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21 Mar 2003 : Column 1233—continued

12.39 pm

Mr. Jonathan Djanogly (Huntingdon): I, too, am pleased to support the Bill. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) on his expert uncovering of the problems associated with this pernicious weed, which is a poison to our equine friends. However, many regard ragwort as the very essence of an English summer—a letter in one newspaper described it as

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and many herbalists believe that Senecio jacobaea, also known as St. James' wort, has medicinal value: apparently, it can help to alleviate aches and pains and even stay catarrh. It has been said that the scientific evidence to back that claim is rather weak, and it is only used for external conditions.

Shona McIsaac: I might be pre-empting a comment that the hon. Gentleman was about to make. Ragwort has a long history of use in herbalism—in fact, it used to be used as a medicine for horses that had the staggers. Was he aware of that?

Mr. Djanogly: That is very interesting. I did know that in days gone by ragwort was used to cleanse what are described as old filthy ulcers in the privities.

A positive view of ragwort is, however, shadowed by the worrying threat that it poses to horses. I confess that the threat was originally brought home to me by my young son coming home with his pony club dangerous plants badge and telling me all about it.

The clusters of yellow summer-flowering weeds that grow up to 3 ft high are, of course, highly poisonous. All the figures available suggest that equine liver disease caused by ragwort poisoning killed at least 500 horses last year, and will probably kill 1,000 this year. Ragwort poisoning is almost undetectable until it is too late, with horses not showing symptoms until almost 75 per cent. of their liver has been rotted away, at which point, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale explained, they start to display a variety of behavioural abnormalities—becoming confused and disoriented, wandering aimlessly, and even banging their heads against brick walls.

My hon. Friend referred to Dr. Derek Knottenbelt of Liverpool university, the acclaimed expert in the subject. He has reported that because of the nature of death by liver failure—in some cases, without any warning, horses have been found dead—it is possible that many more cases of death by ragwort poisoning have been wrongly attributed to heart attack, stroke or colic. However, there are no routine autopsies in the equine world.

Whatever the numbers involved in ragwort poisoning, it is clear that the plague of ragwort and its rapid increase since the strange disappearance of the cinnabar moth 10 years ago mean death for horses. The reasons for the disappearance of the cinnabar moth have been discussed today; my findings tend to support the opinion of the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac). In effect, the moth is a victim of its own success, having munched its way through the vast reserves of the weed at some time in the past.

Shona McIsaac: It appears that in the late 80s, there was a vast increase in the population of cinnabar moth caterpillars. Usually, the caterpillars eat only the flowers, which results in fewer seeds being released to the wind, but at that time, they started to eat the first year rosettes as well and thus destroyed their own food source, because ragwort, being a biennial plant, did not come back immediately.

Mr. Djanogly: The hon. Lady reinforces the point well.

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The plague of ragwort is now growing dramatically and at an alarming rate. Ragwort UK informs me that in areas it has been monitoring, ragwort has increased by 50 per cent. year on year for the past three years in places where no action has been taken to stop growth. Dr. Knottenbelt says:

That is after many hundreds of horse fatalities, two Adjournment debates and many years of relative Government inaction on this rural plague.

However, as hon. Members have said, a law that allows the Government to deal with the problem already exists. It has done so since the Weeds Act 1959 came into force. In answer to an Adjournment debate introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—he is now the Under-Secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—said:

He then emphasised:

I am sure that the House and equestrians everywhere in Britain would like an answer to the simple question: why have the Government avoided dealing with this problem up to now?

Britain requires a national solution to ragwort. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale noted, a single ragwort plant can produce 150,000 to 200,000 seeds, and they can travel for miles in the wind. My understanding is that the seeds land with a 70 to 80 per cent. viability rate, meaning a large majority of them will germinate.

Landowners usually get rid of ragwort by pulling it up and burning it, and that can be effective in the short term. However, that is less effective in the long term if neighbouring areas do not take similar action. The widespread deposit of seeds from ragwort plants in neighbouring areas as a result of natural factors such as wind means that the ragwort will return within months. The country needs guidance and action from the Government.

We do not want landowners to be prosecuted for failing to notice a tiny patch of ragwort on their land. It is not illegal for them to have ragwort grow. However, with it growing so uncontrollably in areas all over the country—near railways, grazing fields and agriculture—it is clear that something needs to be done. The Government must stop ignoring their responsibility to the millions of people in this country who enjoy equestrian activity. I confess that I am one of them. The Government should offer joined-up governance to local authorities and local people on how to get rid of the weed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale mentioned Oxfordshire county council, and my research uncovered an earlier letter from the council that appeared in The Guardian on 29 August 2002. It explained how the council managed to get its 300 parishes together to report infestation and to advise landowners of

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appropriate action. That approach was apparently quite successful, but would it not have been easier if there had been help from DEFRA, which the letter referred to as "deafeningly silent" on the issue?

Given that MAFF and now DEFRA have both failed to take a proactive approach to solving the problem, I welcome the Bill. It reinforces the duty of landowners to control ragwort. The proposed new sections 1A and 1B that it would add to the Weeds Act 1959 would do that, although I hope that the reporting procedures in the proposed new section 1B are carefully considered in Committee. I also draw attention to the proposed new section 1C and to clause 2. I understand from Ragwort UK that DEFRA is looking to implement a national strategy by working with local authorities and landowners to combat the spread of the weed. That should have happened earlier because, in the past few years, ragwort has not been brought under control. Instead, it has gone further out of control.

The code of practice in the proposed new section 1C could provide the opportunity for DEFRA finally to offer guidance. I hope that a code would be subject to full prior consultation and that it would aim to involve the community as a whole. Clause 2 is also welcome, as long as DEFRA takes the opportunity to act on it. It would be no good adding highway authorities and statutory undertakers to the list of those who have a duty to control if DEFRA does nothing to ensure that the duties are observed. In any event, I hope that the Minister will not have to return to the House to tell us again that the Department has failed to act because it was only empowered and not required to do so.

Finally, I make a plea for the Government's general support for riding in this country, and their support of the Bill would form part of that. The sport not only gives pleasure to thousands of people and forms an important part of rural life, but provides rural employment. Riding stables have been hit hard over recent years by ragwort, regulations, foot and mouth disease and their vulnerability to crime. Indeed, stables in Hilton in my constituency have had tack and farm equipment stolen half a dozen times in the past three years. Proceeding with the Bill would go a small way towards showing the riding community and the countryside that we care about their interests and future.

12.50 pm

Sandra Gidley (Romsey): I congratulate the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) on promoting the Bill, which many of my constituents think is important. Our agriculture spokesman cannot be here today, but I took time to discuss it with him. He was generally supportive of it, although he was worried about aspects relating to biodiversity.

The bottom line is that the weed ragwort has a serious impact on animal health, and especially equine health. It should be eradicated. The hon. Member for Ryedale talked at length, although I do not mean that as a criticism. He outlined the problems caused by ragwort and the means of its eradication so comprehensively that I feel no need to repeat what he said. May we take my comments on that as read because I could not disagree with much of what he said?

On biodiversity, I do not want the issue to become a butterflies versus horses argument because that is the last thing that any of us want. [Interruption.] The hon.

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Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) is looking somewhat downcast about that. We need to ensure that biodiversity is fully considered in Committee. I thought about how we could sustain biodiversity and wondered whether we could set up conservation areas, but that would be difficult because of the way in which ragwort propagates. It would be difficult to restrict ragwort to a conservation area. I was rather taken by the tale told by the hon. Member for Ryedale about a horse called Scirocco. Its owner was absolutely scrupulous about keeping the horse's field clean and free of ragwort but the horse found something in conserved forage. A solution will not be easy, but we need to devote attention to it.

As the hon. Member for Cleethorpes said, the Bill should specify the biological name of the species of ragwort that is to be restricted because we do not want the Bill to lack clarity in respect of other species.

Regulation is the most worrying aspect of the Bill. Conservative Members say all the time that the Government introduce too much regulation and that they would introduce less, so I was disappointed to read that new section 1B—"Duty to report annually on measures taken to control ragwort"—states:

and so on; hon. Members may read the rest for themselves. I suspect that the Minister does not really want to be inundated with reports on ragwort control and I do not think that the provision is the most intelligent way of addressing the problem.

I noted the comments of the hon. Member for Ryedale on how we might regulate. He was fairly open about that. Clearly the Bill needs to have teeth, but we do not need to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

County councils could, more locally and relevantly, control and monitor the situation. My home county, Hampshire, takes the problem very seriously. The New Forest, although not in my constituency, is just down the road, and Hampshire therefore will have a real interest in the Bill. The same might apply to other county councils, such as Lincolnshire.

I have identified some issues that ought to be debated in Committee. I think that the Bill deserves to make progress. It enjoys a lot of support in my area, and probably in others.

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