It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I am pleased to have been granted the opportunity to initiate this debate. Although my constituency of North Tyneside is largely urban—it has only four farms—the interests of my constituents are many and varied. They cover a wide range, including concerns about the Government’s proposed culling of badgers.
I would never describe myself as an animal lover, but I would never wilfully hurt an animal. As a townie, I value being a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and in that role I have learned a lot about the issues that confront members of our rural and farming communities, the challenges they face in caring for the countryside and maintaining their animal herds, and the important role that they play in providing for the food chain. Furthermore, I have learned to respect their knowledge of and experience in all those matters.
Levels of bovine TB are unacceptable, not only for our farmers and the fate of their cattle, but for the taxpayer. Last year, 25,000 cattle were slaughtered, and almost £90 million was paid for testing and in compensation. The Environment Secretary has said that over the next 10 years, bovine TB will cost £1 billion in England alone if more action is not taken. However, it is the Government’s proposed action to tackle the issue that I wish to question.
Although the compulsory culling of cattle affected by bovine TB began more than 60 years ago, it was not until the early 1970s that badgers were thought to be the wildlife reservoir for the disease. The UK has one of the densest badger populations in Europe, with up to 30 per sq km in some areas. Badgers are a native species that is widespread across the UK, and live in setts underground in family or social groups of related mature adults and young cubs. Each group defends its own territory, which has a source of food and water. They are creatures of habit and are extremely loyal to their setts. By law, they are protected under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the Bern convention.
A number of badger culling initiatives have been employed over the years to control bovine TB, but it was under the Labour Government that a full scientific study was undertaken. Following Professor John Krebs’s independent review, that Government set up the independent science review group, and the UK randomised badger culling trial began. The trial took place over a 10-year period in areas where there had been large numbers of TB cases in cattle. However, the cull was suspended in 2003 when it was found that survivors of partly culled setts were wandering away and spreading the disease. Following extensive research, the study reported in 2007 and concluded that badger culling could not meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in the UK.
Is the hon. Lady not aware that there was proof after the trials that TB in cattle was reduced by some 27% as a result of culling, and that while there was, as she correctly indicated, perturbation around the edges of the area in which the cull took place, within a year that had lessened? In other words, the Krebs trials demonstrated that culling is effective. Indeed, the report of the EFRA Committee, on which the hon. Lady sits, came to that conclusion in the previous Parliament.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the scientific evidence suggests that, at best, a comprehensive culling policy would lead to a 16% reduction in bovine TB, but only after nine years in the culling zones? The Government’s proposal is to undertake a number of pilot projects before rolling out the programme, which is not an effective way forward.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention and agree with her. This is the basis on which the Government are advancing their proposals—nothing better, just the same.
In 2008, the then Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), decided that, based on the evidence, it was not right to risk the cull because it could have made the disease worse. He stated that the then Government would concentrate on other measures, including investing in the development of an effective TB vaccine for both cattle and badgers.
I am encouraged that we are having this debate. What is the vaccine called that the hon. Lady mentioned? My understanding is that no effective vaccine is in place yet, that the trials are ongoing and that frankly, the vaccine does not exist. An injectable vaccine would be incredibly costly and difficult to administer, and would have no effect on badgers that already carry this terrible disease.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. My understanding, from looking at the Wildlife Trust’s vaccine programme in Gloucestershire, is that BCG vaccines are effective. The trust is carrying out that programme by trapping the badgers and injecting them. The trial took place over the summer and the costs are being looked at, but the programme is under way. I am no scientist, but the injections are similar to BCG injections for humans.
I appreciate the hon. Lady allowing me to intervene again on this important point. I am aware of those Gloucestershire trials, which are important. I declare an interest as a member of the British Veterinary Association, which cares about animals and their welfare. On those trials, it states that
“to conclude from this report that the badger vaccine is a viable alternative to culling in eradicating TB is unrealistic at best and spin at worst.”
The fact is that frankly, trapping a wild badger and trying to inject it and trace it for the next five years—as the hon. Lady has said, there is a large badger population—would be impossible.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but the Government’s proposals on culling are not being monitored and have no scientific fact behind them. The vaccine trials are ongoing and should be pursued. Unfortunately, the Government closed down five of the six trials, thus limiting what can be done, but they themselves are going to put £20 million into vaccine development.
Clearly, there will be different views on a number of issues in this debate, and I welcome that. I should like, however, to clarify the situation on vaccines, so that the debate can progress on a positive, factual basis. As has been said, a licensed injectable vaccine is being used by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. However, that is not a trial. The trust is undertaking a programme of vaccinating badgers on its own land and, as I say, is not carrying out a trial.
On the six projects to which the hon. Lady referred, yes, I cancelled five of them, but they were not trials either. They were called vaccine deployment projects and were purely designed to work out the mechanics of catching and vaccinating badgers and to train the operators. Those projects were not trials to establish whether the vaccine works; we know it works to a large extent, which is why it is licensed.
Forgive me for taking so long, Mr Crausby, but I think these points are helpful. An oral vaccine has not been developed. There have been a number of attempts to do so in New Zealand, as well as in this country, but we are still many years away from it. Just for the record, a cattle vaccine is more imminent but, as no doubt we will discuss, we have major problems with the EU in getting agreement to use it.
Many of us are intervening on the question of a vaccine. I am a farmer and I love wildlife. We would desperately like to have a vaccine that we felt was going to be effective, but for as long as I can remember—I have been involved with this issue for about 40 years—a vaccine has been about 10 years away. What we need from the hon. Lady is an idea of what the Opposition would genuinely do.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which was made from his professional stance. The vaccine issue is very important, and the previous Government were totally committed to it because they appreciated the situation of the farmers and of the animals affected by this horrendous disease. That is why the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central, decided to concentrate on developing a vaccine. Such a decision was based on the scientific evidence that culling was not the way forward, and because he put faith in developing the vaccine, he set up the Bovine TB Eradication Group for England. The measures proposed by that group did not at any point include going along with culling, because it believed that the scientific evidence from 10 years of trials did not conclude that culling would bring any success.
Based on the scientific findings of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle, Labour in opposition remains opposed to a cull. The new Labour-led Assembly in Wales have put a halt to a proposed cull and are concluding a review into the scientific evidence. The coalition claim that it is
“committed, as part of a package of measures, to develop affordable options for a carefully-managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine TB”,
“the proposals are based on the best available scientific and veterinary evidence”.
However, despite that claim, the Secretary of State, supported by the Minister, is proposing to allow a cull of badgers to take place.
The scientific evidence upon which the previous Labour Government based their decision not to go ahead with culling but to seek to develop successful vaccination was supported by experts and organisations such as those already mentioned—for example, the wildlife trusts and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It is also important to note that the people who made up the important group set up by the Labour Government included representatives from the Royal College of Surgeons, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other science groups. The emphasis has always been on scientific evidence, which, as I have said, is still what the Opposition consider the best way forward. It is only through scientific evidence that any action can be taken.
The hon. Lady makes great play of the scientific evidence that came before the previous Government. However, she will remember that the scientific evidence was carefully balanced and that, for example, the chief veterinary adviser to the Government came down on the side of the cull. Does she not remember that the reason why the former vegetarian Secretary of State for DEFRA came down against a cull was because he believed that the social and, dare I say, political and even economic consequences of allowing a cull would be larger than the veterinary benefits? The issue was not actually about science; it was about whether a cull was politically acceptable.
On the science, has the hon. Lady read the document on the DEFRA website that states:
“Bovine TB - Key conclusions from the meeting of scientific experts, held at DEFRA on 4th April 2011”?
I will not read out all the names listed on that document, but there are about 10 of them, including all the scientists who were involved in the trials and in many other aspects of the matter. The science is agreed. There should be no dispute about the science; indeed, hon. Members have already discussed the science. The document that I am referring to clearly sets out the figures and refers to 16%, which has been quoted. That is the science; the issue is what conclusion is derived from it. Has she read that document?
I have spent about 20 hours trying to read everything that I can in preparation for the debate. I have not read the specific names, but I maintain that the information that I have read on the DEFRA website and in other publications indicates that the science base against culling accepted by the previous Labour Government was right and remains so.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, at that meeting, scientists said that they were concerned about the impact of free shooting and that the effects of the policy would be to create differences “either positively or negatively”? The scientists went on to say that such an approach would lead to a
“potential variability in outcome between areas.”
Is that not the case?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Will she comment on what is, as I understand it, the Home Secretary’s view on shooting and on the resources that will need to be taken from the police to deal with free shooting as a method of culling? The 20% cuts that are taking place across the country mean that that will present problems to our police forces.
I was going to raise that issue with the Minister later. The cost of policing, which will be very contentious, is estimated at approximately £200,000 a year, which is one of the things that is not addressed in the Government’s proposals. The amount of money seems to have decreased.
The Minister’s proposals for controlled shooting deviate from those practised in the randomised badger culling trial. To elaborate on what I said earlier, the animals will be shot in the field at night, instead of using the accurate and humane method of caging, trapping and shooting, which was used in the trial. Badgers are difficult to approach, and they spend a lot of their time in the undergrowth. Their physiology makes it difficult for one random shot to kill them outright.
During the 700 hours of debate on hunting in the previous Parliament, it was suggested that shooting was the humane alternative in wildlife control. Is the hon. Lady now saying that shooting is not as humane as it was when it was debated in the previous Parliament?
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Government’s own wildlife crime unit raised concerns about that, saying that if the culls take place there is a danger of illegal badger persecution being carried out under the pretext of culling? There is a concern as to what that will do in terms of both community safety and public order.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point on animal welfare and criminality, which relates to public safety as well as to the badger community.
Under the randomised badger culling trial, culling took place over a short period of two weeks. It was found that a longer period of culling saw greater effects from perturbation. Unfortunately, the Government’s new proposals include a longer period of culling. Natural England has expressed concern at the lack of evidence available to demonstrate that a farm-led cull can replicate what has only been undertaken previously by Government.
The Government have designated Natural England as a licensing authority for the cull. Under the proposals, farmers and landowners will be expected to cull at least 70% of badgers in designated areas. However, there is no accurate information about the badger population, so the number to be killed cannot be specified. Without accurate data, culling could lead to extinction in some areas or, where too few badgers are killed, an increase in the negative effects of perturbation. Furthermore, it has been estimated that, as has been mentioned, the policing cost of dealing with protesters who are against the cull will amount to more than £200,000 per year, but Ministers have not specified where that amount will come from.
On the subject of cuts, a number of dairy farmers have approached me to say that the Government cuts to trading standards are having a real impact on cattle testing at market. I am sure that my hon. Friend will come on to the point that, while there is a responsibility on farmers to ensure that they are not transporting infected cattle around the country—there have been concerns about farmers swapping infected cattle and non-infected cattle—apparently there has been a decline in the effectiveness of testing at cattle markets, because trading standards are not being funded. Does she share my concern?
Certainly, I have been approached by dairy farmers who are opposed to the badger cull. They have told me that they are concerned about the cuts to trading standards, which mean that cattle markets are not being supervised in the way in which they should be. I do not know whether that is specifically about testing at markets or assessing in other ways whether infected animals are being sold there, as opposed to clinical testing, but I have certainly been told—I can put this on the record—by dairy farmers who go to market every week that that is having an impact.
I hope that the Minister has noted my hon. Friend’s concerns.
The Minister and the Secretary of State should listen to the experts and the scientists and, instead of pressing forward with plans for culling, refocus their efforts to eradicate bovine TB by concentrating Government resources on developing vaccination methods, along with other measures that are currently being deployed. Other countries where bovine TB is a problem, such as New Zealand, Ireland and the USA, are all working on vaccines. The Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust has carried out vaccine trials in Gloucestershire, as has been mentioned, so momentum is growing in that direction. Culling is not the answer. Sound scientific evidence tells us that we must move in a different direction and try to work with the measures, some of which the current Government are carrying forward, put in place by the previous Government, which definitely work.
My hon. Friend is making an extremely good point, and I am very grateful to her for securing today’s debate. [Interruption.] I wish that Government Members would not heckle, because it is so annoying. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) has mentioned dairy farmers who are, quite rightly, opposed to this and who, quite rightly, do not want culling on their land. Will my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) spend a moment addressing the issues around a free-for-all cull, where licensed guns are wandering around looking for anything black and white moving in the undergrowth? Will she spend a moment addressing what will happen when there is a dairy farmer slap bang in the middle of one of these areas who says, “No, we are not having that on my land”? How will that affect the supposedly scientific cull?
I have spent a number of hours reading all kinds of evidence about this, and the main worry about policing and control is that there is none. Natural England will license the guns, and farmers and landowners will come together and train people to shoot, but it must be emphasised that the shooting will not be controlled as it was under the scientific trials. The problem is that the shooting might be random and that there will be no one to enforce any safety measures whatever. The badgers will be shot as they are running or moving along as badgers do in the undergrowth, but who will keep people off the target site or ensure that the shot badgers are killed outright and not wandering off in pain to die a cruel death or, if wounded, wandering away from their setts and spreading the disease?
I urge the Minister to rethink culling. The science is the route, and the science says, “Do not cull!” Will the Minister consider the vaccine route? Resources should be poured into vaccine, ensuring that farmers and badgers have an equal say and that we do not look at killing before we look at curing.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak in the debate, Mr Crausby.
To provide some background, last week, at a place called Broomhill farm near where I live in Pembrokeshire, the home of my constituency agent, 11 cattle were reactors to a TB test. Shortly afterwards, it was discovered that they could not be taken away for slaughter because four of them were in-calf heifers. Therefore, those animals, bred with great care and attention by the family, had to be shot on the yard in front of the son and daughter who were aspiring to grow the farm in the way that we are all encouraging them to, and with all the accompanying trauma. We talk about compensation and, yes, of course there will be compensation for the animals concerned, but there will not be compensation for the calves within them, there will not be compensation for the reduction in the milk yield, there will not be compensation for the additional buildings that have had to be put in place over the years for handling, because of the lack of ability to move animals around, and there will not be compensation for the trauma that that family and others have been subject to over a long period.
In a sense it would be nice to be able to say to the House that that story was unusual, but the truth is, as we all know, that nothing at all about it is unusual. Everyone with a constituency affected by the disease has similar tales to tell. Frankly, there have been 60 years of discussion, 60 years of promises, 60 years of let-downs, 60 years of contradictory science and 60 years of politicians taking the farming community to the brink and then back again, as we have seen in the Welsh Assembly. The evidence was clear, the proposals and everything were in place to embrace at long last some degree of control, but what happens? There is an election. The only thing that changes is the election result and the whole thing goes back to square one. Is it any wonder that farming communities around Britain have lost faith in politicians’ ability to deliver some kind of progress—I will come back to that—on the issue? Thousands of cattle have been killed, as the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) mentioned, millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been wasted, businesses have been destroyed and families broken up and farmers have left the industry, at times in droves—not solely because of the impact of the disease over so many years, but in part.
If I can bring the debate back to human beings—a little more about the human cost and a little less about the animal cost—we might be going in the right direction. Let us be honest: such an impact on any other industry in the UK and over such a long period would have been completely intolerable, but for some strange reason we have stood back and tolerated it in our farming industry, despite the human and financial costs discussed. The Government are absolutely right to draw a line and say, “Enough is enough,” and to come forward with a consultation process—let us not forget that we are still in the consultation phase and that no final decisions have been taken. It is right for farmers, taxpayers, cattle, businesses and—I say to the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), who has now left the Chamber for the second time—badgers. It strikes me as odd that during the debate we have almost seemed to be frozen with fear at the prospect of curing a disease which itself has a negative impact on the badger population. As a constituency MP representing a rural seat a long way from Westminster, I find it frustrating that so little attention has been devoted to the welfare of badgers. We seem to forget all that. The idea that we should close our eyes and somehow badgers will live happily ever after is utterly naive and does nothing for the overall thrust of most welfarists and conservationists—as opposed to preservationists—that we should look after the health of the wild animal population as much as that of the husbanded population, and balance between them, just as we should look after those who are charged with the interests of both.
My hon. Friend is familiar with scenes such as one described to me by a farmer in my constituency. When the farmer turned on the lights in the yard in the middle of the night, he saw what he thought were 30 to 40 badgers, full of TB, staggering around and unable to stand up. Those badgers could not be helped even if we had a vaccine, because they are ill badgers; they need to be destroyed, and the only sensible way to destroy them is by shooting them. My hon. Friend makes an extremely good point.
It is as much a problem in North Wiltshire as in west Wales and other areas represented in the debate.
Someone said to me over the weekend, “Of course the problem isn’t the disease, the problem is the policy.” I have a certain sympathy with that view, formed over the years we have been studying the issue. The Minister mentioned in one of his interventions the legal stranglehold of the European Union—I do not think that you, Mr Crausby, would thank us if we went into an EU debate now, but it appears absolutely correct that the chances of us being able to introduce in the necessary time a cattle vaccination, which is effective and cost-effective, seems unlikely at this moment in the process. That leaves various other options.
As I suspect everyone is, I am rather in favour of cattle vaccination, if only it were so simple. I suspect that the Minister would agree—for no other purpose than to help his blood pressure when attending debates such as this one perhaps—if it were possible to take the problem away with a magic potion which could somehow be administered to cattle or badgers, but it is not that simple. The cattle vaccination is estimated to be only about 60% effective, even if we could start administering it tomorrow. I also agree with my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), who spoke about badger vaccination. To be honest, I am sceptical about the practical possibilities. I live in a fairly remote part of west Wales and within a mile of my house are 20 badger setts, which are all in difficult places. They are not nicely situated in the middle of fields but are in quarries, under buildings and in the most awkward places imaginable. The idea that someone would have the wherewithal, the patience, the money, the expertise and everything else required to trap, inoculate and test or whatever frankly makes no practical sense. Of course vaccinations will form an important part of the final eradication of the disease, and the sooner the better—we can all agree on that.
One simple solution, however, is not what is on offer. We must combine testing and stricter or proper monitoring of cattle movements throughout the UK with sensible culling proposals. I am talking about culling where appropriate, under proper supervision and in line with the consultation documents supplied by the Minister. It is perfectly possible to undertake a well-controlled, humane cull in certain areas, as the Welsh Assembly demonstrated before it had the rug pulled from beneath its feet. A combination of things will lead to final eradication. People who think there is some magic pill out there which can be dished out and is cheap, effective and imminent are deluding themselves. We should take much greater notice of the evidence before us than we have so far in the debate.
I suspect that the goal for all of us is something that is easy, effective, cheap and, above, all, imminent. It is absolutely right, legally, morally and practically that the Government wish to consult on the issue, and we look forward to the final findings before too long. However, let us not underestimate—I hope that the Government will not do so—some of the practical obstacles that will present themselves, not only to vaccination, but to the controlled culling that they have set out.
Above all, the Government should not be half-hearted. They have the evidence they need. They have, if nothing else, reams and reams of human examples, which demonstrate to everyone in the House why it is so important to bring the curtain down on this appalling disease. I have been told that the badger is a political animal, and puts the frighteners on hon. Members on both sides of the House when it comes to making a bold, sensible and evidence-based decision. I suggest to the Minister that there is never a bad time to do the right thing, and now is the time to do the right thing. I commend his proposals.
I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart). He is absolutely right that bovine TB is a terrible disease. I, too, have seen some appalling cases. To put the matter into perspective, the last figures I saw showed that 92% of farms are free of bovine TB, so it does not impact on every farm throughout the country. It comes and goes in waves.
My late father-in-law was a small farmer in Cornwall, and he was proud of the fact that there was never TB on his farm, despite it having a badger sett. He claimed that his purchasing policy when he bought in animals kept it free, but even I am not convinced that that was the case. I believe that it was the character of the surrounding area, and the fact that a wide range of farmers had high standards.
The Prime Minister told me in the Liaison Committee a few months ago that he agrees that he should spend more time with his scientific advisers, and I suggest that every Minister should do just that, but I also ask that everyone has basic lessons in how science works because the argument is not black and white. Anyone who presents it as such is wrong. The hon. Gentleman said that vaccination is not that simple. He is absolutely correct. Nothing in the debate is absolutely simple, and I will illustrate the folly of the Minister’s position by using the argument that it is not that simple.
Lord Krebs, a highly respected Cross Bencher in the other place, has reported, as is well known. His view is that the process that the Minister recommends has a serious flaw, and it would be foolish to ignore that view. The question is which of the extreme views is right. I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman was arguing—my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) was certainly not—that TB in badgers should be ignored, and he was not looking for a 100% cull. We must find a way forward. The question is whether the Minister’s free shooting policy can provide that way forward. My contention, based on the Krebs report, is that it cannot.
I apologise for being late, and I declare an interest in that I am responsible for a herd of bovine animals in Wales. That is not the Minister’s responsibility because we are discussing an England-only issue, but it is a herd that has been affected by TB.
The hon. Gentleman referred to Professor Krebs’s contribution, with which I agree. We must take a view on it. Does he agree that there is a balancing view from David King, a former chief scientific adviser to the Government, who carried out an overarching review of all the science, and came to a different conclusion from that of Professor Krebs?
Indeed. That is my point. The argument that the Government are relying on—that the free shooting policy will work—does not have universal support in the scientific community because, as an hon. Member who intervened on my hon. Friend said, it is not possible to measure that realistically. I am glad that colleagues from Wales have intervened, because that is hugely important. The evidence suggests that, to have any effect, a cull would have to take place over a minimum area—the suggested area is 150 sq km—and be conducted for four years. It is estimated that in the first three years, perturbation would be serious. The problem is, unless the policy is nationwide, how to manage the Welsh and Scottish borders, although I suspect that the latter is less relevant. It would be incredibly difficult to do something effective on the Welsh border. Unless we issue badgers with passports and do not allow them to cross the border, there will be a problem.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point. The policy stipulates that there must be hard borders to the area to be culled. The Welsh border is a good example. Unless we give badgers money to use the toll bridges, the River Severn provides a healthy, strong border to protect Wales from Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, Somerset and Dorset, which are so badly affected by bovine TB.
The hon. Gentleman is right where there are major borders, but the Welsh border is a tad longer than the River Severn. Towards my constituency, the River Dee is not the Welsh border. If we brought it back to the Welsh border, it might upset some of our Welsh colleagues. Perhaps Offa’s dyke should be the border, but we have had that debate in the House. There is a serious logistical problem, especially in north Wales, in defining where the boundary would be. There would be one policy on one side of a land border, and another on the other side. The same would apply in Scotland. My first message to the Minister—he is trying to address an incredibly difficult problem—is that free shooting has a substantial weakness, unless he can obtain a buy-in from his Scottish and Welsh colleagues. Otherwise, trials of a free shooting policy in those areas are bound to fail.
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepts that to stem the effects of perturbation, good husbandry on both sides of the Welsh or English border would require buffers to stop the movement of badgers anyway. Is his argument not defeated by the practical measures that farmers would take irrespective of what side of the border they were on?
That is the problem. The hon. Gentleman has significant knowledge of the farming industry. Badgers are fascinating creatures, because they are extremely difficult to control, in the way that would be necessary, by a buffer process. Badgers are habit-forming creatures. Those that cross my land leave a straight line through the grass, and they are so caring about others in the sett that if one goes missing, perhaps because it has been hit by a vehicle, they will go and find its body. They are extraordinary creatures and it will be difficult to create a buffer that works.
I have some sympathy with the point raised by the hon. Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray) about a family who see several badgers in a farm that are suffering from TB. Our humanity means that if we see a creature suffering, we must do something and I would not seek to debar the humane dispatching of a suffering animal. That, however, is not free shooting, which will inevitably take out healthy members of the badger population. The effects of perturbation will be exacerbated because badgers are communal animals and will go looking for partners and friends in new setts should their sett be destroyed. Unless one can guarantee that only those badgers carrying TB will be shot, the risk is that the disease will spread.
It is not mathematically possible to provide a guarantee to the farming community that that policy will work. The question, therefore, is whether such a policy would make any progress, but we must also look at the situation in another way. As has been said, significant work has been carried out on the Gloucester vaccine, which we know works. One would not wish to remove that vaccine where it can be utilised, although we must recognise the problems in administering it.
I think that highest priority should be given to work on the cattle vaccine, and to finding a cross-party agreement and a way to present that scientific evidence through European mechanisms and get agreement on it. One can proceed on a scientific basis, and I urge the House not to go down an extremist route. We all agree that we cannot and would not want to destroy the entire badger population, and all methods currently employed against the disease contain weaknesses. A cattle vaccine is one area that we know is likely to have the greatest success. We must invest in that research and find a cross-party way to take it through European mechanisms and find a solution that is in the interests of both the British countryside and our important farming community.
I will try to be reasonably brief. I thank the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) for securing this debate. She pointed out that she comes from the city and is a townie, and although we work well together on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, I feel that she may be wrong on this issue. I welcome the chance to participate in the debate, however, and I welcome the Minister being here. Along with the Secretary of State, he has been brave in moving this issue forward. We have had problems with TB for 60 years or more. We began to get to grips with it in the late ‘60s, but as the badger population increased, so did TB, and we have had a huge problem ever since.
We are talking about disease control because we have got to stamp out TB, which exists not only in cattle and badgers but in a lot of other wildlife. Over 100 cats have suffered from it, and there is much to do to control the disease. In an ideal world we would vaccinate the badgers, but we are without an oral vaccine and we know the practicalities of such a vaccination programme—we simply would not catch them.
A vaccine for cattle is not too far away, but we must ask how long it could take and whether we will get Europe to agree to it. There was a huge debate over foot and mouth disease and whether vaccinating cattle should be allowed, and we would have the same problem with a vaccine for TB. We do not yet have an effective vaccination, and throughout Devon, Cornwall and the whole of the west country, farmers have suffered year after year from the presence of this disease. Many of the herds involved have been restricted for two, three, four, five or more years, and during that time farmers have lost a lot of their highly bred—and irreplaceable—pedigree cattle. All the while, we have done nothing to get rid of the reservoir of disease in the fields.
We test our cattle regularly, and bring them in for the winter although they are tested throughout the year. We take out the infected cattle, but then we put them back into the fields—quite rightly; the public would be horrified if we kept our cattle penned in all year round—where they get reinfected by infected badgers and other wildlife. The disease then affects more healthy cattle, and yet more are taken out. Such a situation cannot go on. The previous Government prevaricated and did nothing about it, but this Government have bitten the bullet.
We must be convinced about the cull that we suggest. It is proposed in limited areas and is likely to take place in certain hot spots. One need only look at a map such as the one I am holding to see where those hot spots exist: mainly in the west country and Wales. It was asked how many farmers will sign up to the policy, but I assure hon. Members that in TB hot spots where farmers have been suffering with the disease for years, there will be no problem in signing up to a proper cull. We are talking about controlled shooting, not free shooting, and that must be carried out by people who are properly licensed and who use proper weapons. I am hugely keen on animal welfare.
The hon. Gentleman will find that the issue has been looked at again, and that controlled shooting is the idea being proposed. We will train people to take part in that, so that it can be done humanely. That is absolutely vital. The hon. Gentleman also mentioned the comments of Lord Krebs after his trials, but many people dispute whether those trials were accurate. I believe that reducing the infected badger population will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle. There are no two ways about that; we must tackle the issue.
I will not repeat what has already been said, but I have a final point about cattle valuation. My hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) spoke earlier of the problem of pedigree cattle being taken out of England that are under tabular valuation. Those over 36 months old receive less compensation than non-pedigree cattle, and many farmers in Devon have to go to markets in Somerset and compete with Welsh farmers who have received huge amounts of compensation. It is necessary to get the valuations right.
I very much support what Ministers are doing. For too long, we have wrung our hands on this issue. We must take action, and take action now.
[Mr Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) on securing this important debate. I agree with the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) that this issue is not black and white. That is why the previous Government did not prevaricate but instigated a 10-year scientific study in order to arrive at a considered view as to how we should proceed. It made use of the most extensive scientific evidence available on the impact of culling badgers. During 10 years, the study examined the effects of culling at 10 high-risk sites across England.
The independent scientific group in charge of considering the evidence relating to the study said that it concluded that badger culling could not
“meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain.”
It has to be said—apparently, it has to be said repeatedly—that we have seen to date no new evidence to contradict the views of the ISG. There have been individual scientists who may disagree, but overall there has been no other significant study—[Interruption.] No, I will not give way. We have to move on because other hon. Members want to speak. There has been no other study on that scale that has come up with a view contrary to the one the ISG arrived at in 2010.
As has been said, Lord Krebs was absolutely clear. He said:
“I do not think culling is an effective policy because if you look at the evidence from the trial you will see that if you cull intensively for at least four years you will have a net benefit of reducing TB in cattle of 12 to 16 per cent, so you leave 85 per cent of the problem still there having gone to a huge amount of trouble to kill a huge amount of badgers. It just does not seem to me an effective way of controlling the disease.”
Indeed, Lord Krebs believes that the approach should be a combination of developing an effective long-term cattle vaccine and improving biosecurity and cattle management. That consideration has not been raised in today’s debate but should be an important one in tackling TB effectively. The Minister has already conceded that we are close to developing an effective cattle vaccine. If the EU is the obstacle, let us put our resources into dealing with that, rather than into culling badgers unnecessarily.
The deputy chair of the ISG has said that the reduction in the incidence of TB as a result of culling will not offset in financial terms the cost of culling. She is of course referring to the compensation that is not paid out because of the numbers culled and the reduction in the incidence of TB. In fact, it has been estimated that the impact of culling will be just a 2.5% reduction in herd breakdowns. That is on the basis of the Government’s proposal, as opposed to the rather comprehensive cull that would have to be undertaken, according to the ISG, in order for anything to be effective.
We know that the Home Secretary opposes a cull. We know, too, that the Government’s wildlife crime unit has raised key concerns about the proposed cull. It said:
“If the culls take place then there is a very real danger of illegal badger persecution being carried out under the pretext of culling activity.”
I was at the launch the other week of Operation Meles. The chief constable of Lincolnshire police was there, launching a campaign to reduce the incidence of the illegal killing of birds of prey and badgers. That is a major operation on the part of the unit. The chief constable made it clear that there is a real and significant link between wildlife crime and other forms of violent crime. Are we really going to see the Government give the go-ahead to an activity that could in many ways encourage those who would shoot and kill wildlife to believe that it is somehow legitimate to do so? The feeling will be, “If the Government can do it, why can’t I?” That point has to be borne in mind by the Government when they make their decision.
No case has been made for a cull. Nothing has changed since the ISG reported in 2010. I shall finish by asking the Minister three key questions. First, how much will the cull cost farmers? Secondly, in the best-case scenario, each cull will reduce the incidence of TB by only 16% over 10 years. Is that the sign of an effective policy? Finally, does the Minister agree with the assessment of the Wildlife Trusts that the scientific evidence does not support the culling of badgers and that it could make things even worse by disturbing the remaining badgers, thereby spreading the disease further?
Some of the points that I wanted to make have been made already and I shall not repeat them. I come from Somerset, which is a hot spot for bovine TB in the west country. Bovine TB is an appalling problem for farmers in both economic and social terms. I deal quite a lot with the Farm Crisis Network, which tries to relieve the stresses on the families concerned.
The Liberal Democrats are committed in the coalition agreement to pursuing a
“carefully managed and science-led policy of badger control in areas with high and persistent levels of bovine tuberculosis”.
I am concerned that, if successful, the badger control policy is expected to reduce incidences of bovine TB by only 16%. People have cited anything between 16% and 27%. We must ensure that robust measures are put in place to tackle the other 84% to 73%, depending on which figure is taken. Cattle controls, testing regimes and biosecurity measures, which are a crucial part of preventing the spread of the disease, are addressed in the proposals. I welcome the fact that £20 million has been set aside for continued development of a cattle vaccine and an oral badger vaccine. However, I am concerned that the approach to culling outlined in the guidance to Natural England varies significantly from the approach taken in the RBCT and is not, therefore, supported by scientific evidence. I am further concerned that it is proven that an ineffective cull increases incidences of bovine TB.
I take issue with the suggestion made in relation to the Government’s proposed area for culling, which is a 7½ mile by 7½ mile patch of land—150 sq km. The hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon), who started the debate, suggested that there could be 30 badgers per square kilometre. I scaled those figures up. That suggests that in the culling area that the Government propose, there would be 4,500 badgers, which I somewhat doubt. Those who are not informed and who do not live in areas where this problem is fairly severe may take a different view. The suggestion is that a 70% clearance of the badgers might therefore lead to 3,150 badgers being killed in a six-week period. I do not think that that is correct, and I am sure the Minister will have a view on it.
I live very close to the location of Secret World, which is an organisation that protects badgers. It often collects the young badgers that have been left orphaned. It might be helpful if people understood that Pauline Kidner, the lady who runs that organisation, takes care to ensure that euthanasia is carried out when badgers that she collects from around the country are found to have TB, and that she does not just automatically release all badgers back on to whatever piece of land she chooses. Fairly stringent measures are taken against diseased badgers, even by those organisations that exist to help them.
Finally, I call on the Minister and ultimately the Secretary of State to ensure that the cattle testing regime is more stringently enforced. What are the Minister’s thoughts about including the removal of compensation payments for cattle where testing is overdue without just cause? Could compensation payments be tied to good biosecurity measures, with full payments being made to farmers who practise good biosecurity, and lower payments or the removal of payments being implemented for farmers who do not? Could the money saved from reduced compensation payments be used to set up a fund to make grants for capital works to farmers who wish further to improve their biosecurity measures? Could we ensure that each of the pilot schemes is carefully monitored by independent experts for their humaneness and effectiveness in achieving the required 70% reduction in the local badger population? Could any perturbation effects also be monitored? Could they be compared with those experienced in the RBCT? Finally, what are the implications of such an approach from a public safety perspective? The Secretary of State should hold—
I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady’s excellent peroration. This has been an excellent debate, with passionate and well-informed contributions from all sides. There is great concern on the Opposition Benches about the efficacy and utility of the badger cull envisaged and designed by the Government. I therefore congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon) on securing the debate and on the eloquent manner in which she presented her case. There is definitely room in this debate for townies, as well as country folk and everybody in between, because this is a matter of national interest.
I might not be able to take interventions, because I have a series of questions for the Minister, so I apologise in advance. In the mass of statistics and counter-statistics, and arguments and counter-arguments, we must not forget the tragedy of stock destruction, including the emotional cost to farmers and their families, and hon. Members have reminded us of that. The fears and tears of those involved in stock husbandry are real, and many here, myself included, have witnessed them first hand.
Tackling this issue effectively is far more important than simply being seen to do something. Let us start where I hope we can agree: science and evidence must be the foundation when it comes to tackling this terrible disease. They are why the Opposition query the course of action the Government are embarked on, and I want to ask the Minister several key questions.
Let us start with the ISGC’s 2007 report entitled “Bovine TB: The Scientific Evidence”. Although we would all acknowledge that there are many considered nuances in the report, this 10-year-long, peer-reviewed, expert-led, science-based study concluded that
“badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB.”
It also noted—presciently, given the Government’s current proposals—
“we consider it likely that licensing farmers (or their appointees) to cull badgers would not only fail to achieve a beneficial effect, but would entail a substantial risk of increasing the incidence of cattle TB and spreading the disease in space, whether licences were issued to individual farmers or to groups.”
That is pretty categoric.
Will the Minister therefore explain why he now so firmly disagrees with those findings and on what scientific and unarguable evidence basis he now feels something must be done, against the advice of this 10-year study? Will he clarify to Members and the country why he has taken against a view that remains the prevailing consensus among those involved in the science and the evidence? Will he explain why the ISGC has taken issue with his claim that his proposals for a cull, which use a very different methodology and different controls from the ISGC trials, would result in a 16% decrease in cattle TB? Why does he have a different figure?
It is important accurately to read into the record the ISGC’s response to the consultation so that the Minister can directly and accurately respond. The ISCG says:
“We note that Defra’s prediction of a 16% overall reduction in cattle TB over a nine year period is extrapolated directly from RBCT findings. This extrapolation assumes that Defra’s proposed culling method would achieve the same outcomes as those of proactive culling as conducted in the RBCT. We have repeatedly cautioned that the outcomes of the RBCT reflected the methods used, most recently noting that ‘the effects described here relate only to culling as conducted in the RBCT, i.e. deployment of cage traps by highly trained staff in coordinated, large scale, simultaneous operations, repeated annually for five years and then halted’. It should not be assumed that farmer led culling, conducted primarily by shooting free ranging badgers, would achieve the same outcomes as RBCT proactive culling.”
Would the Minister also care to share his observations on the clear consensus among responses to his consultation?
My apologies, but I am really up against time. I would love to have more time.
Will the Minister comment on the observation in the consultation document that
“culling predominantly by shooting free-ranging badgers would result in an increase in perturbation leading to an increase in herd breakdowns. This opinion was based on the assertion that shooting free-ranging badgers would be an ineffective method of control and that in practice farmers would not carry out the systematic, sustained and simultaneous cull that the RBCT proved was necessary to have a beneficial effect…A lack of hard boundaries and a robust means of ensuring compliance with licence criteria were key weaknesses raised with the Government’s preferred option”?
When the Minister answers that question, will he address the concerns of some that a lack of rigour in the methodology he prescribes under licence could actually be to the detriment of farmers and their herds? As the ISGC succinctly put it in its conclusions, it would be
“likely that licensing farmers (or their appointees) to cull badgers would not only fail to achieve a beneficial effect, but would entail a substantial risk of increasing the incidence of cattle TB and spreading the disease in space”.
What science and evidence does the Minister now have that contradicts that scientific evaluation of the increased risk of spreading the disease?
Linked to that, what assessment has the Minister made of the risk of farmers abandoning culling, especially if discouraged by an initial increase in the disease through the effects of perturbation, or as a result of farm abandonment, a change of ownership or many other scenarios? Assuming the Minister would wish to see the cull completed and would perhaps ask others to step in, what legal advice has he received on the ability to enforce a cull on privately owned land once it has commenced and been abandoned by the landowner? Would a group of farmers have to come forward collectively as a legal entity to be able to enforce a cull against the wishes, or following the withdrawal, of one of its members?
The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, among others, noted the desirability of vaccination buffer zones around highly infected areas to assist in controlling the spread of the disease. It added that this
“may require the Government to incentivise the process so as to ensure a high enough level of participation.”
What assessment has the Minister made of the necessity for, and cost of, such buffer zones? He will not want to say that he will not know until we have a licence application on the table, because that would be Humphreyesque. He and his officials must have examined the need for such buffer zones and the likely cost implications, and it would be useful for Parliament to have that on the record.
Sir David King wrote an article in July, entitled “If we want dairy farms, we must cull badgers”. The ISGC responded by saying that it
“contributes little scientific insight to the debate on controlling cattle TB. Defra has proposed that badger culls be initiated and funded by farmers themselves. Having overseen a decade-long programme of independently-audited and peer-reviewed research on this topic, we caution that such culls may not deliver the anticipated reductions in cattle TB. King previously agreed with our conclusion that—because of the way culling affects badgers’ ecology—only large-scale, highly coordinated, simultaneous and sustained culls could have positive impacts. Delivering and maintaining such culls would raise substantial challenges for farmers, with a risk of increasing, rather than reducing, disease incidence. Defra’s own assessments suggest that participating farmers will lose more, financially, than they gain. King asserts that shooting free-ranging badgers—Defra’s preferred culling method—‘would be an effective and considerably cheaper alternative’, but 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.”
I have some sympathy with the Minister, because the issue has been long debated, and the arguments have been heated and the science disputed. There has, for instance, long been disagreement between Sir David and the ISG. When the original ISG report was published in 2007, Professor John Bourne, its lead author, noted that Sir David’s response and subsequent recommendations in favour of a cull were not consistent with the scientific findings of his report but were
“consistent with the political need to do something about it”.
Why does that sound eerily familiar? Ah yes: “Something must be done. This is something. Therefore we must do it,” says Jim Hacker, in “Yes Minister”. It is not only animal welfare groups such as the Badger Trust and the RSPCA that demand answers; it is the general public. However, it is also on behalf of and in the best interest of farmers that I ask the Minister to answer the questions as fully and directly as possible. They need to be sure that they are not being sold a pup—a very expensive, incontinent and unruly pup that could do a lot more damage than good.
I shall try to answer most of the questions of the hon. Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and, indeed, other hon. Members. I offer apologies to any hon. Member whom I do not answer fully. However, the answers to several of the hon. Gentleman’s questions are in the documents that we have published. He has asked me questions the answers to which he can discover, if he has not already read them.
I congratulate the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon). I have several times appeared before the Select Committee of which she is a member, and I recognise her commitment to the issues. She began with a superb explanation of the situation, and said that levels of TB are unacceptable, and that badgers are widespread and densely populated, which is perfectly correct. Arguably, that population density is the kernel of the problem. She referred, as other hon. Members have done, to the random badger control trials and the independent scientific group. I should emphasise, of course, that it was the previous Conservative Government who appointed Lord Krebs to look into the issue. The setting up of the trials by the Labour Government was the result of his recommendation—it happened in a cross-electoral period.
Despite the jibes of the hon. Member for Ogmore about Jim Hacker—and I remind the hon. Gentleman that he went on to be Prime Minister—I do not believe that doing nothing should be an option. The hon. Member for North Tyneside rightly referred to the comment of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that if we do not do anything, the problem will cost us £1 billion in 10 years. That is the reality, but worse than the costs is the continued spread of the disease into parts of the country where currently it does not exist. That is the fundamental issue, which has not been addressed by anyone. The hon. Lady also referred to other countries, such as New Zealand and the United States; she did not mention Australia, where the same point is true: they are all working on vaccines. However, they have all culled the wildlife that was a reservoir of the disease.
Much has been made of the issue of the science and the ISG. I am sure that time will stop me going through all the detail, but let us be clear: the figure of 16% that has been mentioned has been signed up to in the document on the Government’s website. That is signed by Lord Krebs, Professor Christl Donnelly, Lord May and a number of other eminent scientists. They all agree about it. The document contains a clear statement about what happened in the cull zone. That is after nine and a half years, so, to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) about there being no new science, there is new science, because we have measurements from beyond the end of the period in question, and beyond the point when the previous Secretary of State made his decision. The new science shows that the incidence of TB in the culling zones fell by up to 34%. As my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) mentioned, the incidence in the perturbation ring went up, but then went down and reverted to the norm. That is the new evidence we have.
It is perfectly true, as the document states and as has been repeated today, that we are not proposing simply to replicate the ISG approach, because we propose shooting, and we propose that farmers, while not literally doing the work themselves, should be responsible for having it done. The two are variations, and some scientists suggest that what is envisaged might not be as effective, but that is why we are conducting two pilots. We have announced—although we have not made the final decision yet—our proposal to conduct two pilots, to establish effectiveness: whether it is possible to cull 70% of badgers in a six-week period; and whether it is humane. I cannot remember which hon. Member challenged me on who would check what is going on; but there will be independent monitors on site, watching badgers being shot. There will be post mortems, so we shall examine the effectiveness and humanity of what happens, and of course safety. Those are the variations from the ISG, and that is why we should seriously consider conducting two trials.
The argument keeps coming back to the science, and the science is the results from the ISG. Everything else since then is conjecture, whether from Lord Krebs, me or any hon. Member. To answer the question about empirical evidence, there is no empirical evidence—but we are trying to find it. That is why we propose two trials. Lord Krebs has no more basis for his conjectures than I do.
No, I am sorry; I cannot give way.
I must emphasise to those hon. Members who challenged on the shooting issue that shooting wildlife, whether they agree with it or not—and let us not get into the emotions of it—is a common practice. Foxes and deer are commonly shot, and the surrounding animal communities are not shot in the process.
No; I am not giving way.
Secondly, we propose that badgers be attracted to a baited area where it would safe to shoot, and trained marksmen—not trained by farmers, as one hon. Member said, but trained and authenticated by external bodies—would do the shooting. There is a lot of emotion involved. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello), who has left the Chamber, spoke a diatribe of nonsense about this issue.
On perturbation, the ISG rightly based its conclusions on its studies, from which two fundamental points arose. First, we have addressed the costs issue by proposing that farmers do the work; it is up to them. The decision whether it is worth it for farmers is not for the Government to make; it is for the individual farmers. Secondly, we have clearly stipulated that we will expect those groups of farmers to tell us what they will do to minimise perturbation.
There are several issues. First, we believe that the applications will be for a much bigger area than 150 sq km and that it is more likely to be 300 sq km. That means that the perturbation zone will be proportionately smaller, which helps considerably. Secondly, we will encourage and expect farmers to bring forward hard boundaries that badgers cannot cross. They will be able to use buffer ring vaccination, if they choose to do so. As an aside, I should say that we wholly support vaccination, using the current methodology, if people want to do it.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) made a sound speech, although I did not agree with all its conclusions, but the issue of borders is clearly dealt with. Tuberculosis is not an issue for Scotland, which does not have it. There is virtually none in the north of England; so we can forget that. The issue for Wales has been clearly set out. The document that we have already published states that if there is a zone that goes within 2 km of the border with Wales, the Welsh Environment and Countryside Department will have to be consulted. I suspect—although this should not be taken as gospel—that it is highly unlikely that a trial would happen so close to the Welsh border.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Tessa Munt) about biosecurity, more stringent testing and overdue testing. We propose to reduce or abandon compensation where farmers are overdue. She asked me about numbers, and I agree with her that the figures she extrapolated are well out of sync. We anticipate that about 1,000 to 1,500 badgers would be killed, as a total over the four years, for every 150 sq km area.
I suspect, Mr Chope, that I have just about run out of time to address the key issues, although I hope that I have covered them. The subject is important and I have tried to deal with it without emotion. It is easy for both sides of the debate to get emotive. If there are any points I have not covered, I ask hon. Members to write to me and I shall do my best to answer.