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10.48 pm

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

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

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

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

The hon. Gentleman asked what we have done since last year. We have taken a range of actions to deal with ragwort. I do not underestimate the difficulties or the scale

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of the problem because of the spread of the weed and the wide range of land on which it grows. In consultation with the Rural Development Service and the Rural Payments Agency, we have examined ways to improve the discharge of our responsibilities under the 1959 Act and to ensure an efficient and consistent approach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Morley: Yes, those are reasonable points, and I also accept that, of course, it is very difficult for horse owners to check through deliveries of hay to ensure that it has not been contaminated with ragwort, but it is important that those who are cropping hay or silage ensure that it is not contaminated in that way. I accept that there are challenges—for example, for organic farms—but as I

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shall mention in moment, there are ways to deal with ragwort. We are trying to spread that information around by supporting the work of organisations—the British Horse Society, the Country Landowners Association and the National Equine Welfare Council—that have been active in promoting the awareness of ragwort contamination.

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

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

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

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. An intervention should be just that, and the Minister has very little time left to reply.

Mr. Morley: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

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

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

Question put and agreed to.

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