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21 Mar 2003 : Column 1240—continued

1.07 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs and Urban Quality of Life (Alun Michael): I begin by thanking the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) for the way in which he introduced this Bill, and the constructive manner in which he has dealt with a matter of great concern to the countryside. During 1997 and afterwards, when we both had different responsibilities, he and I had many exchanges relating to criminal justice. Those exchanges were almost invariably constructive—something that cannot always be said of exchanges in

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this House. The hon. Gentleman's approach and our discussions with each other and with the British Horse Society have been extremely constructive; indeed, they have pointed to a way forward, to which I shall return in a few minutes.

I acknowledge that ragwort poses a real threat to equine welfare—a point made by several Members—and its devastating, often fatal effect on horses, ponies and donkeys has been well publicised. Indeed, the hon. Member for Ryedale spelt that out in a contribution that ranged from the clinical to the almost poetic. Some might suggest that this is not an appropriate matter to debate in this House; indeed, one or two Members have contrasted the main topics for today's debate with other issues such as today's statement. However, the fact is that the death of a pony can have a devastating effect on a family, and on children who lose an animal that is more than just a pet. It is clear that we need to do more about this issue.

I also share with the hon. Gentleman a wish to achieve simple, practical and effective action. We want to avoid increasing the costs and bureaucracy for those who can take measures to eradicate ragwort. Several hon. Members made constructive contributions along those lines, including my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann), who effectively represented the ragwort warriors of his constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) brought an informed approach to the debate. I understand that the issue formed part of her academic studies, which is why she has such an excellent knowledge of the topic. My hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Romsey (Sandra Gidley) mentioned other forms of ragwort, and the main point to make is that they also have poisonous effects but are nothing like as common as the common ragwort, which is the plant referred to specifically in the Weeds Act 1959. I am not sure about the relative toxicity of the other forms of ragwort, but I shall look into it and ensure that when we discuss it in Committee I am able to deal with those queries.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Djanogly) on his contribution, which was clearly derived from personal local experience. The hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) covered ground on which we generally agree, although I suggest gently that he showed more enthusiasm for regulation than is often the case in our exchanges. He mentioned the messages that we send out to people who are concerned about horses and to the horse industry generally. I am pleased by the response that I have received from people in the horse industry on various issues.

The Government have sought to do more than in the past to assist the horse industry, not least by designating an official for the horse who has specific responsibility for working with the industry. That was not the case before. I am the third person to be the Minister with responsibility for the horse, but the flaw was the lack of specific and targeted back-up in the Department. That has now been corrected and Graham Cory, who leads on the issue, has had many meetings with the horse industry. That has been widely welcomed. We are also looking at working with those who are involved in the

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wide variety of organisations that comprise the horse industry to map out the benefits that can be achieved and to identify the future for the industry.

Ragwort poses a real threat to equine welfare. The focus of this debate has been on horses, but—as some hon. Members have pointed out—ragwort poisoning can also prove fatal for cattle, sheep and other animals, through cumulative liver damage. However, because of the differences in the digestive systems, the effect is most usually observed in horses and ponies, in which it arises more rapidly. The effect of ragwort on the liver is less noticeable in cattle and sheep because most agricultural livestock is slaughtered before the cumulative effect proves fatal. I also acknowledge that the emotional attachment to horses and ponies makes it all the more distressing for owners to see their animals suffering from ragwort poisoning and what can often be a slow and painful death.

Ragwort poses two specific risks to horses. First, there is a risk that horses and ponies will eat ragwort growing in field and paddocks. Secondly, as has already been pointed out, there is a risk that ragwort will contaminate dried forage. The latter is possibly the greater risk, as in its dried state ragwort is more palatable to animals. I do not have authoritative statistics about the number of horses and ponies which die each year from ragwort poisoning, although hon. Members have pointed to the estimate made by the British Horse Society of some 500 deaths. The BHS expects that number to increase. We all have a part to play in preventing those deaths.

I want to concentrate mainly on what the Government and public bodies can do, but I am sure that it will be accepted that horse and pony owners have responsibilities too. They must protect their animals from ragwort poisoning when they are able to take preventive action. That includes ensuring that bought-in feed is purchased from a reputable dealer and warranted to be ragwort-free. I have discussed the issue with the British Horse Society, and I am grateful for its work in bringing that message home to horse owners. I am delighted to learn that Pony Club messages have reached the homes of hon. Members.

It is essential that we ensure that horse and pony owners can recognise ragwort and other poisonous plants. The suggestion of using visual aids to widen coverage of the debate is a helpful one, although I am not sure, in the current climate, how extensive national coverage might be. It is important for people to know what action they should take to control poisonous weeds in fields or paddocks where animals are grazing. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is helping; we have published identification leaflets and booklets describing weed control methodology, and those are available on our website. I shall send copies of that information to all the hon. Members who have taken part in today's debate. Anything Members can do to advertise the availability of that information would be most welcome.

Shona McIsaac: Are biological methods of control mentioned in the literature, and has the Department conducted any research into those methods?

Alun Michael: I am not specifically aware that that is covered, but I believe that all options are covered in the

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information. I shall make it available to all the hon. Members who have participated in the debate. That issue is the kind of thing that may be relevant to the code of practice, and it may well be touched on in Committee.

I am keen to ensure that the Government play a full part in controlling the spread of ragwort. Our powers derive from the Weeds Act 1959. Although that legislation is rather old, it is still an effective tool. Members have quoted from previous debates the authority that it gives to the Secretary of State to control the spread of ragwort as one of five weeds specified in the 1959 Act. The others are the creeping or field thistle, the spear thistle, the curled dock and the broad-leaved dock. It is important to note that the Act does not make it an offence to permit injurious weeds to grow on land. It is primarily concerned with preventing the spread of weeds.

Section 1 of the 1959 Act gives a permissive power to the Secretary of State to serve a notice on an occupier of land on which one of the five injurious weeds is growing, requiring the occupier to take action to prevent the weeds from spreading. Section 2 provides that where a notice has been served and the occupier has unreasonably failed to comply with it, he or she shall be guilty of an offence, and liable to a fine on conviction. Section 3 provides that where an occupier fails to take clearance action, the Secretary of State may take action to arrange for weeds to be removed and may recover the cost of doing so through the courts. Additional powers permit officials to enter land to inspect whether an enforcement notice has been complied with.

Mr. Djanogly: We have heard a fair amount about what the Secretary of State can do under the 1959 Act. It would be helpful if we could leave the House today with a commitment that the Government will do more to enforce the provisions.

Alun Michael: Let us work towards that point. The Government have used their powers under the 1959 Act mainly to prevent the spread of ragwort and the other specified injurious weeds to farm land. In 2000, recognising the horse industry's potential contribution to farm diversification activities, the then Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food extended enforcement activity under the Act to on-farm diversified equine businesses.

DEFRA has maintained that approach, and enforcement work under the 1959 Act is still concentrated on investigating complaints where there is a risk to agriculture and farming. The situation has changed, however. DEFRA has much wider responsibilities than those held by the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Although it is important, agriculture is no longer our sole interest. We are concerned with the whole rural economy. Last year, in my capacity as Minister responsible for horses, I announced that we would discuss with industry representatives the best way to ensure that the horse industry plays a full part in our efforts. In other words, we must work together to strengthen the rural economy.

There are approximately 1 million horses in the United Kingdom, supported by 3,000 hectares of grazing and a further 3,000 hectares of feed production. Equine interests represent one of the largest economic

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activities in the countryside, and horse enterprises are major employers in rural areas. I do not underestimate the latent damage that ragwort poisoning could inflict on that increasingly important sector of the rural economy if weed control is not taken seriously. That is why we will review the way that we focus our available resources on those actions that can make the best contribution to protecting horses, as well as farm animals, while recognising the need to protect the rural economy. I hope that that will allow us to respond more effectively to the concerns of horse owners. In considering our approach to enforcement under the 1959 Act, we will need to pay due regard to animal welfare and human health considerations.

I want to make a point about timing. In his introduction, the hon. Member for Ryedale said that easy identification takes place in the latter part of the season when, to a considerable extent, the damage is already on the way to being done. It is already too late to influence the long-term weed control strategies for 2003. Many of the statutory undertakings whom we are targeting will determine their weed control policy over the winter months. Preventing the spread of weeds relies on early treatment before plants are allowed to seed. It was with that in mind that I wrote to the key organisations last autumn urging them to adopt a co-ordinated approach to weed control—in other words, not only to respond to complaints, but to consider the issues strategically. Over the next few weeks, I will remind statutory undertakings about the need to take weed control seriously and urge them to incorporate weed control activities in their routine maintenance programmes. Launching the voluntary code in the summer, as we intend, will link with the British Horse Society's "Let's rout ragwort" campaign—all the slogans in this campaign should be read out early in the day rather than after an entertaining evening—and will help to ensure that the code receives maximum publicity. A summer launch will also ensure that the code is in place in time to influence weed control strategy planning next winter. The hon. Gentleman's suggestion that we should give the House's support to efforts to put measures in place is extremely welcome.

I have a great deal of respect for the way in which the hon. Member for Ryedale promoted his Bill, and I share his wish to tackle the problem. He explained that the main target is statutory organisations, including local authorities, the Highways Agency and Network Rail. As matters stand, local authorities are responsible for the control of ragwort on minor roads, the Highways Agency is responsible for motorways and trunk roads—I was pleased to hear the comments made by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire about the work that it undertakes—and Network Rail is responsible for the clearance of ragwort on railway land.

Last summer, there was a proliferation of ragwort on roadside verges and on railway embankments. It is only fair to point out that circumstances over the past two years have been quite unusual. It is possible that the outbreak of ragwort is a result of the reduced clearance work undertaken in summer 2001, which was an inevitable by-product and consequence of foot and mouth disease. Some, however, suspect that it might be indicative of a change in approach by the responsible authorities. That is why I sent them letters to remind them of the importance of this issue. Last year, I wrote

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to the Highways Agency, the Local Government Association and the then Railtrack to stress the importance of keeping ragwort infestations under control, and they all responded by indicating that they recognised the danger that ragwort can pose to horses and other livestock.

The Bill places a wide-ranging obligation on statutory bodies to control ragwort on all the land that they occupy. The hon. Member for Ryedale has already described in detail the content of the Bill. I am with him on what he wants to achieve but I have concerns about the practical consequences of implementing the Bill in its current form. I had the opportunity to explain those concerns to the hon. Gentleman when we met a week ago, but it is only fair that I should explain them to the House.

As drafted, the Bill would place significant new burdens on local authorities and other statutory undertakings. That would have significant cost implications. The Bill is also rather a blunt instrument and in its current form does not focus on the real problem—which is how to prevent the spread of ragwort to land that is used to graze horses and other livestock, or to grassland that is used for forage. It would affect a wide range of statutory undertakings, including the Post Office, the Civil Aviation Authority, airport operators, the Environment Agency, and gas and electricity providers, as well as more directly relevant bodies such as local authorities, the Highways Agency and Network Rail Environment. Local authorities, as one or two hon. Members have acknowledged, have many competing bids for funding—for example, there is the need to provide social care and more money for education. Similarly, the Highways Agency and Network Rail are under pressure to find more money to maintain our roads and railways. In that climate, the Government cannot add to the financial burden falling on those bodies by giving them additional responsibilities. We need to help them to focus action where it does most to help to eradicate the problem.

I am not convinced that the additional administrative burden that the annual reporting procedures in the Bill would place on statutory undertakings would result in more being done to eradicate ragwort. It could just mean more bureaucracy. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would agree that targeted action is preferable to more paperwork. For those reasons, it will be difficult for the Government to support the Bill in its present form. However, I am grateful to the hon. Member for Ryedale and to the representatives of the British Horse Society for our discussions, which gave an indication of the wish to find a way forward.

The positive aspect of the Bill as drafted is the code of practice, which forms a central plank of the Bill. I believe that that could be helpful in helping statutory bodies understand their responsibilities in relation to weed control. A code of practice would ensure that landowners who are required to clear their land of ragwort understand exactly what is required of them. A code of practice would also help local authorities and other statutory organisations assess the risk and plan the most effective use of resources to prevent the spread of ragwort. Finally, a code of practice could help with

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the enforcement of the Weeds Act 1959 by providing a blueprint against which compliance could be measured. That would be beneficial to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, as the enforcement agency, and to the parties involved in any enforcement action that we take. It would simplify the evidential tests and reduce the work for all concerned. In other words, there could be a saving in bureaucracy if this is thought through in the way I believe the hon. Gentleman and I both wish. The Government are therefore willing to support a Bill that gives a code of practice on weed control statutory effect. That would give the authority of this House, and the support of Members, to what would otherwise be a voluntary code. In one sense, the difference is small; but in the sense of reflecting the views that have been expressed in this debate, the code could be an effective way forward.

I appreciate that what I have said will require extensive amendments to the Bill. However, I think the hon. Gentleman knows that I am proposing these changes in a constructive and co-operative spirit. To secure the outcome that I have described, it will be necessary to delete sections 1A and 1B of the Bill, which is likely to render sections 2 and 3 redundant as well. Some amendment to section 1C will also be necessary to ensure that a code of practice can be used in evidence for enforcement purposes. I believe that the hon. Gentleman would see that as a positive contribution.

As I have said, I have already spoken to the British Horse Society, as well as to the hon. Gentleman, to indicate the intention of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to achieve a satisfactory outcome. The Department is providing money to meet the cost of producing the voluntary code on which work is already being undertaken. An outline of the code and a timetable for its preparation is in hand. That complements very well what the hon. Gentleman is proposing. To ensure maximum uptake, we would like to involve key statutory organisations in the code's preparation.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Ryedale confirm that he has received letters of support for the code of practice concept from local authorities that have taken practical proactive steps themselves. I hope that we shall be able to involve the appropriate technical experts and representatives of Network Rail, local authorities and the Local Government Association, in preparing the code to ensure that it has a broad base of support amongst those statutory organisations with important responsibilities for the control of ragwort.

If the hon. Member for Ryedale is willing to support in Committee the amendments that I have outlined, I can confirm that the Government would support the Bill. I hope that he would be willing to make that commitment.

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