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(a) any expenditure incurred by a Minister of the Crown by virtue of the Act, and
(b) any increase attributable to the Act in the sums payable by virtue of any other Act out of money so provided.—[Mr. Woolas.]

Question agreed to.

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Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Order [28 June 2001],

Question agreed to.


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to delegated legislation.


Immigration and Asylum

Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),

Sixth Environmental Action Programme

Question agreed to.

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

10.32 pm

Richard Younger-Ross (Teignbridge): We discover many things when researching for debates that we hope to instigate, and I came across a couple of surprising facts when researching for this debate. I was surprised to find, for instance, that the word "quidditch" in the Harry Potter book—which I had assumed to be made up—clearly derives from the name of a place in Devon called Quoditch, where ragwort grows. I mention that because it allows me to give a plug. J. K. Rowling wrote a lot about places in Devon in her books, having studied at Exeter university. She referred to the Chudleigh Cannons, the premier quidditch team. Chudleigh is a town in my constituency, and we are proud to have the country's premier quidditch team.

Our last debate on ragwort took place on 25 July 2000. It was initiated by the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), who pointed out that the debate was taking place on St James's day, and that St James's wort was another name for ragwort. It has other names—staggerwort and, less pleasing, stinking willie and mare's fart.

This debate takes place somewhat earlier than the last, which began at 3.21 am. The Minister will get home to his night-time cocoa, put on his jim-jams and get to bed a little earlier than he did on that occasion. Before he does, however, let me tell him a story. It concerns Georgina Norton, a nine-year-old girl who, like many nine-year-old girls, was fairly horse mad. She was lucky enough to own a pony called Topic. One day her mother went to turn Topic loose, but he appeared to have had a good night out: he was unco-ordinated, perhaps even appearing slightly drunk. They sent for the vet, blood tests were carried out, and it emerged that Topic had acute liver damage caused by ragwort. Topic had to be put down. Georgina said:

Topic was poisoned by ragwort.

Ragwort is generally considered a biennial weed but in fact it is a facultative perennial. It grows to about 1 m in height. As most people will be aware, it is a yellow- flowered weed. As I am sure the Minister is aware, it will grow almost anywhere: on verges, embankments and waste land. It is highly toxic, particularly to horses. I understand that 2 lb of fresh ragwort is enough to kill a horse. It is also toxic to young stock, cattle, pigs and sheep. Of course, we do not tend to see the effects of ragwort on those animals because they are slaughtered early, whereas horses live to a ripe old age, so the effects of ragwort on them can be seen all too often.

The symptoms are weight loss, poor coat, impaired vision, staggering and a changed gait. The horse will tend to circle, suffer blindness, and collide into other obstacles. It may be unable to swallow. Ultimately, the condition will lead to collapse and death.

Ragwort weed is remarkable in other ways. It has unique wildlife which most people recognise: the cinnabar moth caterpillar with its rugby-top-like banding of black and gold and the cinnabar moth itself, with its dramatic

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red and black. Both are poisonous because they feed off the plant. That pretty plant and its insects are all deadly. That is due to the pyrrolizidine alkaloids.

It is a difficult weed to remove. Usually in the United Kingdom, one would spot-spray the young rosettes in April to May. One can dig it up, but that is harder and obviously difficult when there is a large number of weeds.

The biological experiments elsewhere were well covered in the previous debate, so I will not go into those. It is a pernicious weed. It is hard to remove and it is becoming more common. The question is: what should be done?

In 1959, Parliament thought that it had the answer. It passed the Weeds Act 1959. It named ragwort and four other weeds: spear thistle, creeping or field thistle, curled dock and the broad-leaved dock. However, common ragwort is the most pernicious and dangerous of those and causes the most problems.

I quote from the Act:

I emphasise "any land"—

So why is ragwort invading virtually every pasture and meadow still?

The previous debate took place a year after Topic died. The Government have good intentions. I note a lot of what the Minister said in that debate. Baroness Hayman has been an active supporter of the "root out ragwort week", but there are questions from that debate. I am pleased to see that the Minister present is the Minister who attended it, so he knows the topic well. He said:

He went on to say that the 1959 Act applies to Great Britain and empowers Agriculture Ministers to take action against occupiers of any land to prevent the spread of the five species of weed. He explained the scope of the Act and said that it

I take the point.

The Minister also said:

What measures has he taken? Why were other parts of the horse industry—livery—ruled out? Was there one rule for one and one rule for the other? The horse industry is worth well over £2.5 billion.

We now have the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which is broader and more all-embracing than MAFF, and is meant to cover all the countryside. Should not DEFRA now say that it will look after the horse industry and take care of pernicious weeds?

Has the Minister resolved the problem that he referred to when he said:

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How many cases have been investigated?

The Minister said:

That is vital, but has the hon. Gentleman considered the plight of organic hay growers who cannot use spray? Imagine the difficulties of trying to remove the weed by hand from hundreds or thousands of acres. Surely it would be better if we could take more action to prevent the spread of the weed.

The Minister said:

In a later written answer, he said:

Why so few? That seems remarkably few, when the weed is so common.

My securing this debate has raised a few eyebrows, as people have said to me, "Isn't ragwort a pretty weed that grows in the hedgerows?" It may be pretty, but it is dangerous. People do not realise that, apart from the risk to horses and livestock, there is a risk to human health. About 18 months ago, it was reported that a Tasmanian man who had been weeding ragwort by hand for about two weeks was taken seriously ill, and I am told that there is at least one other case of serious poisoning.

Derek Knottenbelt, senior lecturer in veterinary science at the university of Liverpool, went out and removed ragwort by hand on the campus, then took a blood test two days later. He says that his liver enzymes were clearly elevated. I accept that that was not a scientific test, and there may have been other reasons for that, but it is indicative of the fact that ragwort has an effect on humans.

That man went on to report that he had seen ragwort in a cornfield being harvested with the corn. May I remind the Minister that in 1995 the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food carried out research that showed that where bees had been in a field containing a lot of ragwort, the honey would be polluted with the alkaloids? I hope that the Minister will sleep well after this debate, but perhaps he should be careful about the bread and honey that he may eat in the morning, because it, too, may contain those alkaloids. I do not say that there is an immediate risk and we should all stop eating honey and bread, because that would be nonsense; I am simply pointing out that there is a growing risk, and the more the plant invades, the greater the risk will be.

Derek Knottenbelt has said:

That is what I am asking the Minister to ensure happens.

I started by talking about Georgina and her horse, and Derek Knottenbelt advises that up to 500 horses a year may die of ragwort poisoning. I do not know—and I am sure that the Minister does not know either, because when I asked the Department how many horses were affected by ragwort it could not give me an answer. Perhaps the

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hon. Gentleman will be able to enlighten us further in his response tonight. However, documents from the British Horse Society report tragic cases of horses dying from ingesting the weed.

Many people who are concerned about ragwort have written to me. I cannot quote all of them, but I shall give the last word to the National Farmers Union, because it clearly states what we all hope will happen:

I hope that the Minister will heed those words, and that we shall hear a positive response this evening.

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