Equine Welfare (Ragwort Control) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:07 pm on 21st March 2003.

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Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 1:07 pm, 21st March 2003

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 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 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 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.