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Volume 471: debated on Thursday 31 January 2008

7. What representations he has received on the former chief scientist’s views on badger culling; and if he will make a statement. (178862)

I have received various representations on the former chief scientific adviser’s views on whether badger culling should form part of the bovine TB control strategy. Those have come in the form of questions from hon. Members and a lot of correspondence from concerned organisations and members of the public.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the findings of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, which were developed over such a long period and at such considerable expense, should not be cast aside in favour of the views of an individual scientist, backed by hon. Members whose solution to animal welfare issues is “If in doubt, kill something”?

I say to my hon. Friend and the House that, as we know, this is an exceptionally difficult issue. If it were not exceptionally difficult, we would have found a way of resolving it already. Secondly, I met Sir John Bourn just before Christmas and I am in the process of having a series of meetings with all those who have an interest in this matter, as I told the House I would.

The advice in the ISG report is very clear. The conclusion was that the group did not think that culling could meaningfully contribute to the control of TB. We have all seen what the former chief scientific adviser had to say about that. For me, the issues on which I have to make a decision—and I will—are these: what does the science say; what is the practicality of any course of action; and, I have to say, what is the public acceptability of any course of action. The truth is that the person who holds my office must weigh those three issues in the balance in trying to help the industry and the livestock sector, which is finding it very difficult to deal with. I do not for one second deny the problems faced by the industry. It is a tough issue; I will reach a decision, but in doing that I am going to listen to all the views expressed.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the Independent Scientific Group put great store by cattle testing and the use of the gamma interferon test. He will also be aware that there is considerable concern in farming circles that that test is now showing a much higher incidence of bovine TB in comparison with the skin test. What steps will he take to resolve that position, particularly taking into account the effect that a higher incidence of the disease could have on his Department’s budget?

We are using both those approaches. The right hon. Gentleman, who is expert in these matters, is correct in saying that the gamma interferon test produces more positive results. My view is that we should use all the scientific tools at our disposal to try to identify the nature of the problem. I think I am right in saying that there are a couple of potential court cases relating to use of the gamma interferon test, which will be a matter for the courts to resolve. Both tests demonstrate that there is a problem and we have to deal with it. The question is finding the solution that is going to work. A number of different proposals have been made and I look forward with great interest to what the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which the right hon. Gentleman so ably chairs, has to say when it produces its report.

I am sure that the Minister recognises the sense of utter despair and anger in the south-west among farmers who over the past 10 years have seen delay after delay at the same time as the slaughter of tens of thousands of their animals. At that rate of progress, we are soon going to see more badgers in the south-west than farm animals. When are the Government going to take some positive decision?

As I said in answer to the earlier question, I am going to reach a decision, but as I told the House I am in the process of meeting all the organisations, which have very strong views on this subject. I absolutely recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point about the difficulties that those farmers face, but, with respect, we have to find a solution that is in line with what the science tells us. We have had a 10-year study and we have seen what the report said and the view expressed in it—I do have regard to the science. We have to find a solution that is practical and we also have to weigh the factor of public acceptability in reaching the decision. People have very strong views on both sides of the argument. It is not easy, which is one of the reasons why it has taken so long to come to a decision, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will do so.

The views of the former chief scientist are a matter of public record, but will my right hon. Friend share with the House the views of the current chief scientist?

I have the pleasure of meeting the new chief scientific adviser later on today; no doubt this issue will be one of a number that we will discuss.

The issue of the use of gamma interferon goes further than the Secretary of State suggests. The gamma interferon test has a sensitivity of about 97 per cent., yet we have found that in some herds up to 28 times the number of cattle are reacting to it as to the skin test. His officials are flatly refusing farmers the opportunity of re-testing and insisting on culling all those animals. That is the reason for the court hearings to which he referred.

Why will the Secretary of State not instruct his officials to allow a re-test, on the understanding that everybody accepts the outcome? All the evidence is that those results are statistically invalid. He should speak to experts: they are all saying that we could not get such a difference in sensitivity between the two tests. Something is wrong somewhere, and putting farmers to the expense of going to court—risking the Secretary of State’s money on extra compensatory costs, as well as defending the case—is helping nobody at all.

I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I do not quite agree with the analysis that he has put forward. I repeat what I said a moment ago: we should use all the means that we have to try to achieve identification. I understand the strength of feeling in some cases about the impact of this, but if we have an additional test that gives us information about the incidence of bovine TB, it is pretty hard—looking at it from the other point of view—to say that we will not use it. Those tests have different sensitivities, but the question is whether it is right to use both. My view is that it is, but if the matter goes to the courts, they will decide whether the approach that we are taking is reasonable.