PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

HOUSE OF COMMONS

OFFICIAL REPORT

First Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

PLANT HEALTH (GREAT BRITAIN) (AMENDMENT) ORDER 1989

Wednesday 24 May 1989

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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Geraint Howells

Bennett, Mr. Andrew F. (Denton and Reddish)

Carlisle, Mr,. Kenneth (Lincoln)

Cox, Mr. Tom (Tooting)

Hardy, Mr. Peter (Wentworth)

Jones, Mr. Martyn (Clwyd, South-West)

Livsey, Mr. Richard (Brecon and Radnor)

Martlew, Mr. Eric (Carlisle)

Nicholson, Mr. David (Taunton)

Norris, Mr. Steve (Epping Forest)

Pattie, Sir Geoffrey (Chertsey and Walton)

Ryder, Mr. Richard (Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

Skeet, Sir Trevor (Bedfordshire, North)

Speller, Mr. Tony (Devon, North)

Squire, Mr. Robin (Hornchurch)

Stewart, Mr. Andy (Sherwood)

Thompson, Mr. Patrick (Norwich, North)

Tracey, Mr. Richard (Surbiton)

Williams, Mr. Alan W. (Carmarthen)

Panton, Mr. S. A. L. Committee Clerk

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3 First Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Wednesday 24 May 1989

[SIR GERAINT HOWELLS in the Chair]

Plant Health (Great Britain) (Amendment) Order 1989

10.30 am

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Plant Health (Great Britain) (Amendment) Order 1989. I hope that I shall not detain the Committee too long. I thank hon. Members for attending to debate the order, which amends the Plant Health (Great Britain) Order 1987 by adding beet rhizomania disease and beet necrotic yellow vein virus to the schedule. Rhizomania is not normally found in the United Kingdom, but is caused through importing contaminated soil, usually in a container of other agricultural produce. Once in the country, it can be spread by people's feet, vehicles or other ways in which soil is dispersed. There has been only one outbreak of the disease in this country: in Suffolk in 1987. I am sure that the Minister will be able to tell the Committee more about that. Once the disease has attacked the sugar beet, the value of the produce is almost destroyed. It would be extremely damaging if the disease were to take hold in Britain. The sugar beet industry generates an income to the farmer of about £250 million per year and involves about 11,500 producers and many other allied to beet processing. We all wish to ensure that the industry will not be destroyed by the disease. I am especially interested in articles 2(4) and 2(5) which deal with powers of restriction of entry to premises. The points that I shall make are on behalf of the Ramblers Association, for which I often speak in the House. I do not receive any remuneration from the association. I am an individual member and I speak because of my commitment to the cause of public access to the countryside. When the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments examined the vires of the order, it sought to ascertain a proper definition of "premises". I was surprised to discover that the Plant Health (Great Britain) Order 1987 defined them as "any land, building, vehicle, vessel, aircraft, hovercraft, or freight container". That definition incorporated not only footpaths and bridleways, but highways and roads. It is a wide definition, but not, perhaps, as clear as it could be. It would be helpful if the draftsmen ensured that the present order spelt out clearly the fact that, after its enactment, it will be possible to close a footpath, a bridleway or a road without any right of appeal or any time limit on the closure. How was the Suffolk outbreak or rhizomania in 1987 dealt with? I understand that three public footpaths had to be closed. One was brought back into public use quickly, 4 but I do not know whether the other two are accessible. It takes a long time to clear the land of the crop and return the soil to an infection-free condition. Much work, taking four to five months, has been done to discover how far the disease has spread. To what extent is the land there now free from the virus, and what are the implications for the spread of the disease? After the 1987 outbreak, during which the Ministry had to act quickly to solve an immediate problem, the National Farmer's Union queried the way in which footpaths were closed under the Highways Act 1980, by referral to the rights of way review committee which was chaired by the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. Haselhurst). The National Farmers' Union and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food thought that it would have been more appropriate to use plant health legislation. Under the Highways Act, some time could have elapsed before the closure was carried out. When the matter was referred to the rights of way review committee, at least two letters were exchanged between departmental officials and the committee. There were arguments about the legality of closures under plant health regulations, and whether diversions, rather than closures, could be employed under those regulations—a more sensible approach. The Ramblers Association does not, at present, wish to press the question of the order's legality. It believes that there is some doubt, and if the Minister were to use his powers in a way of which the association disapproved, it might take the matter to court. The Department believes that it has solid legal backing for using the order in that way. As a result of discussions in the rights of way review committee, the Government agreed to introduce permanent regulations under plant health legislation. We cannot know where the disease may appear next. The Suffolk farm was a reasonably convenient place for the disease to appear, because it was not close to an urban area or a honeypot that attracted many people to the countryside, although I should not describe it as a dull, flat piece of countryside. However, the next outbreak may occur in a much-used part of the countryside, where footpaths lead to an attractive spot which attracts hundreds or thousands of visitors at weekends. It may appear near a riding stables, from which people ride and use bridleways that may pass across, or close to, fields where beet grows. It may appear in an area where there are no hedges between roads and fields, and there may be arguments about whether a road needs to be closed. In East Anglia, some roads run straight through fields, without a fence, hedge or ditch to separate them, and soil is often carried on to the roads by farm vehicles. There would be considerable problems if the diseases were to appear there. The disease could appear on urban fringes, where a footpath, bridleway or road passed a field affected by the disease, and was used regularly by people going to work or to shop, or by children going to school. Closing a footpath, bridleway, or road, may therefore cause difficulties. The Minister should guarantee that the Ministry will use that power 5 sparingly, if at all, and for as short a time as possible, and ensure that, where practical, a diversion will be offered. The Minister might say that the order does not authorise him to provide a diversion, but section 17 of the Agriculture Act 1986 empowers him to do anything that will further the public enjoyment of the countryside. Books, such as the Automobile Association's "No Through Road," set out routes for walkers. Many routes are circular, so that walkers may leave their cars and return to them easily. Some depart from railway stations—where such things continue to exist in the countryside—and others from rural bus stations. When one is following such a route, it is annoying suddenly to discover a closed footpath. Notice of any closure and the appropriate diversion, where that is provided, should be given well before the closed section of land. Notices should be posted in the locality, information should be published in the local newspapers, and walking organisations should be notified. How will closure be enforced? In the case of foot and mouth disease, land is closed for a short time, and policemen are usually posted at the entrance to those premises. That is easy to maintain. We must know, however, how long-term closure will be enforced. Closure should be for the shortest time possible, in order to cause the minimum inconvenience. I do not want to dwell on the problems of the countryside. I walk in order to enjoy peace and quiet and I do not want conflict to arise between walkers and those who work in the countryside, mainly farmers. Other countryside users have problems, for example, riding stables that are situated near a diseased area. Closures must be sensitively handled, or conflict will arise. If the Minister takes draconian measures to close land, with no right of appeal, he should assure the Committee that he will introduce diversions where possible, give maximum notice of closure to organisations, and guarantee that the orders will be enforced for the minimum time.

10.45 am

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Richard Ryder): I thank the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) for instigating the debate. I know that he has a keen and longstanding interest in such matters. He submitted a written question to me on 20 January about rights of way and rhizomania, and I shall do my best to answer all the questions that he asked this morning. In the event of outbreaks of rhizomania, we shall close footpaths only reluctantly and as a last resort. Rhizomania is a very serious disease. Only our prompt action at West Stow prevented its spread across the rest of the country. The hon. Gentleman knows that there were three footpaths at West Stow. One was reopened in 1988, and the other two on 1 April this year. Rhizomania is a virus disease of beet which is transmitted in the soil by a fungus. It attacks the 6 roots of the plants and in sugar beet, greatly decreases the sugar yield. It was first detected in southern Europe in the early 1950s and has spread northwards to the Netherlands and northern France. Its spread through Europe has been largely attributable to a lack of recognition and the mistaken view that the virus would not survive in colder climates. In August 1987, there was an outbreak of rhizomania on a sugar beet farm in West Stow, Suffolk. The cause of the infection was never discovered, despite an extensive survey. That remains the only outbreak that there has been in the United Kingdom, although surveys have been conducted to check for rhizomania since 1983. As a result of the outbreak, the farmer concerned is prohibited from growing sugar beet. The most extensive crop survey for rhizomania yet undertaken was carried out in 1988. It included aerial photography for signs of discolouration of the crop and checks on the sugar yields of crops processed by British Sugar, in addition to the normal field inspections. In total, 2,300 fields were surveyed, but no signs of further infection were found. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish asked about the closure of footpaths. Generally speaking, we would expect footpaths to be closed for plant health reasons only for relatively short periods, but that cannot be guaranteed. As I said, the reopening of the footpaths at West Stow took place over the two years following the rhizomania outbreak. The fields at West Stow were seriously infected, and were fumigated at the Ministry's expense as a research project. That allowed the paths across the fields to be reopened earlier than would otherwise have been possible. However, in answer to another of the hon. Gentleman's questions, I cannot guarantee that the footpaths will always be closed for only a short time. Longer closures may be necessary if further outbreaks of rhizomania occur. In that event, the Ministry might have to explore with the county council, landowners and other local interests the possibility of some voluntary agreement to provide alternative routes for walkers or riders. Closure of paths would not be maintained for longer than necessary, and I assure the hon. Gentleman that, whenever an outbreak of rhizomania occurs, the local Ramblers Association will be fully consulted by the Government and by the county council. The problem that the hon. Gentleman outlined is very serious. A balance must be struck between varying interests when controls are placed on the countryside. As he said, there is an obligation to that effect in the Agriculture Act 1986, and we received excellent co-operation from all sectors of the community, including the ramblers, during the outbreak at West Stow. However, the need was demonstrated for clear powers to take action to prevent the risk of spreading the disease. The disease is extremely serious and could have drastic consequences for our sugar industry, and Ministers and the industry are determined to prevent it from gaining a foothold and spreading in this country. There is no guarantee that the rhizomania found at West Stow in Suffolk has been eliminated. The virus may have been carried to other farms anywhere in England, and it may come to light within the next few 7 years. We have not guaranteed its total elimination by our action.

MR. Andrew F. Bennett: Am I right in thinking that the virus can remain in the soil for up to 20 years and that, therefore, a further outbreak on the West Stow farm or elsewhere is possible within that time? What steps will be taken in future to eradicate the disease? The Minister said that, as a research project, the land was fumigated on that farm. Does the Ministry intend to tackle a future disease in that way?

MR. Ryder: Yes, it does. We found that the action taken in West Stow was effective, and it was taken immediately rhizomania was found. It is not possible to specify how long rhizomania may lie around. The hon. Gentleman said 20 years, but whenever scientists are asked that question, they are not specific and prefer to say several years, rather than 10, 20 or 30 years. The rhizomania virus is carried by soil-borne fungus and there is abundant evidence of the speed with which the disease has spread on the continent and elsewhere. The threat is such that if rhizomania is found, we must take measures to prevent the movement of soil from the infected fields. I must stress, however, that we intend to use the powers only to the extent that it is absolutely necessary. Our principal aim is to prevent the disease occurring at all. Should further outbreaks occur and closure of public rights of way become necessary, we intend to maintain close liaison with the local authorities concerned and with local interests including ramblers and equestrians. I assure the Committee that we shall not keep any public right of way closed a moment longer than is necessary. The hon. Member for Denton and Reddish mentioned alternative routes, and the possibility of diverting rights of way rather than stopping them up. Under the plant health legislation our powers relate to the premises where the infection occurs. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the definition of "premises" was not as clear as we would have hoped it to be in the original order. He was not alone in being unclear about the intentions in the order. We have no power to divert rights of way onto land unaffected by the disease. While powers to divert footpaths exist under the Highways Act 1980, the conditions attached to those powers mean that they would not be available for the circumstances that we are discussing. For example, those powers under the 1980 Act relate to permanent diversions, not to temporary ones arising from plant disease outbreaks, such as the outbreak that occurred in West Stow in Suffolk. There is a balance of interests to be struck. We are convinced that the seriousness of rhizomania justifies the restriction of public access to land affected by the disease. It would not, however, be easy to justify taking powers to require the provision of alternative routes, probably at the expense of landowners other than the owner of the infected land. Our policy will be to terminate closures as soon as possible and, it 8 prolonged closures appeared likely to be needed, we should consult local interests including ramblers to see whether any alternative, voluntary, arrangements could be introduced.

MR. Andrew F. Bennett: I accept the argument that it is important to keep the closures as short as possible, and I am glad that the Minister has given that undertaking. But does he accept that the closure of some footpaths even for a few days would cause great inconvenience to many people? In some villages, children regularly use footpaths to go to school. They give them a safe route to school and allow them to avoid dangerous roads. If the beet was found to be infected in the field through which a path regularly used by schoolchildren ran, it would be sensible to put a temporary footpath through the next field or two fields away. I realise that there are no powers under the order to enforce that, but it would be the common sense approach. In most instances it would be possible, when making the closure notices, to persuade the farmer involved or a neighbouring farmer to make an alternative route available temporarily.

MR. Ryder: I wish that I could give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking that in the event of an outbreak of rhizomania, farmers could reopen their footpaths to the public in days, rather than weeks or months. But rhizomania is such a serious disease, requiring much fumigation and other tests, that it would be wrong for me to say that that would be possible. If a footpath was of major use to a village—for example, if children used it to go to and from school—I should find it inconceivable if the farmer concerned, or a neighbouring farmer, did not voluntarily allow the children to use the edge of his fields to walk to school. In those circumstances, a voluntary arrangement would be very effective. I accept the hon. Gentleman's charge that if a footpath was not in widespread use—he implied, and he may be right, that the three footpaths at West Stow were not in frequent use—a neighbouring farmer would be less likely to give his or her permission for the public to use an alternative and temporary footpath. Where demand is heavy, I should find it inconceivable if farmers did not cooperate, although if the footpath was not in frequent use, they would not be under the same pressure to help out as we hope they otherwise would. I hope that members of the Committee will agree that we have struck the right balance. We are fortunate in Britain in having had no more than one outbreak of rhizomania, which is widespread in most continental countries. We wish to keep rhizomania out of Britain. The fact that we do not have it means that we have a vigorous sugar beet industry. If we had rhizomania here, I would fear for the future of that industry.

10.57 am

Martyn Jones (Clwyd, South-West): I thank the Minister for his reply—particularly his helpful comments about intending to consult local ramblers 9 and county councils. We do not oppose the order, because rhizomania must be tackled and to do that we must have the orders in place. I should like to ask the Minister a technical question about fumigation. If fumigation were effected fairly quickly, footpaths could be brought back into operation fairly quickly, but is fumigation effective against both the virus and the carrier organism? As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) said, we are anxious that the effect on footpaths will be minimal. I am pleased to have the Minister's assurance on that. Will the EEC be imposing similar restrictions on sugar beet production in member countries so that we can be harmonised in 1992? And will the restrictions adversely affect our production compared with that of other EEC countries?

10.59 am

MR. Peter Hardy (Wentworth): I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) confirmed that this is not a particularly partisan measure. Nevertheless, I have some points to make briefly. The Minister suggested that one of the problems that the order will tackle originates from warmer countries. Will the warming effect, about which the Prime Minister has suddenly become concerned and which is demonstrated by the current weather, soon bring further problems? I should not have dreamt of making a point about policing and invigilation, had it not been for events that have occurred in the past few days. I discovered that several tonnes of elephant tusks had been illegally brought into this country in recent weeks. Over the past year or two, substantial numbers of consignments have found their way into this country. I believe that they are financed by the International Finance Company of Panama, based at the Panamanian embassy. We have long had an international reputation for integrity in the operation of conservation legislation, which I hope has been justified, and this country has genuinely sought to implement the international conventions and agreements to which it has expressed commitment. The stories about elephant tusks—and those about rhinoceros horn in the past year or two—suggest that Customs and Excise no longer has the capacity or resources available to police importations properly. Has Customs and Excise been given the direct information necessary to supervise the operation of the legislation, and is it readily aware of the points at which relevant information can be immediately obtained? When the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act 1976 was brought into force more than 10 years ago I asked that question in respect of Customs and Excise and the police authority. One cannot expect individual officers at the borders or within the constabularies to recognise plant viruses or pernicious insects and I believe that our official capacity to maintain protection arrangements has been reduced. As the Minister said, it is vital to prevent the spread of plant disease just as it was vital to prevent 10 the spread of the Colorado beetle. We used to see pictures of Colorado beetles on every public notice board, and schoolboys went vainly searching for them. The occasional mutated ladybird brought considerable glee as the schoolboys sought fame and fortune. The same attention is not paid to the public interest now. If Customs and Excise cannot spot tonnes of elephant tusks, will it be able to spot very small beetles? If it cannot identify rhinoceros horn, will it be able to identify the Western Cherry fruit fly? We are entitled to a little information about that, and I hope that the Minister will assure us that Customs and Excise and the police authorities will not be denied the direct information that they need, and will be fully aware of whom they should contact if they have grounds for suspicion that some of the infections referred to in the order have reached their areas.

11.4 am

MR. Andrew F. Bennett: May I add one or two questions to those that have already been put to the Minister? I have already asked him about serving notices, and he was helpful in saying that he would ensure that the Ramblers Association and others concerned with footpaths would be told if there was an outbreak necessitating the closure of footpaths. Will the Minister say a little more about the notices that would be erected on the footpaths? It is important that the notices should explain the seriousness of the disease and offer an alternative route. Some people will accept the reason for a footpath being closed and will search for another path. They may have access to a map on which to look for another route. Others may not be too pleased to find that their intended route is closed and will assume that they can make a detour themselves. That could cause more problems than would be solved by closing the footpath unless the nature of the disease is explained and alternative advice given. I hope that notices will be placed on the sections of the path that are closed and on any long-distance route of which the path forms a part, and that information will be given on the nature of the disease and the reasons why it is so important to stop its spread. That will increase the likelihood that the measure will be self-enforcing and will not have to be policed. I asked the Minister to explain whether he envisaged that there would have to be people at either end of the path, enforcing the closure. I hope that he will answer that point. I used the example of a path that is well-used by children going to school or by people going to work. The Minister accepted that, in those circumstances, another farmer or the same farmer would probably produce an alternative. Sometimes, paths are used only by one or two people once or twice a year, but they are still important to those individuals. Unless an alternative is offered, those individuals may be tempted to find the nearest diversion, which may involve trailing over infected fields and causing more damage than following the footpath would have caused. 11 According to trespass law, individuals are entitled to walk where they want, as long as they cause no damage. Although they may cause considerable damage by transferring the virus on their feet, they may not be conscious of that. I press the Minister to consider diversions, even when only a small number of people are involved. That will be the most effective means, as the order will then be self-policing rather than having to be enforced.

11.7 am

MR. Ryder: I congratulate the hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West (Mr. Jones) on his first contribution from the Opposition Front Bench—or in any case the first that I have witnessed. I hope that it will be the first of many. The hon. Gentleman asked about fumigation. As I explained, fumigation was used at West Stow and, if possible, it should be used in the event of another outbreak. I cannot guarantee that it will be, but it is my firm intention that it should, as it is an effective way of getting rid of rhizomania. In answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy), there is close liaison between Customs and Excise and the Ministry's plant health inspectorate. Customs requires the necessary certificates to be produced for the import of plants and plant material. Plant health inspections of goods are carried out by inspectors and we believe that we have sufficient numbers of inspectors to keep out rhizomania. We have been astute in keeping out rhizomania so far and we should pay tribute to the Customs and Excise inspectors for keeping the disease out. The fact that we have had only one outbreak speaks volumes for their effectiveness. The hon. Member for Wentworth asked whether the greenhouse effect would cause future rhizomania outbreaks. In theory, a warmer climate could lead to more outbreaks of rhizomania. A warmer climate could also lead to the possibility of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) and I being deprived of our constituencies, or at least of most of our constituents living in the church towers of Norfolk. The hon Gentleman asks a serious question. As far as we know, rhizomania is affected 12 by the weather. That is why, some years ago, many experts believed that rhizomania could not occur in Britain. The hon. Member for Clwyd, South-West asked what steps would be taken as we approached 1992. The Government fully accept the need to adapt plant health controls to the requirements of the single market, and we are determined that the United Kingdom's plant health standards, which are among the highest in Europe, will not be lowered. We attach particular importance to the right of a member state to take urgent safeguard action to prevent the import of a serious disease. The Government will firmly resist the Commission's proposal to modify this right. I hope that reasures the hon. Gentleman. Winding up the debate, the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) asked for more information to be made available to ramblers in the event of our having to take action following an outbreak of rhizomania. I do not know whether the notices that were pinned up at West Stow gave sufficient advice to ramblers, but I shall look into the matter. I give the hon. Gentleman an undertaking that if there is a future outbreak of rhizomania, we shall ensure that the information provided to ramblers is sufficiently clear. If it is not, many ramblers may be unaware of the gravity of rhizomania. It is incumbent upon the authorities to ensure that proper notices are pinned up at the appropriate places, not only to inform ramblers about alternative routes, if any exist, but to warn them about the nature of the disease. Many people who are not experts would not appreciate the consequences. I hope that I have answered all the questions asked during this interesting debate. I shall write to the hon. Member for Denton and Reddish on the last matter, and I thank him again for initiating the debate, which has been useful and informative.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Plant Health (Great Britain) (Amendment) Order 1989.

Committee rose at thirteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.

THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:

Howells, Mr. Geraint (Chairman)

Bennett, Mr. Andrew F.

Carlisle, Mr. Kenneth

Hardy, Mr.

Jones, Mr. Martyn

Nicholson, Mr. David

Ryder, Mr.

Skeet, Sir T.

Speller, Mr.

Stewart, Mr. Andy

Thompson, Mr. Patrick

The following also attended, pursant to Standing Order No. 101(2): Davies, Mr. Ron (Caerphilly)