|Previous Section||Index||Home Page|
Alun Michael: May I briefly indicate the Government's support for the Bill and congratulate the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) on steering it successfully through the House of Commons? As he said, it is no small thing to succeed with a private Member's Bill, and I very much hope that this one completes its remaining stages quickly.
When the Bill started out, it was not at all clear that we would achieve such a happy result, but its fate in Committee shows what can be done when there is a will on both sides of the House to work together. The central measure is the authority given to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to develop a code of practice to control the spread of ragwort. I want to make one or two things clear. The Bill misleadingly refers to "the Minister". That is a legal quirk dictated by the fact that Weeds Act dates back to the 1950s, when the Minister responsible was the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. With the creation of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the functions previously exercised by that Minister transferred to the Secretary of State. Those include the ability to develop a code of practice under the Bill.
I said in Committee that we were already working with the British Horse Society on what would have been a voluntary code. Indeed, if anything happens to the Bill, there will still be the capacity for that voluntary code to come into being. The initial stage of the work has been carried out with the help of a small steering group, which has included representatives of the British Horse Society, local authorities, Network Rail and English Nature. That work has concluded, and a draft code of practice will be made available later this month. It will be a comprehensive document, and I intend to put it in the public domain at that early stage so that stakeholders and interested parties have plenty of opportunity to study its contents and comment on them. That will fulfil the indications that I gave in our debate on the amendments.
Norman Baker: I know that the Department is trying to deal with other invasive weeds, such as Japanese knotweed and other unwelcome countryside species. Will that work run in parallel with the Bill's progress?
The Bill requires the code of practice to be laid before Parliament. That is a formal step that cannot be taken until the Act comes into force, three months after it is passed. We should be able to lay the code before Parliament early in 2004, thus ensuring that it is in place before the start of the 2004 ragwort season. I described that as an intention when I intervened earlier, but as long as we keep to the legislative timetable it will certainly happen. If anything prevented the Bill's enactmentafter all, such things cannot be taken for grantedthe code would already be available on a non-statutory basis.
To ensure that we meet our better-regulation obligations, a formal consultation on the regulatory impact assessment will take place later this month. Early publication of the draft code will ensure that comments on the assessment are made in the knowledge of the obligations that the code will place on statutory bodies and other businesses. An initial regulatory impact assessment has already been circulated informally among key stakeholders before the code's preparation, and they have indicated that they are broadly content. Again, we are moving expeditiously in the right direction.
The code will provide clear guidance for all landowners and occupiers, including local authorities and statutory organisations, on best practice in controlling the spread of ragwort. It will advise on how to develop a strategic and, we hope, a more cost-effective approach to weed control. That will enable organisations to focus their resources more directly, and to plan more effectively on a longer-term basis. The code will give information on all the different methods of weed control, and will advise on the most suitable method, taking into account efficacy of control, value for money and environmental considerations. I know that some people are interested in biological methods, and I can confirm that the code will take account of those.
I can tell those who are concerned about biodiversity that the code will not seek to eradicate ragwortor, more accurately, common ragwort. It will recognise that in the right circumstances common ragwort contributes to the diversity of flora and fauna in the countryside. It will apply only to common ragwort, and will include advice on how to distinguish it from rarer types such as Oxford and marsh ragwort.
As I have said, the code will give detailed advice on control methods, risk assessment, environmental considerations and weed identification, but the Bill confers on it another useful purpose. The Bill enables it to be used as evidence in enforcement proceedings under the Weeds Act. Under the Act, the Secretary of State may serve notice on an occupier of land on which injurious weeds are growing, requiring the occupier to take action to prevent the spread of weeds. If the occupier unreasonably fails to comply with the notice, he or she will be guilty of an offence.
The code will provide a yardstick against which compliance with such a notice can be assessed. That will help both parties, who will know in advance what is considered reasonable action to comply with an enforcement notice, and a person who can show
Alun Michael: The point is that whoever is the occupier in any particular circumstances will be the person on whom a notice is served. I understand that in some circumstances the occupier will be the highways authority, while in others it may the local authority. It will depend on local arrangements. I assure the hon. Gentleman, however, that there will be no doubt about the application of the Bill in either case.
The Bill is a valuable amendment of and addition to the Weeds Act. I earnestly hope that landowners and occupiers will act to clear ragwort before enforcement proceedings begin. We want to reduce the amount of bureaucracy involved in dealing with the weed. When such measures are necessary, however, the code will clarify the enforcement proceedings and make things more straightforward.
Questions were asked earlier about the code's application only to common ragwort. It does not extend to the other four injurious weeds specified in the Weeds Actthe curled dock, the broadleaved dock, the spear thistle and the creeping or field thistle. Ragwort is the subject of the vast majority of complaints received by DEFRA under the Weeds Act. The fact that the hon. Member for Ryedale has focused on it reflects the concerns of the wider public, particularly horse owners. Just 10 per cent. of the complaints that we receive involve the other four weeds, while each year ragwort generates numerous letters from MPs and members of the public. It has also been the subject of frequent parliamentary debates. In other words, ragwort is the colossus among the five weeds covered by the Weeds Act.
More seriously, ragwort is the only specified weed that poses a significant threat to the health and welfare of animals. We feel that that is where we should concentrate our efforts, and where a code of practice would have the greatest impact. The hon. Member for Ryedale has struck the right chord where priorities are concerned.
Norman Baker: I agree with the Minister, especially about the threat to animals, but would it not be sensible to extend the code to enable it to deal with other species in the future? I am thinking particularly of Japanese knotweed, which I mentioned earlier.
Alun Michael: I do not think that that would be appropriate, given that we are dealing with a specific element of the Weeds Act and a specific threat to horses. We wanted to co-operate with the hon. Member for Ryedale on this particular issue, and that is what we have done.
On Second Reading, I promised that DEFRA would review the way in which we investigate complaints under the Weeds Act. We are doing that, and will shortly complete the process that will enable us to implement a
I am sure that the hon. Member for Ryedale would want me to acknowledge, as he did, the role of the British Horse Society in pressing for action and in producing the Bill. It is largely owing to the society's concerns that concern has also mounted in the House, and that the Bill has reached this important stage. I know from the many letters I have received supporting the Bill that not just horse owners but farmers and other members of the rural community will be pleased with its progress. I hope that all landowners and occupiers will find that the code of practice helps them to understand their responsibilities for weed control, and will act on its advice.
I thank all who helped to draw up the codethe British Horse Society, Network Rail, local authorities, English Nature, and the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service. The co-operation shown by that diverse group suggests that the Bill and the code will be widely supported. I also thank the hon. Member for Ryedale for his co-operation, and I commend the Bill.