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3.15 am

In all the controversy and furore over the issue--the debate has often not been about sex education but about matters that were discussed earlier this evening--the Government have sought a decent consensus. During the passage of the Bill, we listened on this and on other matters. We have amended the measure. We took seriously the Bishop of Blackburn's amendment. That is why the Bill states that children should

We acknowledge the importance of marriage. However, the guidance refers to stable relationships because we also understand that, in the complex family world in which young Britons live, many children are not able to be brought up--for the whole or indeed any of their childhood--within a stable, married couple relationship. Many of us may regret that. However, a third of children are born outside marriage. The parents of a large proportion of our children will divorce. Many children in families where their parents are married suffer if their parents are at war with one another--that point was not brought out in the debate; nor is it often acknowledged as evidence. Many children live in one-parent families or in step-families.

We can be consistent in saying that we need to teach our children about marriage, and in having a sensible understanding of the circumstances in which many of our

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children are brought up. Many of them are brought up outside marriage, but in perfectly stable relationships where parents are doing a wonderful job. Others have chaotic family circumstances and they suffer as a result. We need to bring some intelligence and sensitivity to bear on the matter.

Mr. Gerald Howarth: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wicks: I give way to the hon. Gentleman. I apologise to him for not doing so at the beginning of the debate.

Mr. Howarth: I thank the Minister for his courtesy.

Why did the Home Secretary say that marriage provides a strong foundation for stable relationships and that it is the most reliable framework for raising children? Does the Minister agree with the Home Secretary, or has the Home Secretary got it wrong? Does he not speak for the Government?

Mr. Wicks: The Home Secretary got it absolutely right. Before I was a Member of this place, I was director of the Family Policy Studies Centre and paid some attention to such matters. The Government's family policy document was also right to recognise their diversity, complexity and sensitivity--as I have done, and more important, as our schools and teachers need to do.

We were asked how the guidance will be applied. First and foremost, we acknowledge and emphasise that in schools such matters are for head teachers and governors. We should place confidence in them. Our governing bodies are remarkable examples of local democracy. Parents and teachers elect governors--many of us will have been members of governing bodies. Those people have the welfare of children at heart. It will be for teachers and governors to apply our guidance. That is important.

We also emphasise that parents must be consulted on the school's policy on sex and relationship education. Furthermore, from this autumn, Ofsted will have a statutory responsibility to inspect personal, social and health education. That is another safeguard.

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I hope that in the next Session we will learn to discuss such issues in a slightly more sensitive and intelligent way. Although people get excited about these matters because of the values and prejudices that we all hold, we need to enable our children to have proper education about sex, family life and personal relationships. If they do not receive that education, the risks that face them are extremely serious.

I commend the amendment to the House.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendment to Commons amendment No. 182 agreed to.


Post Office Closures

3.20 am

Mr. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): The 85,000 people in my mixed urban-rural constituency value and depend on the 36 sub-post offices that serve them.

Despite the excellent report "Counter Revolution" presented to Parliament last month by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, there remain local misgivings about the future of our post offices. Ravenstone Women's Institute has assembled a petition whose 568 signatories believe that the vital network of rural and urban post offices could be decimated if they are cut off from benefits and pensions work.

The petition states:

It is my honour to present the petition to Parliament on behalf of residents of the village of Ravenstone and the surrounding area.

To lie upon the Table.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Betts.]

3.21 am

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): I begin by declaring an interest. I receive a modest income from agricultural land and I own a small number of horses and ponies.

May I invite Members, after our rather earnest and intense deliberations of this evening, perhaps to smile and make the odd joke during this debate? I congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and Madam Speaker and her team, for choosing this debate today, because in parliamentary time it is still 25 July, which is St. James's day, and ragwort, or senecio jacobaea, used to be called St. James's wort and was in full flower on this day--25 July.

As colleagues return to their constituencies this week, they will see a tall weed up to 3 ft high, with clusters of angry yellow flowers, growing everywhere. It can be seen on roadsides, on the verges, along railway tracks, on waste land, in hedgerows and in pasture land. I am amazed to have found out this week just how few colleagues know what ragwort is, and this ignorance extends to the media. A farmer told me at the weekend that the BBC, reporting on the impact of bypasses early this week, showed a field full of ragwort and described it as "a wildflower meadow".

Ragwort is in fact a vile and highly poisonous weed, causing more damage to animals in this country than all other poisonous plants put together. It is a biennial, producing a rosette in the spring of the first year, which flowers in July-August of the second year. Seeds can lie dormant for 20 years and each plant can produce 150,000 to 200,000 seeds, which travel in the wind for miles. These seeds land with a 70 per cent. germination rate. Ragwort will grow on the poorest land, and has increased dramatically in recent years.

Animals will normally not eat ragwort while it is growing if there is any alternative food. However, once it is cut and dried, as either hay or haylage, it becomes extremely difficult to detect, but it also becomes palatable to all farm animals. Ragwort contains pyrrolizidine alkaloids, the best known being jacobine, jacodine and jaconine. They are cumulative in effect and cause progressive liver failure.

As may have been seen in the Bars of the Palace of Westminster tonight, the liver has an amazing capacity to absorb punishment, but once 70 to 75 per cent. of the liver is damaged, it can no longer carry out its essential functions, in particular detoxification. Despite its large functional reserve, liver damage cannot be repaired, and only 2 lb of ragwort is enough to destroy 75 per cent. of the liver of a large animal such as a horse.

Symptoms of liver damage are yawning, weight loss, poor condition, sunburn and diarrhoea. They may occur within days. Staggerwort was another name for ragwort, as, in the later stages, it affected the brain, causing unco-ordinated movement and an abnormal gait. In some cases, animals may develop a mania, attacking any other animals or humans that approach. Death soon follows. That process can be rapid or can be drawn out over many agonising months.

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There is veterinary evidence that sheep, cattle, pigs and even tortoises can be poisoned by ragwort. However, because most livestock are slaughtered at a young age, the impact is not widely noticed. Ragwort is, however, taking a terrible toll of the country's horses. It is impossible to establish an exact figure as every death would require confirmation by an autopsy. However, there is hardly a person in the horse world who does not know someone who has lost a horse to ragwort poisoning.

Last year, the British Equestrian Trade Association--BETA--conducted a national equestrian survey revealing that 2.4 million people ride and that 500,000 private households own more than 900,000 horses or ponies. Roughly £1.5 billion is spent on horse purchases and equipment and a further £1.3 billion on looking after the horses. On top of that, professional stables look after a further 120,000 horses, spending £200 million running their businesses. The British Horseracing Board has confirmed that racing alone employs 60,000 people with assets of £2 billion, contributes £450 million annually to Government tax revenues and has exports worth £90 million a year. BETA calculates that total expenditure is about £2.5 billion a year.

Unless ragwort is brought under control, this huge business will be put at risk. As Dr. Derek Knottenbelt of the Philip Leverhulme large animal hospital at the university of the Liverpool has said:

That point was brought home to me in a dramatic manner by my constituent, Richard Matson of Twemlows hall, Whitchurch, who has diversified from milk, cheese and pig production to a variety of horse-related activities. He grows 60 acres of grass for haylage, but this week will have to mow and burn nine acres because of ragwort that blew in as seed from his neighbour's land. The agents looking after that land deny responsibility. That will cost him £2,800. A legal action would cost far more as would the loss of his reputation if he sold contaminated haylage.

I had a fax yesterday from Mr. Crockford of Abbott and Co., which is a large hay and straw merchant in Cirencester. He says:

I also had a fax from Bob Phillips, the company secretary of the Association of British Riding Schools and chairman of the Shropshire British Horse Society. He confirms that the

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The British Horse Society, the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and the British Horseracing Board have all given me valuable information. They are all deeply concerned about the disastrous increase in ragwort. They are supported by the National Equine Welfare Council, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Blue Cross, the Donkey Sanctuary and the International League for the Protection of Horses. Many of those organisations have led campaigns for the eradication of ragwort and are to be congratulated on their work.

The only sure way to remove ragwort is to pull it up and burn it. Cutting will reduce seed production, but if it is left on the ground, it will still present a serious risk to animals and may still set seed. The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food recommends 2,4-D as a herbicide, but warns that it may damage clovers and other plant species. In New Zealand, a weedkiller called Escort, which is made by DuPont, is extremely effective on ragwort, but allows grass to survive. It is not currently available in Europe.

In the late 1970s, large numbers of the ragwort flea beetle were introduced to the Meander valley in Tasmania and that experiment was highly successful. It was repeated last year in King county, Washington, USA. In Victoria, Australia, where lower milk yields and reduced beef production were estimated to cost annual losses of £4 million, ragwort was reduced by 60 to 70 per cent. by the combined actions of the cinnabar moth, the ragwort flea beetle and the ragwort seed fly.

Eighteen years ago, damage to livestock in Oregon was running at $2.5 million annually, and whole areas were ungrazeable. The Oregon department of agriculture introduced the same three insects, and estimates the annual savings to be $3 million. It takes eight to 10 years to build up a moth population large enough to control the plant. What research is the Ministry undertaking into more effective chemical and biological herbicides? Is the increase in ragwort related to the reduction in the cinnabar moth population? MAFF spends £50 million on food safety and animal research; how much is spent on ragwort? The cinnabar moth has a most distinctive black and red caterpillar. Why have its numbers dropped in recent years?

In the meantime, the Government must enforce the existing law more effectively. That means applying the Weeds Act 1959. Section 1, entitled "Power to require occupier to prevent spreading of injurious weeds", states:

Ragwort, senecio jacobaea, is listed as an injurious weed.

I have written to the Minister several times over my three years in Parliament, and on 10 December 1998, he wrote back to me, stating that

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The Minister stressed that local authorities have the power to deal with nuisances, but he went on:

Frankly, that is not good enough. MAFF is utterly feeble in refusing to use the considerable powers given it in the Weeds Act, and local authorities are among the worst offenders in allowing ragwort to grow on their land and on roadsides under their control. Many are inept at using powers granted to them under existing law. As I have shown, the contamination of hay and haylage now poses a massive threat to all livestock, and the Minister must broaden his interpretation of the law. Any ragwort poses a threat to livestock production throughout the country.

The Government are keen to encourage diversification of the rural economy and must recognise the growing importance of "horsiculture". The contrast of this situation with the pollution of land by chemicals could not be more marked. The Environmental Protection Act 1990 states that

That provision triggers the involvement of local authorities and the mighty Environment Agency.

Ragwort is a harmful pollutant and should be treated as such in law wherever it is found. MAFF's regional service centres, or what is left of them after yesterday's announcement, will continue to employ 350 officers who go out to farms. It would cost nothing to extend their remit to taking a much more aggressive stance on ragwort. It should be an integral part of their role in promoting environmental initiatives.

Education is vital. All too many people see only a pretty flower. MAFF is in constant correspondence with farmers and landowners, and material on ragwort should be included to heighten awareness at little cost. Bad publicity works. Last year, Chequers was excoriated in the equine press for having extensive ragwort. Yesterday, I diverted my journey here and drove by Chequers, and I am delighted to say that I could find no ragwort on the estate.

The law must be altered so that any landowner or public authority with land that contains the weed should be liable to a heavy fine, and that must be enforced by the police. Local authorities and agencies or companies controlling roads and railways need to be targeted.

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Finally, the risk to human health should not be underestimated. Dr. Knottenbelt said:

In 1995, MAFF researched the toxicity of honey from bees that had been put in ragwort-infested fields. That proved conclusively that the honey contained pyrrolizidine alkaloids. It is also thought that milk can contain toxins. In South Africa, a disease known locally as bread disease occurs among certain native tribes where seeds of senecio isatadeus are mixed with food grains by mistake.

Ten years ago, ragwort was extremely rare. Now it is visible everywhere, spreading everywhere, seriously damaging livestock and threatening human health. The Government must act before ragwort is totally out of control and it is too late. If MAFF cannot enforce the law and get it strengthened, it should hand over responsibility to a Ministry that can.

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