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21 Mar 2003 : Column 1219—continued

Mr. Hoon: Whatever view people may have taken in the past about the appropriateness or otherwise of military operations to support the international community's decisions on Saddam Hussein's regime and weapons of mass destruction, there is now strong support for the actions taken by British forces.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax): The Secretary of State knows that the American Government will do anything to avoid their citizens going back in body bags, and I hope that our Government would take the same view. However, does the fact that B-52s have left RAF Fairford mean that "operation shock and awe" is going to take place? If it does, how will we avoid killing civilians in such a massive dropping of ordnance on urban areas?

Mr. Hoon: As I told the House yesterday, inevitably there are risks to civilians, but the efforts taken by the

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UK, the United States and elsewhere to target the campaign accurately against regime targets continue. Although I cannot give a guarantee that civilians will not be affected, I can assure my hon. Friend that there is no ambition whatever to target civilians. Our quarrel is with the regime in Iraq and our targets are designed accordingly.

John Mann (Bassetlaw): Like me, many of my constituents have friends and family in the services. The one issue that has been raised with me most in recent days is a small, but important, concern relating to packages sent to loved ones. What arrangements have been made since war was declared for those to be delivered?

Mr. Hoon: There are arrangements for the delivery of small packages to members of the armed forces serving in the Gulf. When the conflict is concluded, I anticipate that those arrangements will be more extensive to allow for the delivery of larger packages. However, I am sure that hon. Members will understand why it is not possible in the early stages of a conflict to design arrangements that allow for large packages to be delivered, not least because there is simply insufficient space on board transport aircraft to deliver them when vital military equipment is being delivered into theatre.

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley): Can the Secretary of State confirm that the B-52 bombers that have left RAF Fairford do not, and will not, carry cluster bombs?

Mr. Hoon: Cluster bombs are unlikely to be delivered at this stage of the operation, as I already told the House. The present stage of the campaign is concerned with identifying regime targets and making it clear to the population of Iraq that it is the regime that we are attacking, not the people of that country.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, Cathcart): May I associate myself and my constituents with the expressions of sympathy for the servicemen lost last night? Contrary to the accusation that they died needlessly, those men died in the service of their country. Their families and the House are proud of them.

May I ask the Secretary of State about environmental damage to Iraq caused by fires in oil wells? Has he any intelligence to show whether, so far, the wells have simply been set alight—in which case the fires should be fairly easy to extinguish—or whether they have been sabotaged with the use of explosives, in which case the environmental damage could take far longer to repair?

Mr. Hoon: I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend has said. The strategic significance of the current operations is the effort to avoid just the sort of environmental risk that we feared the regime would pose, involving both the destruction of oil wells in the south and the potential release of large amounts of oil into the Gulf, which would cause an environmental and ecological catastrophe in that part of the world. The first stage has gone well, in that we have managed to avoid such a catastrophe.

There are clearly problems, but according to the best information I have at present there are only fires in about 30 oil wells—although we are worried about the possibility that they have been mined and more deliberate damage caused.

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Equine Welfare (Ragwort Control) Bill

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

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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

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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. McIrvine, 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 unco-ordinated 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.

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