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The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, I thank those who have taken part in this brief debate. I certainly do not want to prolong matters at this late hour.

I had hoped to hear rather more robust support for the nature conservancy cause, particularly from the Minister. I tabled the amendment because there is a great deal of unease about the possible consequences of the Bill—small and modest as it seems—in tipping the balance in favour of the eradication of ragwort, although the Minister said that was not the intention, and is probably not possible. There was a good deal of unease in nature conservancy circles when the Bill was published, and a sense that the importance of ragwort as an ecological or food plant had not really been recognised.

I suspect that most noble Lords who have spoken in the debate have probably not read in full the draft code of practice, which I read this afternoon. I was personally reassured by it, and I hope that the Minister can confirm that the form in which it now exists—I know that it is only a draft—is the form in which it will be published, with proper safeguards from the point of view of nature conservancy. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville moved Amendment No. 2:

The noble Lord said: My Lords, if the attendance of some noble Lords at this hour owes anything to alarms and excursions evinced by either the British Horse Society or the ILPH because of my own actions, I can only apologise to them. I understand that my notice of seeking to leave out Clause 1 was treated as a wrecking amendment by the British Horse Society, but I must say that the society did not get in touch with me to

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inquire my purpose. The amendment was agreed with the Minister as a device to enable us, in the remaining stages, to carry on with him the dialogue embarked on at Second Reading about the underlying principles of the code of practice, which lie at the heart of the legislation.

We veterans of the Second Reading have been joined this evening by, among others, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford, who in one of his final speeches in your Lordships' House shared a number of my concerns. I echo the words of my noble friend Lady Trumpington towards him at this moment in his career in your Lordships' House.

I believed that I had made it clear on Second Reading—not once but three times—that I wished the Bill and horses well. As other noble Lords have said, since amendments of any sort carried at this time in the Session, whether wrecking or otherwise, would kill the Bill, I suggested that we proceed by way of dialogue rather than hostility or confrontation. We are doing that on Report rather than in Committee simply because of a request to me from the Front Benches of both sides that the Committee stage should be concluded undebated. With the right reverend Prelate in the Chamber, I hesitate to embark on theology, but the lack of vocal state of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, on that day implied that a silent Committee stage was an example of divine providence.

I make it clear now, beyond peradventure, so that any noble Lord who wants to leave now can do so, that I do not intend to seek to divide the House. I have three questions to ask, and one observation to make. I shall get the latter out of the way first. I attach no blame to the Minister and suppose that I am blaming Murphy's law, but two things went wrong with the support arrangements on the Bill.

First, the department wrote on 24th October, a week after Second Reading, to the outside interested parties, including the Wildlife and Countryside Link, which in particular had provided briefing on Second Reading, telling it of the revised regulatory impact assessment, to which I shall refer henceforward as the RIA. The Minister referred to it on Second Reading. The communication with outside parties implied that it was enclosed with the letter. I cannot speak for others on the departmental mailing list, but a copy of the revised RIA was not enclosed to the link and, with the current postal difficulties, a copy was secured only by a personal visit to Defra on the eve of the Committee stage.

Simultaneously, the revised RIA in the Library, which the Minister said that he had caused to be placed there on Second Reading, turned out in the event to be the original RIA. I pressed the Library on whether that was correct, and was told that it had arrived on 16th October, on the eve of Second Reading. I realise that the mistake may have occurred in the Library, but the other case suggests that the balance of probability lies elsewhere.

As I say, I do not blame anyone for that series of events, but it has made it a little more difficult to scrutinise the Bill efficiently and, most importantly, timeously.

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My first question refers to the revised RIA. On Second Reading, I said that the link was anxious to see more detailed proof of the scale of the problem in terms of equine deaths through ragwort poisoning. The Minister referred in his speech on Second Reading to the RIA, or indeed the revised RIA, which increased the estimate of deaths by extrapolating them from a 4 per cent return to a survey by the British Equine Veterinary Association. I cannot help feeling that that may have been an advance in numbers from 4,000 in the original RIA to a new figure of 6,500, but on the slender basis of the 4 per cent return, that was done at the expense of credibility. I do not know whether any further essay is intended on the scale of the problem but would be interested to know. I repeat that I am not challenging the fact of poisoning itself.

Secondly, I have as a result of Second Reading become aware of the draft code of practice. I am grateful for the opportunity afforded since then, not least through the right reverend Prelate, to be able to read it. I congratulate the department on its comprehensiveness. I am, however, conscious of the continuing anxiety of the Link about the dangers to non-target species from control by a non-ragwort-specific herbicide which I will refer to, for the purposes of this debate, by the ugly word ragworticide. I have noted the cautionary paragraphs in the draft code. I am thinking of paragraphs 144, 151, 153 and 158–160, winding up with table 3 on page 22. I am also conscious that, on Second Reading, the Minister indicated that he would revisit the draft code in the aftermath of the Second Reading debate.

I am also conscious that the British Horse Society supports in writing the principle of the Government undertaking an environmental impact assessment in relation to the code. But I am not clear if the Government explicitly accept that need, or whether they feel that what they have already put into the code adequately reflects the potential impact of control through herbicides on non-target species and indeed what those non-target species affected by ragwort control would be.

Finally, but at a lower order of importance, because truth presumably lies between the two extremes that I quoted at Second Reading, which the right reverend Prelate quoted again tonight, I wonder whether the Minister has anything to say about how far ragwort seed can travel. I calibrated the extremes which the right reverend Prelate quoted on Second Reading, at col. 1240 of the Official Report. I should be entirely content if it were easier for the Minister to write to me about that than speak to it tonight. However, the one price I would exact in exchange is for him to say tonight whether, in response to what my noble friend Lord Rotherwick said at Second Reading, and indeed I said myself, he intends to expand the references to pasture management, to which the right reverend Prelate also referred tonight. The principles of pasture management seem potentially the most effective methods of ragwort control of all and a rather more detailed examination of them in the code of practice would seem to me to be helpful.

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In conclusion, I hope that the Bill gets on the statute book. I congratulate all those whose efforts have gone into making that possible. I am delighted that the voice of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, has returned.

Baroness Masham of Ilton: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville, knows that I cannot accept his amendment. So I am very pleased that he is not going to press it. As the Bill must leave your Lordships' House intact, as we are running out of time, that is absolutely vital. However, I thank the noble Lord for giving us a chance of further debate even though it is very late. I thank everyone for staying at this late hour.

I hope that ragwort-free hay can be organised in the code of practice. We have a duty of care to try to protect horses and other animals. I hope that the code of practice will help to educate all the people concerned and give information to those who need it. Ragwort is already in the Weeds Act 1959. Therefore, it is the code of practice that is so important for this Bill. The code of practice will have to be laid before Parliament and will give all sorts of groups of people the chance openly to debate the problems. If anything was to happen to this Bill, there would be many disappointed people who are trying their best to encourage good practice.

We need more research into this dangerous weed. I congratulate Dr Knottenbelt of Liverpool University on his work and his enthusiasm in this matter, the British Horse Society on the part it has played in the Bill and the Government on their support. I also, of course, congratulate the mover of the Bill, the Member for Ryedale. I thank the Government for all their support and help on this matter and for the help that will be provided during the rest of the Bill's passage. I hope that the noble Lord will not press his amendment.

11.30 p.m.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, before we conclude this debate I owe it to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, to make a number of points on behalf of the Government. Clearly, I support the Bill and I very much appreciate the fact that the noble Baroness has brought it forward.

There are only three issues. First, I believe there have been some communications difficulties for which I can only apologise to the noble Lord and anyone else who suffered from the non-communication of the revised RIA. I am sorry if that led to some misunderstanding about the Bill. Secondly, the code of practice is still out for consultation which is why I could not give an utterly definitive reply to the right reverend Prelate. I have explained the structure of our approach, but clearly there are other aspects, including pasture management, which the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, raised, which could perhaps do with some further attention. Certainly, views on that will be taken into account before we finalise the code of practice.

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Thirdly, regarding the basic issue of the vulnerability of horses and other livestock to ragwort, a straight extrapolation of the survey carried out by the equine vets may reveal only the extreme end of the problem. Nevertheless, the very detailed work that Liverpool University did, and to which the noble Baroness referred, indicates a very serious problem of ragwort poisoning in the equine population. As the noble Lord, Lord Neill, said, it goes beyond the equine population. It therefore behoves the Government and landowners to do something about the problem.

There is also a biodiversity concern here. We hope that those who approached the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, and others, about their concerns on this front are reassured that we do not seek the eradication of ragwort. Ragwort will continue to exist in our countryside, our fields and hedgerows. However, where it is most likely to be eaten by horses and livestock, there is an obligation on landowners to limit its spread. Therefore, the source of habitat and food for moths and other creatures that are dependent on ragwort—quite apart from the species to which the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, referred—will still exist. I believe that the biodiversity concerns have been exaggerated. Certainly, it is the intention behind the code of practice to ensure that those biodiversity concerns are met through the way in which we implement the powers in the Bill.

I hope with that assurance—the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, raised one or two other matters on which I shall write to him—that the noble Lord will not press the amendment tonight and that the Bill will complete its passage through this House to the great relief of many horse owners and other owners of livestock.

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