HL Deb 17 October 2003 vol 653 cc1234-48

1.56 p.m.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. In so doing, I must declare an interest. I am a vice-president of the British Horse Society, a past president and member of the National Pony Society, a vice-president of Ponies (UK), a member of the Highland Pony Society and a member of the Shire Horse Society. I have a Highland Pony stud and riding centre in north Yorkshire.

I feel most honoured to have been asked by Mr John Greenway, Member of Parliament for Ryedale, whose Private Member's Bill it is, to take it through your Lordships’House. Ragwort has become a scourge in the countryside and has increased alarmingly in the past few years. I am told that each plant can produce between 150,000 and 250,000 seeds that, once airborne, can travel up to 10 miles. The seeds can lie dormant for 20 years in the soil before germinating. It is estimated that about 500 equines die each year, but that number will rise unless something positive is done.

We have to use different methods of clearing ragwort in different places. This year at home I found ragwort growing on an island between two paths of a small river. I employed for a few weeks a young man who had just left university. He waded across the river and pulled the ragwort wearing protective gloves and clothing. I got him to put it in plastic bags, which he threw over the water and then took it away and burnt it far from stock. One cannot spray near water. This dangerous weed is not easy to get rid of. There needs to be good advice given in the code of practice.

The Bill would amend the Weeds Act 1959 and would allow for the introduction of a code of practice to prevent and control the spread of common ragwort. Common ragwort is one of five injurious weeds specified under the Weeds Act 1959. It is the only one of the five weeds that is poisonous to animals. Horses and livestock are especially susceptible to ragwort poisoning.

I applaud the honourable Member for Ryedale, Mr John Greenway, for introducing the Bill in another place earlier this year with the aim of protecting equines from the unnecessary suffering that can be inflicted through ingestion of ragwort. In preparing the Bill, Mr Greenway has worked closely with the British Horse Society. It has lobbied the Government for years about the dangers of ragwort. I hope that its efforts are about to come to fruition.

The symptoms of ragwort poisoning are harrowing for both the animals and their owners. Initially, there are digestive disturbances including abdominal pain and diarrhoea. There may be emaciation and jaundice. Nervous signs may develop—especially in horses, ponies and donkeys. Those include restlessness and aimless, unco-ordinated movement. The ultimate consequences at that stage are always fatal.

I am sure that many of your Lordships will be aware of someone who has experienced the distress of seeing a much-loved pony or horse suffer from what can often be a slow and painful death. Some may have experienced it first hand.

There is a myth that ragwort in its green state is not poisonous to horses because they do not eat it. That is not the case. Horses and ponies will eat ragwort growing in fields and paddocks and are more likely to ingest it at an early stage of growth. However, it is true that there is possibly a greater risk of horses suffering poisoning as a result of eating ragwort in dried forage. That is because the ragwort is more difficult to detect and is generally more palatable to animals, though no less poisonous, in its dried form.

The Bill has an important role to play in protecting animal welfare. Clause 1 would insert a new section in the Weeds Act 1959. The new section would, first, enable the Secretary of State to devise a code of practice to provide guidance on how to prevent the spread of ragwort. Secondly, it would require the Secretary of State to consult such persons as considered appropriate before devising the code. Thirdly, it would require the Secretary of State to lay a copy of the code before Parliament. Fourthly, it would allow the Secretary of State to revise the code. Fifthly, it would provide that the code be admissible in evidence. Sixthly, it would provide that the code could be taken into account in questions arising in proceedings in court, if the code appeared relevant to the court.

Those of your Lordships with an eye for detail may have noticed that the Bill refers to "Minister". That is a legal quirk due to the fact that the Weeds Act 1959 dates back to when the Minister responsible was the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. With the creation of the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the functions previously exercised by that Minister transferred to the Secretary of State. However, to ensure legal compatibility with the Weeds Act 1959, the same language must be used in the Bill. "Minister" should therefore be taken as meaning the Secretary of State.

Clause 2 ensures that the function of making a code of practice in Wales is transferred to the National Assembly for Wales. The functions under the Weeds Act 1959 relating to Wales were transferred to the National Assembly in 1999 by virtue of the National Assembly for Wales (Transfer of Functions) Order 1999. The Bill's references to "Minister" should, therefore, also be taking as meaning the National Assembly for Wales.

Clause 3 states the Bill's short title and provides that it shall come into force three months after adoption. It also provides that the Bill applies in England and Wales only.

The central part of the Bill is the code of practice. In many ways, the content of the code is more important than that of the Bill. Defra is to be congratulated on its willingness to work with the British Horse Society in anticipation of the Bill being passed to prepare a draft version of the code. That will enable the code to be put in place all the more swiftly should the House be ready to accept the Bill.

The draft of the code was placed in the public domain by the right honourable Minister of State for Rural Affairs and Minister with responsibility for the horse, Alun Michael and Mrs Pat Campbell, chairman of the British Horse Society, at the Hickstead Royal International Horse Show at the end of July. That event was timed to coincide with the British Horse Society's annual Ragwort Action Week. I am sure that the British Horse Society would like me to thank the Minister of State not only for lending his support to its campaign but for advancing the work of preparing the code of practice so swiftly. Assuming that the Bill is successful today—as I earnestly hope that it will be— that will enable the code to be put in place at an early date.

The code will strengthen enforcement and provide clear guidance for all landowners and occupiers on best practice to control the spread of ragwort. It will be especially relevant for local authorities and statutory organisations. It will advise on how to develop a strategic and more cost-effective approach to weed control. It will enable organisations to target their resources more directly at the real threat to animal welfare, and to plan more effectively on a longer-term basis.

The code will give detailed advice on identification of common ragwort to ensure that those responsible for clearance do not mistake it for other types of ragwort, and indeed other similar plants, which are not covered by the Act and code.

The code will set out how to carry out a risk assessment and establish priorities for ragwort control. It will provide information on all the different methods of weed control. It will advise on the most suitable method, taking into account efficacy of control, value for money and environmental considerations. In particular, it will take account of biological methods of control.

Importantly, the code will take account of environmental considerations. I know that some people are worried about the environmental impact of the code. I very much understand those concerns, but they are unjustified. I should make it clear that the intention of the code is not to eliminate common ragwort; it is to protect animal welfare. The code will recognise that, in the right circumstances, common ragwort contributes to the diversity of flora and fauna in the countryside. It is perfectly possible to balance the interests of biodiversity and animal welfare, and that is what the code of practice aims to achieve.

The code has another purpose. If the Ragwort Control Bill is adopted, the code will be admissible in enforcement proceedings under the Weeds Act. It would provide a yardstick against which compliance with an enforcement notice served under the Act can be measured. That will ensure that both parties know in advance what is considered reasonable action to comply with an enforcement notice. At present, there is no such guidance for parties. A person who can show compliance with the code will be in a better position to defend himself in proceedings brought against him under the Weeds Act.

As I have said, the Bill requires the Secretary of State to carry out formal consultation on the code and for the code to be laid before Parliament. Assuming that the House is good enough to adopt the Bill, there will therefore be a further opportunity for all interested parties to let the Government have their comments on the code.

Media and press coverage of the Ragwort Control Bill and, in particular, the launch of the code of practice has been unprecedented in the history of the British Horse Society's campaign, with five major titles and BBC radio featuring the launch, as well as numerous regional radio stations, local newspapers and the equestrian press. There has been the occasional dissenting voice, but, as already mentioned, those concerns are unfounded.

There has been a growing interest from local authorities and regional officers of the Highways Agency to become actively involved in controlling and preventing the spread of ragwort. It is expected that others will follow their lead, showing a willingness to comply with the code of practice and generally welcoming the Ragwort Control Bill.

I know that some would have liked the Bill to have gone further and believe that it does not have enough teeth for enforcement. I am also aware that others are concerned that the proposed code may go too far. Neither side should be concerned. The honourable Member for Ryedale, Mr John Greenway, has achieved a satisfactory compromise. It is to the Government's credit that they have been willing to work with him to achieve that. Mr Greenaway said in another place, 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".— [Official Report, Commons, 11/7/03; col. 1513.] I believe that the Ragwort Control Bill will be an important step forward in protecting animal welfare, which will be welcomed by horse and livestock owners and many others in the rural community. I commend it to the House and look forward to hearing noble Lords’ speeches. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and the civil servants from Defra for their help.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.— (Baroness Masham of Ilton.)

2.14 p.m.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

My Lords, I declare an interest as vice-chair of the All-Party Group on Conservation and Wildlife, and my speech springs from that interest. The Bill, whose Second Reading has just been admirably moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, went through the other place fairly smoothly and received a broadly warm welcome from such MPs as spoke. The Second Reading debate lasted just under two hours, the Committee stage 40 minutes, the Report stage 70 minutes and Third Reading a little over half an hour. It is unusual for Report to be longer than Committee, but that may have something to do tactically with other Private Members’ Bills on that particular Friday morning.

Most of the speeches in the other place concentrated on the iniquities of ragwort in relation to equine welfare—a phrase that was contained in the original title to the Bill. I should immediately make clear that I am not taking issue with that central point on which the noble Baroness has just spoken. It is a point that I entirely understand. A cousin and godson of mind, Dr James Wood, is prominent in equine research in Newmarket and Cambridge, and thus a resource available to me. However, there was comparatively little concentration in the other place on the compensating positive contribution that ragwort makes to biodiversity in its effects on other species. I want to make some allusion to those so that an impression is not left after parliamentary process that the eradication of ragwort per se should itself be the commanding objective of the Bill. Control is a semantically different condition from eradication.

I warned the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, that I would make this intervention, but I have not had the opportunity to advise my parliamentary colleague Mr John Greenway MP, the progenitor of the Bill in the other place, and I apologise to him for that solecism through the pages of Hansard.

The background to my concerns is the position statement on ragwort control of the Wildlife and Countryside Link. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, had not yet seen the statement last night, although in its latter stages, her speech suggested that she had considered the anxieties overnight. I imagine that the Minister on the Front Bench has seen the statement. For the record, the position statement is supported by the following member organisations of the Wildlife and Countryside Link: the British Ecological Society, Buglife—the Invertebrate Conservation Trust, Butterfly Conservation, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the Herpetological Conservation Trust, the National Trust, Plantlife, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, the Wildlife Trust and the Woodland Trust. That roll-call gives the statement a degree of gravitas.

The subjects raised in the statement were little discussed in the other place, perhaps because the sponsor of the Bill was the British Horse Society, which is of course much involved in preparing the code. I should acknowledge, however, that Dr Derek Knottenbelt of Liverpool University was widely quoted, including as being the UK's leading specialist on ragwort poisoning, which, as I have said, is not a disputed issue. A distinguished exception to the general rule of "conservation is silence" in the other place was Miss Shona McIsaac, the MP for Cleethorpes, who herself has an academic background in this area and who spoke relevantly and at some length about the cinnabar moth. Even the Minister in the other place, Alun Michael MP, did not pay significant attention to the biodiversity issue, although I acknowledge that his support for the Bill on Second Reading, was conditional on Mr Greenway securing amendments to the Bill in Committee that the Government wanted to see. Of course, I am not privy to any conversations between the Minister and Mr Greenway on the substance of those amendments, but it was clear from the amendments in Committee that the Minister was to be under a statutory obligation to consult before issuing a code of practice for the purpose of providing guidance on how to prevent the spread of ragwort or senecio jacobaea.

Preparatory progress was already being made on the code of practice even while the Bill was in the other place. English Nature was represented on the steering group, which may be why the Minister there felt that biodiversity considerations would be swept up in the consultation. There is a separate regulatory impact assessment currently subject to Defra consultation, but the consultation on the code of practice would follow only upon the Bill's enactment. It runs the risk of putting the cart before the horse—an apposite metaphor in the context of this Bill. I will give the Wildlife and Countryside Link's conclusions first, because it may help to make the basic point, which I can then briefly illustrate at the level of detail thereafter.

Link argued that a review of the science should be undertaken to establish the full facts of the issue that should include fundamental data on the true spread of ragwort and the frequency of horse deaths from ragwort poisoning. Also, a full environmental impact assessment should be completed, which would mean an extension beyond the purely ragwort impact assessment in the regulatory impact assessment already published. Link concluded that it would not be able to endorse the code in the absence of reliable evidence that ragwort is increasing and on the frequency of horse deaths. In any case, greater emphasis should be given to the conservation importance of ragwort and the need to invest in the prevention of infestations by good pasture management rather than by widespread herbicide application because of its collateral consequences. In the context of the last point, the National Trust, which is a member of Link and one of the country's biggest landowners, has not experienced such a ragwort problem with animals grazing on its land. Link considers that the code should give precise recommendations to horse and pony owners on the appropriate stocking levels and other pasture management measures needed to reduce the development of ragwort seedlings. The Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority website already has some useful guidance on horse pasture management. Because of the partial reliance of owners on bought-in forage, it also extends to either reducing that reliance or testing the hay before use. Hay producers should be included in the ragwort control measures and encouraged to certify that their hay is not contaminated.

It would be pointless for me on a Friday to rehearse all the points made by Link in a position statement that runs to more than 20 paragraphs, but it may help if I illustrate by citing details in dispute, including points made in the other place that were not rebutted. I shall give one example. An MP said—the noble Baroness, Lady Masham of Ilton quoted this—that a single ragwort plant could produce 150,000 to 200,000 seeds and that they could travel for miles in the wind. On the other hand, the Ecological Society of America has indicated from research that 89 per cent of ragwort seed travel no more than five metres, with none found more than 14 metres from source. I recognise that those two asseverations may be capable of reconciliation; I am not qualified to determine between them. It is an area in which greater scientific certainty would be reassuring.

Similarly, Ragwort-UK—I take it from its title that it has a lobbying flavour—was quoted in the other place as saying that ragwort had increased by 50 per cent year on year in the past three years in places in which no action was taken to stop growth and in areas that it was monitoring. That is more alarmist language than that used in the conclusion of Preston, Pearman and Dines in the New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora, published in 2002 that, the distribution of senecio jacobaea"— ragwort—

is unchanged from the map in the 1962 atlas". Link is concerned that no evidence is provided to sustain paragraph 6 of the regulatory impact assessment, which states that ragwort is proliferating, quite apart from the 50 per cent claim made in paragraph 10. There have been few complaints or reports on ragwort from the farming sector, which the Weeds Act 1959 was designed to help.

I acknowledge that that would all be academic, unless there were separate reasons of biodiversity to wish to see ragwort remain far from eradicated, even if controlled for the good reasons adduced in the Bill. Ragwort supports many species of wildlife and is an important food plant for common broomrape— orobanche minor—and 14 species of fungi. Many invertebrates depend on it for survival. Some 177 invertebrate species have been reported feeding on ragwort nectar. An information note published by English Nature in 2003 suggests that, it is the food of at least 77 species of insect herbivore, 27 species of moth, 22 species of thrip, 13 species of bug, nine species of flies and six species of beetle". Of those, the most famous is the cinnabar moth, which was quoted by Miss McIsaac in the other place. Of the 77 species of insect herbivore, five are red data book examples, and eight are nationally scarce.

A recent review by Buglife—the Invertebrate Conservation Trust—identified 30 invertebrates as being confined to ragwort. Three beetles and four flies were nationally scarce, and one of the flies may deserve red data book status. Lest all that seem de minimis, certain groups of such insects particularly associated with ancient trees use ragwort as a nectar source, especially when the mid-season sources of nectar are scarce.

I am vividly conscious that, at this stage of the Bill's progress, amendments are potentially fatal because of the lack of time at this stage of the Session to reconcile positions on Private Members’ Bills between the two Houses. Therefore, as the Government will, ultimately, be primarily involved if the Bill becomes an Act, I seek a view from the Minister on whether Link's current apprehensions have substance. Secondly, assuming to a greater or lesser degree that they do, how does the Minister envisage assuaging them? Thirdly, does the Minister envisage or contemplate a full environment impact assessment beyond the rather slender one contained in the regulatory impact assessment which concentrates on ragwort itself and not on the collateral consequences for other species?

Finally, in the words of the Book of Common Prayer, for the third time of asking, neither Link nor I belittle for a moment the hazards to horses occasioned by ragwort poisoning. Our concerns are that the response to the problem should be proportionate and not disproportionate.

2.25 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, first, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, for introducing a Bill which allows us to debate such an important subject. Secondly, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, for taking up many of the Wildlife and Countryside Link points, which will allow me to make a slightly shorter speech.

Do we really need legislation? The Weeds Act 1959 gave Ministers the power to introduce enforcement for the five weeds listed, which included ragwort. It gave the Minister the power to prevent the spread of the weeds and to impose penalties. It also gave him default powers so that should a landowner take no action, he could call for the work to be done. It also laid down provision for expenses. Are we legislating because successive governments have failed to enforce the powers given to them under the original Bill? If so, that sets a bad precedent: every time there is a problem, instead of looking for ways of solving it which already exist, we seek to introduce yet more legislation.

Secondly, I echo a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville. He helpfully explained that it has been shown that ragwort is not proliferating. Does the Minister think that perhaps ragwort has become more visible because the Highways Agency and Network Rail, for example, are not dealing with it along the sides of roads and railways where people tend to see it far more? However, horses do not graze there and hay is not made in those places. Although I accept that ragwort can seed and blow over into adjoining land, it needs to be balanced with the expense of getting rid of it in those places so that the ragwort is less visible.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, mentioned important biodiversity considerations. If the figures can be substantiated—I have no reason to suspect that they are inaccurate—I, too, would not belittle the fact that 500 horse deaths a year are very serious. That needs to be dealt with. How many deaths are of horses grazing in ragwort and how many of them are horses eating hay that contains ragwort? One solution might be that people producing hay need to certify it as "ragwort free".

On the biodiversity issue, will the code offer adequate restrictions on the use of herbicides for the control of ragwort at sites of special scientific interest and at national and local nature reserves? That point was raised by Wildlife and Countryside Link. The last thing we need is for all the species listed by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, which depend on ragwort, to be harmed. Many sites of scientific interest contain ancient hay meadows. We do not want to spray them with herbicides. In those places ragwort should be pulled as opposed to sprayed.

Can the Minister address the question of whether he is satisfied that creating a code and then enforcing it will not be disproportionately burdensome on small businesses? The Government make much of deregulation and less red tape, but this Bill, while well-intentioned towards horse owners, really moves in the other direction.

While at this stage I do not oppose the Bill because I should very much like to hear the Minister's reply, I put it to the Government that they have powers under the original Weeds Act 1959 to enforce all the issues surrounding ragwort; they are simply not being used.


Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, and my honourable friend John Greenway on bringing forward this Bill, which we support. It seeks to control the vicious and poisonous weed, ragwort, a pernicious weed that is dangerous to livestock, humans and, in particular, horses. Defra should also be congratulated on its positive attitude in dealing with the Bill, to which at present we have no plans to table amendments.

I declare an interest as a former livestock farmer, amateur jockey and international event rider. I am also a member of the British Horse Society and, as a land manager, a member of the NFU. During my time with horses, until around 1994,1 cannot remember ragwort presenting a major problem. So what has caused the alarming increase of this weed? The causes may be due to the demise of farming, the dramatic drop in livestock numbers and changes in grassland husbandry practices. It may be that people do not follow good livestock practices as carefully as once they used to.

I was alarmed to read in Commons Hansard a speech made by Mr Greenway on 21st March 2003 at col. 1225. He told of a situation concerning a lady who runs a riding school in West Bromwich. She and her friends lease the land from the local authority. It is infested with ragwort and they are losing their horses. I had thought that all livestock owners, especially horse owners, would check their fields for ragwort and certainly not turn out their valuable animals if any ragwort was present. All the equestrian publications say as much. However, I was reassured to read in the draft code of practice that: The primary responsibility for control rests with the occupier of the land on which the weeds are growing. My experience of ragwort is in the parkland and other grassland areas of my home, where it has been a problem for 10 years or more. A charming man who went by the name of Cookie used to be responsible for ragwort control in the parkland. He had a bad habit of pulling the plants and then leaving them in his wooden-floored trailer, which he would drive around the land for several days thereafter. I fear that he may well have sown more ragwort than he pulled, for the seed probably fell through the gaps in the wooden floor of the trailer. Like the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, I strongly suggest that if ragwort is pulled, it must be disposed of in a safe place—and not carried in one's gloved hand as one walks around. This may result in the hand-sowing of ragwort seeds.

Noble Lords may be interested to learn that, over recent years, during the midsummer months we have used the equivalent of one man per day to control ragwort infestation in the parkland area. Starting in April or May, we have employed chemical spot treatment using citronella oil. The oil does not pose a hazard to the environment or to human health. Indeed, it is used by humans to avoid being bitten by mosquitoes. Later in the season, as the ragwort rosettes begin to grow above the surrounding pasture, we apply a glyphosate swipe, and finally we pull it. This operation is carried out until the end of September. Even in a drought year such as this, pulling the weed proved relatively easy.

The control of ragwort is best tackled using a variety of techniques. The draft code of practice describes several of them, but has little to say about how to stop infestation through good grassland management. Trying to control ragwort is rather like trying to control grey squirrels: for one year you seem to have made an extra effort and have managed to control their numbers, but come the next year, they are back in force.

The financial cost of control is huge. Non-parkland grassland would be less challenging to control if we went back to basic grassland management techniques. During my time at the Royal College of Cirencester, the then renowned teacher of grassland management, Dai Barling, used to say in his Welsh accent, "Fertilise and cut". He meant that swards should be well grazed by livestock at monthly intervals, with small dressings of fertiliser applied at the end of grazing. This resulted in an excellent, strong pasture comprising about 80 per cent ryegrasses, a pasture in which it would be difficult for any pernicious weed to establish itself.

We are advised that ragwort arrived in Britain from Sicily in the late 16th century. Little or no mention of it is made in literature and paintings. Presumably good agricultural practices and natural predators dealt with it. So why has ragwort not reared its head in the past 400 years until now? What has changed? I checked with some MAFF publications of the 1980s to see whether it was a serious problem then. I found virtually no mention of it. The pamphlet, Weed Control in grassland, herbage, legumes and grass seed crops 1983–84, mentioned that there were no chemicals that gave, consistently good control—both shoots and roots. So what was controlling it? Why do we have a problem with ragwort now? Legislating before we answer these questions properly I hope will not result in bad legislation.

The Bill has been drafted in the belief that a code of practice is the answer. The code of practice offered by the Bill is a supportive, practical guide to help public bodies, relevant authorities, owners and occupiers of land to control the spread of ragwort, thus preventing the death of livestock, especially horses. Thus the code must be balanced and workable for the Bill to succeed.

The draft code of practice gives important and excellent advice. For example, it advises on issues such as those found in the Agricultural Act 1970 and the feedstuff regulations 2000 which govern the sale of animal feed and forage and make it an offence to sell animal feed and forage that contains a poisonous weed such as ragwort—for example, in hay.

The code of practice should perhaps be expanded in some areas to explain matters more fully. For instance, it states: Control methods should take into account public access and safety and a suitably sufficient risk assessment must be undertaken prior to control". What are the implications of that?

One might be surprised to find other advice in this code—such as that found on page 21, section 169— which states: Suitable facemasks should be made available so that they may be worn to avoid the inhalation of ragwort pollen and to reduce the risk of hay fever". I have bad hay fever but I have never come across this problem.

It also states in another section that: You should not attempt to dig or pull ragwort in poor visibility or during the hours of darkness on roads". Is this the kind of advice we really need?

My noble friend Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville mentioned pasture management, an issue to which I have already referred. I fully concur with him. Perhaps the code of practice could have added advice on good grassland management. For instance, pasture that has been heavily grazed by horses and ponies should be rested and then grazed by cattle—or, better still, by sheep—to help renovate the pasture, thus making it less vulnerable to seeding ragwort. Horses and ponies grazing on pasture degrade it badly.

The code also perhaps could have added advice on the cinnabar moth and given an address for the purchasing of cinnabar grubs. I, for one, should like to purchase some. We know that biological methods of control such as moths and beetles have led to the eradication of 85 per cent of ragwort plants in Tasmania. I should stress that I am not advocating eradication. In the pamphlet that I have on this issue, I was reading "eradication" for "control". I, for one, would like to see more about natural control in the code of practice.

May I ask the Minister two further questions? Where land managers are required to clear the ragwort, will this mean the removal of the flowering stem or the non-flowering rosette as well? Secondly, what measures to control ragwort in Scotland is he aware of?

2.40 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

I join in the congratulations to the noble Baroness on bringing the Bill forward in this House and to the Member of the other House, Mr John Greenway, on his work on this legislation. The Government have co-operated with a private Member in another place and in this House; we believe very strongly that the Bill has merit and fully deserves support, with the aim of protecting animals. That is why my colleague Alun Michael has been working very closely with Mr John Greenway. It is also why we are prepared to issue a draft code of practice in advance of the adoption of the Bill and why Alun Michael has made a commitment in another place that the Government would introduce the code on a voluntary basis, should the Bill, unfortunately, not find favour in this House. But I believe that with some reassurances that I and, no doubt, the noble Baroness can give, it should accept the Bill.

Clearly, all noble Lords who have spoken recognise that a real threat is posed to equine and animal welfare from ragwort poisoning, which can have a devastating effect on equine businesses. It is not simply a threat to individual horses and their owners but to the operation of some of those equine businesses which are playing an increasingly significant role in the wider rural economy. With regard to that, Alun Michael has recently announced the first ever joint research projects into the horse industry. They will provide for a long-term development strategy of a major feature of our rural areas and a growing area in which recreation and other activities of the population as a whole are focused in our countryside.

The horse, the welfare of the horse and the economic benefit of horse-based industries, are therefore very significant in the countryside. The damage that ragwort poisoning can do is therefore important from an economic as well as an animal welfare viewpoint.

The noble Baroness, Lady Miller, asked why we need additional powers. The Weeds Act 1959, which is a relatively ancient piece of legislation going back over 40 years, was, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, indicated, primarily for the protection of farmers rather than animals and was certainly not specifically directed at horse welfare. The Bill would insert a new section that would enable the Secretary of State to make a code of practice which would help the enforcement of the Act as it would give the courts an indication of what was reasonable in order to comply with orders and general duties under the Act. That is why we need an additional piece of legislation which is within the context of the Weeds Act but takes it further, and gives greater guidance to landowners and others who have responsibility for the control of ragwort on how any orders should be carried out.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, cast some doubt on whether ragwort had significantly increased, and, to some extent, the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, replied. Some of the claims for increasing ragwort may be a bit exaggerated and based on localised infestations. The most recent national countryside survey found no overall increase in fertile or infertile grasslands during the period to 1998, but there was a significant increase in the frequency of ragwort in lowland woods and on arable land. Indeed, in some localised areas, including those managed and owned by the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, there has been an increase in grassland as well. There has been an overall increase on certain types of land, and some increase on other types of land at a local level.

It is also true that we are dealing with a country and a society that makes more use of the horse for recreational purposes than has otherwise been the case. In other words, more horses are exposed to casual eating of ragwort than would have been the case 50 years ago. Therefore, on both sides of the equation, we have an increase of equines to this dangerous plant. Ragwort poisoning is not inevitable and proper management of ragwort will ensure that the danger to horses is minimised.

The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, recognised that there were some concerns about the Bill, and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, referred to the Wildlife and Countryside Link evidence, of which I was aware and which I have now seen in some detail.

The code of practice and methods of enforcement will need to take account of those environmental and biodiversity concerns. However, I believe that the Bill and draft code of practice strike the right balance. The code of practice will protect animal welfare, but without imposing new burdens of expenditure on industry and government, and in the longer term might even save some expenditure to some businesses in rural areas. At the same time, it also strikes a balance in relation to environmental concerns. After all, as the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, said, we are aiming not for eradication of ragwort but for a proper control system. The code of practice respects the need to maintain biodiversity and seeks to ensure a rich and varied flora and fauna in the countryside. It also provides specific guidance on how to deal with environmentally sensitive areas, and on the types of control, advising on whether to use herbicides in different circumstances—including the sites of special scientific interest referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Miller. We are not aiming for an elimination or eradication programme; we are aiming for proper management and control.

The regulatory impact assessment has been revised since its original form to take more note of some of those concerns. I am not sure whether the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, was referring to the original or the current one. The revised version is now in the Library of the House. The revised code of practice will need to take account of some of the environmental concerns expressed by the noble Lord and the Wildlife and Countryside Link. In that context, we shall also consider again the environmental impact aspect of this question. The process will need to be subject to widespread consultation before we get the final version of the code of practice. Clearly, that consultation will include environmental and other organisations which have an interest in maintaining the diversity of the countryside.

Following the launch of the draft code at Hickstead at the end of July, we have already had several people writing in with comments to Defra, including the Wildlife and Countryside Link, and others. Until the Bill is passed, we shall not be in a formal consultation period, but I assure all those who have sent in such comments that, if the Bill is passed, they will also be taken into account in the formal consultation period and fully considered when we prepare the final text of the code.

The National Assembly for Wales will consult separately on a code of practice for Wales. I cannot directly answer the question about Scotland put by the noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick. I am not aware that Scotland is moving in parallel, and I am not sure whether people in Scotland perceive ragwort as such a big problem. In any case, as the noble Lord knows, that is a matter for the Scottish Parliament. If it is taking such steps, I shall ensure that he is informed.

We recognise the concerns, but we also recognise that there is quite a serious problem. The Liverpool University research to which the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, referred estimates that at least 500 horses a year die, and others suffer serious illness, as a result of eating ragwort. Others have put the estimate somewhat higher. That is why we have given the Bill our backing. It is worthy of your Lordships’ support. Once again, I thank and congratulate the noble Baroness on bringing it before the House today.


Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords and the Minister for their most interesting speeches. The idea of the noble Baroness, Lady Miller of Chilthorne Domer, regarding selling ragwort-free hay is a very good one. I hope that it can be included in the code of practice. It is an excellent idea. Those of us who have to buy hay are always worried about hidden ragwort.

The speech of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, was exceedingly interesting. I learnt a lot about beetles and flies. I wonder whether the group of which he is a member would consider what ragwort seeds might do to birds. As ragwort is so poisonous to animals and human beings, the seeds may be dangerous to birds. That may explain why sparrows have disappeared from my part of the world.

The noble Lord, Lord Rotherwick, and I share the same problem regarding getting rid of ragwort. It is a problem. I am sure the whole House will be aware that ragwort will not be eliminated. I am a Scot and various friends who visited me this year said that there was a huge amount of ragwort in Scotland. Perhaps Scotland will take note of this Bill if your Lordships give it a Second Reading, which, having thanked everyone, I now ask noble Lords to do.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.