Previous SectionIndexHome Page

3.35 am

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

Much work has been done on biological control in Canada, the United States of America, Tasmania and New Zealand. Several studies in the United Kingdom have looked mainly at a plant closely related to ragwort--groundsel--to which similar biological controls apply. The studies include those called

which the hon. Gentleman rightly said was a predator of the weed--

Although the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food chief scientist's group is not currently involved in any MAFF-funded research and development on the biological control of ragwort, the hon. Gentleman might be interested to know that the Institute of Arable Crops Research at Long Ashton in Bristol is participating in a European Union-funded, multinational project, "COST 816", which is exploring biological control of a range of weed species in Europe. Although ragwort is not currently included, groundsel is. Any information discovered on the control of groundsel applies to ragwort.

I shall try to deal with the point about the way in which the law works in respect of the control of ragwort. I shall concentrate on the details, because the matter is important.

25 Jul 2000 : Column 1090

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Morley: It is a question of legal interpretation. The point at issue is that the powers under the Act are designed for use in respect of agriculture and they have been given to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The land in which MAFF is interested is land that would be defined as agricultural land under the

25 Jul 2000 : Column 1091

Agriculture Act 1947. Much of the land that is the subject of complaints about weeds does not fall within the definition set out in the 1947 Act, and that is part of the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is producing a new code of practice for maintaining its roads, and is considering a recommendation

25 Jul 2000 : Column 1092

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

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

Next Section

IndexHome Page