There is no need to apologise; the intervention was timely. I was about to say that no matter what method is employed to control ragwort, operators need to be fully trained and protected with suitable clothing, such as gloves, because the poison from ragwort can enter through the skin. Pretty the plant may be; pretty deadly, it most certainly is.
What is the Bill about, and what are we trying to achieve? We lack a structure within which land occupiers can work to control ragwort. We want not to impose new burdens on public authorities and landowners, but to make life easier by setting up a structured system that occupiers may follow to deal with what I believe is a moral obligation to ensure that the weed is not on their land. A code of practice to control ragwort is being produced and may provide the mechanism that will allow people to comply with the Bill. Public landowners support the process, and I have had letters and representations of support from Hampshire county council, which takes the issue seriously because of the many wild horses and ponies in the New Forest, and from Oxfordshire county council. An Oxfordshire member sits on the code of practice steering group, as does a member from Network Rail.
I was glad to receive from Oxfordshire this week a letter from the area engineer, Colin Carritt, which outlines the work that the county council is doing to deal with the problem. I shall read several paragraphs from that letter because they show precisely what we think the code of practice—guidance to help the authorities—might contain. The letter states:
"From the Local Authority point of view, we have been mindful of the limitations of budgets and the huge demands for our services across the entire environmental and road safety spectrum."
As a former member of North Yorkshire county council, I know only too well the truth of that. It goes on:
"Over many years we have developed policies which limit the use of chemical treatments to roadside verges, in an attempt to improve bio-diversity and the aesthetic appeal of countryside verges. This has been extremely effective, but it does mean that in dealing with outbreaks of Ragwort (and other problematic weeds) we are invariably tied to manual methods of removing infestation. You will appreciate that for large organisations with significant overheads, such labour intensive operations are extremely expensive. We have, therefore, developed ways of working with volunteer organisations from the equine world, who can supply labour at minimal cost. We, for our part, can provide transport and disposal facilities. The next stage of our campaign in Oxfordshire is to investigate the use of community service work through the Probation Office. I hope that we can use this route to further manage the Ragwort problem on highway verges.
We have also developed a system for notifying landowners where infestation occurs on private land. This has involved mail shots to every Parish Council in Oxfordshire, and asking for them to nominate a Ragwort Watcher for their Parish. We have supplied Parish maps so that when infestation is identified, the Ragwort Watcher can contact this office with a precise location together with the landowners name and address so that we can then send a standard letter drawing the attention of the landowner to the problem, and seeking their co-operation."
That may sound amusing, but, Mr. Deputy Speaker, since you, like me, represent a rural area, you will understand that it provides an extremely effective way of making use of people in the community at effectively no cost to the Government or to local authorities.
The letter goes on:
"We have made it clear that we are in no position to take enforcement action, but we are happy to use our good offices to persuade and encourage others to fulfil their responsibility.
For their part, the Oxfordshire branch of the British Horse Society has been active in promoting publicity through local media, and local schools, as well as providing the nucleus of core volunteers for Ragwort clearance in public areas."
I hope that the House will forgive me for quoting from that letter at such length, but I hope that I have illustrated very precisely the point that the Minister and I discussed in his office on Monday morning. I think that it was his very first meeting of the week—it was certainly mine.