Clause 1 - Amendment of Weeds Act 1959 - to provide for the control of ragwort

Equine Welfare (Ragwort Control) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:25 am on 15th May 2003.

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Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale 9:25 am, 15th May 2003

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in

clause 1, page 1, line 7, leave out from beginning to end of line 7 on page 2.

Photo of Eric Illsley Eric Illsley Labour, Barnsley Central

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:

No. 2, in

clause 1, page 2, leave out lines 8 to 18 and insert—

' ''1A Code of practice: ragwort

(1) The Minister may make a code of practice for the purpose of providing guidance on how to prevent the spread of ragwort (senecio jacobaea L.).

(2) Before making the code the Minister must consult such persons as he considers appropriate.

(3) The Minister must lay a copy of the code before Parliament.

(4) The Minister may revise the code; and subsections (2) and (3) apply to the revised code.

(5) The code is to be admissible in evidence.

(6) If the code appears to a court to be relevant to any question arising in proceedings it is to be taken into account in determining that question.''.'.

No. 5, in

clause 4, page 2, line 35, leave out 'Equine Welfare'.

No. 7, in

the title, line 1, leave out from the beginning to 'amend'.

No. 8, in

the title, line 2, after '1959' insert 'in relation to ragwort'.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

Welcome to the Chair, Mr. Illsley. I thank colleagues who are present and those who have given their apologies for being unable to attend because of Standing Committee and other duties in other parts of the House, and the Minister, for their support, help and co-operation in progressing the Bill. I always think that, when colleagues introduce private Members' Bills and get to Committee, they can sniff the finishing line in the distance. I believe that we have every prospect of getting the Bill on the statute book, subject to the smooth passage of today's proceedings.

I wish to explain the amendments to clause 1. On Second Reading, I said that the Bill offered three different alternatives, options or approaches to strengthening the law on the control of ragwort, and it is right that we remind ourselves that the need is urgent. This year, 1,000 or more horses or ponies will die from ingesting ragwort, which is a poison that, over time, destroys the horse's vital organs, resulting in certain death. I have received overwhelming support for action to tackle the problem, even since the debate on Second Reading.

I place on record my thanks to the British Horse Society for its support. I also thank the specialist press. I shall not name all the publications, but there are several that are attractive to horse owners, and they have shown great interest in the Bill. That has prompted many people the length and breadth of Britain to write to me with their stories about what ragwort has done to their horse or pony.

On Second Reading, I promised the Minister that I would work with him to settle on just one of the alternatives, and that I would seek to amend the Bill accordingly in Committee. The various amendments reflect what we agreed, as well as my objectives and the concerns of horse owners.

At the same time, the amendments reflect the reality—I stress that word—of what we can practically hope to achieve in the current climate of concern among all parties in the House not to impose additional or unreasonable burdens on local authorities, which are not funded or resourced to deal with the problem. I know that that is a concern for the Minister and his ministerial colleagues in other Departments, and it is equally clear that the overwhelming view of the Conservative party as the official Opposition is not to impose unreasonable and unnecessary burdens. Therefore, I want not to make a partisan point, but to recognise the practical realities that we face in trying, particularly through the private Member's Bill route, to introduce such a measure.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I do not wish to introduce a party political note to this morning's debate. Nevertheless, is it not disappointing that no one from the other opposition party, the Liberal Democrats, has found time to turn up today?

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

I am a little disappointed and surprised, because the hon. Member for Teignbridge (Richard Younger-Ross) has shown a great interest in the issue and willingly agreed to serve on the Committee, but I would say in his favour that he strongly supports the Bill. I am sure that no disrespect is intended by his not being here.

The decision to proceed on the basis of introducing a statutory code of practice, which is made clear in the amendments, reflects my concern and that of the Minister to ensure that what we agree will help, not hinder, the efforts of local authorities and other public landowners to control ragwort more effectively.

Photo of Michael Clapham Michael Clapham Labour, Barnsley West and Penistone 9:30 am, 15th May 2003

The hon. Gentleman made the point about avoiding putting the burden on local authorities and he has now moved on to talk about the code of practice, which is a sensible approach. Is he thinking that that code will be issued down the line via such agencies as the National Farmers Union and others?

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

I see no reason why not, although the code of practice is initially intended to be targeted, essentially, on highway authorities, local authorities and other public landowners such as Railtrack, which is co-operating extensively in the consultation on the code. I shall come to the code's effect and the teeth of

the Bill in a moment. There is, however, no reason why the code of practice should not be seen as the basic blueprint for what all extensive landowners should do to control ragwort.

The hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) has intervened at a good point. The Weeds Act 1959 already gives the Secretary of State the power to require public authorities and landowners to take appropriate action to stop the spread of ragwort to neighbouring land. However, I think I am right in saying that no one has ever tried until now to give those authorities and landowners advice or guidance on what they should do to avoid or pre-empt the prospect of action under the Weeds Act or, to be less dramatic about it, on what sensible and practical measures they can take to stop the spread of ragwort and protect our precious and much-valued horse population. That advice applies to all landowners, although it is fair to say that we are here trying to help the bigger public authorities and highway authorities to deal with the problem.

The code of practice will do that, in one important respect. Amendment No. 2, which would replace my original wording for the code of practice option, is stronger than what I originally proposed. It makes it clear that the code would be admissible in evidence in any proceedings under the Weeds Act for failure to respond properly to any direction made under that Act, thereby underlining the real point of the code. It also maps out the action that landowners should routinely take to control ragwort.

A Weeds Act prosecution would be more easily justified and more likely to succeed if it were clear, and could be shown, that landowners had ignored or breached the code. To make it abundantly clear to any court that the code has real teeth, new section 1A(6), which would be introduced by amendment No. 2, emphasises the fact that if the code's guidance is relevant to any Weeds Act enforcement proceedings, that guidance shall be taken into account in determining liability. In all fairness, I do not think that we could have given the code stronger teeth than that.

I know that some would have liked the Bill to do more, and I understand their concern that the proposals should make a difference, but, given the delicate balance that must be struck to secure the passage of any private Member's Bill, I believe that the legislation, which I hope the Committee will accept, represents significant progress in the fight against this pernicious weed. At the other extreme, it contains safeguards, especially the requirement to consult and the opportunity for Parliament to express a view on the proposed code. That is clear from amendment No. 2.

As a veteran of Standing Committee word games, I have crossed swords with the Minister on other occasions, particularly in Committees considering home affairs Bills, over many years' service in the House. He knows what I mean. I am as conscious as anyone that the Bill is permissive. It would give him an opportunity, as he ''may'' rather than ''shall'' introduce a code of practice. However, I believe that

it must be permissive, because we cannot pre-empt the outcome of genuine consultation.

I am sure that the Minister will say that he intends to introduce the code, but what he does must depend on the outcome of the consultation. I would be the first to accept that. I pay tribute to him and his officials for the work that is already being done, with the support of the British Horse Society, to reach agreement on a suitable code. Those consultations are already well advanced. Therefore, the Bill is not a wish; it would simply provide the mechanism to bring to fruition work that has already begun. More importantly, I trust the Minister's desire to do something positive that will make a difference and help to improve a worsening situation, as I know he recognises. The Bill also makes it clear that the code of practice option has the flexibility of amendment in the light of experience.

If I have one small regret in moving the amendment, it is the necessity to leave out the reference to ''equine welfare''. It is legally unnecessary to include the phrase in the Bill's title, and therefore in the title of the Act when, as I hope, it is enacted, but I included the phrase in the original Bill to show what it was about. The dry-as-dust title Ragwort Control Bill would give no one the slightest idea, but if it was called the Equine Welfare Bill, people would immediately have recognised its positive benefit.

Equally, we wanted to show the thousands of horse owners in Britain that their anxieties about this problem were being taken seriously. When they reflect on it, they might give me some credit and at least recognise that the hon. Member for Ryedale was trying to do something about equine welfare. I admit that in all frankness. I represent a constituency with a lot of horses, many of which the hon. Members for Barnsley, East and Mexborough (Jeff Ennis) and for Mansfield (Mr. Meale) like to see running on the race tracks of Britain, such as the Knavesmire at York, as we happily did on Tuesday.

I hope that I have explained the purpose of the amendments. It will be clear to all members of the Committee that we have reached a sensible compromise, so I look forward to receiving their support for passing the amendments and considering the Bill on Report.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I welcome you, Mr. Illsley, to what I hope will be an easy seat this morning in a Committee that does not last too long. I want to add a couple of points to what my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) has said so well. First, I should remind the Committee of a non-pecuniary interest in the sense that I am the president of the Association of British Riding Schools, which has a keen interest in the matter, and I was until recently the chairman of the Horse and Pony Taxation Committee and a consultant to the British Horse Industry Confederation, all of which also have a keen interest in the matter. They, like me, welcome the initiative that my hon. Friend has taken in introducing this excellent Bill. I also congratulate and pay tribute to people such as my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), who first raised the matter in the House some time ago.

I welcome the Bill and how my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale has negotiated with the Government to produce a measure that we all hope stands a reasonable chance of becoming law. It would make a significant contribution to eradicating an extremely unpleasant and nasty weed. I have no hesitation whatever in paying tribute to my hon. Friend and welcoming the fact that the Bill is in its current form.

However, I am disappointed by two things to a degree. First, it would have been nice to have found a way to make the provisions statutory, which was the first of my hon. Friend's options on Second Reading. It would also have been nice to think that there was a way of forcing all of those public bodies to carry out the ragwort eradication that we all know is so necessary, but I understand that realpolitik required the Government to water that down in consultation with my hon. Friend, and propose a code of conduct in its place.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

I do not think that the Bill lacks teeth. The problem is that there may be ragwort growing on land owned by a public authority, such as a highway authority, which is causing difficulty for an adjoining landowner. The Secretary of State has the power to deal with that situation if it is brought to his attention. However, there does not appear to be any way to draw the attention of the public authority to what it ought to do. The code of practice would do that, although I agree with my hon. Friend that an alternative could have put a statutory responsibility on an authority to do it. If the code of practice does it, however, and it can be used in evidence in a Weeds Act prosecution, the Bill has teeth.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

I accept my hon. Friend's correction. I was a bit strong in saying the Bill has been watered down. It remains useful and powerful, and I hope that it makes a significant contribution to eradicating the weed. I was going to say that, like him, I welcome the fact that new section 1A(5) would make the code admissible in court. That is a very important addition to the form of the code as outlined in the original Bill. New section 1A(6), whereby the code would have to be taken into account when considering the matter in court, is equally useful.

I am slightly puzzled by my hon. Friend's explanation of the word ''may'' in subsection (1). Of course, the Minister must consult on the matter before it becomes a code of conduct. That applies to all codes of conduct, legislative matters and statutory instruments. Of course he has to consult, but surely after consultation the word should be ''shall''. The Minister should be required to produce such a code of conduct rather than be able to do as he chooses. There might be a technicality involved, and the Minister might explain the use of the word ''may'', but I would have preferred to see ''shall''.

I am also interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the effect that the code of conduct would have on local authorities, whether there would be any resource implications for them and what discussions he has had with the Deputy Prime Minister on whether

the local government settlement would take account of any such added burdens. To what degree is the Deputy Prime Minister content that local authorities could undertake such extra duties as laid down by the code of conduct? I am confident that they could undertake those duties, but I would like to hear that the Minister has considered the matter and discussed it with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Leaving those small considerations aside, Her Majesty's loyal Opposition very much welcome the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale. We are glad that he has been able to reach a sensible compromise with the Government and we look forward to the Bill becoming an Act.

Photo of Jeff Ennis Jeff Ennis Labour, Barnsley East and Mexborough 9:45 am, 15th May 2003

I do not intend to detain the Committee for long, but it would be remiss not to say how unique it is. For the first time ever, the three Barnsley Members have been brought together on the same Standing Committee. The Bill is important not just to the nation, but to Barnsley, which is why we have three Barnsley Members on the Committee. I am sure that Members are aware that Barnsley is not just an industrial town. We have many acres of rural land to the east and, particularly, to the west of the borough. Part of the Peak District national park falls in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone.

As joint chair of the all-party racing and bloodstock group, I want to underline the point made by the hon. Member for Ryedale about the importance of the Bill. I am happy with the title; it underlines the equine element in the problem, and the distress that the weed causes. It is common sense to retain that title. It is also important to underline the fact that the weed affects not just thoroughbreds, but every type of horse in the country, down to pet ponies, of which there are many in the rural villages around Barnsley. I hope that there is a consensus on the Bill and that this morning's Committee business can be completed fairly speedily.

Photo of Alun Michael Alun Michael Minister of State (Rural Affairs), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I hope that I can assist with that final wish. This is the first time that I have had the privilege of serving on a Committee under what I am sure is the stern discipline that you will impose, Mr. Illsley. In 1987, when we shared with a number of other Members a room in the House that was described by unkind visitors as chaotic, but which we regarded as dynamic, I did not foresee that I would come under your iron rule several years later. I shall have to be particularly careful about the way in which I refer to the metropolis of Barnsley. It is clear that the usual channels fully appreciate the importance of that town in the annals of the horse industry in this country, and I welcome that.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ryedale. He referred earlier to the fact that he and I have often debated issues, particularly when we both had home affairs responsibilities. One thing that I took from those exchanges is the face that even when we disagreed about particular issues, we were both concerned to achieve something that would be

effective, and would bring about change and improvement on the ground. That is certainly the way in which the hon. Gentleman has approached the Bill. He has highlighted an issue that is of enormous importance to the horse industry and all who love horses, but he has also brought a practical approach to bear to achieve legislation that will be widely welcomed by the horse industry.

In his introduction the hon. Gentleman highlighted the reasons why we need to increase public awareness, as well as awareness on the part of public bodies and land managers, of the importance of preventing the wider or accelerated spread of ragwort. I am pleased that, rather than dividing the Committee or the House or imposing new burdens, which might be bureaucratic and expensive without bringing about positive results, he has adopted an approach that has enabled us to unite in focusing on improving a situation that causes great worry to horse owners.

The British Horse Society raised the issue with me in the first meeting that I had with it after taking over responsibility as Minister with responsibility for horses. At that meeting with Kay Driver, I agreed to consider the issue. Since then, a good deal of work has gone on on what we originally intended to be merely a voluntary code of practice. In using this opportunity to bring the matter before the House, the hon. Gentleman has increased the profile and importance of the code of conduct. I welcome his approach.

It was necessary to look for a compromise because of the pressures on local authorities and others with public responsibilities. It is important for them to focus their activities where they are needed and where they will make a difference. We are reluctant to impose burdens, particularly if they would not bring about an improvement in the situation.

I understand the alternative approach that the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr. Gray) hankers after—although I had not realised that he had become such a Stalinist since he gave up his career as a special adviser. Many of the organisations concerned may not have fully appreciated the implications of not dealing with ragwort. The point of the code of conduct is to provide clarity about what needs to be done. That is a positive and considerable contribution.

Essentially, I welcome all the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Ryedale. Amendment No. 1 deals with burdens, and I welcome that.

I fully support the concept of a code of practice with a focus on controlling the spread of ragwort. I confirm that work has taken place—as the hon. Gentleman rightly said, we have not waited to proceed with that work. A small steering group, which includes representatives of the British Horse Society, local authorities and Network Rail, is working on the production of a code. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has made funding available to take that work forward, and I am pleased to say that the work is on course for the code to be laid before Parliament later in the year.

However, the amendment goes further than the simple production of a code, as the hon. Members for

Ryedale and for North Wiltshire pointed out. It provides for consultation on the code and requires the code to be laid before Parliament. That in itself will help to establish the code's credibility and ensure that it is given wide support and authority.

It is also important to re-emphasise, as both hon. Gentlemen said, that this provision will give the code evidential status in enforcement proceedings under the Weeds Act 1959. That will allow the code to be used as a tool to measure compliance with a notice issued under the 1959 Act. Such notices require the occupier of land to take reasonable steps to prevent ragwort from spreading. As a result, the code has the potential to reduce burdens because it will simplify enforcement proceedings and allow land managers to know what they must do. It will ensure that all parties know where they stand at the outset. The code will also provide a defence. A defendant who can demonstrate compliance with the code is unlikely to be prosecuted under the 1959 Act. That greater certainty is welcome.

Hon. Members with an eye for detail will have noticed that amendment No. 2 refers to ''the Minister''. That is a legal technicality, which I queried. At one time, the Minister of Agriculture was the only Secretary of State referred to in that way. The Weeds Act 1959, which the Bill amends, refers to ''the Minister'' throughout. To ensure compatibility, we must use the same language in the amendments that the Bill will introduce. Despite that, I can confirm that following the transfer of functions from the previous Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, all functions formerly discharged by ''the Minister'' are now the responsibility of the Secretary of State. That includes the new functions introduced by the Bill. I hope that that clarification is useful, because the point exercised me when we were discussing the need for amendments.

I fully understand the hon. Gentleman's reluctance to delete the words ''equine welfare'' from the title and I sympathise with him because equine welfare is at the heart of his motivation in introducing the Bill, and our motivation in responding to his initiative. The purpose is to protect horses from a painful and unnecessary death, which is a worthy motive and one that we support. I am not sure that the title will become as dry as dust. In my experience, the mention of ragwort brings horse lovers to life, because they recognise the threat that the weed poses; the mere mention of ragwort is likely to bring vitality to a discussion with people in the horse industry, so I am not sure that it is a disadvantage to have the title reflecting the content of the Bill. As originally proposed, the reference to equine welfare was misleading because it suggested that the Bill was concerned with a wider range of issues. The amendment leaves it with a rather stark title, but it correctly reflects the content of the Bill—and, I suspect, the interests of the horse industry.

Similarly, amendment No. 7 will revise the long title to

''A Bill to amend the Weeds Act 1959; and for connected purposes.''

That is a little duller than the original title, but, as with the short title, it reflects the content and purpose of the revised Bill.

It is worth reflecting on the wider impact of ragwort. It is undoubtedly poisonous to horses, but it also affects other animals, such as cattle and sheep. In our concern to protect equine welfare, we must not overlook that risk to other animals. It does not normally have the same effect, and land managers usually look after the interests of their own animals on farms or common areas, but it is important to point out that the threat is not only to horses. We must not lose that sense of perspective. If the Bill referred specifically to the danger to horses from ragwort it might be assumed that there is no risk to other animals, and that is not so. We want to minimise the risk to all animals, and I support the hon. Gentleman's amendment.

On amendment No. 8, I have nothing to add to the comments that I have made on amendment No. 7.

The direction taken in the amendments covers the substance of the discussions required this morning, and we are now in a position to move forward positively. However, achieving legislation through the private Member's Bill process is not easy for any hon. Member. There are always complications and problems and it is easy for a Bill to be frustrated, even if there is general support for it throughout the House. As a result of the discussions that led to the hon. Gentleman's amendments, I hope that the Bill will have 100 per cent. support and find its way on to the statute book. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the way in which he approached the issue and introduced his amendments, which I commend to the Committee.

Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale

I am grateful to the Minister and to colleagues for what they have said.

The Bill refers to ''the Minister'', and I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's explanation of that. It is worth noting that parliamentary counsel employed by the British Horse Society and parliamentary counsel employed by the Minister's Department came to the same conclusion. I pay tribute to them and thank them for their help.

With those comments, I hope that the Committee will accept the amendments before us.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment made: No. 2, in

clause 1, page 2, leave out lines 8 to 18 and insert—

'''1A Code of practice: ragwort

(1) The Minister may make a code of practice for the purpose of providing guidance on how to prevent the spread of ragwort (senecio jacobaea L.).

(2) Before making the code the Minister must consult such persons as he considers appropriate.

(3) The Minister must lay a copy of the code before Parliament.

(4) The Minister may revise the code; and subsections (2) and (3) apply to the revised code.

(5) The code is to be admissible in evidence.

(6) If the code appears to a court to be relevant to any question arising in proceedings it is to be taken into account in determining that question.''.'.—[Mr. Greenway.]

Clause 1, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.