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Westminster Hall

Volume 408: debated on Thursday 3 July 2003

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Westminster Hall

Thursday 3 July 2003

[MR. EDWARD O'HARA in the Chair]

Badgers And Bovine Tb

[Relevant documents: Seventh Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Session 2002–03 HC 432 and the Government's response thereto, Eighth Special Report Session 2002–03 HC 831.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.— [Derek Twigg.]

2.30 pm

I am pleased in this debate to be able to deliver the report of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Sub-Committee. I should like to start by welcoming my hon. Friend the Minister to his new portfolio. As I am sure he has already realised, his predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley)—now the Minister for the Environment—never had a dull moment. If it was not fishing, it was bovine TB. That, of course, pre-supposes that we do not have another case of foot and mouth. The Minister's portfolio is very broad, and I am sure that it is full of problems. Nevertheless, we welcome his appointment. His predecessor eventually managed to get out, even if only to the same Ministry. We will have to see what that does to his further promotion prospects.

I want to thank all those who helped to compile the report, including members of the Sub-Committee itself. I am pleased to see that the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) has now also acquired an important position. This is probably not the best day on which to hold this debate, as it clashes with the sitting of the Hunting Bill Committee, of which several colleagues are members. It is fair to say that a few more of the usual suspects might have taken part if we had chosen a different day.

I also want to thank those who participated in the process—the National Farmers Union, the National Federation of Badger Groups, and Dr. Chris Cheeseman from the Woodchester park research station—and those who gave evidence on behalf of those taking action, including the independent scientific group on cattle TB, and my hon. Friend the Minister.

Last but not least, I thank our Clerk, Gavin Devine, and in particular Richard Kelly, who will be shortly leaving us. Richard Kelly has always served us to the best of his ability, both in his previous incarnation as an adviser to the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food Committee, and more recently in his dealings with the agriculture and food aspects of the work done by the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We will miss him. We were somewhat taken aback by the bizarre rules of this place, which mean that he cannot reapply for his job, but we wish him well wherever he chooses to go.

The Committee published its report on 9 April, and we received the Government's response on 24 June. This is the third time that bovine TB has been investigated, whether by the previous MAFF Committee or the current Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which shows the seriousness with which we treat the issue. Members come to the debate with their own perspective and experiences gained from their constituencies, but we make no apology for trying to analyse what is going on and to try better to understand what we can do about this dreadful disease.

It is important to place on record that all those affected by the breakdown of bovine TB have our utmost sympathy. Although the disease pales into insignificance compared with foot and mouth, it is just as devastating in its own way. It affects particular parts of the country, including my own, which is where my interest comes from. We must do everything in our power to try to bring an early end to the suffering.

Several hon. Members have pushed for bovine TB to be the topic of an inquiry because there is a continuing and growing problem, although the degree of incidence is controversial. The figures appear to show quite a steep increase, but there is some argument about them. Anyone who follows the progress of the regular parliamentary questions on this issue will know that that has yet to be resolved. However, it is fair to say that, although we did not want to get bogged down in statistics, we thought that the overall picture was getting somewhat worse.

Is not the reason that the data are controversial the fact that they do not exist—that the Government will not publish the data? As the hon. Gentleman says, many parliamentary questions, including my own, have been designed to get them to publish the data, but they will not. That seems to be the position and the reason for the controversy.

I am not sure whether that is true. I look at the relevant website regularly, and there are figures on it, but I agree that there is a question about whether the figures are up to date. It is not only collecting the data, but the collection methods and what is published that is important. There is without doubt controversy over that.

I emphasise that this issue gives rise to a great deal of emotion. People have strong opinions on what causes bovine TB and what may be a transmission method. One thing that came across clearly in the written evidence, and even more starkly at the oral inquiry, was that there were two sides to the argument. The National Farmers Union preceded the National Federation of Badger Groups, and we could see a clear difference of opinion. We must all try to bridge the gap, because we want to take a degree of consensus forward, even though people passionately believe that their own position is the right one.

The science behind this issue has not yet found the answers. It is no good pretending that we can wave a magic wand and find an early and easy solution to the problem. The science is not in place, and we must do what we can to help to put it in place. As I have said, many of us come to the debate with our own perspective. We see the hardship in our local areas, and there are things that we need to do at both local and national level.

We approached the report against the background of foot and mouth disease. We all know what happened with that. As some of us warned, the Government were bound to take their eye off the ball, to some extent, so far as bovine TB was concerned. Testing ended, and people could not get access to the trials, so we were at best treading water. It is worth re-examining where we were coming from. I shall not read out in detail the terms of reference for the inquiry, but we approached it against the background of the foot and mouth problems.

We considered in particular the Government's autumn package of measures, which in the main we welcomed. The Minister will want to make a few remarks about that. We wanted to see what progress was being made on developing a vaccine and to know what was happening with the Krebs-Bourne trial. We also wanted to pick up on some of the recommendations that we made in our previous guise as the Agriculture Committee. We were uncertain as to where the Government were with those recommendations and whether they had parked them somewhat. All those matters needed to be examined.

The Government's control strategy consists of five points: protecting public health; developing a vaccine; researching into how TB is transmitted; detecting and preventing the cattle-to-cattle spread of the disease; and continuing with the badger culling trial. Obviously, the last is the most controversial aspect of the strategy, but I think that all members of the Committee saw the sense in carrying it through. In the main—this includes people from the NFU, who might have a slightly different perspective from that of the Committee—people wanted that to be completed.

Let us consider the issues that arise from the report and the ongoing work that is being undertaken by the independent scientific group. We were quite impressed by that group. There were some areas of tension between it and DEFRA, but again that was a good reason for the inquiry. Among other things, we highlighted the fact that, when the autumn package came out, the independent scientific group felt that it had not been properly consulted. Given the sensitivity of the matter, issues such as those must be properly identified and dealt with.

We examined the autumn package and welcomed the tightening up of movement restrictions. We also saw the value of the new gamma interferon test, which we hope will be a replacement for the blood test. I have always argued that the blood test is an inaccurate way of measuring the incidence and potential incidence of TB in a herd.

The question of husbandry was highlighted on both previous occasions on which this issue was examined, but I make no apology for revisiting it. We believe that husbandry and biosecurity are an important part of any strategy. It was partly on the insistence of the then MAFF Select Committee and its report that a husbandry panel was set up to examine some of the practical ways in which farmers could assist in preventing the disease. We accept that that will not be the entire solution, but it is an important aspect. We thought that there was a role for continuing education in that area.

We were given a figure of £36,000 per breakdown. I know that there is some controversy over that figure, and that the Government do not necessarily accept it. However, regardless of animal health and welfare issues and the impact on farmers, a cost of £36,000 per breakdown, or more when the breakdown is larger, is a significant economic factor.

In the Government response to the Select Committee report, they seem to be at pains to point out that £36,000 was an industry estimate. When the Minister responds to the debate, will he tell us the Government's estimate of the real cost of a breakdown to a farmer?

That is a perfectly fair intervention; if there is another figure to be put on the table, we should know it and be able to discuss it.

There is an ongoing discussion about issues related to consequential loss and whether it is possible for farmers to obtain insurance. We did not spend much time on those issues, because things had not moved on very far from the previous position. However, other hon. Members may wish to pick up on those points.

We made quite a strong argument for the fact that the industry as a whole needed to be tougher in its approach to husbandry and biosecurity, rather than expecting the Government to deal with the problem and pick up the bill. We then discussed testing. As I have said, we were keen for the experiment with the new tests to be introduced as soon as possible. However, we also recognised the pressure on the testers. I shall not say much about that, because we are also examining the future of the state veterinary service and the local veterinary inspectors, and will be producing a report on that soon. However, I will say that we had some reservations about the pressure on vets to deal with the high incidence of breakdown in particular parts of the UK; they will need support and help to do that. We were also keen to explore the idea of lay testers, given that it is widely acknowledged that testing needs to take place earlier than is currently the case. In cases of massive breakdown in a herd, earlier testing could mean that action could be taken to stop the spread of infection within the herd.

The scientific study attracted the headlines—the triplet trials in particular. We are trying to test the spread of bovine TB from a reservoir—principally the badger—in three ways, using proactive, reactive and leave-alone zones. In his evidence, Professor Bourne from the independent scientific group restated the importance of the trials as the only way to determine whether badgers were an important feature in the spread of bovine TB. As he said, they will also provide quantitative data for a cost-benefit analysis of the different strategies, including that of no culling, so we set great store by that inquiry. Despite the controversy and delay, it is the main show in town, and we must see it through as soon as possible. I know that the deadline is 2006, but we still hope that there will be some interim results and meaningful dialogue before we reach the conclusion.

The hon. Gentleman has just said that he wants meaningful dialogue before the conclusion is reached. If so, we must have meaningful data on which to base that dialogue. I asked the then Minister on 1 May what the incidence of TB in badgers was in England and Wales. The answer was:

"The ISG has asserted and reinforced the need for total confidentiality of these data until such time as they can be safely released with a considered analysis."—[Official Report, 7 May 2003; Vol. 404, c. 720W.]

Does that not go against the hon. Gentleman's recommendation on behalf of the Committee that there should be meaningful dialogue before the conclusions are reached?

It is fair to say that we are all walking a tightrope. I thought that the hon. Gentleman might go on to talk about the experience in Ireland, where they are also carrying out a major scientific examination. I do not want to steal the thunder of the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), because he clearly wants to bring that up later. I might have to respond to that, so I will not say too much at this point.

Given the sensitivity of the information, if we get half-cocked thoughts coming from people within the testing and trailing activities, it could be counter-productive. However, I would argue, as I have done before, that it would be useful to have meaningful interim results that were not misinterpreted but which would show where we might need to spend more resources. As I will say later, the worst-case scenario would be if, at the end of the trials, we did not get a clear outcome or if people immediately denounced it as fixed or wrong and we took the issue no further forward. We must use the trials as the vehicle to sort out the disease, one way or the other.

Most of the National Farmers Union's time was spent discussing the issue of the spread outwards. I am sure that other hon. Members will have received correspondence about that, both before and after the inquiry, and it is clearly one of the more worrying aspects of bovine TB. We supported the Government in holding the line and not going for culling experiments outside the triplet areas, but, as we have said on several occasions, there needs to be a plan B. We worry about what will happen if the situation at the end of the process is not as clear as we would want it. We support the triplets and the trialling. We see the sense in using science and not conducting other experiments that are not so well thought through—I will say a little more about that later—but we still call for a plan B.

On epidemiology, we are clear that the data collection methods are not good enough. The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Sir Michael Spicer) made a point about that, and if he reads the report—which I am sure that he has done—he will see that we call for a simplification of the TB99 form. We also considered the road traffic accident surveys, which have been greatly delayed and annoyed us for many reasons. They are all within the responsibility of DEFRA, and they could have provided some definitive evidence of where the disease had spread. That is by far the best way of working, so we were a tad disappointed by the slowness in getting it geared up.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned road traffic surveys. Is it not true that some of those whom we use to call MAFF officers have been keeping their own unofficial log? I have talked to MAFF officials from Worcester, and there is apocryphal evidence that many of the badgers that have been caught or killed on the roads were suffering from TB. The disease had slowed the animals down and made an accident more likely. Can we check whether that sort of resource is already available, without waiting for the formal trials to start?

I agree. As I said, we were disappointed with the slowness of getting the study fully up and running. To be fair, the Health and Safety Executive somehow got involved in considering the efficacy of operatives picking up dead badgers, in case it affected the human spread of bovine TB. We thought that that was a little far-fetched, but it caused a delay. However, in its own way, it was an important part of the studies that have been undertaken.

I do not want to say more about testing and vaccination, but we want to see it brought forward as soon as possible. We spent some time considering vaccination. Those who think that it will be a panacea, as Chris Cheeseman was quoted as saying in the report, will be somewhat disappointed. Nevertheless, if a vaccine were available, it would help.

In other studies, we asked other countries that have bovine TB what they were doing. When we went to New Zealand a couple of years ago, we asked what they were doing about vaccines and whether they had found an answer to the possum link with bovine TB, but we were not terribly impressed. The BCG vaccine that has been experimented with in New Zealand and Ireland has some merit, but the results are not conclusive. The problem with vaccination is whether it will lead to the same arguments that we had with foot and mouth—about which animals should be vaccinated, and whether vaccination would lead to people trying to pretend that they had bovine TB-free status. All those things contribute to making vaccination more problematic; it is not a matter of simply believing that science needs to come up with a vaccine.

Other features that I shall touch on deal largely with other theories. I have always been one of those—in that respect, I was alone on the Committee—who say that there is some merit in looking at the idea of trace elements.

I was alone on the Committee, but the hon. Gentleman seems to support my position. I have always had the sneaking suspicion that trace elements—perhaps from the earth, and so on—could have an impact. However, the hon. Gentleman may have more influence over the Government than I do, because they are not at all interested in my suggestion that they should pursue that line. However, were the Minister to tell me that real resources would be allocated to the problem, I would be overjoyed.

The suggestion is that the absence of selenium in the cattle diet can cause the immune system in cows to become so weak that no antibodies are produced, and it is the antibodies that are needed to create a positive tuberculin test. The cattle that carry the disease will not show as positive reactors because of the mineral deficiency. That may or may not be true, but that is the science to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and it would be helpful if the Government would research the matter properly.

The hon. Gentleman may have shaken his head a moment ago, but he has put the matter much more succinctly than I could. I have the support at least of the Opposition. We need not only to consider cattle but to examine the potential reservoirs of bovine TB, including badgers. I shall pursue that as a hobby horse.

I shall finish with the Committee's conclusions and the Government's response. We believe that the TB forum is the only vehicle by which the two sides can be brought together to listen to the evidence from the independent scientific group. We see merit in revisiting the structure and operation of the forum, but it is literally the only way of bringing the sides together. Even though meetings have not been that consensual, we see the sense in keeping it in operation. As for the future, the main thing is to keep going, not to veer off course, to look for a plan B and to learn what other policies might need to be put in place.

I turn to the Government's response. To be fair, they are considering carefully their strategy—the Minister might say something about that today. Later in the year, they will bring out their response, which will deal with the ongoing work on the matters that we highlighted. The Government said that there was a need for agreement on husbandry between the industry, DEFRA and the independent scientific group. We are pleased that that is now receiving more attention than was previously the case, and hope that it will link in to the biosecurity plan. The hon. Member for West Worcestershire has made the point about the need for proper data to be put into the public domain, even if that is done through parliamentary questions.

On testing, we were pleased that the Government responded by recognising that there was a problem and saying that they wanted to explore and progress the use of lay testers. We hope that any consultation on that will come sooner rather than later. We were surprised at their terse response to recommendation 9, which deals with the core issue of the trial, saying that we want to keep going with the triplets but do not want to extend culling outside the areas concerned. The Government said that they had noted our recommendation, but we were hoping for a more definitive indication from them as to the direction in which they might go. The Minister still has plenty of opportunity to comment; perhaps he totally agrees with the Select Committee. We were pleased about the comments on both TB99 and the RTA survey, even though there seemed to be a question mark over resources. Resources need to be put into those areas, because of the data issues that have been identified in this debate.

We welcome the growing consensus on vaccination, despite the problems. The Minister might wish to allude to the chief veterinary officer's vaccine steering group, which could be an interesting topic for discussion, and should be debated in the public domain. We would ask DEFRA and the ISG to be open-minded about alternative scenarios in a number of the areas that I have mentioned, including trace elements, and for plan B to be debated, as we recognise that the Krebs-Bourne trial does not yield all the things that we want it to.

Given that nobody has put on record what plan B should be, here is my suggestion, having taken evidence from a number of sources. We should be looking at improved diagnostics; better cattle testing regimes; an agreement to use both cattle and badger vaccines when and if they become available; better biosecurity and farm husbandry; and, possibly, a link to a new compensatory or incentive payment system, to try to get people to work in a slightly different way. Those are my ideas. Some argue that one could go further and say that, with the incidence of bovine TB being what it is, one cannot deny the regularity with which cattle breakdowns take place in the parts of the country where there are hot spots. I do not concur with that; we must find a solution, rather than surrendering to the disease.

In conclusion, we were somewhat overtaken in our handling of the matter by rumours and myths about other solutions—in particular, in relation to the Irish experiment. I am sure that the hon. Member for Hereford will want to say something about that. It is said that a culling policy there has cracked bovine TB. We looked superficially at that, and I have subsequently considered it further in relation to our inquiry. It is claimed that bovine TB in cattle could be reduced by as much as 90 per cent, if badgers were culled more proactively.

The problem with the research is that it has not been published; we are working on rumours because the group has not produced a full paper. We do not know what the control strategy was. The research seems to be similar to the Thornbury experiment that happened not a million miles from my constituency in the 1970s. Many badgers were removed, and the incidence of bovine TB fell, but we did not know why it went down. When the badgers came back, the incidence of bovine TB rose again. Does that prove that badgers could be a reservoir of bovine TB? We already know that. We must be careful; this is an emotional subject and we must get the science right. If people have more evidence, the debate is a good opportunity to explain it.

On the Irish experiment, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that no material has yet been published. I hope that the Minister will say that the Government will liaise closely with the Irish Government to see if there is anything that we can learn from the Irish project. The systems of agriculture in the UK and Ireland are similar, and there are things that we could learn. The sooner we can eradicate the problem from our stock, the better. If we can learn from the Irish, we should do so.

I quite agree, but there are differences. The research evidence must be made public and there must be international action, particularly on research. It would be daft to pretend that this island has got all the answers. To my knowledge, no country has yet pretended to have beaten bovine TB. If anyone can do that, we will be eternally grateful. However, I recognise that research—let alone solutions—may not always travel well. On a positive note, we all signed up to the report. An enormous amount of effort is going into the long-overdue work to find a solution. It is important to support it, even if there is controversy over the actions to which the eventual results may lead.

3.2 pm

I am not a Member of the Committee and I am certainly not an expert on this complex area, so I am pleased to be able to make a short contribution. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) has tackled the debate in a balanced way, and I congratulate him on that.

The focus of the debate is rightly on cattle, but badgers can come into contact with human beings. The National Federation of Badger Groups wrote to me and said that the chance of a member of the public catching bovine TB is about one in 2 million, which is very low indeed. Nevertheless, badgers can come into contact with human beings and can encroach on people in a residential area. I wonder whether the Minister agrees that DEFRA should do more to support and to finance a proper solution to that problem. I shall leave that point before I get out of order. I accept that there is no TB health risk to human beings in those situations, but there are many other risks to human beings and to badgers.

Clearly, the scientific evidence remains unproven. I share concerns that the evidence, particularly on the incidence of TB in badgers to which my hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Sir Michael Spicer) referred, has not yet been divulged. That evidence is needed and should be put into the public domain as soon as possible. We need DEFRA to give clear reasons why it rejected the independent scientific group's advice on a robust trial of the gamma interferon tests. There also needs to be more financial support for farmers to help them to implement the necessary biosecurity measures, and more effective pre- and post-movement cattle testing.

I congratulate the Committee on its work on a subject that is important not only to people living in rural areas, but to those in every area of the country who love badgers. Badgers are one of the most wonderful British wild animals, and they deserve our care and protection, but farmers also need to make a living. I welcome the excellent report and its recommendations, which the NFBG also largely welcomed.

3.5 pm

I, too, welcome the new Minister to his post and to many happy debates such as this.

Like the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink), I was not a member of the Committee but I read the report and the Government's response to it with interest. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on his clear presentation of the report. It was a helpful illustration of the Committee's work, for which I thank him.

In my preparation for the debate, I discovered that the least that can be said about TB in cattle is that there has been an incidence of it in this country for most of the 20th century, although we managed virtually to eradicate it completely in the 1960s, only for it to re- emerge in the 1970s and to become what seems to some people to be an avalanche. The National Farmers Union believes the situation to be very serious. Some hon. Members present may have received its latest briefing in preparation for the debate, in which it describes the situation as the single most serious animal health issue facing the industry.

Clearly, some people believe that the situation is very serious. There is concern in Staffordshire, where hot spots for bovine TB are developing. The disease seems to be creeping through the county, mostly from the east across the border with Derbyshire, although there is a little similar activity from the Cheshire border to the north-west of the county.

My hon. Friends the Members for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) and for Burton (Mrs. Dean) have been very active in drawing the Government's attention to the spread of bovine TB in Staffordshire. They are not present for this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands is a Whip, so would not be expected to speak in the debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Burton has a royal visit to her constituency today. Good grief, she chose the royal visit rather than this debate. I cannot understand that. I praise the hard work of my two hon. Friends. Thanks to their efforts in the first few years after Labour was elected in 1997, and given the nature of the hot spots in their constituencies, the Government relented and allowed Staffordshire to be included in some of the Krebs trials. Unfortunately, while trials continue, the situation in Staffordshire appears to be getting worse. The incidence of the disease is spreading towards my constituency of Stafford, the county town and the area around it, which is virtually in the centre of the county. It is significant that we have this growth in the disease from the north-west and from the east, and that it is getting closer to Stafford all the time. Farmers in my constituency have naturally expressed their concern to me that Stafford will be next if something is not done to stop this spread.

I have been forming a picture from DEFRA records of the incidence of bovine TB. In a written answer to a question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), now the Minister for the Environment, listed the number of new herd TB incidents for the calendar year 2002. That list is based on animal health offices, rather than strict counties. At the top came many of the areas that hon. Members would expect: Devon had 508 incidents, Cornwall had 426, Hereford and Worcester had 295, Gloucester had 273 and Dorset had 105. Staffordshire was coming up on the rails during that time. The Stafford office was the fifth most-affected area, with a total of 263 incidents, of which 162 were judged to be new incidents.

I shall give the figures for the next three months—the quarter to March 2003. Stafford division's number of TB breakdowns increased by 47 per cent, compared with the same quarter in 2002, and more than half were confirmed as new cases, so the statistics bear out farmers' fears that the situation is getting worse. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud did not mention this issue and I do not know whether my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to deal with it, but farmers have raised with me an interesting question about what statistics are available for the growth in the badger population. Anecdotally, they say that there was a huge increase in the number of badgers at that time, which leads them to conclude, or perhaps to conclude more firmly, that there is a link in terms of transmission from badgers to cattle. It would be interesting to know the statistics for the badger population.

Has the hon. Gentleman seen the map of the United Kingdom showing that population? It clearly shows a tide spreading up from the south-west, through Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Wales, and heading towards his area. Given the movement of cattle around the country, that suggests that the effect has been on the ground. Does that not give some credence, at least from a layman's point of view, to the idea that the rise in the badger population may in some way be linked? The map, and the spread that one can clearly see, point to that.

I have seen that map and I know that argument, because my local farmers have put it to me. However, I have also heard the countervailing argument from the National Federation of Badger Groups, which says that the map shows the movement of cattle round the country, not the movement of badgers round the country. That is part of the argument to which my hon. Friend referred earlier.

The Krebs report was published at the end of 1997. The Government accepted the Krebs recommendation of no culling of badgers outside the areas subject to the trials. I remind hon. Members that at that time Professor Krebs found substantial evidence for an association between TB infection in badgers and cattle, but no direct evidence that badgers transmit TB to cattle. The trials were to be the response to the lack of any prior experimental study to enable firm conclusions to be drawn about the effectiveness of badger culling.

I read the Government's response to the Krebs report. Oddly enough, I could not find a date anywhere on the document, so I returned to Hansard to find that my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands had again asked a question on the subject. That just shows how active she has been. Lord Rooker, who was then a Member of this House and the Minister responsible, answered it on 16 December 1997. He announced the publication of the Government's response. That is how I found the date.

Paragraph 17 of the response states:

"The Government has for some time been issuing advice to farmers on keeping badgers and cattle apart."

The Government say that it will be important for the industry to take the lead, but they will make available advice from MAFF and the independent expert group, and they call on farmers to take some responsibility. The response says that the Government

"agrees with Professor Krebs that this advice has not always been heeded, and that farmers should be encouraged to take ownership of this issue."
I was interested to read in the Committee's report about the attitude of farmers since 1997. There was a warning in 1997 about their share in this matter. Recommendation 3 states:

"We are therefore surprised that farmers have not more urgently sought Government help in testing better husbandry methods, in line with the Krebs Report. We urge the farming industry to come forward with proposals for improved husbandry methods."
Clearly, I want to help farmers, but they must also help themselves if they want us to take them seriously.

Does the hon. Gentleman see that if farmers are held responsible for the biosecurity of their herds and believe that the disease is the exclusive responsibility of the badger, their response will be to slaughter the badgers? There is a real danger that by insisting that farmers are responsible for biosecurity, they will take matters into their own hands.

Does the hon. Gentleman not see the opposite? As long as farmers convince themselves that the disease is the fault of badgers, they will not take husbandry more seriously. I am not saying that biosecurity is the responsibility only of farmers, and I will move on to the Government's responsibility for aiding testing at the right times and putting greater efforts into research. I accept that responsibility is shared between several groups, but I do not think that we should let farmers off the hook. They have a responsibility, but for the past six years they seem not to have taken it as seriously as they should have done. We can help them only by telling them the truth.

Some farmers want the authority for a cull of badgers, particularly in hot spots outside the trial areas. However, that will not happen, and it is important to say that. The Select Committee supports the Government in not allowing culls outside the trial areas during the trials.

There are delays in testing, and the Government must buck up their ideas. Their response to the Select Committee's report tells of some improvement and prays in aid the fact that the movement restrictions are focusing minds. However, they still talk of 4,511 overdue tests at the end of March 2003. In the meantime, no effective vaccination is in prospect, and the Committee is undoubtedly right to urge that planning should continue as a vaccine is a long way off.

I want to mention the cost of bovine TB. The Government did not accept the figure of £36,000 that was quoted in the report. In a briefing for this debate, the NFU mentioned a 1999 estimate of £36,000 per affected farm, but in evidence to the Committee an NFU representative gave the figure of £36,000 as the average cost of a TB outbreak. That might be an updated figure as an incident estimate rather than a farm estimate. The Government's response makes it clear that they do not accept the industry estimate, and the Minister has already been asked to give his estimate today. However, there are clear costs, including the payment made to the farmer from the public purse each time that cattle are slaughtered as a result of the disease.

There are also concerns about the effect of the incidence of bovine TB on the countryside, for example on an area's reputation. The disease will affect farmers' ability to sell and export their produce at a good price and, insofar as they are involved in tourism, to attract people to the countryside. The Government should bear in mind those hidden costs, particularly after the forceful reminder from the foot and mouth outbreak of the effects on farming of a damaging incident. The whole of the rural economy is affected, and more.

In March this year, the industry planned its response by holding a TB conference. I pay tribute to all those who took part, including many organisations and, as prime movers, the NFU and the Country Land and Business Association. They came up with an action plan, and I noticed that the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) referred to some of the recommendations in his brief remarks. I know that the report has been sent to the Government, and it makes it clear to them that there is more to the problem than improved husbandry—I made that point earlier in response to the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin). All agree on the desirability of reducing TB in cattle, and eventually eradicating it, and all agree that particular urgency is required in tackling TB in the hot spots. I do not want to read out every item, but the industry forum's report is detailed, with a large number of recommendations, mostly to the Government.

I turn now to the desirability of testing badgers that are killed on roads. In their response, the Government agreed that that would be a good project, and they are in favour of it in principle. If so, why are tests no longer carried out on badgers killed on the roads in hot spots in Staffordshire? I asked staff at my local state veterinary service office why that was, and they pleaded resources, saying that they could not afford the cost of the post mortems and of transporting animals from the roadside to the lab. Much as they would like to carry on with the tests, they cannot do so at present. It is a serious indictment of the Government that they tell the House that they are in favour of the tests, when staff on the ground tell me that they cannot carry them out. Such tests are particularly important in hot spots.

Farmers in Staffordshire would like the backlog of tests and the delays in confirming positive results reduced. I am told that no tests are carried out on badgers that are killed on roads. When can they restart? As a result of staff shortages, the state veterinary service in Stafford could do no tracing work for several months at the end of last year and the beginning of this. Mention was made of the desirability of recruiting farms for the new gamma interferon trial, but the office in Stafford did not have the resources to play its part even though it was willing to do so. It is no wonder that the Government's response talks of a slow take-up for the trial when offices such as that in Stafford cannot afford the staff time to go round recruiting volunteers.

I would not like any of my comments to be thought of as a criticism of the staff at the state veterinary service office in Stafford. From my contacts with them, I know that officers and support staff are hard working and have helpful contacts with local veterinary inspectors. They are held back by the lack of local resources, but farmers still find that they are as helpful and as co-operative as they can be. Indeed, when I held a conference on the future of food and farming in Staffordshire earlier this year, staff from the office ran an advice clinic throughout the day for people attending the conference. That showed excellent commitment on their part.

I reiterate that there is pressure from farmers to permit some culling of badgers outside the trial areas, although it is resisted by the Department and the Select Committee. The National Federation of Badger Groups is applying pressure from the opposite direction and calling for improved testing and research, more movement restrictions on cattle and improvements in cattle health and hygiene. I think that we can all agree that our short-term aim must fall between those two extremes. We must get on top of the demand for testing and be effective at least in administering the testing regime. In the longer term, our aim must be to eradicate bovine TB, and it makes sense to start by driving down incidents in the hot spots.

I urge the Minister to give attention to the resourcing of the state veterinary service office in Staffordshire so that testing can be brought up to date, tracing work can be properly pursued, testing of badgers killed on roads can be renewed—especially in hot spots—and participation in the gamma interferon trial can be assured. We are all waiting for Krebs and for the outcome in the trial areas, and we all expect a definitive answer to our questions about transmission. The Select Committee asked a sensible question: what happens if the result of the Krebs trials is inconclusive and calls for a plan B? I echo that sentiment and urge the Minister to act on it.

The Government's response says that the Department is drawing up a TB strategy, and I have one final helpful suggestion for the Minister. Last year, when Members of this House and of the House of Lords were discussing illegal meat imports, the Department held a useful seminar to take their views. That was part of the Government's preparations for dealing with illegal imports. We are now confronting a sufficiently serious incidence of bovine TB, which commands sufficient interest among hon. Members, that a similar seminar should be held in the not-too-distant future, as part of the Government's preparation for that strategy. I hope that that is helpful.

3.24 pm

First, I congratulate the Minister on taking up his new appointment. If I may mix an agricultural metaphor, I have no doubt that he finds himself in a thorny thicket, but I am sure that he will manage to extricate himself from it soon. I hope that the Minister will preside over a period in which animal health in the UK improves, and that Britain can return to its former position as the paragon of animal health in the world. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) on his new appointment: that is a move that I have prophesied for a long time and, at last, sense has prevailed.

Before I begin my remarks, I draw hon. Members' attention to my entries related to agriculture in the Register of Members' Interests.

At one time, Britain had a high status in the world with regard to animal health. That led to a huge export trade in pedigree stock—in Hereford, Aberdeen Angus and Beef Shorthorn cattle, for example—to south America and to countries throughout the world, particularly Australia and South Africa and elsewhere in the southern hemisphere. People could import stock from Britain, confident in the knowledge that their imports had been subject to the highest level of security in terms of animal disease. Unfortunately, Britain has slipped from that high standard over the years and, although it is not part of the debate today, it might be useful at some point to consider why that has happened. I need only mention the outbreak of foot and mouth disease for the first time in 30 years and, in my area, the problem with sheep scab, which used to be a notifiable disease and which is now prevalent in all the sheep-rearing areas.

I would not like us to be too pessimistic. One of the advantages of going round the world is that one finds the same problems everywhere. Wherever one talks to farmers, one finds that they all have a problem with the spread of disease, even when they are somewhere such as New Zealand which, as I mentioned earlier, has oppressive health controls on humans as well as animals. However, farmers there live in fear of disease coming across their borders and expect that that will happen at some point.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. In my list of congratulations, I forgot to congratulate him and the Committee on the work that they undertook on the report, and on the way in which he introduced the debate.

I draw attention to the need for the UK to export. There are proposals to abolish the over-30 month scheme, which will lead to a huge amount of beef that was traditionally exported to Europe and elsewhere being placed on the UK meat market, a large amount of which would previously have gone to France and Germany. We are having great difficulties in exporting to those areas at present, and those difficulties would be compounded if there were a perception that TB was endemic in the UK.

Several hon. Members have already pointed out that although we can debate whether there is an increase in bovine TB in Britain, because tests that were delayed or did not take place during the foot and mouth epidemic are only now being caught up with, the perception of the farming and rural community is that TB is increasing. It is essential that we deal with the TB problem, to maintain a decent commercial market for beef in the UK.

TB also causes suffering in individual cattle and badgers, although, as the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) said, it cannot be detected by examining the animals' symptoms. Earlier in the debate, it was said that the chance of human beings catching bovine TB was one in 2 million. However, the figures from some of the Krebs recordings gave that chance as one in 200,000. Of the 40 cases of bovine TB reported in humans in this country last year, a number occurred before the milk had been pasteurised, which is obviously a prevalent way of transmitting TB from cattle to humans. Some of the other cases involved people who had returned to this country from places abroad where, for instance, the pasteurisation of milk and general hygiene conditions probably are not as good as in this country.

Nevertheless, farming people and people who work in slaughterhouses are at greater risk of catching bovine TB. We have seen that before in the case of diseases such as brucella and brucellosis, when such people bore the brunt and suffered from infection. It caused great hardship for farming families who had invested a lot of effort and money into breeding cattle to see those cattle destroyed as a result of contracting TB.

However, there is evidence in the figures of an increase in the incidence of TB. My hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) said that it seems to have moved up from the south-west. There are cases of TB in my constituency that are causing great inconvenience for the farmers. In the Teme valley, for instance, there are a number of farming businesses that operate on a large scale, with perhaps more than 500 suckler cows. When such businesses are closed down for an appreciable length of time, it is difficult to manage. How will those animals be fed? How can one harvest when the animals cannot be sold off from the farm? Farming families are experiencing not only great logistical problems, but financial problems. They face difficulties with banks in ensuring that they can borrow what they need to take them through periods when they have no income.

We are told that badgers are a reservoir of infection in the countryside, and no one here would deny that. However, there is also evidence that a great many other animals are infected with bovine TB, and there is a possibility—although there is no proof of this—that they could transmit it to cattle or among their own species. Those species include the red deer, the sika deer, the roe deer, mink, the brown rat, ferrets, moles and domestic cats. New Zealand's climate is comparable to this country's. TB seems to be more prevalent in countries with high rainfall, low temperatures and a lack of sunshine, and there is more TB in Britain, New Zealand and Ireland than there is in Australia, because sunlight seems to destroy the bacteria quicker. In New Zealand, possums, ferrets and wild deer seem to be a reservoir of infection, and there is a scheme in the vector risk areas there to exterminate those animals and get rid of that reservoir.

Mention has been made of both the Thornbury experiment—perhaps we should say the Thornbury experience—and the Irish work that has been done, together with the evidence from New Zealand. Perhaps the Government could consider that and see whether any conclusions can be drawn. As I understand the classical scientific method, in considering a problem one should gather all the information together, draw up a hypothesis and then set up an experiment to prove or disprove that hypothesis. That process continues and continues, and there is nothing against drawing information together and using it to see whether there are common strands than can be brought together. I urge the Government to use all available information, and—as the hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Sir Michael Spicer), who is no longer in his place, said—to publish the data when they become available. One might insert the caveat that the Government should have the opportunity to comment on the statistical significance of data, but to withhold data from the debate does nothing for people's confidence that the Government are being open and transparent in tackling this difficult issue.

In my constituency, a number of farmers are certain that deer play a part in the problem, either as a reservoir of infection or as a transmitter of the disease to cattle. Those farmers would ask—as I do—that as well as doing tests on badgers that are found dead on the road, tests should be done on deer that have died as a result of accidents and on other deer carcases that are discovered. By doing such tests, we might get some idea of the incidence of TB in wild deer.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the high incidence of TB at a League Against Cruel Sports sanctuary? Very little has been done about that. Would the hon. Gentleman agree that it is not a question of whether TB can jump species, but of how fast it is spreading?

I believe that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the Baronsdown reserve at Exmoor. It is claimed that there is a considerable incidence of TB at that reserve. The League Against Cruel Sports claims that there is not. The argument between the Countryside Alliance and the League Against Cruel Sports does not hinge only on TB. Those claims should be examined in a dispassionate and clinical way.

There is a view within the agricultural and rural community that the deer population could be an element in this problem, which is so difficult to decipher. Another theory proposed by farmers in my area concerns the buying of straw in the autumn from arable areas for animal feed and litter. It has been noticed that several farmers who buy straw from one farm may all experience TB infections on their farms. Perhaps droppings from badgers, deer or even farmed animals have been bailed up with the straw and ingested by cattle on the receiving farms. Farmers would like the Government to consider whether that is a means by which the disease is spread over the long distances between arable farms and livestock farms.

It would be of great benefit if we could have some historical information on whether TB has always has been an endemic disease in badgers. Perhaps the Minister could tell us whether that information is available because it would help us to decide whether the increase in TB in cattle is a result of the increase in TB in badgers, or whether there is no relationship.

I turn to a contributory factor in several of the problems that I have mentioned, namely the running down of the state veterinary system over several years. The Select Committee is looking at that matter, but the outbreak of foot and mouth disease certainly highlighted that problem. We have lost local officers who were dedicated to one area and had a real understanding of the particular issues and farming systems, as well as knowledge of the local characters. All that contributes to the way that disease is either prevented or presented with an open gate. While I am worried about the state veterinary service and would like to see it strengthened, I am also very concerned about the running down of large animal practices throughout farming areas. Because of the reduction in profitability of farming, many of those large animal practices have either shut their doors altogether or turned to dealing with small animals. It is sometimes difficult for farmers to access veterinary services. It is the combined effect of having a smaller state veterinary service and a less proactive private practice that has contributed to the increase in animal diseases.

I hear that the Committee has investigated the state veterinary service but that it has not yet reported. Is the service being run down? My experience in Stafford is that it is well supported; indeed, during the foot and mouth epidemic, the local staff were fantastic, as was the NFU, which supported them. Since then, the staff have moved to modern offices. My complaint was more to do with the money that they need to provide the service, rather than the running down of the service itself.

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. I think that we shall have to wait for the report, but my understanding—I do not have the figures with me—is that fewer people were employed. The local element is important.

I referred to the Thornbury and Irish experiments. It was not helpful for the National Federation of Badger Groups to question the professionalism of the vets in Ireland. Regardless of which side does it, it does not help. When considering the information provided to us, we might be critical of the methods by which it was gathered and analysed, and of the conclusions drawn from it, but if we are critical of the professionalism of those who do the work—if we think that they have a hidden agenda or have other reasons for coming to a particular conclusion—we shall not facilitate the understanding and solving of the problems that face us today.

I have a list of things that the Government could do. Many of them have been mentioned before, and may be mentioned again. Releasing information as it becomes available, with a note about its statistical significance, would be helpful.

My hon. Friend mentioned the response of some people from the badger lobby who were critical of veterinary practice in Ireland. Would he join me in being critical not of a particular badger group but of those who attempt to foil and disrupt the Krebs experiment? That has not done the trial any good. We are dealing with a long-term problem. Solving it will be good not only for the farming population in my hon. Friend's constituency and mine and in the country generally; if we can eradicate bovine TB from the badger population, it will be good also for the badger population. We should work towards that as soon as possible.

My hon. Friend makes a good point, which I have made before. We are planning a process by which we can come to a conclusion on these difficult matters, and those who interfere with scientific tests and processes do not contribute to the solution. We want a country where bovine TB is not a problem for the farming community, and as small a problem as possible for animals. It would bring us together if we were all to be absolutely committed to achieving those two aims.

The second item in my list would be for the Government to ensure that we are up to date with the testing. Although I look with interest on the suggestion that we should have lay testers, I worry once again about the large animal practices because they depend upon the income from testing to continue their businesses.

During a previous Westminster Hall debate, I asked the then Minister, who did not come back to me, for an assurance that testing for TB and brucellosis would not be put out to private tender. I did not receive that assurance, but I have spoken to local vets who have been told that that will not take place. That is a great relief to them, because they can plan their businesses with greater security, knowing that they will, at least, have an income from the tests that they perform for their clients. We would like to improve the tests. The sensitivity of only 90 per cent, is fine when the disease is widespread—one can easily pick up a herd that has an infected animal in it—but when one is down to the last one or two animals in a big herd it is easy to miss those one or two and to precipitate another breakout. Yes, we should like all hands to be put to the task of improving the vaccine and getting it out as quickly as possible but, as the hon. Member for Stroud said, that will not be an absolute solution.

I have heard a lot about farm husbandry, but I have not heard much about how it can be improved—putting fewer animals in sheds together and keeping them in drier and airier conditions has been mentioned. We are approaching the mid-term review of the common agricultural policy, at which one of the issues to be discussed is improvement in animal welfare. It seems that there will be support and encouragement for farmers to make moves. If this issue could be tied in with that, there could be some hope of making improvements.

I have made the point about persevering with the tests on badgers that are killed in road accidents, and extending that to deer killed in similar circumstances and carcases that are found, so that we can understand whether the deer are a reservoir of infection. We should work with other countries to ensure that things that are learned there are not ignored here, building on evidence and pulling it together in order to have a sounder understanding of the issues. I welcome the suggestion of the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) that a seminar could be held with Ministers from DEFRA. The seminar on illegal meat imports that I attended was a great help, and I am sure that a similar seminar on this issue would be equally useful.

3.47 pm

I congratulate the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on his new position, and the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on having chaired a Sub-Committee that was difficult, not simply because I got so excited when sitting on it that I wanted to ask questions of all the witnesses and he kept me reined in beautifully, but because the issue is of desperate importance to my constituents. Glancing round at those present this afternoon, I think that my constituency sits right in the middle. My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire (Sir Michael Spicer) represents my eastern boundary, the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) is here from my southern boundary and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) from my western boundary. Looking further north, I find members such as the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney).

The disease presents farmers with a horrendous situation. It is a great sadness that at the end of March there were still 4,911 outstanding tests, as the hon. Member for South Staffordshire pointed out.

Before I hear South Staffordshire too many times, I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that my constituency is just Stafford.

I am grateful for that incisive intervention. The important thing about the tests is not merely how many are outstanding, but the fact that the number of reactors has overtaken the number of cases of foot and mouth that we had. Nobody should be under any illusion but that it is a very serious disease.

The Government's response to the Select Committee was interesting in many ways, positive in some and disappointing in others. I know that the Minister is fairly new to his post, and it would be unfair to be aggressive. However, I have many questions for him to answer, so it would be constructive for me to put them. If he does not have time to answer them, I am sure that all Members who served on the Committee would be grateful for answers at a later date.

In the Government's response, they say that they want to see greater use of private or "on request" tests. How much would such tests cost farmers and how do the Government propose to increase the appeal of using them? When do the Government think that the results of their full public consultation on lay testing, which is taking place this summer, will allow them to introduce lay tuberculin testers? The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire touched on the problem of large animal veterinary practices. That is obviously a major concern, and the proposals insist on vets going with lay testers until they are of sufficient expertise to go out on their own.

When will analysis of the TB99 form be available? Following that, another point from the Government's response was about the analysis of road kill badgers. Are there plans to increase the funding for road kill badger testing? Other hon. Members wondered whether other species should be tested as well. No Member has questioned whether bovine TB could jump species easily; it clearly can, which is why it is possible—although very unlikely—for human beings to catch it. One problem with the Krebs test is in its investigation of the jump from badgers to cattle. No one doubts the cattle-to-cattle infection or the badger-to-badger infection. I know that certain people doubt the badger-to-cattle infection, and my real fear is that the tests will not answer that question.

It is difficult to administer the tuberculin test. It is a skin test and not always conclusive, as there can be both false positives and false negatives. I was strongly in favour of the gamma interferon test, but the problem is that it also picks up avian TB. Avian TB is endemic in Britain and not as serious a disease as bovine TB, but it causes the gamma interferon test to show a positive result. That has meant that farmers who have volunteered their herds for the pilot schemes have found that large numbers of their cattle get positive results. When will DEFRA decide which test comes first—the gamma interferon test or the tuberculin test? Which will take precedence in the decision on whether to cull an animal? I was lucky enough to intervene on the hon. Member for Stroud to discuss the importance of the mineral deficiency argument that would affect those tests, and my plea is for the Government to consider any research that will either scotch or confirm that particular rumour.

Why did DEFRA and the independent scientific group not agree on the gamma interferon tests before they were implemented? We heard from Professor Bourne that he had 36 hours' notice before the DEFRA gamma interferon pilots began. When will the Government reach their target of 150 herds for the pilot gamma interferon tests? Farmers are becoming increasingly nervous about volunteering their cattle, because they expect up to 40 per cent, of them to be slaughtered.

Vaccination is my preferred option, and I do not hide the fact. Is it true, however, that most of the research into TB relates to human TB? Is it true that the Government spend about £60 million a year on such research, but only £1.6 million a year on research into bovine TB? We should bear that in mind, given that about £90 million has been paid out in compensation. I do not know whether my figures are correct, and I would appreciate some indication of the correct breakdown.

Of course, no one condemns research into human TB. We all worry about the disease, especially now that it is becoming more prevalent in the UK. However, the vaccination of cattle would be 50 to 60 per cent, effective. That is an important point, because I am sure that the Government would like compensation claims to fall by 50 or 60 per cent.

The problem with vaccinating cows at the moment is that they would show up as positive reactors in the tuberculin test. One would therefore be unable to distinguish between cows that had the disease and those that had simply had the vaccination. I would therefore like to know what progress the chief veterinary officer is making on the vaccine steering group and how much that will cost.

Recommendations 17, 18 and 19, on page 8 of the Government's response, make it clear that the Government recognise that we need a TB strategy and that the Krebs trials may not be as conclusive as we would like. They have done well to recognise the problem, but my question to the Minister is what plan B will be. Many options are available to the Government, but none of them is particularly palatable. Everyone went into the Krebs trials under Professor Bourne with high hopes, but it is highly likely that the evidence that they provide will not be as conclusive as we would like. It is therefore essential to have a plan B, and I hope that it will be a plan to vaccinate.

Following the foot and mouth crisis, the Government implemented the Animal Health Act 2002, which was designed to ease the slaughter of potentially infected animals. A little while later, they introduced the European recommendations, which related predominantly to vaccination. It was a case of vaccinate to die, then vaccinate to live—that was the preferred course. I want the Government's plan B to advocate vaccinating now, before the European Union tells us what to do. Vaccinating to live would be positive and helpful. It would also be difficult, but I hope that the Government will dedicate more time and perhaps more money to investigating the possibility.

No one in the debate has said, "It's definitely badgers" or "It's definitely cattle", but there is not much room for compromise between the positions of the NFU and the NFBG. Vaccination is the only way forward that will avoid the mass slaughter of badgers—be it official or unofficial—while allowing farmers to carry on. This is the Minister's chance—cometh the hour, cometh the man. Not enough is being done about vaccination, and the gamma interferon tests need refining. The Government have much to do if they are to tackle the disease.

Previously, there were no cattle passports. A huge amount of work has been done on traceability, so let us use it. The data were expensive to gather, so let us use them, too. A cow that has a passport can be vaccinated, and the information can go into its passport so that we know what is going on. Of course, such a system may not be perfect. In any case, I am not a scientist, and I do not want to judge how the situation may develop. After all, the science that is to be rolled out might be helpful. However, when it comes to plan B, we need to take seriously the asset allocation for vaccine research, which is where the Government can make the fastest and most effective difference.

As I pointed out in an earlier intervention, if the Government go down the biosecurity route, there is a risk that farmers will simply lose faith. Farmers have told me that they have seen 60 or 70 badgers eating cattle food in their cattle sheds. Some 10 years ago, those numbers would no; have been possible. We must therefore make much more constructive progress. I know that Dr. Elaine King has fought very hard for the badgers, and no one could have done more, but there cannot be a compromise between the farmer who wants to slaughter badgers and the badger protectors. We must therefore find middle way—I know that such a suggestion will have an enormous appeal for the Minister.

I always try to be helpful when such terms as the middle way are used. May I suggest, for the record, that the problem with culling, outside an experiment, is that bovine TB, like any form of TB, is a stress-related disease? There is a supposition that as we cull, we push animals that survive further and further out. A degree of self-preservation is therefore involved. The debate is not about furry animals, but about the possibility of making things worse, which is why we need to invest all our time and faith in the science.

That was a helpful intervention. There are several points to make. First, I was not talking about official culling; I am worried that farmers will take matters into their own hands. Secondly, there is a natural culling, which is usually killing on the roads. Thirdly, some badgers are immune to TB. Many hon. Members talked about badgers becoming ill from TB, and said that that might be why they are run over, but I do not believe that TB in badgers is as debilitating as it is in other animals.

Badger welfare is not the primary concern. However, some badgers have developed immunity to TB, and indiscriminate culling wipes out the immune badgers as well as the badgers that are vectors for the disease. That is why I prefer to steer away from the debate about culling, because I do not believe that it is a long-term solution. There is BCG testing on badgers in Ireland, but I believe that, given the overall numbers of badgers, especially in the south-east of England, it would be very difficult to vaccinate them. Our prime concern is cattle, so they should be vaccinated. We should control the species that we are interested in, because it is clear that species other than cattle are vectors.

We talked earlier about husbandry. All farmers take very seriously the idea of pre-purchase and post-purchase testing. No farmer would want TB to be brought on to his holding, and we should therefore move towards assessments for individual farms. We also need to remove animals that are positive reactors, at least within the target of seven days. Delays in administration that result in the target being exceeded are unacceptable. Again, there is much evidence of administrative mistakes. We must get infected animals off the farm as quickly as possible if we are to cut this highly contagious disease.

Current support scheme rules preclude producers from claiming reactors as force majeure when the cattle in question, or the whole herd, are under TB restrictions. That interpretation may be too severe, and we should consider changing it.

Rapid improvements need to be made to the administration of the system used to deal with TB to reduce the number of errors and delays. The information booklet "Dealing with TB in your herd", which is given to farmers with a TB breakdown, needs to be updated to reflect changes in the policy. It should also be made widely available, and, if possible, discussed with a farmer when a TB breakdown is discovered.

The NFU would like to see counselling and financial advice for farmers in a bid to reduce the stress associated with a TB herd breakdown. I am sure that the Minister will take that on board.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentioned welfare slaughter schemes. People may not necessarily understand that there is a problem, particularly for large herds such as that in Teme valley in my constituency, which he mentioned. When a herd is shut down, the farmer still has to feed many cattle and he cannot sell any.

The lower Teme valley may be in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, but the upper Teme valley is in mine.

I am disappointed with the hon. Gentleman, because I hoped that he would say something helpful about large herds, rather than about his grasp of the geography of the River Teme. However, he is right that there is a bit of the, River Teme in his constituency, too. Like me, he grasps the significance of the particular problem that large farmers have with welfare.

I mentioned veterinary involvement and TB surveillance, particularly in relation to lay TB testers. The hon. Gentleman talked about their professionalism, which is so important and should not be questioned. Indeed, it must not be questioned, and every step must be taken to ensure that professionalism is always maximised.

The hon. Member for Stroud mentioned Dr. Cheeseman of Woodchester, whose evidence was particularly interesting and important. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words about me. My hon. Friend the Member for West Worcestershire asked for up-to-date figures. We are all trying to achieve the same objective, whichever side of the argument we are coming from. To do that, we must consider the figures, so we need to know what they are.

There is a problem with culling one species when other species are ignored. Although the Select Committee agreed that we should not cull outside hot spots and the testing areas, other people are tempted to break those rules. I am worried about that, which is why I have drawn it to the Minister's attention.

It is clearly true that the disease is spread through cattle movement. Following the foot and mouth outbreak there was a great deal of restocking, which has facilitated the spread of this disease. I mentioned avian TB and the gamma interferon tests. I believe that the only country that managed to wipe out bovine TB was Australia, because that continent does not have avian TB. Other hon. Members have talked about the situation in New Zealand, where I believe they treat possums as pests and slaughter them. I hope that the experiment conducted by the Irish produces helpful evidence, but we will have to wait and see whether they were able to inoculate badgers. Through the dropping of chicken heads, it has been possible throughout Europe to inoculate foxes against rabies. I am not sure but I believe that the same is done with worms and badgers.

My hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point ( Bob Spink) made a supportive speech for the badger lobby, which I entirely welcome. He talked about the beauty of badgers, and I think that all farmers would agree that badgers are an asset to their farms, particularly given the importance of tourism. This issue is not about badger-haters, but about imbalance. When farmers see large numbers of any species, they worry that there is a lack of balance in the countryside, for which they feel they have some responsibility. It is worth pointing out that the badger is the most protected animal in the world through legislation. It is more protected than the blue whale and the giant panda. We must address the problem of the number of badgers, but that does not necessarily mean widespread culling. I hope that that comment is not misinterpreted.

The hon. Member for Stafford rightly talked about an avalanche of bovine TB. The numbers have surpassed those for foot and mouth, and no one wants such an epidemic to continue. He also talked about the responsibility on farmers to deal with husbandry. The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire made it clear that we hear about that, but we do not hear how it should be done. Obviously, at the top of the list would be pre-purchase and post-purchase testing. If the Government can do anything to alleviate some of the cost of that, or to insist on it and make it the norm throughout cattle purchase, that would be helpful, although the extra cost would damage our beef industry.

We must all pull together in tackling the disease. As a result of the difficulties that the NFU experienced with the NFBG, the Government spent less time focusing on the disease than on the argument, but I hope that that will change. The mid-term review has passed and the Secretary of State has already spoken to the Select Committee about what that will mean. Unfortunately, there is nothing in it that will increase animal welfare significantly, as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire wanted. However, that does not mean that we should give up at this point—it is just the start. Improved animal welfare and higher animal welfare standards are excellent reasons for people to buy British. I hope that the Minister, although new to the job, will rise to the challenge of tackling this significant and unpleasant disease.

4.11 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

I begin by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) for the way in which he presented the Sub-Committee's report. I also thank hon. Members for the general tenor of the debate, which has been rational and constructive. I put on record our appreciation of the work of the Sub-Committee and of the quality of its report.

Earlier today one hon. Member likened the job to which I have just been appointed to a "thorny thicket". It has also been described in recent days as the kiss of death, and a poisoned chalice. My predecessor, when he handed over the chalice, told me, "They'll love you when you leave." In that spirit, I would also like to thank the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) for being gentle, and if I fail to answer his questions or those of any other hon. Member in my response, I will endeavour to do so in writing after the debate.

As the Member of Parliament for a constituency in Devon, which is one of the areas in the country worst affected by bovine TB, I am well aware of how distressing the disease is, and how much economic hardship it causes to many in the farming community. I am also aware of its potential danger to human health. I share the determination of my predecessor, who is now the Minister for the Environment, that the Government, working in partnership with the farming industry and others, must get to the root of the problem.

As we have seen in the debate, the evidence to the Committee was drawn from a wide range of sources—from farming and wildlife interests, the independent scientific group on cattle TB, those carrying out research and officials from my Department. I welcome the fact that the Committee was generally satisfied with the research programme that is currently in place. However, I also accept that we cannot afford to be complacent. It is evident from the Committee's report and the tenor of many of the contributions that I have heard this afternoon that there is still much to be done. We have considered the Committee's report in depth and will take full account of its recommendations in the development of our new TB strategy and the forthcoming animal health and welfare strategy.

At the outset, I will address a couple of the specific factual points that were raised by hon. Members. The hon. Member for Leominster and others asked how much TB costs us as a country. The problem is that at present no one knows, although we know that the Exchequer spent £72 million on it last year. However, we have instigated a research project, which is being conducted by a team at Reading university and will report later this year. I hope that that research will allow us to arrive at a figure on which we can all agree. However, no one is in any doubt that the economic costs both to the farming industry and to the public are significant and increasing.

The hon. Member for West Worcestershire (Sir Michael Spicer), among others, asked about the reliability of the data. My Department puts the monthly updates on the DEFRA website, but it takes about six weeks to do so. As a result, the most recent figures are for the end of April It was not quite clear from the question whether the hon. Gentleman wanted data from the trials, but I shall come to that subject later in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, who asked about the possibility of interim reports from those trials.

Following the foot and mouth disease outbreak the state veterinary service was faced with the task of dealing with a huge backlog of TB tests. It has worked incredibly hard over the past 18 months, with the co-operation of farmers and private veterinary practices around the country, to reduce the number of outstanding herd tests from a high of 27,000 in December 2001 to just over 3,800 at the end of April 2003. That is the backlog referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney). An additional £3 million was made available to the SVS in England and Wales last year to help with this task.

The threat of impending movement restrictions on overdue herds, introduced as part of the autumn package, has acted as a powerful incentive to clear the backlog. Herds with tests more than six months overdue are now routinely placed under movement restrictions, pending satisfactory completion of the test. The end of September will see movement restrictions imposed on all herds with tests more than three months overdue. I would encourage farmers with tests becoming due over the coming months to continue to co-operate fully with the SVS to reduce the TB testing backlog still further. Dealing with TB in cattle will remain a top priority for the SVS in this financial year.

To increase our testing capability further we are pursuing lay testing—something that the Select Committee report drew out. We remain strongly of the opinion that suitably trained and competent non-veterinarians are capable of carrying out TB testing on cattle. The Committee welcomed the proposal in principle, but emphasised that it is vital that the people involved should be properly trained. We agree, and we plan to consult on that. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud asked what we meant by "soon". I shall be making an announcement tomorrow—if that is soon enough for him—on a proposal to make an order for an exemption from the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 to permit non-veterinarians to conduct TB tests on cattle.

The hon. Member far Leominster tried to tempt me to pre-empt the outcome of that consultation, but it would not make sense to consult if I were to say what the Government thought of the idea before consulting. He can expect us to make a judgment once the consultation is over.

To make an exemption from legislation on veterinary practice would be the way to allow lay testers to undertake that work. However, I am concerned because large animal practices feel under threat. They are worried that introducing lay testers for that work could threaten their income. Is that exemption to last for only a certain time, or is it open-ended?

That will depend on what the consultation throws up and how successful it is. We do not have a firm view on that matter at the moment, but I will write to the hon. Gentleman to clarify it.

Of course, the overall increase in TB testing and the policy of targeting testing on the herds deemed to be at the highest risk of disease has led to the disclosure of many more TB breakdowns. The imposition of movement restrictions faced by farmers following a positive or inconclusive TB test result has meant that many of them face a degree of financial hardship. Consequently, following discussions with farming unions and other stakeholders, last autumn the Government and the Welsh Assembly introduced a package of measures designed primarily to help reduce the economic impact of restrictions. Our priority was to ensure that disease control was not compromised. The measures introduced included the movement of animals from and into herds under TB movement restrictions, tighter controls on overdue TB tests, a pilot of the gamma interferon diagnostic test, and the establishment of an industry group.

As a result of the autumn package, DEFRA now licenses the movement of non-reactor cattle from herds under TB restriction direct to slaughter through a dedicated slaughter market, to a finishing unit also under TB restrictions from which cattle will be sent direct to slaughter, or to slaughter via a collection centre. New procedures allowing movement of cattle between herds under restriction were introduced earlier this year. Those have provided clearer criteria for allowing farmers to introduce replacements for animals slaughtered under TB control measures.

The autumn package also introduced a timetable for the imposition of movement restrictions on herds with overdue TB tests. From January, herds with tests more than 12 months overdue have been placed under movement restrictions, pending satisfactory completion of those tests. From April, herds with tests more than six months overdue have been restricted, and the end of September will see movement restrictions imposed on all herds with tests more than three months overdue.

Another of our major objectives—and one raised by a number of hon. Members—is to find a more accurate way of diagnosing bovine TB. A policy pilot of the gamma interferon blood test began in November 2002 in Wales and six English counties. The purpose of the policy pilot is purely practical—to identify whether using gamma interferon or a more severe interpretation of the skin test would help to clear infection in herds more quickly, therefore allowing movement restrictions to be lifted more swiftly. So far, 45 herds have been recruited into the pilot. I accept that that is a rather slow rate of uptake, and we will be monitoring the situation carefully over the next few months.

As a number of hon. Members have said, the independent science group has called for significant changes to the policy pilot. We are in discussions with the ISG about that, but some of their proposals raise difficult logistical issues. The hon. Member for Leominster asked a specific question about which comes first, the gamma interferon test or the TB test. I understand that the EU rules give preference to the tuberculin test. The gamma interferon test is permitted as an adjunct test, and selects a slightly different group of animals as positive. However, because of the low specificity of the gamma interferon test, it cannot be used on its own. I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman's question.

DEFRA is spending approximately £7 million a year on research in addition to the badger culling trial—examining, among other things, how TB is transmitted, improved diagnosis, and the role played by a variety of factors in the development of the disease. Work on cattle pathogenesis studies continues. That includes a study of post-foot and mouth disease restocked herds in the field to try to find out the role that cattle-to-cattle transmission plays in transmission of TB. A quick assessment of such herds has shown that cattle-to-cattle transmission plays a significant role in disease transmission, and not just for TB. Those studies have also begun to demonstrate the complexity and cyclical nature of the immune response in cattle to bovine TB. It is the immune response that the current tests—both the skin test and the gamma interferon blood test—measure.

We have carried out a review of the non-badger culling trial parts of the research programme as part of the regular review cycle. The research is assessed as having met the policy need. A final copy of that report has been made available on the DEFRA website. The hon. Member for Leominster raised the question of trace elements in cattle. Trace elements are one factor among many that can cause immune deficiency in animals. The independent science group and other scientific advisers have advised us that that is not an area of high priority of research, because most cattle are not mineral-deficient.

Developing a TB vaccine is one of our key aims; we share that desire with the hon. Member for Leominster. DEFRA is committed to research projects costing more than £5 million designed to identify candidate vaccines, experimentally vaccinate cattle and to develop a test to differentiate vaccinated from infected cattle. One of the first questions that I asked was whether we were spending enough on that. The scientists assured me that it was not a question of how much one spends, but of how quickly the science can proceed. We are as keen as everybody else to find a vaccine solution to this terrible problem.

Will the Minister also ask at what point the science will become satisfactory? Even in human beings, a BCG test is only 75 per cent, effective. A judgment will have to be made on the point when cattle vaccination becomes acceptable.

I am afraid that I cannot do that, because I am not a scientist and I would not want to preempt the scientific investigations, but I hope that the answer is sooner rather than later.

The long-term aim came a step closer with the sequencing of the mycobacterium bovis genome last year. Only BCG has so far been identified as a possible practical vaccine candidate. DEFRA is part funding collaborative work on the experimental vaccination of badgers with BCG in the Republic of Ireland, and research to identify other possible candidates is in progress. Moreover, the independent science group will report to Ministers in the autumn on the results of the vaccine scoping study.

The hon. Member for Leominster also mentioned the difficulties of the TB99 questionnaires. We regret that the cumulative effect of the problems with completion of those questionnaires has meant that the ISG has not been able to carry out a preliminary analysis yet. To help overcome those problems, at the end of last year DEFRA commissioned the Agricultural Development Advisory Service to carry out work on up to 500 TB99 questionnaires, at a ratio of one case to three control. ADAS began work on that in late summer 2002, and we wish to renew the contract in the coming year, to continue to ease the pressure on the state veterinary service and to increase the flow of data to the Veterinary Laboratories Agency. Data from 703 valid cases and only 354 controls are available on the TB99 database. The number of controls is expected to improve as more forms, in particular those that ADAS has completed, reach the Veterinary Laboratories Agency for input to the database.

I accept that there were unacceptable delays in starting the badger road traffic accident survey after the end of foot and mouth. However, the collection of badger carcasses under the road traffic accident survey is now done under a separate contract with the central science laboratory, which has relieved the pressure on the SVS. Numbers have recently reached a level where there should be sufficient data for the ISG to carry out a preliminary analysis, which should be done before the end of the year.

I am aware there have been many representations to my Department, including some this afternoon, calling for an extension to the area covered by the survey. However, the RTA survey is limited to the counties where the Krebs trial is taking place, in order to enable the ISG to compare the data collected with data emerging from the proactive and reactive culls in the Krebs trial. Without such analysis we do not know how representative TB in RTA survey badgers is as compared with that in general badger populations.

DEFRA's wildlife unit has extremely worked hard to put the trial back on course following the disruption of foot and mouth. All 10 of the trial triplet areas are now enrolled and culls have been carried out in each of the 10 proactive triplet areas. There have been problems in notifying wildlife unit staff of TB incidents in the reactive cull areas in order to allow planning of reactive culls. However, in the last six months of 2002, there was a marked reduction in the time taken by the SVS to submit notifications, with most taking between two and three months, and the efforts to improve have continued this year.

Much concern has been expressed about delays in completion of the badger culling trial due to the disruption of field operations by foot and mouth. However, the ISG, whose chairman I met yesterday, has recently reviewed the effects of foot and mouth on the trial and advised that the full set of trial data should be gathered by the end of 2006.

I should like to address the questions that my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) asked about badger numbers and the history of TB being endemic in the badger population. There are no accurate figures available for badger numbers. Officials tell me that there are probably between 350,000 and 450,000, with the highest density in the south and west of the country. We accept the widely held view that the population of badger has increased dramatically in the last 20 years. However, the report that we are debating also contains evidence from Dr. Cheeseman, who casts doubt on the existence of a relationship between the density of the badger population and the prevalence of tuberculosis, so density of badger population is not necessarily a vital consideration.

It will not surprise my hon. Friend to learn that I have been in conversation with Dr. Cheeseman, and we should try not to use his name in vain. I know what has been going on at Woodchester, and the researchers there are currently examining some interesting findings that show that the badger population in the Woodchester area, which is the most researched group in the history of the UK, is declining. There are some interesting, even worrying, ecological findings—those are still premature, but there are problems with badger numbers.

That is extremely helpful. I was not saying that that was the Government's view, but simply pointing out what was in some of the evidence in the Sub-Committee's report.

On the historical data and the question of whether TB has been endemic in badgers for ever, I can say only that the first case of bovine TB in a badger was identified in 1971, and RTA surveys carried out in the 1970s and 1980s showed TB present in badgers in almost all counties of England and Wales. Therefore it has certainly been endemic in many areas for some time.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud expressed surprise—I cannot remember the exact words that he used—about the Government's non-committal response to recommendation 9. I must say that it jumped out at me, too, when I read the Government's official response. However, I have been assured by my officials that my original instincts were right. Our expression of noting it actually means that we support it, so I hope that my hon. Friend will take that assurance.

I thought that that was a question of modesty on the part of the Department, as the recommendation said that the Committee welcomed the Minister's clear statement of the Government's position.

It may be that officials are sometimes are reluctant to be overenthusiastic about Select Committees endorsing what we are already doing, so we note, rather than support enthusiastically, such recommendations.

I take seriously the suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that it would be incredibly helpful to get some meaningful interim data from the trials. I am coming to the issue fresh, and that may not be possible—there may be strong resistance from the scientists—but it is a question that I want to ask. My hon. Friend's point was extremely helpful.

I am also aware of the reports of the research that has been taking place in Ireland. The results of that research have not been published, so it would not be proper for me to comment on what is currently only speculation. However, I can reassure the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch), who asked whether, when the results are published, we would see whether we could learn anything from them. Of course we will do that—the Government are extremely keen to learn whatever we can from whatever happens in other countries.

However, it is also important to recognise what my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud said, which is that the research in Ireland is significantly different from our trials in some important ways. Although I express willingness to learn from other experience, it is important to recognise that we may not be able to draw parallels from that research.

Surely the point is not whether the research is different, but whether the problem is the same. Perhaps addressing the problem in different ways allows us to draw a clearer idea of its causes and possible solutions.

That may be the case, but if we are to make progress based on sound science, we must ensure that we do not draw the wrong conclusions by assuming that another piece of research is identical to our trials, or even that it is seeking the same information. I have already stated that I am willing to consider research that is going on anywhere in the world to find out whether we can learn from it.

That brings me to the example given by the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire: the possum extermination policy in New Zealand. That is an area in which it is not helpful to draw parallels. If he has visited New Zealand, as I did a couple of years ago for the millennium, he will know that possums are considered by the whole population there to be a terrible pest. There are competitions involving running them over and shooting them. Those who shoot the most are celebrated as heroes and heroines. The possums, which have been introduced from Australia, are very destructive and cause major disruption to the delicate biodiversity of New Zealand. It is not necessarily right to draw parallels between possums and badgers. However, if we can learn anything from the New Zealand experience I shall be pleased; this is a difficult, some might say an intractable, problem.

When the Irish release results from their work, the ISG will also wish to consider its implications. In April we announced the establishment of an independent scientific panel to review our badger culling trial and associated epidemiological research. It will examine the progress of the badger culling trial and the likely time scales for the results.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) raised the issue of human health. Although that has not been the central concern of most hon. Members, it is important, and I know that his intervention was prompted by a constituency experience of the serious damage done by a group of badgers that moved into a residential area. We shall continue to work with colleagues in the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency to protect human health from bovine TB, both by removing affected meat from the food chain and through the continued pasteurisation of milk. I might be able to help the hon. Member for Castle Point in his absence: the number of cases of human tuberculosis attributable to bovine TB remains more or less constant at 40 to 50 each year. Most of those are recurrences of disease contracted before the pasteurisation of milk began; that was the main public health protection measure introduced in the 1950s.

This is a straight query, and one that I have raised before. Farmers have expressed to me their concern that the meat of animals that have been confirmed to have bovine TB can still enter the human food chain. I have never understood that, given how quick we have been to incinerate in connection with other diseases. I do not expect an answer now, but I should be grateful if the Minister would look into the matter. The last time I asked the question, research was under way, but I do not know what is happening now.

I undertake to find out, and to respond to my hon. Friend in due course. I imagine that, as with many such dilemmas, decisions have been based on the best and latest available science, and that until now the judgment has been that that is safe.

An outline strategy has been developed following our recent consultation on preparing an animal health and welfare strategy. It sets out a vision for the future of animal health and welfare in Britain, the roles and responsibilities of the key players and a series of new initiatives to make the necessary change. It will be launched later this month, and the TB strategy will be one of the sub-strategies of the overarching animal health and welfare strategy.

That brings me to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and a number of others: what is plan B? My hope is that during the review of our TB strategy as a sub-strategy of the animal health and welfare strategy, that will become more apparent. It is essential that we continue our existing approach, which the Sub-Committee accepts is correct, while drawing up a plan B that will allow for the possibility that the ongoing trials will not be conclusive. I absolutely accept what my hon. Friend says.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford made the excellent suggestion that we should hold a seminar on the strategy, as we did on illegal meat imports. That will be helpful, and I assure him that we intend to do so. The exact scope of the strategy has yet to be established, but we shall hold a series of pre-consultation meetings with key contacts in the summer. That will inform the nature of the consultation material that will be issued in the autumn.

In conclusion, I reiterate the Government's commitment to tackling bovine TB with our partners in the farming and veterinary communities, with the meat industry and with wildlife interests. We shall continue to strive to develop, update and implement our strategy for a future based on sound scientific principles.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Five o'clock.