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21 Mar 2003 : Column 1227—continued

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—

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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

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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.

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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.

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