall outline my reasons briefly. In my constituency, the problem is serious. It was first raised with me, and has been raised repeatedly since, by one of my constituents—Mr. Foljambe, whose ancestors were once the elected Members for Bassetlaw, going back to the 19th century. Indeed, they were the last Members for Bassetlaw until my good self who lived in the constituency. Mr. Foljambe is still the largest landowner in the constituency. He therefore has a vested interest but he has great experience. He and many others have raised this problem because it appears to be increasing.

Rather than repeat the detailed explanations that were given by the hon. Member for Ryedale, I want to add one or two comments on why the issue is important. The first concerns the leisure pursuits of many of my constituents. My stables are currently unoccupied but many of my constituents are diversifying into leisure pursuits. Equine recreation is an increasingly popular sport and leisure pursuit, but I want to stress the business opportunities that exist in farm and agricultural diversification. Across the Bassetlaw constituency, there are hundreds of such opportunities. Therefore, anything that stands in the way of diversification into new business opportunities is a danger. A leisure business that is based on pony trekking, for example, will be in danger from the spread of ragwort. If that spread is uncontainable, the danger will recur. The bridleways that people go down, the roads that people cross, and the public and private lands that they have to pass through are not maintained in the way that Mr. Foljambe—who is probably the country's leading warrior in the battle against ragwort—maintains his land. That in itself would be sufficient reason for the Government to look favourably on these proposals.

My second comment is on the agricultural industry. Something that is less well documented and understood about ragwort is the additional costs and problems for those who produce agriculturally. Not only does ragwort have to be eliminated, but if there is any fear of its mixing with and contaminating the forage that has been provided, there is a significant business loss. Therefore it is not simply a question of animal welfare, albeit an important one; there is also a question of business costs, business loss and future dangers to an important sector of my local economy and the national economy.

For those reasons, I strongly urge the Government to look favourably at the progress of the Bill, and to look in depth at how far we can go in Committee to determine an approach to the complex and difficult ways of dealing with the spread of ragwort.

Mr. Greenway

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and equally, or perhaps even more, grateful for his support for the Bill. In case I do not have the opportunity to speak to him, if we succeed today in getting a Second Reading, I should be very grateful if he would serve on the Committee.

John Mann

Having spent three months serving on the Committee of the Criminal Justice Bill, I reserve my position on such an onerous burden and leave it to the appropriate authorities to determine such things. With that minor reservation, I commend the Bill to the House.

12.21 pm
Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) on introducing the Bill and I hope that it receives the necessary support today to pass into Committee.

Ragwort is an attractive plant. When we moved into our house some 12 years ago, I was delighted by the yellow-flowered plant that we found growing in our new garden. I did not know what it was; not many people do. It was pointed out to me fairly soon that it was a weed that we should not have, and we spent a long time trying to extract it from the garden. It is, however, extremely persistent and its removal is very difficult. In fact, it took us a number of years to eradicate it, which we did by digging it out over time.

The hon. Member for Ryedale mentioned the cinnabar moth, which is very distinctive. I do not see many of those moths around where I live, perhaps because we got rid of the ragwort. Pernicious poison is absorbed from the plant by the moth, making the moth poisonous to its predators. That shows how poisonous the alkali in the plant are.

The hon. Gentleman kindly mentioned my Adjournment debate, in which I tried to persuade the then Minister, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), to take greater action to rid the countryside of ragwort, because it was a concern to farmers and to those with equestrian pastimes or equestrian stables in my constituency. I did not set great store by the response that the then Minister gave.

Shona McIsaac

The hon. Gentleman keeps referring to my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe as the then Minister. It is important to put on the record that my hon. Friend is still a Minister.

Richard Younger-Ross

And he was the Minister who was responding at the time, rather than the Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life, who is before us today. Incidentally, I do not see why we have a change of Minister.

Alun Michael

It is very easy to explain. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I share an interest in the issue. He has a lot of interest in animal welfare issues, and of course the impact of ragwort extends not just to horses but to other animals. I have specific responsibilities, including responsibility as Minister for the horse, so between us we make up a strong team and I think that I can reassure the hon. Gentleman on that point.

Richard Younger-Ross

I thank the Minister for those comments.

At that time, we received the response that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—now the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—would take action if ragwort was growing on farmland, but was very unwilling to take any action if it was growing at a purely equestrian establishment. One of the strengths of the Bill is that it will do away with that discrimination and it will require action across the board, whatever the nature of the establishment.

Since then, I have visited the mare and foal sanctuary just outside Chudleigh in my constituency, which does excellent work in looking after distressed horses and ponies. When I visited, the sanctuary had a pony that was recovering from ragwort poisoning, and I am pleased to say that the staff were able to restore the animal to health by using traditional herbal remedies. What is fascinating, however, is that the poor pony was addicted to the weed, so if it was growing in the field where he grazed, he would dig it up. Before the workers could let the pony out, they had to walk the field to make sure that no ragwort was coming up. The weed would reemerge, even though a pair of workers walked the field daily.

Ragwort comes from a number of sources, and it is often found where there is development. As the hon. Member for Ryedale said, it is found alongside the highways and byways. It is important that it is removed so that it does not contaminate land, particularly where there are horses and ponies.

It is important that in Committee we address arguments about biodiversity, which are of concern to Members. There is confusion between common ragwort and other forms of the plant, and the difference needs to be made clear. That, too, can be dealt with in Committee.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman said that he does not want the Bill to be a burden on local authorities. That is worth emphasising. The highways authority in Devon has recently had £8 million cut from its budget, so the last thing that Devon wants is any extra burdens, and I am sure that council tax payers do not want extra burdens on them, however reasonable the cause. I wish the hon. Gentleman every success with the Bill.

12.26 pm
Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

I am delighted to be able to take part in the debate as I was one of the Members who stayed in the Chamber to listen to the Adjournment debate secured by the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) early last year. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) was also present, so we had a complete complement of the northern Lincolnshire MPs in the House that night. We feel that this is a serious issue. Although we have urban areas in our constituencies, there is a rural hinterland where, as hon. Members have explained, ragwort poses a serious problem for the welfare of horses.

Ragwort is particularly poisonous to equines, but we should not overlook the fact that common ragwort is poisonous to other species of animal, including bovines. Sheep are also affected by the poisonous alkaloids in the plant. However, agricultural practices mean that many sheep and cattle are slaughtered before they begin to show symptoms of or die from ragwort poisoning. The poison tends to take effect slowly in those animals; the process is much quicker in horses.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) on introducing the Bill. He has articulated very well the fact that the increase in this problem lies not only in the spread of the perennial plant but in the fact that ragwort poisons horses because it ends up in their forage, where its existence cannot be detected by the person purchasing it.

The ragwort plague, as it has often been described, was a serious problem throughout the 1990s, but less so during the '80s. There are many reasons for its increase, including changes made to farming practice over the years. Farming is becoming less labour intensive, which means that ragwort plants are not pulled up in and around paddocks and on verges and roadsides.

Yes, of course, development has an effect by turning soil, so that seeds in very low soil layers can be brought to a level at which they begin to germinate. The fact that they can remain dormant for 20 years demonstrates the seriousness of the problem.

Neglect is another contributory factor to the plague of ragwort. An awful lot of former agricultural land has become neglected and the weeds take hold, and no one is dealing with those pastures. That is something else that we have to consider in controlling ragwort.

The main thing that I wish to talk about is the lack of effective predation—something about which I may disagree with the hon. Member for Ryedale. The cinnabar moth caterpillar is common ragwort's only effective predator. He said that, if the effect of controlling ragwort was the destruction of that moth, it was fine by him.

Mr. Greenway

I am sorry if I did not make myself clear. I was saying that some people have suggested that there would be no cinnabar moths if we got rid of all the ragwort, but there is sufficient ragwort to ensure that the cinnabar moth will survive.

Shona McIsaac

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has clarified that point. Although all hon. Members have constituents who are worried about the welfare of their horses and other animals, we also have constituents who are very keen on butterflies and moths, and we would probably upset them if there were any suggestion of their extinction.

Ragwort is important to biodiversity in this country. It is vital to the survival of the cinnabar moth. So we begin to discover how the plague started in the late 1980s. In fact, 1988 was a particularly good year for the cinnabar moth. What happened was that the cinnabar moth caterpillar munched far too much ragwort. Although that sounds like a good thing, the following year, there was nothing for the caterpillars to eat, the moths did not lay their eggs and the predator population of cinnabar moth caterpillars plummeted, so we began to see an increase in common ragwort in the late 1980s.

We have to look seriously at the effect of biological controls on ragwort to try to re-establish the cinnabar moth, the existence of which is precarious in Britain at the moment. It is simply not reaching sustainable levels, so apart from all the other methods that can be considered to control common ragwort—systemic pesticides, digging out the roots and so on—the cinnabar moth is crucial to the argument. Some companies are now looking at such biological controls.

A few years ago, some of us laughed at the idea of buying nematodes to use as a biological method of controlling slugs in our gardens, but they are now commonly used. That method is more natural and it is also very effective. I hope that we can enlist the support of the cinnabar moth to contribute to reducing equine deaths.

One cinnabar moth caterpillar can eat a ragwort flower in about three minutes. When the moth lays its eggs and the caterpillars hatch, the brood will demolish the flowers on a plant in a day, thus getting rid of the seeds that could be released into the wind. Those caterpillars will consume about 30 plants before they turn into moths. As the hon. Member for Ryedale said, those plants can produce between 150,000 and 200,000 seeds, so we can see the effect that the cinnabar moth could have on beginning to reduce the ragwort population to a level where it is less of a threat to equines, bovines and other species, while still contributing to the biodiversity of the United Kingdom's environment away from where animals are kept. I would not wish to see the plant totally destroyed. It looks wonderful away from pasture and paddocks, where it is no risk to animals.

Richard Younger-Ross

There is a lot of ragwort in the fields, as all of us in the Chamber have said. There are also cinnabar moths, but they do not appear to be growing in vast numbers. Therefore, there must be another cause for the decline of the cinnabar moth. We must be able to address that problem before we can use and rely on that control method for ragwort.

Shona McIsaac

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. A lot of work has been done on this subject. To extend it, we must look at predation on the moths. Some people are doing research on the dramatic decline in numbers of cinnabar moths after the population explosion. The level of predation on the moth does not allow it to get to a level at which it can establish itself and thus become an effective predator on ragwort. Their numbers are low, and if the moths' natural predators—bird species and so on—keep taking the caterpillars, it will not manage to meet the thresholds at which it can become a viable population.

To return to the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Ryedale, it is an excellent measure, and I know that many of my constituents will be pleased to see it come into force. The Clee saddlery in my constituency, for example, does a lot of work via its website to educate horse owners and other owners of animals in my constituency about what the flowers actually look like: as has been said, some people see it as just a pretty yellow flower without realising its dangers. The saddlery sells what is called a "Rag Fork" to dig out the roots of the plant, and it also posts messages on its website from people in the area about what has happened to their animals.

Other Members have read out sections of letters and so on, and I shall just read out a few of the words from a message on Clee saddlery's website. It said: On New Years Eve I was told that my old pony we sold in the summer had ragwort poisoning and would probably have to be destroyed in a week!! I was and still am so devastated, she is beautiful and loving. My fields are ragwort clear, I insist on digging it out on first appearance and putting it in a bonfire away from the field. But even I did not realise how deadly this weed is … The vet has said that ragwort poisoning can build up over a number of years, and that ragwort is now commonly being found in hay! Even though my fields are clear if a horse swallows seeds that have blown in from next door that's enough to start it off". Those words summarise the nature of the problem. The hon. Member for Ryedale mentioned some other cases, and the hon. Member for Teignbridge mentioned in his Adjournment debate the sad case of a pony called Topic who died from ragwort poisoning.

I support the Bill. I hope that it proceeds through its Committee stage speedily, so that we can offer more protection to owners of horses in the UK in the future.

12.39 pm
Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon)

I, too, am pleased to support the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) on his expert uncovering of the problems associated with this pernicious weed, which is a poison to our equine friends. However, many regard ragwort as the very essence of an English summer—a letter in one newspaper described it as meadows of wildflower covering the fading fields of Britain with a rich and cheerful gold,."— and many herbalists believe that Senecio jacobaea, also known as St. James' wort, has medicinal value: apparently, it can help to alleviate aches and pains and even stay catarrh. It has been said that the scientific evidence to back that claim is rather weak, and it is only used for external conditions.

Shona McIsaac

I might be pre-empting a comment that the hon. Gentleman was about to make. Ragwort has a long history of use in herbalism—in fact, it used to be used as a medicine for horses that had the staggers. Was he aware of that?

Mr. Djanogly

That is very interesting. I did know that in days gone by ragwort was used to cleanse what are described as old filthy ulcers in the privities.

A positive view of ragwort is, however, shadowed by the worrying threat that it poses to horses. I confess that the threat was originally brought home to me by my young son coming home with his pony club dangerous plants badge and telling me all about it.

The clusters of yellow summer-flowering weeds that grow up to 3 ft high are, of course, highly poisonous. All the figures available suggest that equine liver disease caused by ragwort poisoning killed at least 500 horses last year, and will probably kill 1,000 this year. Ragwort poisoning is almost undetectable until it is too late, with horses not showing symptoms until almost 75 per cent. of their liver has been rotted away, at which point, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale explained, they start to display a variety of behavioural abnormalities—becoming confused and disoriented, wandering aimlessly, and even banging their heads against brick walls.

My hon. Friend referred to Dr. Derek Knottenbelt of Liverpool university, the acclaimed expert in the subject. He has reported that because of the nature of death by liver failure—in some cases, without any warning, horses have been found dead—it is possible that many more cases of death by ragwort poisoning have been wrongly attributed to heart attack, stroke or colic. However, there are no routine autopsies in the equine world.

Whatever the numbers involved in ragwort poisoning, it is clear that the plague of ragwort and its rapid increase since the strange disappearance of the cinnabar moth 10 years ago mean death for horses. The reasons for the disappearance of the cinnabar moth have been discussed today; my findings tend to support the opinion of the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac). In effect, the moth is a victim of its own success, having munched its way through the vast reserves of the weed at some time in the past.

Shona McIsaac

It appears that in the late 80s, there was a vast increase in the population of cinnabar moth caterpillars. Usually, the caterpillars eat only the flowers, which results in fewer seeds being released to the wind, but at that time, they started to eat the first year rosettes as well and thus destroyed their own food source, because ragwort, being a biennial plant, did not come back immediately.

Mr. Djanogly

The hon. Lady reinforces the point well.

The plague of ragwort is now growing dramatically and at an alarming rate. Ragwort UK informs me that in areas it has been monitoring, ragwort has increased by 50 per cent. year on year for the past three years in places where no action has been taken to stop growth. Dr. Knottenbelt says: the yellow peril is lurking, and expanding its grip on the UK". That is after many hundreds of horse fatalities, two Adjournment debates and many years of relative Government inaction on this rural plague.

However, as hon. Members have said, a law that allows the Government to deal with the problem already exists. It has done so since the Weeds Act 1959 came into force. In answer to an Adjournment debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—he is now the Under-Secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—said: The 1959 Act applies to Great Britain and empowers Agriculture Ministers to take action against occupiers of any land to prevent the spread of five species of weed. Those are spear thistle, creeping thistle, curled dock, broad-leaved dock and common ragwort. Common ragwort tends to give rise to the great majority of complaints that MAFF receives. He then emphasised: Section 1 of the Weeds Act empowers, but does not require … action".—[Official Report, 25 July 2000; Vol. 354, c. 1090.] I am sure that the House and equestrians everywhere in Britain would like an answer to the simple question: why have the Government avoided dealing with this problem up to now?

Britain requires a national solution to ragwort. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale noted, a single ragwort plant can produce 150,000 to 200,000 seeds, and they can travel for miles in the wind. My understanding is that the seeds land with a 70 to 80 per cent. viability rate, meaning a large majority of them will germinate.

Landowners usually get rid of ragwort by pulling it up and burning it, and that can be effective in the short term. However, that is less effective in the long term if neighbouring areas do not take similar action. The widespread deposit of seeds from ragwort plants in neighbouring areas as a result of natural factors such as wind means that the ragwort will return within months. The country needs guidance and action from the Government.

We do not want landowners to be prosecuted for failing to notice a tiny patch of ragwort on their land. It is not illegal for them to have ragwort grow. However, with it growing so uncontrollably in areas all over the country—near railways, grazing fields and agriculture—it is clear that something needs to be done. The Government must stop ignoring their responsibility to the millions of people in this country who enjoy equestrian activity. I confess that I am one of them. The Government should offer joined-up governance to local authorities and local people on how to get rid of the weed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale mentioned Oxfordshire county council, and my research uncovered an earlier letter from the council that appeared in The Guardian on 29 August 2002. It explained how the council managed to get its 300 parishes together to report infestation and to advise landowners of appropriate action. 'That approach was apparently quite successful, but would it not have been easier if there had been help from DEFRA, which the letter referred to as "deafeningly silent" on the issue?

Given that MAFF and now DEFRA have both failed to take a proactive approach to solving the problem, I welcome the Bill. It reinforces the duty of landowners to control ragwort. The proposed new sections IA and 1B that it would add to the Weeds Act 1959 would do that, although I hope that the reporting procedures in the proposed new section 1B are carefully considered in Committee. I also draw attention to the proposed new section 1C and to clause 2. I understand from Ragwort UK that DEFRA is looking to implement a national strategy by working with local authorities and landowners to combat the spread of the weed. That should have happened earlier because, in the past few years, ragwort has not been brought under control. Instead, it has gone further out of control.

The code of practice in the proposed new section 1 C could provide the opportunity for DEFRA finally to offer guidance. I hope that a code would be subject to full prior consultation and that it would aim to involve the community as a whole. Clause 2 is also welcome, as long as DEFRA takes the opportunity to act on it. It would be no good adding highway authorities and statutory undertakers to the list of those who have a duty to control if DEFRA does nothing to ensure that the duties are observed. In any event, I hope that the Minister will not have to return to the House to tell us again that the Department has failed to act because it was only empowered and not required to do so.

Finally, I make a plea for the Government's general support for riding in this country, and their support of the Bill would form part of that. The sport not only gives pleasure to thousands of people and forms an important part of rural life, but provides rural employment. Riding stables have been hit hard over recent years by ragwort, regulations, foot and mouth disease and their vulnerability to crime. Indeed, stables in Hilton in my constituency have had tack and farm equipment stolen half a dozen times in the past three years. Proceeding with the Bill would go a small way towards showing the riding community and the countryside that we care about their interests and future.

12.50 pm
Sandra Gidley (Romsey)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) on promoting the Bill, which many of my constituents think is important. Our agriculture spokesman cannot be here today, but I took time to discuss it with him. He was generally supportive of it, although he was worried about aspects relating to biodiversity.

The bottom line is that the weed ragwort has a serious impact on animal health, and especially equine health. It should be eradicated. The hon. Member for Ryedale talked at length, although I do not mean that as a criticism. He outlined the problems caused by ragwort and the means of its eradication so comprehensively that I feel no need to repeat what he said. May we take my comments on that as read because I could not disagree with much of what he said?

On biodiversity, I do not want the issue to become a butterflies versus horses argument because that is the last thing that any of us want. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) is looking somewhat downcast about that. We need to ensure that biodiversity is fully considered in Committee. I thought about how we could sustain biodiversity and wondered whether we could set up conservation areas, but that would be difficult because of the way in which ragwort propagates. It would be difficult to restrict ragwort to a conservation area. I was rather taken by the tale told by the hon. Member for Ryedale about a horse called Scirocco. Its owner was absolutely scrupulous about keeping the horse's field clean and free of ragwort but the horse found something in conserved forage. A solution will not be easy, but we need to devote attention to it.

As the hon. Member for Cleethorpes said, the Bill should specify the biological name of the species of ragwort that is to be restricted because we do not want the Bill to lack clarity in respect of other species.

Regulation is the most worrying aspect of the Bill. Conservative Members say all the time that the Government introduce too much regulation and that they would introduce less, so I was disappointed to read that new section 1B—"Duty to report annually on measures taken to control ragwort" —states: A relevant occupier shall within two months of the end of every calendar year submit to the Minister a report"— and so on; hon. Members may read the rest for themselves. I suspect that the Minister does not really want to be inundated with reports on ragwort control and I do not think that the provision is the most intelligent way of addressing the problem.

I noted the comments of the hon. Member for Ryedale on how we might regulate. He was fairly open about that. Clearly the Bill needs to have teeth, but we do not need to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

County councils could, more locally and relevantly, control and monitor the situation. My home county, Hampshire, takes the problem very seriously. The New Forest, although not in my constituency, is just down the road, and Hampshire therefore will have a real interest in the Bill. The same might apply to other county councils, such as Lincolnshire.

I have identified some issues that ought to be debated in Committee. I think that the Bill deserves to make progress. It enjoys a lot of support in my area, and probably in others.

12.55 pm
Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) on being so high up in the ballot—although I do not know why we congratulate our colleagues in such circumstances, as t is a matter of pure chance. I am glad that he had the good sense to introduce such an excellent Bill.

I must declare a non-pecuniary interest. Until recently I chaired the parliamentary Horse and Pony Taxation Committee. As such I was a consultant to the British Horse Industry Confederation, and I remain president of the Association of British Riding Schools, which takes a keen interest in the Bill.

The Bill is supported by most knowledgeable organisations in this sphere, including the British Horseracing Board, the National Farmers Union, the British Horse Society—which I believe was largely responsible for helping to draft the Bill—the Country Land and Business Association and a variety of other equine organisations.

As others have said, there is a long history of support in the House for action of some sort to deal with ragwort. In November 2002, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) presented an early-day motion calling for action, and, as we have heard, there have been Adjournment debates. I do not think we have paid enough tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who presented two ten-minute Bills on the subject, which may have been enough to stimulate the interest of the Government and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale.

We have heard much about the ragwort problem, and I think its existence is fairly widely accepted. I was, however, slightly disappointed by the speech of the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who seemed rather less enthusiastic than most of us about its eradication. Incidentally, I must take issue with her on one minute detail. She said that county councils should have authority to implement eradication plans or at any rate to deal with ragwort in one way or another. The point of my hon. Friend's Bill is that it requires authorities such as county councils to take the action that they do not apparently take. When the Bill becomes law, as 1 hope that it will, county councils' highways authorities will be required to deal with their roads just as the main Highways Agency deals with motorways and the like.

Sandra Gidley

The point I was trying to make—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was listening is that it is unnecessary to overburden a Department with a matter that could easily be dealt with at local level. There are various options, some of which have been mentioned today. As for my "lack of enthusiasm", the hon. Gentleman misrepresented me slightly. The fact that I did not speak at length does not mean that I do not consider the subject important.

Mr. Gray

I am delighted by those reassurances, although I remain confused about one point. If the Bill's purpose is to require local authorities to act, how can they be required to check whether they have done so? That would be a very peculiar form of self-regulation. While the Minister probably would not read each ragwort control report personally, I am sure he has a host of willing and able civil servants who would be happy to do it for him. Some degree of central control might be a good idea. I am pleased, however, that my hon. Friend has said that not all three parts of the Bill need be enacted—that they are options, and he would be content with the enactment of just one part.

We have heard a great deal about the huge problem of ragwort; it causes incurable liver damage, primarily among horses, although as the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) pointed out, sheep and cows can sometimes be affected. Each plant produces 100,000 seeds—an astonishing figure. As the hon. Lady also pointed out, the seeds can remain alive for up to 20 years, which adds to the problem. The plants are extremely difficult to deal with, as I know from trying to eradicate them by hand from a field behind my house. It is extremely hard to pull up the roots and the plants spread like wildfire.

Shona McIsaac

If the hon. Gentleman has difficulty rooting out ragwort, he should contact Clee Saddlery and buy its excellent rag fork.

Mr. Gray

I was going to refer to rag forks; I think they are great. The hon. Lady is right—I must get one.

As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), and others, correctly said, the problem affects not only animals on the land where the ragwort is growing but can be spread inadvertently through hay when the land is cropped. It is an extremely worrying matter and we must do something about it.

I pay tribute to the British Horse Society's Root Out Ragwort campaign, which got people interested in the problem four years ago. I hope that interest will be furthered by the debate and that the Government will at last take notice of the problem.

I want to set out how the Bill would tackle this major problem for the countryside. Ragwort is a notifiable weed under the Weeds Act 1959 and owners are required to deal with it. To be fair, most farmers and landowners try to do so, although some do not. In those cases, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs could make more use of the available powers, but in practice it would be difficult to do so, due to the problems of finding out where the ragwort was growing. Education might be a better way to proceed, rather than heavy-handed enforcement of the law.

The Government could, however, take action with regard to Departments, as there are some bad examples of them completely ignoring ragwort on their land. An area that I know well is Salisbury plain, just outside my constituency, where land owned by the Ministry of Defence is covered in ragwort and no effort is made to eradicate it. Perhaps the Minister could raise that matter with some of his ministerial colleagues and ensure that they live up to their responsibilities.

The Bill would extend the duties already in force for private landowners and the Government to statutory undertakers—a nice expression—such as those who maintain railways, roads, canals and airports. Thus the Bill is not about private landowners but about statutory undertakers. The NFU highlighted that point in a letter to me praising the Bill, which states: Last October, DEFRA Minister Alun Michael answered a parliamentary question which acknowledged that the spread of ragwort alongside roads and on railway lines was of particular concern to many people in the countryside, and he indicated that he had written to the Highways Agency, the Local Government Association and Railtrack reminding them of the serious problems caused by ragwort and urging them to ensure that they took effective clearance action. I welcome the fact that the Minister took that action. Can he tell us about the reaction of those organisations? Are they taking the matter as seriously as we are? Unfortunately, they do not seem to be taking the problems nearly seriously enough—with one notable exception. The Bill's purpose is to introduce a statutory obligation on them to do so in future.

The notable exception is the Highways Agency, to which I pay tribute. The agency is doing extremely good work. It spends about £1 million a year to combat the spread of ragwort along the 5,841 miles of trunk roads and motorway that it operates across England. It is doing good stuff, and the other statutory authorities, including the county councils and Railtrack, could learn some lessons from it.

As the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) pointed out—my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) discussed this issue at some length—it is disappointing that DEFRA is not doing more. Hardly any enforcement actions are taken through the 1959 Act, and it could do more in that regard. Such lack of action may be explained by an interesting quote that I spotted on The Donkey Sanctuary's ragwort campaign website—a website that I do not often look in on. The campaign had got in touch with DEFRA to suggest that more should be done about ragwort, and DEFRA replied that the best course of action is for the complainant to seek a solution with the occupier of the infested land through constructive dialogue and persuasion. To a degree, I agree with the sanctuary's complaints and with DEFRA's reply. None the less, the Department's arguing that it does not want to use the statutory powers at its disposal, and that it would much rather that such things be sorted out through constructive dialogue and persuasion", is a little disappointing. Instead, perhaps the Government might choose some high-profile occasion on which to take action against a particularly bad example of ragwort rogues, as it were. In doing so, they might encourage others to be more sensible about the issue.

I therefore welcome the introduction of this Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale, because it closes what is, in effect, a gap in current legislation. At the moment, private landowners are required to clear up ragwort as a notifiable weed, but public authorities are not. The Bill therefore seems a very sensible closure of that gap. It addresses what is a very real problem in our countryside, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon said, it sends a useful message to an equine industry that faces some difficult times for various reasons—not least because of the Minister's decision to ban hunting, which will have a great effect on that industry throughout England. In view of that background, it might therefore be a useful time to send a message to that industry that the Government anti everyone in this House are determined to do something to help the 1 million horses, and the 2 million to 3 million people who ride in England every year. By abolishing ragwort—by taking action to ensure that local authorities, railways, canal authorities and others do so—the Government will send out exactly that message.

1.07 pm
The Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life (Alun Michael)

I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) for the way in which he introduced this Bill, and the constructive manner in which he has dealt with a matter of great concern to the countryside. During 1997 and afterwards, when we both had different responsibilities, he and I had many exchanges relating to criminal justice. Those exchanges were almost invariably constructive—something that cannot always be said of exchanges in this House. The hon. Gentleman's approach and our discussions with each other and with the British Horse Society have been extremely constructive; indeed, they have pointed to a way forward, to which I shall return in a few minutes.

I acknowledge that ragwort poses a real threat to equine welfare—a point made by several Members—and its devastating, often fatal effect on horses, ponies and donkeys has been well publicised. Indeed, the hon. Member for Ryedale spelt that out in a contribution that ranged from the clinical to the almost poetic. Some might suggest that this is not an appropriate matter to debate in this House; indeed, one or two Members have contrasted the main topics for today's debate with other issues such as today's statement. However, the fact is that the death of a pony can have a devastating effect on a family, and on children who lose an animal that is more than just a pet. It is clear that we need to do more about this issue.

I also share with the hon. Gentleman a wish to achieve simple, practical and effective action. We want to avoid increasing the costs and bureaucracy for those who can take measures to eradicate ragwort. Several hon. Members made constructive contributions along those lines, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who effectively represented the ragwort warriors of his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) brought a n informed approach to the debate. I understand that the issue formed part of her academic studies, which is why she has such an excellent knowledge of the topic. My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) mentioned other forms of ragwort, and the main point to make is that they also have poisonous effects but are nothing like as common as the common ragwort, which is the plant referred to specifically in the Weeds Act 1959. I am not sure about the relative toxicity of the other forms of ragwort, but I shall look into it and ensure that when we discuss it in Committee I am able to deal with those queries.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) on his contribution, which was clearly derived from personal local experience. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) covered ground on which we generally agree, although I suggest gently that he showed more enthusiasm for regulation than is often the case in our exchanges. He mentioned the messages that we send out to people who are concerned about horses and to the horse industry generally. I am pleased by the response that I have received from people in the horse industry on various issues.

The Government have sought to do more than in the past to assist the horse industry, not least by designating an official for the horse who has specific responsibility for working with the industry. That was not the case before. I am the third person to be the Minister with responsibility for the horse, but the law was the lack of specific and targeted back-up in the Department. That has now been corrected and Graham Cory, who leads on the issue, has had many meetings with the horse industry. That has been widely welcomed. We are also looking at working with those who are involved in the wide variety of organisations that comprise the horse industry to map out the benefits that can be achieved and to identify the future for the industry.

Ragwort poses a real threat to equine welfare. The focus of this debate has been on horses, but—as some hon. Members have pointed out—ragwort poisoning can also prove fatal for cattle, sheep and other animals, through cumulative liver damage. However, because of the differences in the digestive systems, the effect is most usually observed in horses and ponies, in which it arises more rapidly. The effect of ragwort on the liver is less noticeable in cattle and sheep because most agricultural livestock is slaughtered before the cumulative effect proves fatal. I also acknowledge that the emotional attachment to horses and ponies makes it all the more distressing for owners to see their animals suffering from ragwort poisoning and what can often be a slow and painful death.

Ragwort poses two specific risks to horses. First, there is a risk that horses and ponies will eat ragwort growing in field and paddocks. Secondly, as has already been pointed out, there is a risk that ragwort will contaminate dried forage. The latter is possibly the greater risk, as in its dried state ragwort is more palatable to animals. I do not have authoritative statistics about the number of horses and ponies which die each year from ragwort poisoning, although hon. Members have pointed to the estimate made by the British Horse Society of some 500 deaths. The BHS expects that number to increase. We all have a part to play in preventing those deaths.

I want to concentrate mainly on what the Government and public bodies can do, but I am sure that it will be accepted that horse and pony owners have responsibilities too. They must protect their animals from ragwort poisoning when they are able to take preventive action. That includes ensuring that bought-in feed is purchased from a reputable dealer and warranted to be ragwort-free. I have discussed the issue with the British Horse Society, and I am grateful for its work in bringing that message home to horse owners. I am delighted to learn that Pony Club messages have reached the homes of hon. Members.

It is essential that we ensure that horse and pony owners can recognise ragwort and other poisonous plants. The suggestion of using visual aids to widen coverage of the debate is a helpful one, although I am not sure, in the current climate, how extensive national coverage might be. It is important for people to know what action they should take to control poisonous weeds in fields or paddocks where animals are grazing. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is helping; we have published identification leaflets and booklets describing weed control methodology, and those are available on our website. I shall send copies of that information to all the hon. Members who have taken part in today's debate. Anything Members can do to advertise the availability of that information would be most welcome.

Shona Mclsaac

Are biological methods of control mentioned in the literature, and has the Department conducted any research into those methods?

Alun Michael

I am not specifically aware that that is covered, but I believe that all options are covered in the information. I shall make it available to all the hon. Members who have participated in the debate. That issue is the kind of thing that may be relevant to the code of practice, and it may well be touched on in Committee.

I am keen to ensure that the Government play a full part in controlling the spread of ragwort. Our powers derive from the Weeds Act 1959. Although that legislation is rather old, it is still an effective tool. Members have quoted from previous debates the authority that it gives to the Secretary of State to control the spread of ragwort as one of five weeds specified in the 1959 Act. The others are the creeping or field thistle, the spear thistle, the curled dock and the broad-leaved dock. It is important to note that the Act does not make it an offence to permit injurious weeds to grow on land. It is primarily concerned with preventing the spread of weeds.

Section 1 of the 1959 Act gives a permissive power to the Secretary of State to serve a notice on an occupier of land on which one of the five injurious weeds is growing, requiring the occupier to take action to prevent the weeds from spreading. Section 2 provides that where a notice has been served and the occupier has unreasonably failed to comply with it, he or she shall be guilty of an offence, and liable to a fine on conviction. Section 3 provides that where an occupier fails to take clearance action, the Secretary of State may take action to arrange for weeds to be removed and may recover the cost of doing so through the courts. Additional powers permit officials to enter land to inspect whether an enforcement notice has been complied with.

Mr. Djanogly

We have heard a fair amount about what the Secretary of State can do under the 1959 Act. It would be helpful if we could leave the House today with a commitment that the Government will do more to enforce the provisions.

Alun Michael

Let us work towards that point. The Government have used their powers under the 1959 Act mainly to prevent the spread of ragwort and the other specified injurious weeds to farm land. In 2000, recognising the horse industry's potential contribution to farm diversification activities, the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food extended enforcement activity under the Act to on-farm diversified equine businesses.

DEFRA has maintained that approach, and enforcement work under the 1959 Act is still concentrated on investigating complaints where there is a risk to agriculture and farming. The situation has changed, however. DEFRA has much wider responsibilities than those held by the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Although it is important, agriculture is no longer our sole interest. We are concerned with the whole rural economy. Last year, in my capacity as Minister responsible for horses, I announced that we would discuss with industry representatives the best way to ensure that the horse industry plays a full part in our efforts. In other words, we must work together to strengthen the rural economy.

There are approximately 1 million horses in the United Kingdom, supported by 3,000 hectares of grazing and a further 3,000 hectares of feed production. Equine interests represent one of the largest economic activities in the countryside, and horse enterprises are major employers in rural areas. I do not underestimate the latent damage that ragwort poisoning could inflict on that increasingly important sector of the rural economy if weed control is not taken seriously. That is why we will review the way that we focus our available resources on those actions that can make the best contribution to protecting horses, as well as farm animals, while recognising the need to protect the rural economy. I hope that that will allow us to respond more effectively to the concerns of horse owners. In considering our approach to enforcement under the 1959 Act, we will need to pay due regard to animal welfare and human health considerations.

I want to make a point about timing. In his introduction, the hon. Member for Ryedale said that easy identification takes place in the latter part of the season when, to a considerable extent, the damage is already on the way to being done. It is already too late to influence the long-term weed control strategies for 2003. Many of the statutory undertakings whom we are targeting will determine their weed control policy over the winter months. Preventing the spread of weeds relies on early treatment before plants are allowed to seed. It was with that in mind that I wrote to the key organisations last autumn urging them to adopt a coordinated approach to weed control—in other words, not only to respond to complaints, but to consider the issues strategically. Over the next few weeks, I will remind statutory undertakings about the need to take weed control seriously and urge them to incorporate weed control activities in their routine maintenance programmes. Launching the voluntary code in the summer, as we intend, will link with the British Horse Society's "Let's rout ragwort" campaign—all the slogans in this campaign should be read out early in the day rather than after an entertaining evening—and will help to ensure that the code receives maximum publicity. A summer launch will also ensure that the code is in place in time to influence weed control strategy planning next winter. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that we should give the House's support to efforts to put measures in place is extremely welcome.

I have a great deal of respect for the way in which the hon. Member for Ryedale promoted his Bill, and I share his wish to tackle the problem. He explained that the main target is statutory organisations, including local authorities, the Highways Agency and Network Rail. As matters stand, local authorities are responsible for the control of ragwort on minor roads, the Highways Agency is responsible for motorways and trunk roads—I was pleased to hear the comments made by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire about the work that it undertakes—and Network Rail is responsible for the clearance of ragwort on railway land.

Last summer, there was a proliferation of ragwort on roadside verges and on railway embankments. It is only fair to point out that circumstances over the past two years have been quite unusual. It is possible that the outbreak of ragwort is a result of the reduced clearance work undertaken in summer 2001, which was an inevitable by-product and consequence of foot and mouth disease. Some, however, suspect that it might be indicative of a change in approach by the responsible authorities. That is why I sent them letters to remind them of the importance of this issue. Last year, I wrote to the Highways Agency, the Local Government Association and the then Railtrack to stress the importance of keeping ragwort infestations under control, and they all responded by indicating that they recognised the danger that ragwort can pose to horses and other livestock.

The Bill places a wide-ranging obligation on statutory bodies to control ragwort on all the land that they occupy. The hon. Member for Ryedale has already described in detail the content of the Bill. I am with him on what he wants to achieve but I have concerns about the practical consequences of implementing the Bill in its current form. I had the opportunity to explain those concerns to the hon. Gentleman when we met a week ago, but it is only fair that I should explain them to the House.

As drafted, the Bill would place significant new burdens on local authorities and other statutory undertakings. That would have significant cost implications. The Bill is also rather a blunt instrument and in its current form does not focus on the real problem—which is how to prevent the spread of ragwort to land that is used to graze horses and other livestock, or to grassland that is used for forage. It would affect a wide range of statutory undertakings, including the Post Office, the Civil Aviation Authority, airport operators, the Environment Agency, and gas and electricity providers, as well as more directly relevant bodies such as local authorities, the Highways Agency and Network Rail Environment. Local authorities, as one or two hon. Members have acknowledged, have many competing bids for funding—for example, there is the need to provide social care and more money for education. Similarly, the Highways Agency and Network Rail are under pressure o find more money to maintain our roads and railways. In that climate, the Government cannot add to the financial burden falling on those bodies by giving them additional responsibilities. We need to help them to focus action where it does most to help to eradicate the problem.

I am not convinced that the additional administrative burden that the annual reporting procedures in the Bill would place on statutory undertakings would result in more being done to eradicate ragwort. It could just mean more bureaucracy. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that targeted action is preferable to more paperwork. For those reasons, it will be difficult for the Government to support the Bill in its present form. However, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ryedale and to the representatives of the British Horse Society for our discussions, which gave an indication of the wish to find a way forward.

The positive aspect of the Bill as drafted is the code of practice, which forms a central plank of the Bill. I believe that that could be helpful in helping statutory bodies understand their responsibilities in relation to weed control. A code of practice would ensure that landowners who are required to clear their land of ragwort understand exactly what is required of them. A code of practice would also help local authorities and other statutory organisations assess the risk and plan the most effective use of resources to prevent the spread of ragwort. Finally, a code of practice could help with the enforcement of the Weeds Act 1959 by providing a blueprint against which compliance could be measured. That would be beneficial to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as the enforcement agency, and to the parties involved in any enforcement action that we take. It would simplify the evidential tests and reduce the work for all concerned. In other words, there could be a saving in bureaucracy if this is thought through in the way I believe the hon. Gentleman and I both wish. The Government are therefore willing to support a Bill that gives a code of practice on weed control statutory effect. That would give the authority of this House, and the support of Members, to what would otherwise be a voluntary code. In one sense, the difference is small; but in the sense of reflecting the views that have been expressed in this debate, the code could be an effective way forward.

I appreciate that what I have said will require extensive amendments to the Bill. However, I think the hon. Gentleman knows that I am proposing these changes in a constructive and co-operative spirit. To secure the outcome that I have described, it will be necessary to delete sections 1A and 1B of the Bill, which is likely to render sections 2 and 3 redundant as well. Some amendment to section 1C will also be necessary to ensure that a code of practice can be used in evidence for enforcement purposes. I believe that the hon. Gentleman would see that as a positive contribution.

As I have said, I have already spoken to the British Horse Society, as well as to the hon. Gentleman, to indicate the intention of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to achieve a satisfactory outcome. The Department is providing money to meet the cost of producing the voluntary code on which work is already being undertaken. An outline of the code and a timetable for its preparation is in hand. That complements very well what the hon. Gentleman is proposing. To ensure maximum uptake, we would like to involve key statutory organisations in the code's preparation.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Ryedale confirm that he has received letters of support for the code of practice concept from local authorities that have taken practical proactive steps themselves. I hope that we shall be able to involve the appropriate technical experts and representatives of Network Rail, local authorities and the Local Government Association, in preparing the code to ensure that it has a broad base of support amongst those statutory organisations with important responsibilities for the control of ragwort.

If the hon. Member for Ryedale is willing to support in Committee the amendments that I have outlined, I can confirm that the Government would support the Bill. I hope that he would be willing to make that commitment.

Mr. Greenway

I shall speak again.

Alun Michael

In that event, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to respond in the way that I have suggested. I would then look forward to working with him on the Bill in Committee because I believe that the code of practice has an important role to play in clarifying responsibilities and best practice in relation to weed control.

We are already reviewing the way that DEFRA pursues its responsibilities under the Weeds Act 1959, but that is not to release additional resources. Anyone who is aware of the needs of the countryside and the pressure on the Department will be aware how stretched we are, but I do believe that there are things that could be changed to make a difference to horse owners and target more effectively the available resources and the action that is undertaken. I hope that the Government's offer of co-operation on the Bill, our willingness to work with the industry to prepare a code of practice and the review of enforcement policy that I have announced today will be a signal to the horse industry, as suggested by hon. Members, that we are listening, that we have taken note of their concerns and that we are prepared to do something about them.

I hope that we shall be able to move forward supporting the Bill—that will help to cement closer working relationships with the horse industry, which is such a strength in the rural economy—and that by protecting the welfare of the horse we shall be able to protect the welfare of the industry and the wider economy. Provided that the hon. Gentleman is willing to commit himself to the approach I have suggested, I will be in a position to recommend to the House that the Bill pass into Committee for further discussion and amendment.

1.32 pm
Mr. Greenway

With the leave of the House, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to the Minister but also to my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) and all hon. Members on both sides of the House for their attendance today and for their approach to the Bill. I do not want to detain the House further, as other hon. Members now wish to pursue their own Bills, but I am happy to respond very positively to what the Minister has said. We agreed earlier this week that the amendments of the kind that he has described would appear to be appropriate, and I am happy to give him that undertaking. On that basis I hope that the question can be put and that we shall have a positive response.

Question put and agreed to.

Read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills).

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