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Mr. Osborne: It is good to have that assurance, and particularly good to know that that will happen before next year's ragwort season. It has been pointed out that the time to strike is before the ragwort comes into flower and everyone can see it.
Sir Paul Beresford: I presume that my hon. Friend noted that, in the Minister's assurance, he said that it was the Government's "intention" to publish the code. He did not say "the Government will" or "the Government shall" publish it. He merely spoke of an intention, which is still dubious.
Alun Michael: I should be happy to do so. In this House, it is very unwise to presume that a Bill will complete its passage, but, so long as this Bill completes its passage, I am happy to use the words "the Government will".
Mr. Osborne: I am grateful to the Minister for that assurance. I can see my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale getting all excited by this talk of the Bill completing its passage so that he can get on his train to York and go to the race meeting.
Today's debate marks the end of a long parliamentary campaign in which many Membersnot all of whom are herehave taken part. We have had Adjournment debates on the matter, and early-day motions have been tabled. Today's debate has strengthened the Bill. I finish by passing on the apologies of the person who would normally speak for the Opposition on this matter, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). It is his wedding anniversary today, and he told me that if he missed that in order to be with us, Mrs. Hayes would cook up some ragwort and feed it to him for supper this evening. He therefore sends his apologies, and I am happy to have taken his place and to have spoken to these amendments.
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: Two organisations that affect my constituency quite a lot are not mentioned anywhere in the Bill. One is the National Trust, which has enormous holdings throughout the greater Exmoor area. The other is Forest Enterprise, the commercial arm of the Forestry Commission, which also has enormous holdings in the area. I am sure that the Minister knows that it is difficult to get ragwort out of woodlands, and I wonder whether there has been any consultation on the issue with either of those organisations.
I have the good fortuneor misfortuneto have an incredibly long coastline in my constituency, which I believe is Crown property, and we have a ragwort problem there. Who is responsible for dealing with ragwort on such Crown property? Speaking as a border Scot whose family farm crosses two miles over the border into Scotland, I am aware that the problems of ragwort do not stop at borders. My family's horses cross the border regularly. Unless Scotland adopts the same code in relation to weed control, it will not be bound by the code of practice. The role played by the British Horse Society crosses all borders, but, unfortunately, so does ragwort. Unless we can depend on the cinnabar moth or the ragwort flea beetle to deal with the issue in Scotland, we are going to have a problem. Perhaps the Minister could comment on that. I know that Wales is included in the provisions, but Scotland is not.
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: The thought of Mr. Berlusconi coming up with an agreement with the Germans on ragwort control is almost a complete new film. On that logic, I do not think that Herr Schröder will be holidaying anywhere in Europe. Perhaps Mr. Berlusconi and his marvellous media empire could publish Ragwort Weekly featuring those great stars, the cinnabar moth and the ragwort flea beetle.
There is a 22-mile steam railway in my constituency. Railways transport ragwort seed, and they travel quite fastunless they are in west Somerset, where they travel quite slowly. The county council owns the railway, so the logic is that the council is responsible for the embankmentsthat is, when it is not setting fire to thatched cottages in my constituency. Who will be responsible for picking the ragwort? I cannot believe that the Liberal-controlled Somerset county councilwhich does not get many things rightwill be able to get the ragwort problem sorted out. Has the Minister given any thought to the question of who will be responsible for railway embankments? This one does not come under the Strategic Rail Authority; it is run under an agreement between a voluntary body and Somerset county council. Twenty-two miles is an enormous distance in this context. The point also affects the North Yorkshire Moors railway and others.
Alun Michael: We are seeking to deal with ragwort where it is a threat to horses and livestock. The issue therefore arises in a particular location only if such a threat is posed. We are not seeking to eradicate ragwort completely from these islands but to ensure that it is eradicated in the locations in which it could cause problems for livestock, which is particularly important for horses because of the impact that it has on their digestive system. I hope that that explanation assists the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I thank the Minister for that. He will be aware that there are one or two horses, and one or two hounds, in my constituency. The railway that I mentioned runs through a large area of the Quantocks,
By and large, the people in my constituency look after their horses very well, but there are one or two who do not. We know that we can enforce a code because the legislation is there to do it, and a code is only as good as its enforcement. We could argue about "may" and "shall", the Fire Brigades Union, the Home Office, Berlusconi and everything else, but the matter comes down to enforcement. If an owner will not comply because he believes in organics or whatever, that will cause difficulties. That is a flippant point, but it will be difficult to achieve enforcement. Is the Minister prepared to put power behind enforcement?
Mr. Greenway: My hon. Friend is making an important point that I was going to raise on Third Reading, but I shall deal with it now if I may. The code makes it abundantly clear that it may be taken into account in any court case and the power of enforcement already exists in the Weeds Act 1959. If somebody does not comply with the code, that could be used in evidence in any prosecution that followed under the 1959 Act. For that reason, the Minister and I believe that it will greatly strengthen enforcement. Equally, if someone can show that he has complied, he may wish to use that in his defence if he is prosecuted under that Act.
Mr. Liddell-Grainger: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I do not want to prevent him from heading off to pastures north with his 500-horse tie. He knows that it is good when people will comply, but in places such as Exmoor, Dartmoor and the more sparsely populated areas of this nation it is sometimes difficult to achieve enforcement. Those areas are very large and people have an attitude that is not always, shall we say, compliant with the law. I know of people in the constituency up on Exmoor and the Quantocks who are not complying. Also, we have horses, and my wife, who goes across those areas, tells me that a lot of people do not comply.
The British Horse Society should be commended for all its super work. I have been a member of the society, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) for all his work with it and with the Minister to try to get this important Bill on the statute book.
Sir Paul Beresford: The most fascinating thing about this discussion, which has been brief considering the seriousness of the matter, is that the Minister has learned. He recalls, from his time in opposition, why there is so much concern and a determination to try to substitute "shall" for "may". He has responded by increasingly moving towards accepting "shall", which is the logical conclusion of what he has said. One must recognise that he has moved in that direction and that he has been as firm as he is allowed to be. I cannot see his officials from this vantage point, but I suspect that there
As much as I would like to catch an earlier train, I have resisted the temptation to move Third Reading formally because I think it important at the end of a long process to place one or two thoughts on record. First, it is obvious from the preceding debate that all Members present know only too well both the pernicious damage being done to our horse and pony population by ragwort and the urgent need for something to be done about it.
I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), who has just withdrawn his amendment, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) that I would have liked the Bill to have a few more teeth for enforcement, but in the practical world of private Members' Bills, I am satisfied that, with the Minister's help, we have gone as far as we can.
We want the Bill to go to the other place and return unamended, in which case it would get on the statute book by prorogation. That would be a great day for horse and pony owners throughout Britain. We should not underestimate the fact that the code will have teeth and that it will make a difference, as I pointed out to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. Liddell-Grainger). We intend to help public authorities and landowners to take their existing responsibilities more seriously. For example, they already have a responsibility to control ragwort.
I hope that as a consequence of the code, which the Minister will announce soon, we do not have to return to the matter in Parliament ever again. We want events to run their course and we hope that there will be no need for further legislation. However, if that does not workI make no threat to the Minister, as it will take a few years to work things out and we may have a different Government if we ever have to revisit the matterit is patently obvious that Members from all parts of the House will make a fuss for more to be done, as has happened in the past two or three years.
I commend the Bill to the House and to the other place, where Baroness Masham has agreed to promote it. I thank the Minister formally for his help and for his co-operative and flexible approach. I thank also my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) and congratulate him on his appointment to the Front Bench. I do not know whether this is his first major outing, but he has acquitted himself extremely well. He has a rosy future in our party, not just in opposition, but in government, I dare say.
I thank Members who are here, and many who are not, for their support, as well as, in particular, the British Horse Society, the British Horseracing Board and the National Farmers Union. Everyone inside and outside Parliament who supports the Bill does so for one overriding reasonthe welfare of the horse. The former