The hon. Lady reinforces the point well.
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:
"the yellow peril is lurking, and expanding its grip on the UK".
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 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:
"The 1959 Act applies to Great Britain and empowers Agriculture Ministers to take action against occupiers of any land to prevent the spread of five species of weed. Those are spear thistle, creeping thistle, curled dock, broad-leaved dock and common ragwort. Common ragwort tends to give rise to the great majority of complaints that MAFF receives."
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
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.