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21 Mar 2003 : Column 1237—continued

12.55 pm

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) on being so high up in the ballot—although I do not know why we congratulate our colleagues in such circumstances, as it is a matter of pure chance. I am glad that he had the good sense to introduce such an excellent Bill.

I must declare a non-pecuniary interest. Until recently I chaired the parliamentary Horse and Pony Taxation Committee. As such I was a consultant to the British Horse Industry Confederation, and I remain president of the Association of British Riding Schools, which takes a keen interest in the Bill.

The Bill is supported by most knowledgeable organisations in this sphere, including the British Horseracing Board, the National Farmers Union, the

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British Horse Society—which I believe was largely responsible for helping to draft the Bill—the Country Land and Business Association and a variety of other equine organisations.

As others have said, there is a long history of support in the House for action of some sort to deal with ragwort. In November 2002, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) presented an early-day motion calling for action, and, as we have heard, there have been Adjournment debates. I do not think we have paid enough tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who presented two ten-minute Bills on the subject, which may have been enough to stimulate the interest of the Government and, indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale.

We have heard much about the ragwort problem, and I think its existence is fairly widely accepted. I was, however, slightly disappointed by the speech of the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley), who seemed rather less enthusiastic than most of us about its eradication. Incidentally, I must take issue with her on one minute detail. She said that county councils should have authority to implement eradication plans or at any rate to deal with ragwort in one way or another. The point of my hon. Friend's Bill is that it requires authorities such as county councils to take the action that they do not apparently take. When the Bill becomes law, as I hope that it will, county councils' highways authorities will be required to deal with their roads just as the main Highways Agency deals with motorways and the like.

Sandra Gidley: The point I was trying to make—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was listening—is that it is unnecessary to overburden a Department with a matter that could easily be dealt with at local level. There are various options, some of which have been mentioned today. As for my "lack of enthusiasm", the hon. Gentleman misrepresented me slightly. The fact that I did not speak at length does not mean that I do not consider the subject important.

Mr. Gray: I am delighted by those reassurances, although I remain confused about one point. If the Bill's purpose is to require local authorities to act, how can they be required to check whether they have done so? That would be a very peculiar form of self-regulation. While the Minister probably would not read each ragwort control report personally, I am sure he has a host of willing and able civil servants who would be happy to do it for him. Some degree of central control might be a good idea. I am pleased, however, that my hon. Friend has said that not all three parts of the Bill need be enacted—that they are options, and he would be content with the enactment of just one part.

We have heard a great deal about the huge problem of ragwort; it causes incurable liver damage, primarily among horses, although as the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) pointed out, sheep and cows can sometimes be affected. Each plant produces 100,000 seeds—an astonishing figure. As the hon. Lady also pointed out, the seeds can remain alive for up to 20 years, which adds to the problem. The plants are extremely difficult to deal with, as I know from trying to

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eradicate them by hand from a field behind my house. It is extremely hard to pull up the roots and the plants spread like wildfire.

Shona McIsaac: If the hon. Gentleman has difficulty rooting out ragwort, he should contact Clee Saddlery and buy its excellent rag fork.

Mr. Gray: I was going to refer to rag forks; I think they are great. The hon. Lady is right—I must get one.

As the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), and others, correctly said, the problem affects not only animals on the land where the ragwort is growing but can be spread inadvertently through hay when the land is cropped. It is an extremely worrying matter and we must do something about it.

I pay tribute to the British Horse Society's Root Out Ragwort campaign, which got people interested in the problem four years ago. I hope that interest will be furthered by the debate and that the Government will at last take notice of the problem.

I want to set out how the Bill would tackle this major problem for the countryside. Ragwort is a notifiable weed under the Weeds Act 1959 and owners are required to deal with it. To be fair, most farmers and landowners try to do so, although some do not. In those cases, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs could make more use of the available powers, but in practice it would be difficult to do so, due to the problems of finding out where the ragwort was growing. Education might be a better way to proceed, rather than heavy-handed enforcement of the law.

The Government could, however, take action with regard to Departments, as there are some bad examples of them completely ignoring ragwort on their land. An area that I know well is Salisbury plain, just outside my constituency, where land owned by the Ministry of Defence is covered in ragwort and no effort is made to eradicate it. Perhaps the Minister could raise that matter with some of his ministerial colleagues and ensure that they live up to their responsibilities.

The Bill would extend the duties already in force for private landowners and the Government to statutory undertakers—a nice expression—such as those who maintain railways, roads, canals and airports. Thus the Bill is not about private landowners but about statutory undertakers. The NFU highlighted that point in a letter to me praising the Bill, which states:

I welcome the fact that the Minister took that action. Can he tell us about the reaction of those organisations? Are they taking the matter as seriously as we are? Unfortunately, they do not seem to be taking the problems nearly seriously enough—with one notable exception. The Bill's purpose is to introduce a statutory obligation on them to do so in future.

The notable exception is the Highways Agency, to which I pay tribute. The agency is doing extremely good work. It spends about £1 million a year to combat the

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spread of ragwort along the 5,841 miles of trunk roads and motorway that it operates across England. It is doing good stuff, and the other statutory authorities, including the county councils and Railtrack, could learn some lessons from it.

As the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) pointed out—my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) discussed this issue at some length—it is disappointing that DEFRA is not doing more. Hardly any enforcement actions are taken through the 1959 Act, and it could do more in that regard. Such lack of action may be explained by an interesting quote that I spotted on The Donkey Sanctuary's ragwort campaign website—a website that I do not often look in on. The campaign had got in touch with DEFRA to suggest that more should be done about ragwort, and DEFRA replied that

To a degree, I agree with the sanctuary's complaints and with DEFRA's reply. None the less, the Department's arguing that it does not want to use the statutory powers at its disposal, and that it would much rather that such things be sorted out

is a little disappointing. Instead, perhaps the Government might choose some high-profile occasion on which to take action against a particularly bad example of ragwort rogues, as it were. In doing so, they might encourage others to be more sensible about the issue.

I therefore welcome the introduction of this Bill by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale, because it closes what is, in effect, a gap in current legislation. At the moment, private landowners are required to clear up ragwort as a notifiable weed, but public authorities are not. The Bill therefore seems a very sensible closure of that gap. It addresses what is a very real problem in our countryside, and as my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon said, it sends a useful message to an equine industry that faces some difficult times for various reasons—not least because of the Minister's decision to ban hunting, which will have a great effect on that industry throughout England. In view of that background, it might therefore be a useful time to send a message to that industry that the Government and everyone in this House are determined to do something to help the 1 million horses, and the 2 million to 3 million people who ride in England every year. By abolishing ragwort—by taking action to ensure that local authorities, railways, canal authorities and others do so—the Government will send out exactly that message.

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