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Bovine TB

Volume 531: debated on Tuesday 19 July 2011

Today I am publishing the Government’s bovine tuberculosis eradication programme for England. The programme sets out a comprehensive and balanced package of measures to tackle TB in cattle, badgers and other animals. Nearly 25,000 cattle were slaughtered in England in 2010 because of bovine TB, which cost the country £90 million in the past year alone. The problem is particularly bad in west and south-west England, where 23% of cattle farms were unable to move stock off their premises at some point in 2010 due to being affected by the disease.

Cattle measures, including routine testing and surveillance, pre-movement testing, movement restrictions and removal and slaughter of infected animals, will remain the foundation of the TB eradication programme. Measures to address bovine TB in cattle remain the cornerstone of efforts to control the disease right across the country, and existing measures will be strengthened. Measures already introduced include a significant expansion of the areas on more frequent routine TB testing and the DNA tagging of cattle to prevent TB reactor fraud.

Planned new measures that I am announcing today include reducing compensation payments for reactor animals from herds where TB tests are significantly overdue and removing some of the exemptions to the requirement to test animals before they move out of herds under annual and two-year routine testing. The Government will work with the farming industry and the veterinary profession to continue to promote good biosecurity and provide advice and support to farmers, as well as investing £20 million over the next five years to develop effective cattle and oral badger vaccines as quickly as possible. The programme also sets out the proposed way forward on controlling the disease in the badger population, including plans to license groups of farmers and landowners to carry out science-led, strictly controlled culls of badgers in the areas worst affected by TB.

This terrible disease is getting worse, and we have to deal with the devastating impact that it has on farmers and rural communities. There is also the effect on the farming economy and taxpayers. Bovine TB will cost us £1 billion over the next decade in England alone if we do not take more action. First, we need to stop the disease spreading even further, and then we need to bring it under control and ultimately eradicate it. We cannot go on like this. Doing nothing is not an option. Many farmers are desperate and feel unable to control the disease in their herds. If someone has repeatedly had to send their cows to be slaughtered, one can understand the desperation that they feel. We know that unless we tackle the disease in badgers we will never be able to eradicate it in cattle. We also know that no country in the world has successfully controlled TB in cattle without addressing its presence in the wildlife population.

Ultimately, we want to be able to vaccinate cattle and badgers, and we are investing in research, but there are serious practical difficulties with the injectable badger vaccine, which is currently the only available option. Badgers have to be trapped and caged in order to dispense it. We are working hard to develop a cattle vaccine and an oral badger vaccine, but a usable and approved cattle vaccine and oral badger vaccine are much further away than we thought, and we cannot say with any certainty if and when they will be ready. We simply cannot afford to keep waiting. We already have a robust set of cattle controls in place, but we need to accept that in some parts of the country they are not enough. Unless we tackle each and every transmission route, including from badgers to cattle, we are likely to see the situation deteriorate further.

There is great strength of feeling on this issue, and that is why I have carefully considered the scientific evidence and the large number of responses to our public consultation. I know that a large section of the public is opposed to culling and that many people are particularly concerned about whether it will actually be effective in reducing TB in cattle and whether it will be humane. I wish that there were some other practical way of dealing with this matter, but we cannot escape the fact that the evidence supports the case for a controlled reduction of the badger population in areas worst affected by bovine TB.

With the problem of TB spreading and no usable vaccine on the horizon, I am strongly minded to allow controlled culling, carried out by groups of farmers and landowners as part of a science-led and carefully managed policy of badger control. Badger control licences would be issued by Natural England under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 to enable groups of farmers and landowners to reduce badger populations at their own expense. In light of concerns raised in the public consultation, a number of amendments to the proposed policy have been made. Key stakeholders will now be further consulted on the resulting draft guidance to Natural England, which is the licensing authority for the culling activity. The draft guidance to Natural England sets out strict criteria that applicants for a licence to cull badgers would have to meet to ensure that any culling is carried out safely, effectively and humanely. Initially, in the first year, the culling method would be piloted in two areas to confirm the effectiveness and humaneness of controlled shooting. An independent panel of scientific experts will be asked to evaluate the pilots.

Scientists agree that if culling is conducted in line with the strict criteria identified from the randomised badger culling trial, we would expect it to reduce TB in cattle over a 150 sq km area, plus a 2 km surrounding ring, by an average of 16% over nine years. The Government will not attempt to eradicate the disease nationally by culling, and there would be no culling over the whole endemic area at the same time. However, controlled culling can make an important contribution in the worst affected areas. In the event of a decision to permit culling following the consultation, any culling licences granted by Natural England would be subject to strict conditions, based on evidence from the RBCT, designed to ensure that culling results in an overall decrease in the disease in the areas where it takes place.

Applications for licences would be considered only for a cull area of at least 150 sq km, and with culling to be conducted by trained and proficient experts and paid for by groups of farmers and landowners over a minimum of four years. Farmer groups would have to take reasonable measures to identify barriers and buffers such as rivers, coastlines and motorways, or areas where there are no cattle or where vaccination of badgers occurs at the edge of culling areas, in order to minimise the effect of perturbation, where disturbing the badger population can cause an increase in TB in cattle in the surrounding area. If culling is ultimately authorised, we will look to the farmers involved to show that they take their responsibility very seriously and that they are committed to delivering culling effectively and humanely.

I can assure the House that I have not reached this decision lightly. I am very aware of the strength of feeling on both sides of the debate. However, having now considered all the evidence and all the views, I believe that this is the right way forward.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement.

The Opposition know that bovine TB is a major animal health problem. We understand the desperation of farmers affected by this devastating disease. That is why, in government, Labour set up the randomised badger culling trial. It cost £50 million and remains the most extensive scientific study over a 10-year period on the effects of culling badgers, protecting cattle and reducing bovine TB. The report concluded that

“the reductions in cattle TB incidence achieved by repeated badger culling were not sustained in the long term after culling ended and did not offset the financial costs of culling. These results…suggest that badger culling is unlikely to contribute effectively to the control of cattle TB in Britain.”

Labour’s approach in government was led by that science, and we continue to be led by it. The Secretary of State talks of a badger vaccine. However, when she became Secretary of State, she cancelled five of Labour’s six trials a vaccine for badger TB. Why did she not give those vaccine trials a chance to work?

The Government’s announcement today is led by short-term political calculation. These pilots will not change the science. The Secretary of State’s solution of the free shooting of badgers has never been tested. It is therefore not supported by the science. There is strong evidence that localised culling, which she proposes, significantly increases the TB risk in neighbouring herds, as badgers move out of cull areas and spread the disease, particularly in the first two years. Will she tell the House what steps she is taking to ensure that farmers outside cull areas and non-participating farmers inside cull areas are protected from bovine TB? The scientists who met at DEFRA on 4 April 2011 stated that vaccination, which she proposes, is unlikely to be effective at reducing the risk of infection. Her impact assessment states:

“For farmers in cull areas, monetised costs exceed expected monetised benefits.”

So the costs to farmers will exceed the benefits. That is hardly a compelling case to sign up for a DIY cull.

The Secretary of State said the costs of bovine TB will reach £1 billion over the next 10 years. What estimate has she made of the reduction in that £1 billion cost to the taxpayer over the next 10 years with her proposed cull? The taxpayer will still pay for TB testing, monitoring, issuing licences and judging the scientific effectiveness of her cull. Will she tell the House how much the cull will cost the taxpayer? The science shows that there will be, at best, a 16% reduction in TB cases after nine years. Does that mean a reduction in taxpayer costs of about the same amount?

The science also states that culling must be wholesale and sustained. What will the Secretary of State do if the results of the one-year pilot show that the cull has made things worse? How will she deal with farmers who sell up, move on or decide that they no longer want to be part of the cull? Will DEFRA pay for the cull if that happens? Has the Secretary of State seen the letter in The Times of Wednesday 13 July from seven members of the original independent scientific group? It states that

“there are no empirical data on the cost or effectiveness (or indeed humaneness or safety) of controlling badgers by shooting, which has been illegal for decades. If the Government decides to proceed with this untested and risky approach, it is vital that it also instigates well-designed monitoring of the consequences.”

There is obviously some doubt in the Secretary of State’s mind that this is a humane way to proceed. What kind of information will reassure her that killing badgers in this way is humane? How will she monitor and measure the effectiveness of the free shooting pilots? How will she prevent the pilots from becoming an open season on badgers elsewhere in the country? The Badger Trust estimated in 2008 that there were about 300,000 badgers in Britain. What estimate has the Secretary of State made of the number of badgers that will be culled, and of the time frame? The guidance states that the aim is to reduce the number of badgers in control areas by 70%. What measures is she taking to prevent the localised extinction of badgers? What contact has she had with the Bern convention secretariat? Does not the policy she announced today put us at risk of breaching the convention on protecting our wildlife?

The impact assessment estimates that the additional policing costs to deal with protesters against the cull will be £200,000 per year. Devon and Cornwall police are losing 700 officers over the next four years. Which Department will pay for the police required in cull areas—the Home Office, which has had its budget cut by 20%, or DEFRA, which has been cut by 30%? What advice has the Secretary of State had from the Home Office and what public order issues has it identified? Will she publish that advice for the House?

The right hon. Lady promised farmers a science-led approach on bovine TB; today she has turned her back on the science. She promised that she would do something on bovine TB; today she has shown that she will do anything. The right hon. Lady has achieved the almost impossible: with the forests sell-off, her inept handling of wild animals in circuses and now an ill-thought-out badger cull, she has shot herself in the foot not once but three times—a hat trick unmatched by any other Minister.

This is a very serious matter and I do not think it lends itself to political point scoring. I am glad that the hon. Lady has acknowledged that this is a devastating problem. Her Government had the opportunity to do more to address it when they were in office.

The question of the science is an incredibly important and pivotal point. When the previous Government set up the randomised badger culling trial, the initial results showed that within the culled area, there was a significant reduction in TB breakdowns in herds. The perimeter of the area was where the perturbation effect was apparent. The science has continued to be monitored by Christl Donnelly, who has published and had peer reviewed findings on the long-term effect of the decision to cull badgers as a method of reducing the incidence of TB. In the longer term, the reduction in TB herd breakdowns is sustained within the culled area and the negative perturbation effect falls away 12 to 18 months after the culling ceases. That is the science and those are the facts. The scientists agree on the facts. I encourage the hon. Lady to read Christl Donnelly’s most recent publication.

The vaccine deployment trials, to which the hon. Lady referred, were trials not of the vaccine, but of the practical ability to inject badgers with the vaccine and to train people to undertake that. I have seen that with my own eyes. We have the results of those deployment trials and so those resources are no longer required. As I have said, the Government have spent £30 million since 1997 on trying to develop an oral vaccine for badgers and a cattle vaccine, and we are committed to spending £20 million over the next five years to continue the development of the vaccines, which we all want to see.

The hon. Lady described the action rather disparagingly as a DIY cull. I hope that I made it clear that a high level of proficiency will be required of those contracted to undertake the cull. They must have achieved deerstalking level 1 proficiency and must undertake an additional course to cope with the physiology of the badger and to understand the health and safety requirements.

The monetised costs are a matter for the farming industry. It is a fact that it costs a modest amount more to incorporate culling as a method of controlling badgers. However, how are we to estimate the social cost to the industry from the repeated breakdowns of herds and the spread of the disease? That is also an important factor in the decision. We estimate that there will be savings to the taxpayer of £900,000 for each 150 sq km area.

On the question of whether farmers will move out of an area having entered into a consortium during the four year period, the industry has agreed to provide the resources up front for a four-year programme of culling. Therefore, if anyone should leave during that time, the resources will be available to contract operators to ensure that the culling programme is seen through. What we know from the randomised badger culling trial is that it is not good to start and then break off before the exercise is completed. We have ensured that that is covered under section 7 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006. The programme will be closely monitored, as I said, and we will establish an independent panel of experts to look closely at the efficacy and humaneness of it, including through a post mortem of the carcases that accrue from the culling trial, so that we can establish that the animals have been humanely dispatched.

The hon. Lady asked me about the number of badgers likely to be involved. It can only be an estimate, as there is no precise knowledge of the size of the badger population, but before any culling is carried out a detailed survey of the control area and all the setts within it will be required. We estimate that the number of badgers culled will be between 1,000 and 1,500 per 150 sq km area over a four-year period. I invite the House to compare that with the statistics produced by the Highways Agency showing that on average, 50,000 badgers are killed on the roads in this country every year.

Of course, we have been in contact with the Bern convention secretariat on a number of occasions, and there is no question of eradicating the badger population. It is a protected species but not an endangered species in this country, and the most important thing to remember is that unchecked, this disease is spreading further and further north. At the moment we have TB-free badgers and cattle in England, and we want to keep it that way. Our endeavour is to reduce TB infection in cattle and badgers.

I have given the Home Secretary an undertaking that DEFRA will take care of the police costs. I am afraid I cannot share the Home Office advice with the hon. Lady, but I can assure her that I have met the police, who are responsible for public order, on a number of occasions and discussed how they will conduct their role in ensuring that the exercise guarantees public safety, and that those who are contracted to carry out the culling can do so without fear or intimidation.

I commend the Department for bringing forward this extremely difficult decision. May I go back to 1972, when I understand badgers were protected for the first time in this country? The badger population grew, but infections in cattle grew incrementally. I hope that the programme will recognise the animal welfare effects on farmers, who lose not just individual cattle but often whole herds. The statement partly redresses that balance.

Who will issue the licences, and what will the conditions of them be? How broad will the areas be, and what consultation will there be on the specifics of them? The report of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the last Parliament made some helpful recommendations, from which I hope my right hon. Friend will take some comfort.

Turning to vaccination in the long term, will the Secretary of State address the real concerns about vaccinating cattle and the prospect of their meat not being able to enter the food chain?

I am publishing today the draft guidance to Natural England, which contains detailed information for my hon. Friend. I expect that her Committee will want to examine the conditions of the licences in some detail, but as I have said, there must be a minimum area of 150 sq km. Natural England will consult locally on each area to be licensed.

Cattle vaccination is a very difficult issue. It is prohibited by EU legislation, and since the United Kingdom and Ireland are the only two member states that currently have TB as an endemic disease, I am sure the House will appreciate how difficult it will be to get the law changed. We first have to establish that we have a viable cattle vaccine and a viable test to distinguish between vaccinated and non-vaccinated cattle.

This is a sad day for conservation and animal welfare in the UK, especially given that in 2007 the independent scientific group rejected a cull as an effective means of managing bovine TB. How has the science changed since then?

I do not accept that it is a sad day for conservationists, of whom I regard myself as one. I think the hon. Lady will be aware that nature conservationists regularly have to cull species in the natural world. That is part of good conservation. As regards the 2007 position on the science, things have moved on. I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh): in 2011 we have had the publication of the data produced by one of the original scientists, Christl Donnelly, which show that the ongoing beneficial effects of having culled the badgers in the cull area are maintained, and that the perturbation effect moves away. I think the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) will find when she reads that document that, since it has been peer reviewed by other scientists, it meets with strong support in the scientific community.

The right hon. Lady will be aware that this is a matter of immense importance to my constituency, which is in the south-west. The coalition agreement states:

“As part of a package of measures, we will introduce a carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine tuberculosis.”

Science-led policy would require a thorough and rigorous evaluation of the two pilot projects of which she has spoken before the policy was rolled out to the rest of the areas affected by TB. I imagine that it might take years for the scientists to evaluate them. What form would that evaluation take, and can she give more details of what resources DEFRA will put in place?

I commiserate with the hon. Lady on the fact that her part of the world is so badly affected. That is one reason why we want to undertake the pilots in the worst-affected areas, where they are likely to be disproportionately beneficial. I can assure her that the pilots will be rigorously evaluated by an independent panel of scientific experts, veterinary scientists, academic scientists and practitioners. However, we need to be clear that the pilots are to establish the efficacy and humaneness of this method of reducing the population, and are not about the wider question of the science, which had already been established by the randomised badger culling trial. For that reason, I do not think it is remotely likely to take years. It will be more a matter of weeks or months.

I congratulate the Minister on fulfilling an election pledge, and indeed a coalition pledge, in her statement today. While other Members are elsewhere, fulfilling a media cull, it is good to see that DEFRA is going to pursue a cull of an animal that has put into our society great poison among our bovine herd. When people talk about the welfare of a wild animal, they never seem to be concerned about the welfare of our bovine herd. I am glad that we are hearing some sensible talk about protecting a multi-million pound industry, as opposed to protecting cuddly things in the countryside.

Will the Secretary of State share the basis of her scientific evidence with the Northern Ireland Executive, and with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland, so that in a part of the United Kingdom where we have suffered from TB in our cattle we can see the scientific information and protect our national herd as well?

The hon. Gentleman makes the very important point that the 25,000 cattle slaughtered just in the past year also deserve our respect for their welfare as animals.

The Minister of State has just mentioned to me that he did share our thinking on this subject with the Northern Ireland Executive in the spring, but given that we are now consulting on two pilots to examine a controlled reduction, it is important that everyone has the opportunity to learn from that science-led, evidence-based approach.

Order. May I just say before I bring any more Members in that there is a lot of pressure on time, so short questions and certainly short answers will be very helpful?

I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for all their work in looking at all sides of this argument. In 1997, 3,700 cattle were culled because of TB. By 2009, it was 37,000, and the point that Ian Paisley made—

Order. We are not meant to mention Members’ names. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is coming to the end of his question.

The number of cattle slaughtered in those years has meant huge heartache for farmers, nowhere more so than in the part of Devon that I represent. The Republic of Ireland has had a cull that has reduced by 30% the number of infected cattle, so I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement.

I thank my hon. Friend. The figure of 37,000 cattle related to England and Wales and this programme applies to England only, but the most important point is about the spread of this disease. We have published a map to accompany this statement, and I encourage hon. Members on both sides of the House to look at it and see how this disease has spread from the late 1980s to the present day: it speaks for itself.

Is not this big society, badger-slaughter spree a combination of bad science and animal cruelty by the nasty party?

That was an emotive intervention without a critical question. This is a science-led, evidence-based policy for the eradication of TB.

The decision by the Secretary of State to grasp this contentious issue will be welcomed by farmers in the west country who have been dismayed by years of dithering by the previous Government. I support the introduction of a vaccine, which we all know is the long-term solution, but can my right hon. Friend confirm that one of the limitations of a vaccine is that it is not a cure, as it can only inoculate healthy badgers against the disease?

My hon. Friend is right to point that out. The life cycle of the badger is approximately four years and therefore vaccination to reduce the rate of infection is a slower method than controlled reduction by controlled shooting.

The locations will be made public, but the identities of those contracted to undertake the operation will not, for their own safety.

In the last Parliament, as a member of the Select Committee, I welcomed the report that we published which, having looked at the evidence, decided that the approach that the Secretary of State has set out would be beneficial. Some members of that Committee went into the inquiry opposed to a cull, but came round to that view having seen the evidence. Does she agree that it would be great if those who have understandable doubts about a cull could come to rural areas, such as Cornwall, and see the devastation on the ground so that they could understand that we need to do something about this issue?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point and I thank him and the Select Committee on which he served, as well as the present Select Committee, for the efforts that they have put into addressing this difficult issue. However, nothing compares to visiting a farm in one of the worst affected areas and learning at first hand about the devastation and heartache that repeatedly having to send cattle to slaughter brings.

There are some Opposition Members who do not have a romantic view of badgers, but nor do we want to see animals killed unnecessarily. As a former DEFRA Minister, I understand the pressure that Ministers are under to deal with the problem of infection in the cattle herds and among badgers. However, I do not agree with the interpretation of the science.

Will the Secretary of State say a little more about the reducing compensation for farmers, because that will be greeted with concern? This is about making the farming community observe the guidelines that some do not observe. Will she confirm that the evidence that swung her decision in favour of the cull is the latest extended evidence on the randomised badger cull, because that is a new element of science? How will she report culling progress to the House, and how often?

To be clear, I do not have a romanticised notion either. Like anyone who loves nature, I love the badgers too, but we must be clear about the humaneness and efficacy of what we are discussing. As regards new science, the science published since 2007 by Christl Donnelly and peer reviewed is an important factor in the decision. On the compensation, if farmers do not get their cattle regularly tested in a timely fashion, as they are required to do, they will have their compensation reduced. This is a balanced package and people must take responsibility. The farming industry has shown its willingness to do that and I commend this balanced package to the House.

Will the Secretary of State expand on the criteria that will be used for granting a culling licence, and can she confirm that licences will be granted only when the recipient has a clear commitment to acting in a humane and safe way?

I commend to my hon. Friend a good read of the draft guidance that we are issuing to Natural England today, which is worth reading. It is very detailed and there will be a nine-week consultation period. Of course it requires those carrying out the controlled reduction to do so in an effective and humane way.

I agree with the Secretary of State that the status quo is not an option, but I am concerned that the vaccination programme will be put on the back burner. She said that she was concerned about Europe: can she assure me that the programme will carry on and be developed as a useful tool to eradicate TB, in Wales as well as England? Is she talking to the chief scientists in the devolved Administrations?

I can give the hon. Gentleman an assurance on that point. Not only are we putting resources behind the ongoing research and development required for an oral badger vaccine and a cattle vaccine, but both the Minister of State and I have been to see the relevant commissioner at the European Commission to discuss how we can accelerate an acceptance at the European level of the need for a change in the law to allow the vaccination of cattle. The £20 million that we have committed to vaccines over the next five years is evidence of how seriously we take that quest.

I warmly commend the Secretary of State for having the bravery to tackle this dreadful disease, which has heaped so much misery on farmers and indeed badgers. She will be aware that under the Labour Government 275,000 cattle were killed, some needlessly, at a cost of £700 million to the taxpayer. We owe it to farmers and wildlife—and above all to taxpayers—to get on with this job efficiently.

As I have made clear, if we do nothing the bill for the taxpayer will mount to £1 billion over the next 10 years. That is a significant fact and we owe it to the taxpayer to try to do something about it.

It has been obvious to those of us who attend Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions that the Government have intended for months to sneak this statement out on the last day before the recess. That is because the Secretary of State knows that the science does not support culling or the new blood sport that she has just created. When will the Government stand up to the farming lobby and tackle the impact of cattle movements and farmers allowing cattle that they know to be infected to go to market?

It is clear that we have taken our time on this decision because it is important that we make the right one. We have taken more time than we originally intended to listen to all the stakeholders involved—some of them more than once. We wanted to make an oral statement and the decision is in our business plan for July. I have therefore come to make that oral statement.

May I urge the Secretary of State to ignore the advice from the Labour party, which failed to act decisively when it was in power and instead allowed the problem to escalate?

Perhaps more than anyone in the Chamber, I understand how difficult this decision is to make—because the Secretary of State has to make it. I have weighed the arguments and deliberated carefully. I am, of course, sympathetic to those who always have animal welfare uppermost in their minds. So do I, and that is one of the factors that I weighed in my consideration. However, I do feel that the decision we have announced today is the right one.

Is the message that the Secretary of State is sending out today not highly likely to be seen as a green light to an increase in small-scale illegal badger killing that in turn is likely to increase the incidence of cattle TB, and will she acknowledge that there is significant scientific evidence countering the evidence that she has cited today?

I want to make it perfectly clear that the badger remains a protected species and that those caught culling them illegally face severe penalties. That remains in place. Today we are asking Natural England under licence to consult farmers consortia to undertake a controlled reduction of the badger population in a careful, effective and humane way. On the science, I think that we have been through this argument several times already. I recommend that the hon. Lady read the latest scientific evidence, peer reviewed, by Christl Donnelly, on the outworking of the random badger culling trial post-2007.

As I represent a constituency in the south-west, I wholeheartedly congratulate my right hon. Friend on her statement. It sometimes takes courage to do the right thing in politics—and she has shown that courage. My farmers will be eternally grateful for this decision. Does she agree that there is not a country in the world that has tackled bovine TB successfully without getting on top of the reservoir of that disease in the wildlife population?

My hon. Friend is right about other parts of the world trying to eradicate TB in the cattle population. Possums had to be culled in New Zealand, feral buffalo in Australia, and white-tailed deer in America; and badgers in Northern Ireland had to be culled in order to reduce the rate of infection in the wildlife population. No country has succeeded in eradicating the disease without doing that.

The Secretary of State will know that in Wales a legal challenge in June stopped the badger cull, as a result of which an advisory committee on the science has been established. What contingency plans has she made for a legal challenge to this announcement? If the Welsh Assembly’s assessment is that the science shows that culling does not work, will she revisit her decision?

One of the reasons we have taken our time to weigh up this decision carefully is that there is, as we acknowledge, a risk of a legal challenge. We are piloting reduction by controlled shooting and evaluating the results in part to establish the evidence base for our decision. I have done all that I can to deal with a potential legal challenge. The pilots themselves will prove whether the method is effective and humane.

May I too congratulate my right hon. Friend on the courage she has shown in making this difficult decision and on making this balanced statement to the House today? Can she confirm that at least one of the pilot areas will be in Devon, which is one of the hot spots for bovine TB?

I cannot confirm the location of pilots yet because the industry has not made such proposals to me. It is important to define pilot areas with boundaries so that the perturbation effect can be minimised.

I think that the Secretary of State has a curious way of showing her love for badgers and her desire to protect them—by introducing a new blood sport. I hope that the pro-blood sport influences on the Government Front Bench are not behind this decision. Does she accept that culling badgers will not solve this problem? The scientific evidence suggests that it will actually increase the likelihood of bovine TB. Bad husbandry can be a reason for the spread of bovine TB, too, so will she explain to the House why she is rejecting the scientific evidence suggesting that a cull will not work?

Nature conservation includes the controlled reduction of species in nature. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would give me that as a fact. I beg to differ, however, on the science. The randomised badger culling trial showed in the initial period that if the badger population is controlled within a confined area under controlled conditions, the population is reduced and a significant reduction in TB breakdown of herds can be achieved. The subsequent outworking of that trial shows that that benefit lasts.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement because it shines a spotlight on the fate of cattle and the impact on farmers and rural areas. I thank her for the statement. Does she have any thoughts on the evaluation of the vaccination being developed in my constituency and on how long it will take to produce results?

There have been trials in my hon. Friend’s constituency on the deployment of the injectable vaccine. That is all there is available to tackle badger TB. I have seen the trials for myself. They have concluded that it is possible but impractical and certainly difficult to make affordable. We have established through those trials the practicalities, and that was what was being undertaken in his constituency.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the assessment of her own expert wildlife crime unit that the free shooting of badgers presents a very real danger of persecution being carried out under the pretext of culling?

I think that those assumptions were made before we published the detailed guidance today. I recommend to her the guidance that we have issued to Natural England because it shows precisely the controlled conditions we propose would be required for licences to be granted in order to minimise risks to public safety and maximise the effectiveness and humaneness of this approach to dealing with badgers.

I realise that many of my hon. Friends who represent farming communities feel strongly about this issue, but I hope they will accept that my constituents are likely to be concerned about what the Secretary of State has announced. The key thing is that policy is determined by scientific evidence, so may I encourage her to publish a plain English version of the evidence that she alluded to in her statement?

I would be happy to do that. My hon. Friend’s constituents might be reassured to know that nine of the scientists—most of them involved in the original randomised badger culling trial—have agreed on one version of the truth and the facts relating to that scientific exercise. They are the facts that I have set out today: with a controlled reduction in the badger population in a confined area it will be possible to reduce significantly the number of TB breakdowns.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. I represent the area in the Northern Ireland with the highest level of bovine TB in the whole Province, where it is a devolved matter. I welcome her commitment to sharing the information with other devolved regions. It is good news. Will she agree to work with other regions in the United Kingdom—Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—to ensure a concerted and concentrated eradication of bovine TB across the whole of the UK?

Of course, and in the interests of the respect agenda in particular, we would be keen to work with the other devolved regions. However, it is also important to point out that Scotland is currently TB-free, and I expect that it would want us to do all that we can to ensure that that remains the case.

Can the Secretary of State confirm that badgers infected with TB and with TB lesions in their kidneys excrete large amounts of TB on to grass? We all get many letters from constituents asking us to ensure that cows have access to grass and are not reared on large factory-scale farms, so surely controlling bovine TB is an important way of ensuring that grass is safer for cows to eat.

Of course, my hon. Friend has a professional background that helps her to understand epidemiology. However, the important point is that it is beyond doubt that there is transmission between badgers and cattle. The fact that they share pastures and fields means that they can pass the disease between them in the way she has described. Even the Badger Trust would acknowledge that the disease is passing from badgers to cattle, as well as from cattle to cattle. Controlling the badger population in a particular area in the way I have described should indeed help.

Will the Secretary of State publish any advice she has received from the Association of Chief Police Officers on public order issues arising from this decision?

For more than a decade, it has seemed obvious to many of us that an effective pilot badger culling scheme is needed to help develop a policy to tackle the bovine TB catastrophe, for the benefit of both cattle and wildlife. However, we know that there will be a well-funded, well-organised campaign of opposition. What lessons has the Secretary of State learned from the legal pitfalls that scuppered a project by the Welsh Assembly Government a few years ago to carry out a similar policy?

We have been following that closely, which is one of the reasons why we are proceeding with two pilots to establish the efficacy and humaneness of controlled shooting as a method of controlling the population of badgers in the affected areas. The measured approach that we are taking to rolling out the scheme is important in sustaining the Government’s case.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s statement today. She is clearly doing the right thing, albeit acknowledging that it will not necessarily be the popular thing among large parts of the community in this country. I have seen the suffering of badgers and cattle at first hand, so can she assure me that accurate information about the appalling suffering inflicted by this disease will be widespread, and say why the science-led approach is absolutely necessary?

Yes, I can give that assurance, and the industry, too, will provide many examples of the human angle in the devastation suffered. I invite those who do not support the approach we are taking to think what the alternative is, in the absence of a viable vaccine at this point in time, to help to combat a disease that has devastated so many lives and so much of the countryside.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on the serious focus that she is showing on this issue. However, in Cumbria, which has been largely TB-free, we are now under threat. Recent incidents have arisen from dealers moving infected cattle from infected areas into Cumbria. May I urge the Secretary of State please to look at what we can do to prevent that from occurring in the future and, in the meantime, to encourage auction houses to let farmers know before they buy cattle whether they have been in an infected one to two-year testing zone in the previous six months?

This is a balanced package of measures for the control and eradication of TB in cattle, and at its foundation are cattle movement measures. My hon. Friend is quite right, and we are looking to tighten up on pre-movement testing. We have already introduced an expansion of areas for more frequent testing. We are extending the use of gamma testing, and we will be strengthening enforcement of TB surveillance and control. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are tightening up on cattle movement as an integral part of this package of measures.

Royal Assent

I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Supply and Appropriation (Main Estimates) Act 2011

Finance Act 2011

European Union Act 2011.