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Bovine TB and Badger Control

Volume 551: debated on Tuesday 23 October 2012

I am delighted that my presence has received such a welcome.

Bovine TB is the most pressing animal health problem in the UK. The importance of the epidemic for our cattle farmers, their families and their communities cannot be overemphasised. This was once a disease isolated to small pockets of the country; it has now spread extensively through the west of England and Wales. The number of new cases has doubled every nine years. Last year, TB led to the slaughter of 26,000 cattle in England at a cost of nearly £100 million. In the past 10 years, bovine TB has cost the taxpayer £500 million. It is estimated that this will rise to £1 billion over the next decade if the disease is left unchecked.

The task of managing bovine TB and bringing it under control is difficult and complex. The Government are committed to using all the tools at their disposal and to continuing to develop new ones as a package of measures to tackle the disease. In high-risk areas, herds are tested annually and any cattle that test positive are slaughtered. Restrictions on cattle movements have been further strengthened to reduce the chance of disease spreading from cattle to cattle. Only last week, we announced plans for a new surveillance testing regime and stricter cattle movement controls. We also continue to look at ways to improve the testing of cattle for TB.

Research in this country over the past 15 years has demonstrated that cattle and badgers can transmit the disease to each other; culling badgers can lead to a reduction of the disease in cattle if it is carried out over a large enough area and for a sufficient length of time. That is why we believe that, based on the best available evidence, culling badgers to control TB can make a significant contribution.

It is crucial that we get this right. The National Farmers Union has taken the lead on behalf of the farming industry to plan and organise the pilot culls. It has been working tirelessly over the past few months, signing up farmers and landowners in the pilot areas and ensuring that contractors are property trained. I have been immensely impressed by the effort, commitment and determination that have been demonstrated by farmers in the two pilot areas. I am also most grateful to the police in the two areas for their support.

The exceptionally bad weather this summer has put a number of pressures on our farmers and caused significant problems. Protracted legal proceedings and the request of the police to delay the start until after the Olympics and Paralympics have meant that we have moved beyond the optimal time for delivering an effective cull. We should have begun in the summer. In addition to these problems, the most recent fieldwork has revealed that badger numbers in the two areas are significantly higher than previously thought, which only highlights the scale of the problem we are dealing with.

Evidence suggests that at least 70% of the badgers in the areas must be removed. This is based on the results of the randomised badger culling trial so that we can be confident that culling will reduce TB in cattle. Despite a greatly increased effort over the past few days and weeks, the farmers delivering this policy have concluded that they cannot be confident that it will be possible to remove enough badgers based on these higher numbers and considering the lateness of the season. It would be wrong to go ahead if those on the ground cannot be confident of removing at least 70% of the populations.

Today I have received a letter from the president of the NFU, on behalf of the companies co-ordinating the culls, explaining why they do not feel that the culls can go ahead this year and requesting that they be postponed until next summer. In these circumstances, it is the right thing to do, and as they are the people who have to deliver this policy on the ground and work within the science, I respect their decision. I have placed a copy of the letter in the Library of both Houses.

By starting the pilots next summer, we can build on the work that has already been done and ensure that the cull will conform to the scientific criteria and evidence base. I know that this will be very disappointing for many, particularly those farmers in the two pilot areas, but I fully support the decision of the NFU to delay the start of culling operations.

I must emphasise that there is no change to the Government’s policy We remain absolutely committed to it, but we must ensure that we work with the NFU to get the delivery right. We also remain committed to our wider TB eradication programme and to continuing to strengthen it, so that we can move towards our goal of a TB-free England. Vaccination is another tool and one that we would all like to be able to deploy more widely. Unfortunately, we are not there yet in terms of its development or practicality. If we had a viable and legal cattle vaccine, we would be using it. It will, however, be some years before this is the case and neither we nor the industry can afford to wait that long. It is for this reason that we must look at all the options.

The Government are determined to tackle bovine TB by all the means available to us. Now, in the next few months, we will ensure that the pilot culls can be implemented effectively, in the best possible conditions, with the right resources. Having looked at all the evidence over many years, I am utterly convinced that badger control is the right thing to do, and indeed the higher than expected badger numbers only serve to underline the need for urgent action. I remain fully committed to working with the farming industry to ensure that the pilot culls can be delivered effectively, safely and humanely next summer. I commend this statement to the House.

I begin by welcoming the Secretary of State to his post and thank him for advance sight of his statement.

Another day, another U-turn, announced first to the “Today” programme and now to Parliament. Labour has warned the Government for two years that the badger cull was bad for farmers, bad for taxpayers and bad for wildlife. In addition, the Government’s handling of the cull has been incompetent and shambolic. It is right that it has been delayed, but we were not alone. Lord Professor John Krebs, the eminent scientist who first suggested that the culling of badgers be tried to tackle bovine TB, described it as a “crazy scheme”. The Government’s own chief scientist, Professor Sir John Beddington, declined to endorse the policy. The free shooting of badgers in some big society badger cull was always a terrible idea. It had never been tried, never measured.Professor John Bourne, who led Labour’s badger cull trials, called it an “untested and risky approach”.

The cull would cost farmers more than it saved them, put huge strain on the police and spread bovine TB in the short term as badgers move out of cull areas. It would cost half a million pounds a year to police per area, and all for a 16% reduction in bovine TB over nine years. Bovine TB is a terrible disease for farmers, their families and their communities, which is why we, when in government—[Interruption.] That is why we ran the cull trials to see whether culling made a difference—

Order. There is too much noise coming from both sides of the House. Mr Kawczynski, I have had reason to indicate this to you before, but you must calm down. I think that you need to go on an anger management course, man. [Interruption.] Order. Get a grip.

Bovine TB is a terrible disease, but the Secretary of State’s cull was never going to be a silver bullet. Then, last Thursday, we saw the first signs that the badger cull was shaping up to be another Government disaster. As Ministers went to ground, the Secretary of State’s own press office told “Channel 4 News” that the policy was being scrapped, but an hour later they rang back—it was unscrapped. To have to announce one U-turn may be regarded as misfortune, but two U-turns in one afternoon looks like carelessness, even for a Government as weak and incompetent as this one.

What was the reason for the wobble? I had asked some parliamentary questions, and Ministers’ answers revealed some awkward facts. My first basic question was how many badgers there were in each cull area. The answer was that the Government

“have yet to issue definitive target figures for the two areas”.—[Official Report, 17 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 296W.]

The cull is predicated on killing at least 70% of badgers in an area. How could it proceed when Ministers did not know how many animals there were? We had said all along that the cull was a shot in the dark, and here was the proof. It was that admission, two days before the cull was due to start, that meant DEFRA was wide open to a judicial review for being in breach of the law. The Government’s own best estimate of badger numbers was far higher than previously estimated, making both culls more expensive than forecast. That would mean more expense for farmers and increasing the contingency fund, the bond that farmers are required to lodge with Natural England. Why did Ministers not ask how many badgers farmers needed to kill before this whole fiasco started?

What sort of announcement is the Minister making today? Is it like the forests U-turn, when they pulled the plug and then set up an independent panel to kick it into the long grass forever, leaving just enough cover to save the Prime Minister face; or is it like the infamous Health and Social Care Bill, when the Prime Minister pressed the stop button, waited for things to calm down and then carried on regardless? Is this delay a proper U-turn or a pretend U-turn? I think that the country deserves to be told.

We welcome the tougher measures on biosecurity that the Secretary of State announced last Friday. He says the cull will start again next summer. He has blamed the weather and the police, yet his own colleague the Home Secretary said that the cull must not go ahead during the Olympics and Paralympics. What happens if the weather is bad next year? What estimate has he made of the impact on the tourism industry of a cull next June? Does he expect MPs and the public to believe him when he says that the cull will happen next summer? If it does not take place, is there not a risk that his Department will be pursued for costs by farmers left out of pocket as a result of his incompetence? Is not the truth that the Prime Minister yanked him back from his festival of fromage and fizz in Paris last night and told him it was game over? Who exactly is in charge?

After months of agonising, with hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money having been spent on consultations, counting badgers, training marksmen and issuing licences, and after thousands have been spent by farmers setting up companies, we have had another U-turn from this incompetent Government. They have spent two years puffing life into a policy that should never have left the ministerial red box. After just six weeks in his post, the Secretary of State has discovered that DEFRA is filled with elephant traps for the unwary. With forests, circus animals and now the badger cull, he has completed a hat trick unmatched by any other Department.

Labour has always said that the badger cull was bad for taxpayers, bad for farmers, and bad for wildlife. This Government are out of touch with the nation. This cull should have been stopped months ago. Today we have the right decision for all the wrong reasons. The cull has been stopped because of the Government’s endemic incompetence. They should have listened to the scientists, the charities and Labour Members, and made policy based on the evidence instead of twisting the evidence to fit their policy. Once again, Ministers present the House with a disaster entirely of their own making. Once again, it is farmers and taxpayers who are left counting the cost.

I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words in welcoming me to my place, but it was pretty thin stuff, wasn’t it, Mr Speaker?

Let us start with Professor Lord Krebs, whom the hon. Lady quoted. He confirmed the policy when he said in April last year at a meeting of independent scientific experts:

“The science base generated from the…Randomised Badger Culling Trial shows that proactive badger culling as conducted in the trial resulted in an overall beneficial effect compared with ‘survey only’ (no cull) areas on reducing new confirmed cattle herd breakdowns which is still in evidence 5½ years after the final annual proactive cull.”

The hon. Lady then touched on the comments of the chief scientist, Sir John Beddington, but failed to say that his recent quote in full is this:

“The proposed pilot culls differ from the RBCT in a number of ways. Additional biosecurity aimed at reducing perturbation effects, any predictions as to the efficacy of the culls will be accompanied by uncertainties. However, if the results were similar to those of the RBCT we might expect a 12 to 16% reduction in bovine TB over an area of 150 km sq after nine years relative to a similar unculled area. It will be important to monitor the results and to subject them to rigorous statistical analysis to assess humaneness, safety and efficacy.”

That is exactly what the pilots were for: they were the logical conclusion—[Interruption.]

Order. I told Mr Kawczynski that he was making too much noise and he accepted his fate with good grace. Members on the Opposition Front Bench must not yell at the Secretary of State as he is answering questions. The right hon. Gentleman must be heard. Let us hear it from Mr Secretary Paterson.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The previous Government took forward the RBCT in a whole series of trials and then stopped and decided to do nothing. They presided over a horrendous increase in this disgusting disease. We have taken the logic of the RBCT and extended it, which means conducting it over a larger area with hard boundaries and a more efficient system of culling. We are wholly conforming to the science and to the advice that we have taken. However, as I explained in my statement, at this late stage of the season, because of the various delays and because of the larger numbers than had previously been planned for, the NFU has come to me requesting a delay. I should like to reassure the hon. Lady that this policy is absolutely intact. We will work with the NFU over the coming months and from next summer we will deliver pilot culls that will show the efficacy of what we are intending to do.

I call Mr Jim Paice. [Interruption.] Sir James Paice—I apologise profusely to the right hon. Gentleman.

Apology accepted, Mr Speaker, with good grace.

This is clearly very disappointing news for everybody, including the farmers, who had planned for and expected our getting to grips with this disease as quickly as possible. May I endorse my right hon. Friend’s comments about these being pilots? We have always recognised that in some areas they differed from the original RBCT measures, and that was the reason for having the two pilots—to see whether those differentiations still produced the same results. The increase in numbers to which he refers is surprising—or the fact that it is a problem is surprising—given that most people who live in these areas should have been well aware, as most country people are, of the massive increase in badgers.

Finally, does my right hon. Friend agree that science shows that if the population of any species significantly increases in density, disease spreads more quickly as it is more likely to sustain itself? This increase in the badger population therefore increases the need to carry out the control.

I thank my right hon. Friend and commend him for the tremendous work that he did in his job as Minister of State. Wherever I have been in recent weeks, many, many people across the industry have paid him great tribute for the sterling work that he did. I commend him for taking this policy on; it was not easy.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The two pilots were the logical extension of the trials conducted under the previous Government, which stopped dead once they had finished. The next logical step is to go on to a larger geographical area and use a more efficient method of culling. He is absolutely right to say that the real lesson from these very significantly higher numbers is that the disease will be prevalent among the badger population and spreads more quickly in a dense population. This is a problem that we have to grip. It is no good criticising from the outside without coming up with a policy.

Order. A very large number of hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. I am keen to accommodate them, as this is a hugely significant matter, but if I am to do so, economy from Back Benchers and Front Benchers alike would greatly assist.

In July 2011, Natural England estimated that there would be 3,300 badgers in each 350 sq km cull area, using data from the randomised badger cull trial, yet DEFRA used the figure of only 1,300 badgers for each 350 sq km area. Why did DEFRA get the figures so badly wrong?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question. It will be helpful if I explain the chronology. In September this year Natural England first determined that there were deficiencies in the sett data. Shortly after I took up my post, it set about a detailed sett survey and came up with these very significantly large numbers. We have to respect the science. It is most important that everyone understands this. The simple facts are that with these increased numbers the NFU did not believe that in the later weeks of this year, as it gets more difficult to get out on the ground, it could deliver the 70% figure. The responsible thing to do is to postpone; the easy thing to do would have been to thunder on and not deliver. We have to respect the science; we are being very clear about that. Over the past few days we have discussed this in great depth with the NFU and it is quite clear that despite a big effort in recruiting and a big increase in resources it cannot deliver the 70% figure. It is therefore right not to go ahead for the time being, and we will go ahead next year.

Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that farmers in the hotspots will be given all the available legal protection over the coming months, given the uncertainty before the cull can proceed? I welcome the fact that he has confirmed that the science is that of the independent scientific group in 2008. Will he use this pause to make the strongest possible argument within the European Union that the produce of any vaccinated animal, whether vaccinated with the badger bovine TB vaccine or the foot and mouth vaccine, will be legal trade with our European partners?

I am grateful to the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for her question, which touches on security. I want publicly to thank the chief constables and all their staff in the two main areas, who have co-operated a tremendous amount. This has been an extra burden on them in recent weeks. We have worked with them closely and I thank them. They have reassured me at all times that they will ensure that legal protest can go on, but law and order will prevail.

On vaccination—I am glad that we are getting into this so early in our discussion—the fact is that the current vaccine is only about 50% to 60% effective, while that for smallpox, for example, is well over 95%, so we do not have a very effective vaccine. On my hon. Friend’s point, we have developed a DIVA—differentiation of infected from vaccinated animals—test recently, which differentiates between a vaccinated and a diseased animal, but it is still in the early stages. We would all agree—every single person in this House and those outside—that we would like to press a vaccine button today but, sadly, we do not have one.

The European authorities are absolutely clear that if we went about a vaccination programme now, before we have an absolutely scientifically clear and evidence-based system of differentiating between diseased and vaccinated, we would not be able to export any cattle products. We are talking about a trade of billions of pounds. That would be suicide. I am in total agreement with hon. Members who want to see vaccines but, sadly, we are just not there. It is incredibly important that everyone understands that we do not have a button-pressed vaccine today. We are working extremely hard on it. I take on my hon. Friend’s encouragement. I will discuss the issue at the Commission, but at the moment I cannot go to the Commission with a clear, evidence-based programme to use a vaccine.

Order. I always listen to the Secretary of State with the closest possible interest, but I am afraid that we do not have time on this occasion for a treatise in response to each question. We need pithy replies, if possible.

The Secretary of State is right to say that we must address the problem of bovine TB. Will he, therefore, this year, while this delay is in place, use the funding that would have been made available for the cull to improve biosecurity in the cowsheds and byres of farmers, and set minimum standards for biosecurity, which the Krebs report said was a very important element in controlling the disease?

I am in agreement with the hon. Gentleman that biosecurity can help, but the problem is that we are dealing with an animal that can get into sheds. When I was in opposition, I went to Michigan and they had clear evidence where they had separated white-tailed deer from cattle herds and invested significantly in fencing off the cattle herds indoors. It is not possible to do that with badgers, because our cattle system has cattle out on the fields, and 1 ml of badger urine yields 300,000 colony-forming units of disease and it takes only 0.001% to infect an animal. That is the problem. We have animals out on grass, mixing freely with wild badgers, and that is where the disease is being picked up.

I draw the attention of hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. The right hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice), who was until recently a Minister in the Department, is right. People living in the countryside are not surprised, because they report seeing more badgers more frequently. Does the Secretary of State agree that work should be undertaken on the correlation between the increase in badgers and the increase of bovine TB in the cattle herd?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The evidence is extremely obvious. We can see from 1972 onwards that when there is a big increase in the badger population there is an increase in TB. It is very simple. I do not know of a single country in the western world that does not bear down on disease in wildlife and in cattle.

The Secretary of State said that vaccination is only 60% or 70% effective, but is that not an awful lot more than 16% effective for the cull? Secondly, he said that a cattle vaccination and the DIVA test are years off, but that is not the case—that is not what scientists are telling us. Will he use the money that has so far been earmarked for the cull to bring those vaccines to market as soon as possible? Will he start negotiating now with his EU colleagues to make sure that the DIVA test will mean that we can distinguish between infected and vaccinated cattle and that we can, therefore, continue to export beef?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. We are not yet there with a vaccination programme. If this vaccine is only 50% to 60% effective, a significant number of cattle will be either diseased or, perhaps, vaccinated. Until we can differentiate between them, we cannot go to the Commission and no neighbouring country would want to buy stock from us. This is a real, practical problem. I reassure the hon. Lady that I am as keen as her to get to the position of having a vaccine, and I promise that we will work on this over the next year. We are spending £15.5 million over the next four years on top of the £40-odd million that we spent recently. This is a real priority, but we are not in that position yet.

When I was lucky enough to serve on the agriculture committee nearly 20 years ago, I remember the then Chairman saying that we had to have a badger cull in selected areas to deal with this disease. Since then, Governments have been hopelessly indecisive and weak and, as a result, our farming community has undergone untold misery. Will the Secretary of State assure us that he will now get a grip and that he will be swayed only by science and not by emotions, and save our farmers from this terrible disease?

I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend emphatically that we will stand by this policy. As I have said, there is no country in the western world where such policies do not apply. We should consider the situation in New Zealand with possums and that in Australia with buffalo, and look at what every other western European country is doing. A cull is taking place in Ireland as we speak. On Monday I talked to a farmer in Burgundy, where badgers are not protected. There is no other country where they are not bearing down on disease in wildlife and in cattle. We have to do both.

This is probably not the auspicious start that the Secretary of State wanted on the DEFRA Front Bench. No one takes the cull of badgers lightly, but what is the Department’s plan B? The Secretary of State has said, in effect, that over the next 12 months, until next summer, 30,000 cattle will be slaughtered and his Department will have to pick up the bill of £100 million. In Northern Ireland it will be £20 million and a vast amount of cattle will be slaughtered as a result of bovine TB. I hope that we are not witnessing the eradication of the Department’s courage to follow through with a policy that could change things.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that, until we get a grip on this, these horrendous slaughter figures will continue at an horrendous cost and cause horrendous damage to famers’ livelihoods and their families. That is clear, but we have to respect the science. The NFU told me this morning that it cannot achieve the 70% and, if we agree with the science, which states that if we cull less than 70% we provoke perturbation, I have to respect that advice. The hon. Gentleman is from Northern Ireland, so he knows perfectly well the value of a cull. The four counties trial showed a 96% reduction in Donegal. There is no question but that bearing down on wildlife and cattle will eradicate the disease eventually.

Farmers across North Wiltshire will be disappointed about the delay—although they will understand it—but so will true wildlife lovers. Will the Secretary of State confirm that even if a workable badger vaccine was available—there probably is not—it would have no effect whatsoever on badgers that are ill? In other words the hundreds of badgers that are ill, underground and dying in agony would not be affected even if a vaccine was available.

My hon. Friend’s constituents will be as disappointed as mine about this delay and postponement. There is actually an injectable badger vaccine, which was licensed in March last year, but everybody needs to consider the practicality. We have an enormously increased badger population. It is certainly 250,000 to 300,000. An injectable vaccine requires injecting every badger every year and, as I have said on cattle vaccine, it is not possible to cure an animal that is already diseased so, with the deepest respect to the Welsh Government, I am doubtful of the value of that process.

Will police forces that have had to commit resources to prepare for the pilots be compensated for the work that they have had to do?

Yes. We have made it clear that we will help the police forces that have had to put in extra resources. I talked to all the chief constables of the forces this morning, thanked them personally for their significant effort and the skilful and tactful manner in which they have deployed their teams recently, and I have agreed that we will help them.

The Secretary of State has made an entirely supportable and practical decision this morning in guaranteeing that this is not a change in policy, but simply a delayed policy. Does he agree that the reaction of Labour Members to his statement will have sent a shiver down the spine of farmers who are watching and will have made them realise that for the Opposition, this is a political issue, not a practical one? So much for one nation!

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I did not want to get into a party political argument, but the Labour party’s record in office is shameful. The disease has gone on and on, but after the trials, the Labour Government stopped dead. We are following the logical conclusion of what they set in place. They stopped; we are going on. We are determined that this is the right thing to do.

It will be the marginal costs. We will have to discuss that with the relevant forces and come up with a number.

The Secretary of State has rightly said that the Government will continue to tackle all sources of the disease and to look at biosecurity, as well as dealing with the cull. If there are further problems over the next few months with the designated cull areas, will he look at other areas where landowners and farmers might be keen to be part of the cull trial?

That is an interesting question. Yes, I will look at that in detail. At the moment, the NFU is probably thinking of carrying on in the two areas where it has put in such a lot of work and preparation, but I am open to looking at other areas. We want to pull off two pilots that show that this system, in a bigger area and with a more efficient system of culling, does work and does reduce TB.

Ministers constantly lecture us about the need for their counter-productive austerity measures, so how can the Secretary of State justify earmarking £250,000 for post-mortems on dead badgers following the cull? Is that not a colossal waste of money and an example of an omnivore-shambles?

What a ludicrous question. The attitude of some Opposition Members is absolutely tearful. We are heading towards a bill of £1 billion.

I commend the Secretary of State for acting so decisively today, following the change of heart by the NFU. Although dairy farmers in south Devon will, of course, be disappointed, they will understand it, provided that he continues to say, day after day, that this is just a delay, not a change of policy, and that the cull will take place in 2013.

I am most grateful for my hon. Friend’s support. As he knows, when I was the shadow spokesman, I went down to his part of the world and I asked 600 parliamentary questions. That made me determined that this was the right thing to do. I wholly commend the last Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice), who did great work on putting this policy into practice. We are determined to push it through, because it is the only way in which we will save our cattle industry.

Will the Secretary of State say how many firearms licences have been issued by the police for the culls, and at what cost?

I can give the hon. Lady an accurate reply after the statement. The team in each pilot area is made up of roughly 60 people and the firearms licences had to be amended. I am happy to get back to her with the exact number.

Cattle owners like me will respect the Secretary of State for taking the advice of the NFU. However, will he take this opportunity to look at the compensation tables, which are causing so much misery to cattle owners who are receiving less than it costs to replace their cattle?

My hon. Friend touches on a fraught area. I have cattle breeders in my patch who are producing the most wonderful pedigree cattle of the highest standard and getting adequate compensation is a constant problem. At the moment, we are paying the market rate, but I am happy to discuss the matter with him.

Will the Secretary of State take the opportunity that this postponement allows to meet the 30 leading scientists, including vets and animal disease scientists, who think that their science is correct and that the NFU’s science, on which the Secretary of State is relying, is not correct?

I am most grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question, but he is just wrong. This is not the NFU’s science. The science that the policy is based on comes from the main trials that his Government put into practice. It is the logical conclusion of those trials. I quoted Lord Krebs and I have a meeting with him this week or next week, so I am very happy to meet scientists. We are following on from the logic of the science-based evidence that has been produced.

Roughly how many people have been threatened in the two areas, because there have been a variety of reports about that? If he can confirm a number, that would be useful to the House. In his view, have such people been properly protected by the police?

I am happy to reassure my hon. Friend that the number is tiny. I strongly commend, once again, the skill and tact of the police forces, which have maintained law and order in a dignified manner, under difficult conditions.

As the Secretary of State knows, I represent a rural constituency in Northern Ireland. What discussions did he have with Ministers in the devolved Administrations yesterday in the margins of the EU Council of Ministers on agriculture matters? Will he confirm what tools are at the Government’s disposal to ensure that our farming industry is protected?

I am sorry to inform the hon. Lady that I did not get to Luxembourg yesterday because my flight was cancelled.

By the fog. If Members want a technical update, the flight was delayed and then cancelled. There was only one, so sadly I did not get to the Agriculture Council and I did not have a chance to put the very pertinent points that the hon. Lady mentioned. If she looks over the border, she will see that in the Republic of Ireland there is a reactive cull. As I said, the four counties trial showed a 96% reduction in Donegal.

As a neighbouring Shropshire MP, the Secretary of State will know what devastation bovine TB has caused in Shropshire, with more than 2,000 cattle slaughtered last year alone. Will he give an assurance that if the trials are successful next summer, other parts of the United Kingdom, such as Shropshire, will be able to move forward quickly to a cull?

I commend my neighbour from Shrewsbury and Atcham for his stalwart support on this matter and for the very public stance that he has taken. The answer is emphatically yes. I want the two pilots to go ahead and to conform to the science. I am confident that they will prove to be safe and efficacious, and that we will see a reduction in TB. That is what we want to see rolled out across the country.

On 8 May, I wrote to the then farming Minister, the right hon. Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice), to highlight how complex it was to assess the number of badgers in the pilot areas and received very glib reassurances in response. Why is the Secretary of State now telling us that it was only in late September that concerns about those numbers came to light?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question, but I did answer it earlier. It appeared in September that Natural England was not happy with the figures that had been provided locally. That is why it asked FERA to do a full survey, which took some time. That shows how deadly serious we are in respecting the science. It would not have been right to go ahead on the basis of numbers that Natural England believed to be inaccurate, so it was right to take more time and to do a thorough survey, and that came up with dramatically larger numbers.

Dairy and beef farmers in my constituency are desperate because of TB. They have been cleaning their cattle for years. There now needs to be clean wildlife to stop the disease spreading. Can I have the absolute assurance of the Secretary of State that the cull will go ahead next year?

I am entirely in agreement with my hon. Friend. We want to see healthy wildlife—healthy badgers in this case—living alongside healthy cattle. We will achieve that only if we drive through the two pilots and extend them across the country, as I have just assured my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski).

Will the Secretary of State explain why there was a delay to avoid a clash with the Olympics and Paralympics, and what are the ideal weather conditions for killing badgers?

My predecessor was very responsible, because the Government had a request from the police and discussed it with the Home Secretary. There was obviously a huge amount of discussion about security before the Olympics and Paralympics. The whole nation wanted the games to be a success, and of course they were the most outstanding success. It was quite right not to burden the police with an extra task, so I think my colleagues were completely responsible.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the weather. We have obviously had the most extraordinarily wet year, which has made it difficult to get out on the land and difficult to get vehicles out. There is also a technical problem, which mainly applies to Gloucestershire. The maize is still standing, and part of what needs to be done is the cutting of maize, because otherwise badgers come and take the cobs. That is rather more a Gloucestershire problem than a Somerset one, but all in all, he must understand the practical difficulties of getting on the land in a very wet year.

It is to the NFU’s credit that it has decided not to conduct a cull this year in circumstances in which it could not be confident that it would be effective in reducing the incidence of bovine TB. What are the next steps in developing the DIVA test to the point where it is widely acknowledged to be conclusive?

I entirely endorse my hon. Friend’s commendation of the NFU. It would have been quite wrong to go ahead when it was not confident of reaching the 70% target and could have made the position worse.

I was discussing the DIVA test with my senior scientists this morning, and we are determined to go full bore on it. There is agreement throughout the House that in an ideal world we would have a vaccine and a DIVA test, and we could then go to the Commission. I am keen that we look at the new technological developments as soon as we can.

How many discussions has the Secretary of State already had with European colleagues and the Commission to lobby for the DIVA test and cattle vaccination to be rolled out in the UK?

We have been in regular discussions with the European Commission, which is very supportive of our position. Only recently DG-SANCO—the directorate-general for health and consumers—stated:

“There is no scientific evidence to demonstrate that badger vaccination will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle. However there is considerable evidence to support the removal of badgers in order to improve the TB status of both badgers and cattle.

UK politicians must accept their responsibility to their own farmers and taxpayers as well as to the rest of the EU and commit to a long-term strategy that is not dependent on elections.”

I am sure my right hon. Friend would agree that it would be preferable if the House could move forward on the basis of consensus on this issue. During the pause, will he undertake to meet the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) on Privy Council terms and see whether she has a single positive, substantive suggestion as to how we should tackle bovine TB? The House did not hear a single suggestion from her today.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am happy to talk to anyone on the subject. We need to resolve it. We cannot go on carting off 26,000 cattle a year at a cost of nearly £100 million. We have to work together, and I am very happy to work with the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) if she is prepared to listen to me.

I believe that the plan was ill-conceived from the outset, but today’s announcement was not about the science, it was about incompetence. The Government have had plenty of time, and this is not an uncontroversial issue. It has been scrutinised to death from this side and that, yet they came up with the figures on how many badgers there are very late in the process. What we need a cull of is Ministers who waste public money—we have had the west coast main line, and now this. How much has been wasted this year, and how much more will the cull cost next year?

I will come back to the hon. Gentleman with a full reply in writing on the costs. I can give him a breakdown of what we have spent on compensation, the trials and the vaccine. He needs to understand, from his urban perspective, the absolute devastation that bovine TB causes to our rural communities and those involved in the cattle industry. We have to resolve the problem, and we must face up to the fact that —[Interruption.] Just listen to my answer. We have to bear down on disease in cattle and in wildlife.

I am very disappointed by the tone and attitude that the Opposition have adopted on this important issue. I am sure that none of us wants badgers to be needlessly or unnecessarily culled, but we have a major problem with bovine TB. Will my right hon. Friend use this pause to build as wide a consensus as possible in the scientific community, which currently says that a cull is the only practical option?

I am happy to take up my hon. Friend’s suggestion. I will obviously talk to senior scientists, but I am also keen to drive forward new technologies. We have already discussed the DIVA test, and there is real merit in considering polymerase chain reaction, which I saw being used in Michigan when I was there in 2005. We can also consider the possible use of gamma interferon, which we have seen in other countries. I am definitely open to new ideas, because we have to bear down on this disgusting disease.

Three times today the Minister has said that we are not yet there with a vaccine, so will he now focus on fast-tracking a vaccine programme and the DIVA test as the only long-term solution to tackling this devastating disease?

I have made it clear that the vaccine is like Sisyphus—it is always out there and we are always reaching for it, but it is always a few years out. Sadly, as of this afternoon, we are not in a position to introduce a vaccination programme, because it is only 50% to 60% effective and we do not yet have a fully worked-out DIVA test to differentiate diseased and vaccinated animals. I sympathise entirely with her pained expression, and I would love to go ahead this afternoon and press a button saying “Vaccine”, but we sadly do not have it yet.

Without certainty that the targeted pilot cull would go ahead as the Government announced last year, my right hon. Friend is surely right to postpone it. Will he emphasise to all those who will be involved in next summer’s cull, which must surely go ahead, that the terms of the targeted pilot cull, based on science, will be strictly adhered to?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and neighbour for his supportive comments. Emphatically yes—it is absolutely right that we go ahead next summer, but we must do it within the constraints of the scientific criteria that are laid down. That is what we intend to do.

I was not entirely clear about the answer that the Secretary of State gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith). We are certainly pleased to hear about the progress made on the vaccination and the DIVA test, but can he explain exactly what recent talks he has had with European colleagues? When does he think there might be some real progress, and what is he doing to ensure that it is as fast as possible?

My right hon. Friend the Member for South East Cambridgeshire (Sir James Paice) started talking about the matter two and a half years ago, as soon as we came into government, and he has been in regular contact with European colleagues. I will work with them as closely as possible once we have a practical basis to work on. As I explained to the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon), we are sadly just not there yet. That obviously has to be an absolute priority, because we have agreement about it not just right across the House but right across the country.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s decision not to proceed in the current circumstances. Above all, the Government should not take action that risks making the situation worse. Given that he emphasises the importance of science, will he take the opportunity provided by the pause until next summer to review all the science, including that recently commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs itself, which may point to alternative ways of bearing down on this terrible disease?

I entirely endorse my hon. Friend’s comment, and during this time we will of course press on many fronts. We have a number of tools in the box, and we are using those that are currently available. As I have touched on, there are new ones coming down the track—PCR, the DIVA test, gamma interferon and others that I would like to investigate with real speed. We cannot just use the current tools, because we are not getting on top of the disease. It is getting worse.

The Secretary of State’s Department seems to have a bit of a track record of backing off when the pressure gets high. We previously had the experience of the circus animals debate, which was going to be whipped, but suddenly his Department backed off. Many of my constituents will be pleased to see that there is now to be a pause, but will he reassure us that he will look very seriously at the whole issue again, and that he is not just backing off because he does not want the embarrassment of a debate and a vote?

The hon. Lady has rather missed the tone of our discussion over the past hour. Having received these higher figures, and after agonising, the National Farmers Union has—I think very responsibly and despite huge pressure from its grass roots—made a decision. I was in Tewkesbury on Wednesday, and there is enormous pressure from those parts of the country where the cattle industry is being devastated by this disease. Despite that pressure, I must respect the NFU which said clearly to me in a final decision that it could not achieve the 70% required. We are all determined to work together within the science, and no one is backing off at all. The NFU has made a rational decision in the light of the new figures and given its current resources and the time available.

Fifteen years ago there were hundreds of beef and dairy farmers in Northumberland, but they now number a few dozen. They wholeheartedly support the proposed cull and the action that has been proposed today, albeit with regret. Will the Secretary of State confirm that such farmers will continue to receive the proper financial support that they need and deserve, until this disease is finally vanquished?

Emphatically, we want to see an expanding cattle industry and more cattle exports. I should actually be in Paris at the world’s largest food exhibition promoting exports of British beef and dairy products. I assure my hon. Friend that we want to see an expanding cattle industry, but we must get on top of this disease first.

My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Clive Efford) asked how much public money has been spent so far on this misguided cull. Will the Minister confirm what proportion of this year’s expenditure will need to be spent again next year?

I cannot give the hon. Lady an exact answer because it obviously depends on how many cattle sadly fall to this disease. All I can say is that we have seen a steadily climbing trend in recent years, and unless we get on top of the disease, we will head towards a bill of £1 billion.

My right hon. Friend referred to his visit to Michigan, and there are lessons from Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and France. Will he ensure that the experiences of other countries are taken into account when adopting a strategy to tackle this hideous disease and ensure that we have healthy cattle and healthy badgers living alongside each other?

Emphatically, yes. I found my trip to Michigan very inspiring, and I saw the real determination of not only the state Government but the involvement of the Federal Government. They are absolutely determined to bear down on disease, and at the time they were withering in their criticism of the then Labour Government.

Does the Secretary of State believe in evidence-based policy, or policy-based evidence? If it is the former, does he really think that he has more scientific credibility than the former chief scientist, Lord May? May I add that calling the vaccine Sisyphus has not helped the Minister in that?

Sorry, perhaps it was Tantalus. I meant that the goal is always rolling away. The Government are completely clear. If the hon. Lady wishes to quote a respected and real expert in this field, let me refer her to Professor Christl Donnelly who surveyed all the evidence in 2010. He said:

“In the time period from one year after the last proactive cull to 28 August 2011, the incidence of confirmed breakdowns in the proactive culling trial areas was 28 per cent lower than in ‘survey only’ areas and on lands up to 2km outside proactive trial areas”.

The Government are going on the evidence and the analysis of respected experts in the field.

As a Conservative Member who is against the cull, I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement today, and it was upsetting to see Labour Members laughing throughout the statement when bovine TB has such devastating effect on our farmers. Will the Secretary of State accept that the proposed cull will reduce BTB by only 16%, and could, if anything, spread and increase the disease across the UK? Will he reconsider his decision to start the cull next year, and instead focus all his efforts on developing and approving a cattle vaccination as soon as possible?

I am glad I have a few months to try and swing my hon. Friend round to my point of view, and I am sorry that she does not support it at the moment. I would not dismiss a 16% reduction in bovine TB in the light of a horrendous annual increase—we are looking at a 25% increase in the disease in the outlying areas. My hon. Friend, and Opposition Members, keep sniffing at the figure of 16% but, as one member of the farming community said, they would not sniff at a wage increase of 16% and it is a significant number. The Government believe that we will arrest the dramatic increase in the disease, and start to bring it down.

There are a number of figures, but I think I had better write to the hon. Gentleman to give him a proper reply. There will be some figures for the policing, which was touched on, and for work on the cull itself and compensation. I will return to the big figure: we spent nearly £100 million last year, and unless we get a grip on the disease, that will look like a round of drinks compared with the figure of £1 billion to which we are heading.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. May I remind him that bovine TB is gradually spreading north through Cheshire, and may I draw his attention to the initiative of the Cheshire Wildlife Trust, which says that it will run a voluntary inoculation campaign? That has attracted the attention and support of local farmers. Can we use this pause to get behind that initiative and see whether it provides a way forward?

I thank my right hon. Friend. Similarly, in my patch in Shropshire—I was there only 10 days ago with my hon. Friends the Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and for Ludlow (Mr Dunne)—a trial of injecting badgers is being conducted. Those trials are interesting; we will look with interest at the results, and I commend them. However, is it seriously a practical proposition to inject each of the nation’s 250,000 to 300,000 badgers every year, knowing that we cannot mend a diseased badger? Once a badger has the disease, we cannot get rid of that by injecting it. These are interesting trials; they may have some merit and I am not dismissive of them, but they are not a long-term answer.

May I pay tribute to Dr Brian May? He took a great deal of time to brief Members of this House and I thank him for that. Will the Secretary of State comment on what contribution he thinks standards of animal husbandry might make when dealing with this problem, and say what assistance Members of this House can give to farmers in that regard?

I think I touched on that in my response to an earlier question. There is no doubt that if we can separate wildlife that have this extraordinary debilitating disease—I mentioned 300,000 colony forming units in 1 ml of badger urine—and if we can keep them out of cattle sheds, that obviously helps. However, we have a grass-based system, and for many months in the year, our cattle are out on grass. It is not realistic to live in the countryside and expect to separate cattle from badgers that are going out and hunting for worms. Badgers’ main food is worms, and they go on the ground where cattle are feeding. The hon. Lady is right to say that measures can be taken on farm buildings and it is a nice idea, but that is for the birds when cattle are spending a long time out in the fields, which is where they pick up the disease.

The sniggers and chuckles from Opposition Members at the start of this statement were clearly despicable, but there is no doubt that there is a lot of concern among the general public about this issue. Can we ensure that over the next year we nail down the science, and engage with the public as much as possible to make the case in favour of this cull, if that is the Government’s view next year?

I thank my hon. Friend for his supportive comments. He is right: we need to win the argument in public and there is a clear argument to be made. I am repeating myself now, but if we look around the world, we see that must bear down on disease in wildlife—as happens in every other western country that I know of—including disease in cattle. That is the only way we will eradicate this disease.

May I therefore be helpful to the right hon. Gentleman by asking him to publish all the scientific evidence on which he is relying to come to a decision? Will he agree to open his doors to scientists who take a contrary view, including those who believe the cull is a costly distraction from the nationwide challenge of TB control?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I gave the explanation in my statement but would be happy to send him the numbers—[Interruption.] I cannot do any more to publish the information than say it in the House of Commons. Most of the information is already publicly available, but by all means, if he has not had time to find it on the internet, I shall send him a copy.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the blame for the vast incidence of bovine TB in this country and the intense misery it causes to my farmers in Devon can be laid substantially at the door of the previous Government, who did nothing over 13 years to have the courage to get a grip on this terrible disease?

My hon. Friend is right that the numbers are absolutely horrendous. In 1998, 4,102 reactors were slaughtered; last year, it was 26,000. Unless we get a grip, it will get worse.

The Secretary of State talks about winning the public debate, but Lord Krebs, the leading scientist in this field, who oversaw the previous Government’s randomised badger cull trial, has described the current Government’s plan as a “crazy scheme”. Why does the Secretary of State not focus resources on vaccination and the biosecurity route that Lord Krebs recommends?

We have been round this course already. I recommend the hon. Lady goes back to Lord Krebs report of 1997. The executive summary, written by Lord Krebs, is a brilliant synopsis of the problem. He said that the evidence of a link between badgers and the disease was “compelling”. He is absolutely clear that there is a link. The debate is on how the cull should take place, which is what he has criticised. What we are proposing is pilots, and we believe we have come up with a more efficient and effective method. In case the hon. Lady missed the statement, I repeat that we are going for a much larger area with hard boundaries, such as major roads, motorways and rivers, and a more effective system of culling. That is entirely consistent with the scientific advice from Krebs and the RBCT.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for assisting me in trying to lose weight.

Farmers in Nottinghamshire find themselves in a fortunate position. The county is TB-free, so badgers are TB-free, but the disease is spreading towards us from Derbyshire. My farmers will be glad that the Secretary of State will use the whole toolbox to prevent their cattle becoming infected, but farmers in two-year and four-year testing parishes will want to know whether the testing intervals will be reduced in clean areas?

I do apologise, Mr Speaker. I was speaking to the Minister of State and missed my hon. Friend’s question at the end. Could he possibly pose it again?

There is a conspiracy to make me bob up and down.

Farmers in Nottinghamshire find themselves in a TB-free zone and currently undergo testing on a four-year or two-year cycle. They will be concerned that there will be an attempt to reduce the interval between tests in clean areas. Does the Secretary of State have any plans to do so?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that point. The annual testing that we glibly talk about poses an enormous burden on farmers and is a fraught event. Virtually the whole of the west of England is on annual testing, and he is absolutely right to fear for his farmers in Nottingham that the interval might be reduced, because putting a herd through the skin test is an horrendous experience. That is another good reason to get on top of the disease quickly, before it spreads into his area.

Given the figures we have heard from the Secretary of State, why did his Department’s impact assessment say that the cost of the cull outweighs the benefit to both farmers and taxpayers?

We should be concerned about the cost of not doing the cull. The sums involved in our proposals are very modest compared with the cost of carting off 26,000 healthy cattle, and the number will grow every year. We would be heading to a bill of £1 billion—how many times have I said that, Mr Speaker? The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but the problem is the result of the passive attitude of the Labour Government since 1997.

The Secretary of State says he intends to press on with the cull regardless of strong scientific evidence and overwhelming public opinion against. Instead, will he take the advantage of the delay to meet the groups and scientists who are opposed? Without doing so, he looks arrogant as well as incompetent.

That was not a terribly accurate summary of what I have said. I have said that we will respect the science. Despite huge pressure from the NFU grass roots, which has been reflected by knowledgeable Government Members, the NFU has reluctantly written to me to say that it wants a postponement, because it cannot deliver 70%—I am respecting the science. I am more than happy to talk to anyone about the policy, including the hon. Gentleman and the shadow Secretary of State. If he knows scientists who want to talk to me, I will talk to them, but we are absolutely clear that we are following the scientific logic of the preceding trials in a methodical manner. We are respecting the science, which is why, with a heavy heart, we are accepting the NFU proposal and its request to delay.

The Secretary of State likes to use figurative language, but he should be careful about buying a round of drinks on the taxpayer. The Department has had months. It knew months ago that the cull could not start until after the Olympics, as he said in his statement. He also said that a cull should have started in the summer to be effective, so why has the policy dragged on for month after month when there was never any realistic possibility of an effective cull this year?

No, that is not an accurate statement. There was a sensible delay at the request of the police because of the huge pressures they were under to deliver the Olympics and Paralympics. There were also various judicial processes, which I have outlined. It is worth taking time to think about the impact of the weather, which has made it difficult to organise things on the ground. What really tipped the balance was the accurate and scientifically based verification of the badger numbers, which convinced the NFU. The NFU has reluctantly requested that we postpone at this late stage—with the nights drawing on and as we get into the winter with cold weather predicted, when badgers stay underground—and that is exactly what has happened.

The Secretary of State has attempted to base his argument on science, but what does he say to Sir Patrick Bateson of the university of Cambridge and 30 other leading animal health scientists, who say his policy is a

“costly distraction from nationwide TB control”?

Was not his predecessor guilty of an appalling error when she decided to cut the budget for research into vaccination against bovine TB as a result of the comprehensive spending review?

That is wrong. We are spending £15.5 million over the next four years on vaccines. The debate in which the scientists have got themselves involved is not on whether removing diseased wildlife works. Going back to Lord Krebs’s report in 1997, everyone accepts that there are links from badgers to cattle, cattle to badgers, badgers to badgers and cattle to cattle. We know that that is how this horrible disease transmits itself. The debate is on how best to remove the wildlife. One of my most telling parliamentary questions showed that 57% of the traps were tampered with and 12% were stolen. That and the RBCT showed that that was not the most efficient system for removing the wildlife. We are taking on the logic in the full glare of scientific scrutiny, and seeing whether shooting is a more efficient method, and—I am saying this for about the sixth time—whether going for a larger 150 km area bounded by rivers and motorways is more effective.

Many of my constituents have been in touch with me in recent days. I am sure they will have followed the Secretary of State’s albeit temporary U-turn with great interest, but there is also interest in how much money has been spent on preparations. The Secretary of State referred to the amount as a round of drinks within the wider context—I am not sure what clubs he drinks in. I know he is unable to give hon. Members the run of figures now, but could he commit to putting them in the House of Commons Library this afternoon?

Rather than give just a few numbers now, I am happy to put a comprehensive and clear statement in the Library outlining all the different costs—some costs will be on policing, some will be to do with DEFRA and some will be in compensation. However, I must pick on the hon. Gentleman’s use of the word “U-turn”. The statement is not a U-turn. The Government are absolutely determined, unlike the previous one, to bear down on TB, and we will bear down on TB in cattle and in wildlife. We will end up with a prosperous, successful cattle industry because of decisive, robust action by Conservative and Liberal Democrat Ministers in DEFRA.