[Martin Caton in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Caton. We should not, however, be having this debate, because the cull actually flies in the face of scientific opinion. Furthermore, having the cull takes no notice whatever of public opinion and blatantly disregards the will of the House. Only earlier this year, on 13 March, after a debate in the main Chamber, the majority in favour of abandoning the badger cull was 218, yet the Government are ploughing on regardless. They seem to have forgotten that they are elected by the British people, and not by the National Farmers Union.
The hon. Gentleman draws our attention to the vote in the House. I do not think that he was in Parliament at the time, but the House voted in favour of the Iraq war, which then proceeded, even though the people were against it.
That may be true, but on badger culls scientific, parliamentary and public opinion are at one, yet the Government are completely disregarding all those areas of clear opposition to their direction of travel on the issue.
As I was saying, the Government and all of us present are elected by the British people and not by any single issue group. Ministers seem to be behaving as if they were the parliamentary wing of the National Farmers Union. The NFU, however, does not even represent the vast majority of the farming industry. According to the NFU’s own website, it claims some 55,000 members—
I will give way in a moment. According to a document published by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, “Agriculture in the United Kingdom”:
“The number of commercial agricultural holdings in the UK has remained stable between 2010 and 2013 at 222 thousand”.
So just under 25% of the farming industry is represented by the NFU, yet the Government, or Ministers at least, seem to be doing the NFU’s bidding, even though it represents only a minority interest in the farming industry.
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I will come on to that and explain why I am referring to the NFU. Despite public, parliamentary and scientific opinion, the NFU is clearly the only interest group to think that the badger cull is a good idea. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Government seem to prefer the views of a pressure group that represents a small proportion of the overall farming industry to the views of science, the public and, overwhelmingly, the House of Commons.
To be clear, last year’s cull was a catastrophic failure. It failed to reach its target within the specified six-week timetable, so what did the Government do? They extended the timetable. The cull still failed to reach its target, which was for some 5,000 badgers to be killed, and it only managed to kill 1,861, making matters worse.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing this important debate. Does he agree that one of the most dismal scenarios that we can have is that of the Government setting their face against the evidence? They not only do not look at the evidence, but try to close it down. On this occasion, for example, they got rid of the independent expert panel that might have been able to tell them whether their cull was being successful.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right about that point, and I will be coming on to it.
As a consequence of not reaching the target of 5,000 badgers, the Government are likely to have made matters considerably worse because of perturbation, about which they were warned. DEFRA has not only failed in its own terms on effectiveness, but certainly failed on the test of humaneness as well. The independent expert panel, which the Government disbanded, as the hon. Lady said a moment ago, said about year one of the pilot badger cull:
“It is extremely likely that between 7.4% and 22.8% of badgers that were shot at were still alive after 5 min, and therefore at risk of experiencing marked pain. We are concerned at the potential for suffering that these figures imply.”
When it was clear that the cull was failing on every possible measure, the previous Secretary of State, unbelievably, blamed the badgers for “moving the goalposts”. In truth, the Government have moved the goalposts and Ministers are behaving like the three wise monkeys. The DEFRA independent expert panel confirmed last year that the cull was unsuccessful in terms of humaneness, as I have mentioned, and ineffective. The figures speak for themselves. The chief scientific adviser to Natural England also made negative comments about the cull, describing it as an “epic failure”.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. No one should be in any doubt that farming communities are suffering as a result of bovine tuberculosis, but is his case not simply that the evidence does not support this method of trying to eradicate bovine TB?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct in his summary of the position. Of course bovine TB is a dreadful illness, but the way in which the Government have gone about tackling it is precisely the wrong thing to do and is likely to be making matters worse. I do not understand why they are ignoring the overwhelming scientific view that the badger cull should be abandoned and a different approach taken.
I was referring to the opinion of the chief scientific adviser to Natural England, who described the cull as an “epic failure”, and was about to ask, what did DEFRA do in response to such overwhelming criticism? It simply changed the methodology. That was described by one badger expert, Professor Woodroffe, as “very crude”. She went on to say that the Government targets
“are all rubbish because they are based on rubbish data”,
“with the data that is being collected, it will be impossible to know how effective this year’s culls have been.”
The Government did not like the conclusions of their independent expert panel, so they moved the goalposts again by disbanding it, but the new Secretary of State says that the outcome of the latest culls will determine whether there will be a roll-out across the rest of the country.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this important debate. Is he aware that the BBC is reporting today that a journal of the British Ecological Society has offered to assess the trials independently, in the light of the fact that the independent panel has been disbanded?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that intervention. It is important that there is independent assessment of the culls, as there is a real fear of a lack of trust if there is no independent assessment of their effectiveness. We cannot leave it to the Government to determine whether culling has been effective because, as we have seen, they simply ignore the wealth of evidence put before them.
I am following closely what the hon. Gentleman is saying. On the subject of assessment, is his conclusion that the cull should not have proceeded or that it did not take place on the right criteria? The public would like to hear what he and his right hon. and hon. Friends propose for controlling a vicious disease that has an impact on wildlife and domestic animals, as well as a huge impact on cattle, which I am sure many hon. Members will go on to discuss.
I do not think the cull should have started in the first place, because of the wealth of scientific opinion that I have already outlined. I will come on to the alternative way forward.
I ask the Minister, where is the transparency? The Chancellor of the Exchequer has been talking about the importance of transparent Government, but there is no transparency whatever in this process. Ministers and the National Farmers Union need to get real. The main route of transmission of TB is cattle to cattle. That has been independently verified by numerous experts. Ministers need to end this wild goose chase. To respond to the hon. Lady, we need mandatory annual and pre-movement testing for all cattle, and should impose significant movement restrictions. There also needs to be rigorous biosecurity for dairy farms around the country. That has happened in Wales, where the Welsh Government have gone further and have introduced badger vaccination, a move that the Government would do well to adopt, to address the dreadful disease of TB.
I have a number of questions that I hope the Minister will be able to answer when he responds. The public would like to know—it is in the interests of transparent government that they do—who monitored the latest cull; perhaps he will take a note of that question and respond to it. Will he also say when details about the cull will be published and by whom—will it be Natural England or DEFRA? How will humaneness, safety and efficiency be assessed? Those factors were assessed in the first year of culling.
Will a decision on a third pilot be reserved until after the results are assessed, or has that matter already been decided? Again, it would be helpful if the Minister could come clean on that. Indeed, will there be a third pilot or will the Government go straight to a roll-out? We need to know that as well.
Were any badgers tested for TB during the latest cull? If so, how many tested positive? Last year, a relatively small proportion of badgers killed tested positive. What proportion of badgers killed in this year’s culls were cage-trapped? We need to know that, because, as I understand it, part of the rationale behind the cull was to determine the effectiveness of free shooting.
Why was a different methodology for calculating the number of badgers used in year two from that used in year one? Why does the methodology applying to Somerset differ from the one applying to Gloucestershire? That just does not make sense—how can there be different methodologies from one county to the other? Surely that calls into question the bona fides of the Government’s process.
Finally, does the Minister agree with his own Department’s guidance to Natural England that the badger culls need to remove at least 70% of the local badger population within six weeks to avoid the risk of increasing cattle TB rates? If he does, can he explain why the targets set for this year’s pilot culls have been changed?
It is a delight to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on keeping up the impetus on this difficult subject.
Across the House, the majority of Members believe that we should tackle TB humanely and effectively. That includes the issue of how we deal with what is seen to be a contributory factor to the problem, namely the spread of TB by badgers. I am a convert to the cause and was pleased to lead the debate in March that showed overwhelmingly that the will of the House was to come up with a better way of controlling TB. I do not think that the House ever intended to control it by inflicting cruelty on another species, while potentially making the problem worse.
On 7 July I chaired a panel discussion with members of the Badger Trust and Care for the Wild, the director of the Humane Society International, an ecologist and habitat and species specialist, and Dr Tim Coulson, a member of the independent panel of experts. The IEP was unhappy that it could not continue with its work. On top of that, Dr Coulson said that he had asked Whitehall officials about a meeting with the Secretary of State but that request was not followed up.
On 16 July I wrote to the Secretary of State asking her to meet the IEP. The Minister replied on 16 August—over a month later—stating that meetings would be considered on a “case by case basis” and that the Department was
“in dialogue with leading vets and scientists”.
Why has it not, as far as I know—unless the Minister corrects this—met the IEP? Anecdotally, Dr Coulson has told me that the Secretary of State replied to his request by saying that she was terribly busy and unable to find a date. Has the Department still not been able to do so?
How can the public have confidence in the Government if the culls are not independently monitored? As I pointed out in my intervention on the hon. Member for Derby North, there has been a kind offer of independent monitoring by the British Ecological Society. Will the Government consider taking that up? I would like to hear an answer to that today. I gather that there would be no cost to the Government. If the Government are to have confidence that they can take the public with them on this subject, which polarises opinion and creates strong passions, they should be able to explain their actions in a way the public understand. The public could then at least find a reason to support those actions, even if in their hearts they do not support the idea of some animals having to be killed to control the disease.
I apologise for having come to the Chamber very recently, Mr Caton; I have been chairing a committee on prison education.
In DEFRA questions last week I saw a glimmer of light, as the Secretary of State said that she absolutely believed in the appliance of science to most of the topics we were talking about, including losing our birdsong in this country. If we apply that to the situation with badgers, there is a small possibility that someone at DEFRA might be waking up to the idea that we need science and proper independent evaluation.
I hope that I am correct in interpreting what the hon. Gentleman says as meaning that if the Secretary of State was listening to the science, the Government would take a different route. Unfortunately, the science—the results of the trials—does not bear out the hope that there was when the trials were agreed. It is important that we do not have a roll-out based on two failures. We should not consider rolling out any Government policy on the basis of two test runs, whether it is a proposed benefits package or something like the poll tax. Surely we should learn from our failures and not roll out a failure elsewhere.
I am most grateful for that tremendous compliment. I suspect that if the NFU had its way, the schemes would not be pilots but would be rolled out into all areas where there is a high incidence of TB. If the science is so important—I suspect that the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) feels it is—will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to condemn the people who are sabotaging these experiments?
I absolutely condemn anyone who sabotages experiments, and I condemn anyone who puts any of our armed forces, police or anyone else involved, including protesters, in any danger. However, my hon. Friend must accept that passions are running high because logical arguments are being made in various debates and by panels that I have chaired, but people are not listening. If we are to prevent sabotage, which is obviously a last resort for some people, we must ensure that genuine concerns are listened to.
I went down to Somerset recently to meet some of the people monitoring the culls. They are there not to sabotage them, but to ensure that the rules are obeyed and that badgers are not shot and left wounded to die slowly and painfully. They are there to ensure that the rules are kept. I met a farmer who did not want to take part in the cull pilot, but wanted to vaccinate her cattle. She had to stand guard at midnight at the gates to her farm to stop people coming on to her land and trying to shoot badgers. It is wrong to categorise anyone who protests against and monitors the culls as trying to sabotage them. They are just trying to ensure fairness.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. Other hon. Members want to speak, so I will not labour the point, but my constituents, who have written to me in their hundreds, have lost confidence in the rationale and the way the problem is being tackled. No one is disputing that there is a problem, but we still do not know how many badgers were killed after having been cage-trapped, when that was expressly excluded originally.
I do not believe that the Government’s method of choice will deliver what the farmers and the Government want, so we must look at the matter again. I for one, and hundreds of people in St Albans who care about the humaneness of the approach, believe that the Government are foolish not to listen to two failures. I do not accept that activists have ruined the trials; I suspect that the badger does not wish to comply with the trials, that the marksmanship has not been up to the job, and that the original premise of using free shooting instead of cage shooting was never a realistic means of dealing with the problem. We must come up with an alternative proposal, and I suggest that cattle movements, vaccination and other methods that do not inflict cruelty on another animal species are the way forward.
I thank the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) for securing this important debate. I have several questions and concerns about this year’s cull, as well as long-standing concerns about the culling policy.
First, the Government said that they plan to use the results of this year’s culls to decide whether to roll out culling to new areas, but they have cut back massively on the data collection and expertise that they need to make an informed decision. They have scrapped independent oversight and the methods recommended by their independent advisers for assessing the humaneness and effectiveness of culling. In so doing, they have undermined their ability to make a well-informed decision. Their chosen methods seem to be completely inadequate, and they have undermined public confidence in a future roll-out decision, not least by fighting two legal battles to avoid independent scrutiny.
My views on the cull are well known. I have always argued that we need to take an evidence-based approach, so it is deeply disappointing that DEFRA has ignored the facts before it and, this year, has even done away with the independent panel, presumably because it did not like its conclusions last time round. I appreciate that the Secretary of State has expressed the view that independent auditing is sufficient, but I stress that that is not the same as peer review. The audit explicitly concerns adherence to DEFRA’s chosen methods, rather than the robustness of the methods themselves. Peer review would have taken that much broader perspective.
This year, there has been no attempt to count badgers in the cull areas, either before or after the culls. The time taken by badgers to die was not recorded, and there has been no oversight by independent scientists. Instead, the effectiveness of the culls has been judged on key data collected by the marksmen. Let us remind ourselves that in 2013, the data they collected were so unreliable that they were considered unusable by the independent expert panel. Available information suggests that any future claim that the 2014 culls have reduced badger numbers sufficiently to control TB will be baseless. Moreover, it will be difficult to believe any claims that this year’s culls are safe, humane and effective, based on the available evidence.
In that context, it is welcome that the British Ecological Society has offered to check the Government’s badger culling trials, as the hon. Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) said. I would be interested to learn from the Minister whether DEFRA will accept that offer, and the reason for its decision.
I hope that DEFRA will make every effort to be completely transparent about the information it has gathered on this year’s culls. To that end, I would welcome the Minister’s comments on the humaneness of the culls. A non-governmental organisation in Somerset carried out a post-mortem on a badger that had been shot and wounded and showed that it would have suffered for many minutes after being shot. Yet the Government are not issuing any report this time round on the humaneness of their culls. That is a scandal and means that we have no proper means of assessing whether the culls are humane, despite that long being one of DEFRA’s stated objectives. I would like clarification of the number of badgers culled in Somerset. Was the target reached, and is the Minister satisfied that it was the right one, given that the methods used to calculate it have been described by Professor Rosie Woodroffe of the Zoological Society of London as “very crude”?
I understand that officials estimate the Somerset population by counting setts and multiplying by a fixed number. That estimate suggested that the target should be between 316 and 1,776 badgers killed. Perhaps not surprisingly, DEFRA chose the lower figure. In Gloucestershire in 2013, 39% of the target was met. This year, we understand that it is 41%, according to information that has come out. Will the Minister tell us whether DEFRA expects any increase in bovine TB in the edge areas around the Gloucestershire cull? Given all we know about perturbation in areas where less than 70% of badgers are culled, how will they monitor that?
We know that ineffective culling can make a bad situation worse. By failing to collect the evidence needed to evaluate future policy, DEFRA is failing farmers, taxpayers and wildlife. I hope that the Government will at long last stop blaming the badgers for moving the goalposts and admit that it is time for a complete rethink of their so-called strategy for tackling bovine TB.
I draw hon. Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a farmer, although I do not keep any stock so I have no financial interest in this debate.
We have again found ourselves having a debate about an incredibly important scientific issue before the scientific evidence has been fully analysed and published by the Minister’s Department. The debate is premature and speculative and will be incompletely informed. The second year of the culls ended on 20 October, and we have not yet seen the results of either of the trials in Somerset or Gloucestershire, so how can we have a reasoned and fully informed debate assessing those trials? I suspect that the debate will be centred on rumour and uninformed results.
The Government have said that that they will fully audit the results. When they are fully audited and analysed and properly published, I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman and others will want to examine them in great detail and return to the House with comments.
One point of fact is the dreadful disease that bovine TB is and the pain it causes to badgers, cattle and farmers. Significant attention has been given to the relatively small number of badgers being culled in these trials, but less attention is given to the 314,000 cattle that have been slaughtered in the last 10 years at a cost of £500 million to taxpayers. Indices of TB in cattle show that it increased ninefold between 1997 and 2010 in England, which now has the highest incidence of TB in the whole of Europe. The cost will rise to more than £1 billion over the next decade if nothing is done to eradicate TB from our communities.
It is important to remember that culling is simply one aspect of the Government’s comprehensive strategy to eradicate TB within 25 years. I hope that no one speaking in the debate will disapprove of that.
My neighbour and hon. Friend and I share a concern for Gloucestershire farmers, and I am sure we share the ultimate aim of seeing both cattle and badger populations healthy and TB-free. Does he agree that preliminary data that seem to be emerging in the press, and which the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) referred to, suggest that less than half the target number of badgers were killed in Gloucestershire this time? If those data are correct, we may worsen the risk to Gloucestershire cattle because of the perturbation effect.
That is speculation, but even if it proves to be true, we will need to have a debate over what the target numbers were, and I shall come on to that later in my speech. We will begin after this second year, and certainly in the third year, to be able to analyse some of the results and see what is already known through some anecdotal evidence, which is that some farms that have had TB reactors for six or eight years have, this year, for the first year in those six or eight years, had no reactors. That may be anecdotal evidence, but it begins to point to the fact that the culls are having a beneficial effect.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that during the course of the randomised badger culling trial there were 472 new confirmed breakdowns to TB in the proactive culling areas? Would he therefore argue that the culls did not work in those instances?
I have great respect for the hon. Lady, but I think she is drawing a false analogy, because the numbers removed in the randomised badger culling trial per square kilometre were considerably lower than the numbers removed per square kilometre in either of these two trials. Let us give the trials a chance—[Interruption]—instead of chuntering about it. These trials are trials—they are exactly that. What we need to do is evaluate the science and see whether it is in favour of the trials or not. I think that would be a constructive way forward.
The cost will rise to £1 billion over the next decade if nothing is done to eradicate TB from our communities. I ask the hon. Lady what her party’s policy is going to be: is she just going to let this disease continue to spiral out of control? Does she want our farmers to continue to slaughter cattle, and does she want to continue to have to pay more taxpayers’ money in compensation? Her public statements so far—I am happy to let her intervene if I am wrong—suggest that she would discontinue the trials, so we will have gone through all the pain, yet we will not have the scientific evidence to be able to evaluate them properly.
With great respect to the hon. Lady, it is too early to say. If she will not begin to take some of the anecdotal evidence of people on the ground who have to make their living from farming with cattle, I do not know what else I can say to her. Let us let these trials go ahead and evaluate them. Instead of setting our face against them, let us give them time and see if they work, and then let us hope that we can begin to eradicate this dreadful disease. I repeat what I have just said: this is part of an overall policy to eradicate TB in this country in 25 years. I will allow the hon. Lady to intervene again on me—does she agree with that aim or not?
The hon. Gentleman draws our attention to the public cost of this illness, but the cull that is now taking place is actually at the farmers’ expense. Does he agree that if there is no improvement or if, in fact, it makes things worse, farmers will not be willing to pay for something that acts against their interests?
I am extremely grateful for that intervention. The hon. Gentleman must have been reading my notes, because I make that point very well. As he said, these two trials are entirely at the farmers’ expense, and there would be very little cost in policing them were it not for the activity of the protesters. If we set the cost of culling against the cost of what the farmers are providing, there is no doubt about it: this cull is very considerably cheaper than the cost of vaccination, which is not yet proved to be working either. I would be interested to know, when the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) speaks, whether she thinks vaccination is working in Wales.
The reality is that the Labour Government in Wales fully recognise that they cannot measure the impact of vaccination yet, and what reduction there is of bovine TB in Wales is just the same outside the vaccination area as it is inside, so the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) can point to no evidence that the alternative Labour method is working in Wales.
I had better make some rapid progress, Mr Caton, or else you will call me to order for not making my six-minute deadline. Let me make one or two brief points.
As I said, it is welcome that vaccination is taking place in certain parts of the country to try to prevent the further spread of this awful disease, but the simple fact is that vaccination does not work for an already infected badger. If it does not work, that infected badger, by going to the bottom of its sett, continues to infect the whole of that sett. It also must be remembered that vaccination generally works better on young badgers. Young badgers do not emerge from their sett for six months or so, and therefore do not get vaccinated for that first vital six-month period of their life when they are likely to be infected by the infected badgers. The other point to remember about vaccination is that badgers have to be vaccinated every year for five years before it is effective.
I have referred to some anecdotal evidence about how the trials have worked, but I can also give the House some actual evidence of where vaccinating is not working. On the Killerton estate in North Devon, where TB is a huge problem, the National Trust has been vaccinating badgers at an annual cost of £45,000 for the past four years, and there have recently been as many as six additional herd breakdowns due to TB, which seems to show that vaccinating alone is not the solution.
Many people cite vaccination in Wales as an example, as my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) mentioned, but that is not the whole story. Although TB has been reduced in Wales, the current vaccination programme is only being conducted in 1% of the country and it is only in its second year. It is therefore difficult to see how the Welsh experiment—as he said, the Labour party in Wales does not think it is working—has led to a 25% reduction across the whole of Wales, where other factors must be at play.
Therefore, culling must be part of the solution. No less than the president of the British Veterinary Association has said:
“Badger culling is a necessary part of a comprehensive bovine TB eradication strategy”.
I really hope that the Labour party will think carefully about what one of our foremost experts in the country said about that. Vets are the very people who want to see a humane strategy for tackling this disease, because they of all people know what suffering the disease causes to badgers.
Nobody wants to see animals culled. I am an animal lover. Farmers are animal lovers. This is not an enjoyable solution, but it is a necessary one. Clear evidence tells us that no country in the world has got its TB problem under control without removing it in the reservoir of the wildlife. We have seen that in Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, all of which are now virtually BTB-free.
On top of that, evidence also tells us that every time there has been a culling programme in this country—any of the six previous trials, including the Krebs trials— there has been a reduction in bovine TB. I accept that in some of the Krebs trials the reduction was relatively small, but that was related to the number of badgers that were taken out. The higher the number of badgers in an area that are taken out, the higher the reduction in BTB, and that, I think, has been fairly well scientifically proven.
In conclusion—because I think I have exceeded your patience and my allotted time, Mr Caton—it is too early to tell whether the culls have been successful. Anecdotal evidence tells us that they are beginning to have some success. Let us hope, for the sake of the farmers who are affected by this dreadful disease and the cattle that will have to be culled, that they are having some effect. The culls will be rolled out only in the very worst areas of BTB. I am all in favour of ring vaccination around those really bad areas, but let us see it as part of a comprehensive strategy. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government for being steadfast in their desire to eliminate this dreadful disease.
I am delighted to contribute to this debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on securing it.
There is a lot of common ground among Members here this afternoon, in that we recognise that TB is a huge problem—both bovine TB and potentially, the spread of TB in wildlife. We are talking about assessing a pilot scheme in one particular reservoir of wildlife, but heaven forfend that it enter into deer or other aspects of wildlife as well. It is not that long since people suffered from TB, and it is only due to the medical science developed in the last century that that has been controlled. The dangers of TB are, therefore, very real.
On animal welfare, there has to be some balance in the argument. We surely have to accept that, if 314,000 cattle are slaughtered, that in itself is something of a potential animal welfare crisis. What we are all trying to achieve is a healthy badger population living alongside a healthy cattle population.
I would like to know about the science. We are the only country in the European Union, and I believe in the world, that has protected badgers. Has that led to the increase that we have seen in the badger population? Has that, in itself, contributed to the spread of TB in the badger population?
I would now like to raise one or two questions for the Minister to respond to. In the previous Session, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee looked at what the cull’s parameters should be, and I applaud the fact that the Government’s pilot scheme seems, to all intents and purposes, to be following those that we laid down. I should add that I welcome the Minister to his place, and I look forward to his summing up the debate.
If we are to tackle the vaccine situation, we need to deal with a number of remaining issues, and I would welcome the Minister bringing us up to date on them. I applaud the work of the Food and Environment Research Agency, which operates in my constituency and other parts of the country. In Wales, the cost of an injectable vaccine for badgers was estimated at about £662 per badger in 2012. An injectable BCG vaccine has been available for use since March 2012, but there are obviously challenges in using it. To be cost-effective, deployment would have to focus on areas where the vaccine would have the biggest impact. The cost of injecting badgers with vaccine is huge. An oral baited vaccine for badgers, which can be laid at setts, is likely to be cheaper and more practical. I would be interested to know whether the definition of such a vaccine has moved on and whether we are closer to that taking place. Furthermore, from the evidence it received, the Select Committee understood that the current skin test to detect TB in cattle would miss one in four infected cows. Liver fluke, Johne’s disease and even pregnancy may have an impact on the result of a skin test.
How much progress has been made, since the Committee adopted its report, on allowing the vaccination of cattle under European law? That is a vexatious issue. How welcome is vaccination among our friends and allies among other European countries? I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) that the treatment and control of TB has not been achieved anywhere unless TB has been tackled in the wildlife population. In the long term, vaccination—particularly of cattle, but also of badgers—would be a good way forward, but will the Minister let us know where we are on the vaccination of cattle under European law and how close we are to rolling out field trials in this country, as required under EU law?
I congratulate the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on securing the debate. However, I must start by saying that, as a Conservative who voted against the badger cull and who has been consistent in my opposition to it, I thought it was rather unfortunate how politicised he made his comments on the NFU. Those of us who oppose the badger cull have enormous sympathy for farmers who find they have bovine TB in their cattle stock and who have to have their stock completely removed, with the suffering they face as a consequence.
I have spoken to the NFU in my region about my opposition to the cull, and it asked me specifically why I opposed it, to which my answer was, “To stop you guys getting it.” My fear about the cull and the science behind it is that they are wrong and it will lead to perturbation, which will spread the disease wider. When I talk to Kent farmers, who, I can tell Members, are not a wing of the local Conservative party, I am therefore opposing the cull as much in their interests as for my own personal reasons.
The hon. Gentleman’s comments distracted us from the real issue, which is that the science does not stack up. The perturbation effect is real. Last year’s culls failed many of the tests that had been set out. They failed on effectiveness, and the pilot came nowhere close to reducing the badger population by 70%. It also failed on humaneness. That is what happened in the first year, but we are having a debate about assessing the second year, without any of first year’s outcomes having been properly considered.
I am enjoying my hon. Friend’s speech very much. Does she agree that if the first year had failed comprehensively because of perturbation, we should see a huge increase in the number of TB reactors in the area around the pilot schemes? I am surprised she has not mentioned that if that is what is going on.
Three tests were set out for the first pilot culls: humaneness, effectiveness and cost. As we know, the costs were extraordinary, effectiveness was not achieved, because the cull did not reduce the badger population in the way that was set out, and humaneness was not adhered to. Those are tests the Government set out. I fear, therefore, that progressing with the second year was a mistake. I voted against it. The Government might think they have a legal mandate to continue with the culls, but they have no political mandate whatever, and I fear they do not have the widespread support of the population.
I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend, but I am bound to point out that, in some countries where culling has taken place in wildlife, it has been successful in controlling TB in wildlife and in cattle. The obvious example is New Zealand.
We keep on hearing about the New Zealand experiment, but it had other aspects, such as improved movement and better biosecurity measures. We need to ensure that we have such things as part of a whole package.
I am personally opposed to the badger cull, and I think we should look at other ways, as my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans (Mrs Main) said, of dealing with the issue, such as vaccination, which is what is happening in Wales. We are seeing a reduction in bovine TB; indeed, I read somewhere, although I cannot find the precise source, that there has been a reduction of 48%. We have to look at these issues. However, the cull was not the right way forward, and it is not the right method now.
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I will not, because other people want to speak.
One concern I have with assessing the effectiveness of the culls is that we keep changing the methodology. For example, we had one estimate of the badger population in the first year; now we have another estimate of its size, and that will interfere with a proper independent audit. The large downgrade in the population estimates for last year’s cull has been followed by estimates suggesting that this year’s cull numbers are set to be met in Somerset, but not in Gloucestershire, due to the different methodologies used to estimate badger numbers in the two areas. In Somerset the method involved multiplying the number of setts by a fixed number and taking the lowest figure from the estimated range, a method described by the ecologist Professor Rosie Woodroffe as “very crude”. She said that
“the targets are all rubbish because they are based on rubbish data...with the data that is being collected, it will be impossible to know how effective this year’s culls have been”.
I would argue strongly that that is making it nearly impossible to compare or measure success. How, then, can we measure the key levels of success by the Government’s own indicator, if we cannot agree on the population size in the first place?
Others have mentioned the independent expert panel. I was going to say that it is disappointing that it has been disbanded, but I do not think that it has been disbanded, technically; it has just not been reinstated, so it will not meet again. It is incredibly disappointing; the panel was important for close monitoring of the culls. It is also disappointing that not all the data have been published, and an independent audit is now taking place. I would like the Minister to outline who is undertaking that audit. I do not think that any of us fully understands precisely what is being done. Will the audit involve monitoring of the culls? I understand that the British Ecological Society has offered to take on the role but has not been taken up on that. We need another, proper, debate in the House of Commons. If there is to be widespread culling a full-scale discussion in the Chamber is needed, and the Minister needs the political will of the House to go forward. I do not think that he has that. A number of my hon. Friends who originally voted for the culls are now sceptical, following the pilot culls. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for St Albans that if the policy is not working we must address the issue again, and not continue absent-mindedly through fear of looking weak.
I am a strong supporter of the Government, but we have not seen the results from the culls that the Minister may have wanted, in the initial tests. We need to consider what happens in Wales and not to be so sceptical about the different approach being taken there. We also need to re-examine the issues of cattle movement and rigorous biosecurity on farms. Farmers from high-incidence areas have contacted my office—so I assume they have contacted the Department—to say that they are willing to be trial farms and be involved in vaccination tests as opposed to pilot culls; so I think there are farmers out there who want to consider other methods of tackling bovine TB. I remain absolutely opposed to the badger cull and I hope that the Minister will explain how he will properly assess the results of the second year of badger culls and publish that assessment.
I declare an interest as a member of the National Farmers Union, the Farmers Union of Wales, and the Country Land and Business Association. Indeed, I still own and keep some cattle. A couple of weeks ago we had a clear TB test, but we have only seven cattle on the farm, now. We used to have well over 200, but because of the difficulty of managing them, as a result of TB, it was decided to get rid of them. We are not the only farm that has taken that decision.
Bovine TB is a very dangerous disease, for cattle and for badgers. It is a zoonotic disease, and it affects humans as well as animals. That, indeed, is why in the 1950s and 1960s there was a great move to rid the country’s cattle herd of bovine TB. Many human beings were infected by drinking raw milk. If the Government did not believe that TB was still a matter of public health, they would presumably wash their hands of it and let farmers get on with things on their own. However, it is still a very serious disease not only for animals but for human beings.
In about 1971 the infection link between badgers and cattle was established and in 2007 the report of the randomised badger culling trials—I am not quite sure whether Professor Krebs or Professor Bourne was in charge at the time—said that between 40% and 50% of cattle infections resulted from transmission by badgers. That was established in an entirely independent assessment. Little mention has been made of DEFRA’s 25-year TB eradication strategy and what it entails—[Interruption.]—I am sorry if I have not paid attention. It is being rolled out at the moment and includes more frequent—yearly—testing in areas where there is bovine TB, more movement restrictions, increased biosecurity, and vaccination at the edge of areas of spread of the disease.
The disease is out of control, spreading northward and eastward at an increasing rate. We must try to hold it back, to protect areas that are still free of bovine TB. The Government have decided to do that through a vaccination strategy, because they realise that culling in an edge area could lead to perturbation and increase the incidence of the disease. However, in areas where it is well established, and where other ways of controlling it have proved ineffective, they have introduced a pilot culling scheme. That approach is based on the randomised badger culling trials, which said that if culling were to be effective it would have to be on a bigger area with, if possible, hard boundaries to prevent perturbation. Perturbation in those areas, however, will not have much effect, because the disease is already well established. Probably up to 40% of the badgers are infected, so the movement of badgers will not make much difference there.
We cannot really assess the success of the culls at the moment, because we need at least four years’ information to find out. That is another thing that the randomised badger cull trial showed: results would not be obtained for about four years. However, it showed that even when those culls had stopped there were improvements in the cull areas and those surrounding them.
We must do more work on oral vaccines for badgers, vaccination for cattle, and the polymerase chain reaction that provides a possible test for infection in badgers. With that, we could trap and test badgers; the healthy ones could be vaccinated and released, and the infected ones disposed of, as vaccination could do them no good. There is a huge amount of work to be done, but I still believe that the pilot cull trials that the Government have instigated are an important part of that work in the heavily infected areas.
It is great to follow the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams). I concur with many of his remarks, if not all of them. It will come as no surprise to hon. Members to learn that I completely oppose the whole idea of stopping the badger cull: I will explain exactly why.
Between 1999 and 2010, the number of cattle with TB in this country rose from 6,000 to 33,000. That was the period when Labour Members were in control of government in this country. Let us look at the same period in the Republic of Ireland. There were 40,000 reactors to TB in 2000, but by 2012 the number had dropped to 18,500 and it is dropping further now, so the number of cases in the Republic of Ireland more than halved in that period, whereas ours went up by four times.
In the Republic of Ireland, there are badgers and there is virtually the same cattle testing regime as we have, so of all the countries in the world that we look at, the Republic of Ireland is the best one to take an example from. In that case, what was different about the Republic of Ireland in the period to which I am referring? It took the difficult decision—it is a difficult decision; we all respect that and I respect hon. Members in this Chamber who have different views on badger culling—to cull badgers and it is reducing the disease dramatically. If we are to eradicate TB from our cattle, we must tackle the reservoir of disease within badgers.
More than 6,000 reactors a year are taken out of the county of Devon alone. There, we have a real hot spot of TB, and where we have a hot spot of TB in cattle, we also have TB in the badgers. There is a higher percentage of TB in the badgers because they catch it from the cattle, and then the badgers reinfect the cattle. I have made this point many times before. If we are going to test our cattle and test them more vigorously, as the hon. Gentleman said, and take out the infected animals, it is absolutely pointless then putting the cattle back into a field where there are badgers with the disease, because they will just reinfect the cattle all the time.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me on this point? Certainly in my part of Somerset, a number of the farmers have declared that they have cattle with TB, but the cattle are not removed from their farms with any level of speed whatever, so it both causes a great deal of distress to the farmers and has the potential to keep the infection level going.
Yes. The hon. Lady raises a point that my hon. Friend the Minister might well like to deal with. The quicker we can get a reactor off a farm the better, because it is infectious while it is there.
While there is a reservoir of disease in the wildlife and particularly in badgers, we have to cull, and we have to cull in the areas where the badgers have TB and the cattle do. That is why the hot spots are where we target the culling. That is why we targeted Gloucester and west Somerset. That is absolutely right. We will be able to use vaccine in other areas, because in other areas, where there is little TB in the cattle, there is likely to be little TB in the badgers also. Therefore, vaccinating badgers in those areas could well be very successful. The point has been made many times that if a badger is infected with a disease, we will not cure it by vaccinating it. That is why we have to take the very difficult decision of culling infected badgers.
I congratulate very much the previous Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who may have been lambasted by many, but who actually stuck his neck above the parapet and said, “Yes, we will do the thing that is necessary, which is to cull badgers in infected areas.”
The hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) opposed the policy from the beginning, so he would oppose it whether or not it was successful. That was never an issue with him, because he has opposed the whole thing, but what do we say to my constituent, David, who is at Ennerleigh farm in Washfield? He has been farming there for generations. Over the last 10 years, he has lost 350 cattle that have had TB. It has been a slow decline all the time—more and more reactors. He needs the pool of wildlife that has that infection to be dealt with, as do farmers across Devon, across the west country and in Wales, because, as has been said, the disease is spreading. If we do not deal with it in those hot spots, we will, in the end, have to cull more badgers, for the simple reason that the disease will have spread, the badgers will get it, they will then disease the cattle and the whole thing will get worse and worse. We cannot go on like the last Labour Government did—prevaricating and prevaricating and doing absolutely nothing.
The current Government have taken the difficult position. We have looked at the cull areas. We have looked at hard boundaries to ensure, as far as possible, that we use major roads, rivers and so on to try to prevent as much perturbation as possible. The system is not perfect. We would accept that and we have learned lessons from last year as far as the humaneness is concerned. As for traps, it is absolutely within the rules for traps to be used, and as for those activists who go out and trash the traps so that we cannot catch the badgers, that is absolute madness, because if we want to cull a badger in the most humane way possible, getting it in a trap so that we can dispatch it at point-blank range will always be the best method of culling.
We have worked so hard to get this going, and the farmers of this country, who keep the cattle, deserve to have the disease brought under control, because this is not only about the meat that we eat and the milk that we drink. It is about the countryside that we see out there and the cattle out in those fields. If we do not get rid of the disease in the wildlife, those cattle will have to stay indoors because it is too dangerous for them to go out, and I do not exaggerate. That is why this Government are making the right decision. I look forward to these pilot culls being successful. We are, again anecdotally, seeing the disease reducing, reactors reducing and outbreaks of TB in Somerset in particular—
No. You want me to finish by 20 to four, Mr Caton, so I will keep going.
We have seen, anecdotally, a reduction. If we can hold our nerve and ensure that we carry out the culls in a humane way, we will reduce the number of infected badgers in the countryside, in those areas with a high number of TB cases. If we use traps wherever necessary, carry out controlled shooting and ensure that we carry out the cull properly, we will see TB, first, reduce in this country and, eventually, we will eradicate it. If we do not take this action, we will never eradicate the disease. Farmers need to see a good future not only for them, but for their families. Farming is about generations of farmers, generations of cattle and generations of breeding of cattle. That is all being destroyed by this disease, and unless we take this firm action, we will not eradicate the disease.
I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) on securing the debate. It has been an excellent and passionate one on both sides of the argument. I would like to be clear about the Labour party view of the pilots. It is appalling that the badger culls have gone ahead for a second year when year one was described by David Macdonald, the chief scientific adviser to Natural England, as an “epic failure”. The Government should today commit to abandoning any attempt to continue these unscientific, inhumane and ineffective badger culls. They must instead work with scientists, wildlife groups and farmers to develop an alternative strategy to get the problem of TB under control. That is what Labour would do in office.
I accept that bovine TB is a scourge on our countryside. I have spoken to farmers whose herds have been affected and I have seen at first hand how it can destroy livelihoods as well as the communities that depend on them. I do not think that there is an argument about that. There is no doubt about the fact that the spread of bovine TB is a serious problem in need of a solution.
No. We hear, and we have heard today, that the last Labour Government did nothing to address the problem. That is simply not true. We spent 10 years and £50 million on a large-scale trial in the areas worst affected by TB to develop a credible plan to tackle the issue based on the best available science. That work included testing the case for badger culling. The conclusion was that culls make no meaningful contribution to eradicating TB, and that small-scale, localised culling, which had been the policy of the previous Conservative Government, actually worsened the problem. It may be worth noting that the real rise in the spread of bovine TB began in 1979. Far from doing nothing, the previous Labour Government put in place the evidence base that was needed effectively to tackle that scourge.
In a manner so typical of the Government, they have decided that to pursue prejudice-based policy, with no regard to the scientific evidence, is the way forward. The badger cull pilots are one more example of that disregard for evidence. The culling has nothing to do with piloting or learning anything. Indeed, the Government have just fought two legal battles to preserve their right not to learn anything, and I am not the only person who thinks so. Professor Lord May of Oxford, the former Government chief scientific adviser, has said that the approach to the badger culls has shown that the Government
“are transmuting evidence-based policy into policy-based evidence.”
In other words, the Government have selectively used evidence to give the illusion of a scientific underpinning for the policy.
The guidance provided to Natural England ahead of licensing the original culls made it clear that the target for culling must lead to the removal of at least 70% of the badgers in the total land area in the application over a period of not more than six consecutive weeks. The two areas where culling took place, Gloucestershire and Somerset, were each granted two extensions in the first year. On timing alone, therefore, both culls failed. In 2013, an independent expert panel was appointed to monitor the culls to assess the effectiveness, humaneness and safety of the pilots. The panel came up with a scientifically robust method for assessing the effectiveness of the culls, which included hair traps and sample testing to provide the best estimate of the local badger population. The results of the IEP monitoring could not have been clearer. The badger culls were ineffective and inhumane. The culls failed.
I would support a policy that worked. The evidence demonstrates that a cull has to take 70% of the local badger population out in six weeks, otherwise it will be ineffective. In Somerset, only 48% of badgers were removed, and in Gloucestershire that figure was 39%. That is far too few to make those culls effective.
The IEP was only allowed to cover the first six weeks of the culls. The equivalent figures at the end of the extended time were 50.9% in Somerset and 55.7% in Gloucestershire. The extra time taken is likely to have increased the perturbation effect and hence made the spread of BTB more likely. On humaneness, the IEP reported:
“It is extremely likely that between 7% and 22% of badgers that were shot at were still alive after 5 minutes and therefore at risk of experiencing marked pain.”
Not only were the culls ineffective, but they caused unnecessary suffering for badgers. What was the Government’s response to that unwelcome advice from the experts? It was simple: cut out the experts and carry on with the culls. That sums up the Government’s approach. Instead of listening to the science, they decided to do away with it. That, I believe, is why there is not widespread support in the general population for the policy the Government are pursuing. The new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said in last week’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions that she believes in science and evidence, but in her first week in the job, she announced her intention to press on with the culls in defiance of the scientific evidence. She missed a clear opportunity to leave prejudice-based policy behind and to place science firmly at the head and centre of her Department’s policy, and I believe that her decision speaks volumes.
The Government also changed the methodology that was used for the second year of the culls. Tim Coulson, a member of the IEP, which the Government have not used this year, in a recent article for the Journal of Animal Ecology commented:
“A change of protocol half way through an experiment reveals such a limited understanding of the scientific method that I am tempted to speculate that the government no longer wants to know whether the pilots are effective or humane. They just want to cull badgers, regardless of whether the population or humaneness consequences can be assessed.”
That, I am afraid, is my view as well.
We know that the badger culls are not being conducted in the name of science. We can only assume that to go ahead with them is the easiest way for the Government to claim that they have a solution to the problem of bovine TB, despite the conclusion of badger ecologists and scientific evidence that culling makes the problem worse. The Government’s decision to ignore scientific evidence and best practice has not been justified by the Secretary of State. The existing evidence makes it clear that culling is not the solution.
The 2013 targets were based on estimates of badger population size derived from capture-mark-recapture using genetic signatures from badger hair snagged in barbed wire. For 2014, there was no such field estimation of badger numbers. In the second year of the culls, the Government have not only departed from the original methodology but used two different methods to set cull targets for Gloucestershire and for Somerset. Why? For Gloucestershire, the Government relied on last year’s estimate, minus the number of badgers killed last year, plus a fudge factor to account for breeding and immigration. For Somerset, they threw out last year’s estimate and multiplied an estimate of the number of active badger setts by another fudge factor that was meant to indicate badgers per sett. Badgers per sett is a meaningless concept, however, because most badgers use more than one sett, and sett use is likely to change as culling disrupts the badgers’ social system.
The cull targets for the second year of the pilots are apparently derived from numbers that have been plucked out of thin air or worked out on the back of an envelope. Those crude methods for estimating badger populations provided a range for the cull target in Somerset of between 300 and 1,700 badgers, which is rather a wide range. DEFRA chose the lowest figure. Analysis by Professor Rosie Woodroffe, which has been referred to during the debate, has shown that there is a 97.5% chance that the cull will fall short of the 70% mark that the evidence shows would give it a chance of being effective.
Will the Minister tell us what assessment he has made of the comparability of the methods used to assess the effectiveness from year one and year two of the badger culls in Gloucestershire and Somerset? Will he also clarify the reason why different methods of estimating badger population were used in Gloucestershire and Somerset to determine the numbers of badgers to be removed in year two of the pilot culls? Why did the methodology used to calculate the number of badgers to be culled change from year one to year two?
Will the Minister, in recognition of the importance of having a credible and agreed evidence base, agree to an independent scientific peer review of the methodologies used for determining the humaneness and effectiveness of the second year of the culls? Today, in an open letter from the senior editors, the Journal of Animal Ecology has offered its services
“critically to appraise the methods used and their power to determine the success of this year’s cull”,
and to provide
“a transparent and independent review of the available evidence using our extensive international network of reviewers, comprising scientists with acknowledged expertise in wildlife population monitoring and management, as well as expert statisticians and modellers.”
What possible reason could the Minister have for turning down such an offer? Will he, therefore, accept it? In DEFRA’s calculations of badgers per sett as a means of estimating badger populations, what account was taken of the movement by badgers between setts and the effects of perturbation? Can he confirm that Natural England’s audit addresses only adherence to DEFRA’s chosen methods? As we have seen, those methods are crude, vague, different in Somerset and Gloucestershire and different in years one and two of the culls? Are there any plans to extend badger culling beyond the pilots in Gloucestershire and Somerset ahead of next year’s general election?
What is the Government’s view of evidence from Wales, where there has been no badger culling but where there has been a crackdown on cattle-to-cattle transmission, improved farm biosecurity and a reduction of 18% in new incidents of bovine TB? As hon. Members have mentioned, the Government have continually pointed to international examples of controlling bovine TB in Australia, New Zealand and the Republic of Ireland to defend their decision to cull badgers. Do they not appreciate that comparing totally different situations will not yield the insights required for proper evidence-based policy making? Why should data from New Zealand or Ireland be more relevant to England than data from England? Not only are the culls an epic failure, but they are estimated to have cost more than £4,000 per badger killed, according to research undertaken by the Conservative Bow Group. Labour has consistently pledged to put evidence at the heart of policy making, working with scientists, wildlife groups and farmers to develop an alternative strategy to get the problem of bovine TB under control. We need to introduce stricter cattle measures and prioritise badger and cattle vaccinations, but the culls are not the answer.
In March 2014 I wrote to the previous Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), offering to work with him on the development of an evidence-based, cross-party programme. Rather than engaging meaningfully in the search for a proper long-term solution, he ignored scientific evidence, made a decision based on his own prejudice and then offered retrospectively to tell me and other hon. Members what the policy was, expecting us to agree. That is no way to address a disease that will take many years to eradicate. These disastrous culls should be abandoned now, and we should work together across parties to develop an alternative that works.
I welcome the opportunity to respond to today’s debate and thank all hon. Members for their contributions, which have covered a wide range of issues.
This year’s culls finished as planned after six weeks, and we are now analysing the data collected over that period. The data are being independently audited in the same way as last year’s. When the analysis is complete, the outcomes of this year’s cull will be published, so I will focus on our approach to collecting the data and assessing populations this year—issues to which many hon. Members have alluded. That is directly relevant to this debate.
We published our approach to monitoring before the culls started, and I confirm that we carried out the planned number of field observations and far more than the planned number of post-mortem examinations—figures that were both set last year. A lot of information has been collected. The processes used for collecting data are also currently subject to independent audit. We are taking the same approach as last year to ensure that our data are robust.
In August 2014 we published a detailed document setting out our precise methodology, “Setting the minimum and maximum numbers for Year 2 of the badger cull”, and before the cull started we published that guidance to help Natural England set this year’s minimum and maximum numbers. We set out clearly how this year’s numbers were derived for each area, and the paper describes in great detail—it runs to 34 pages—the basis of the estimates and any assumptions made. The approach was agreed by the chief scientific adviser. Estimating wildlife populations is subject to uncertainty, as the independent expert panel acknowledged in its report last year. It is important that we use all valid sources of information, giving particular weight to up-to-date evidence about numbers of active setts, based on repeated observations across the whole cull area.
A number of hon. Members have mentioned the somewhat unscientific outburst by Professor Rosie Woodroffe. I like Rosie Woodroffe—she hails from Cornwall and even went to the same school as my sister—but she needs to compare the approach taken in the randomised badger culling trials with the methodology we have used this year. The reality is that there was no hair-trapping at all in the RBCTs, on which all our assumptions in the fight against this disease are based. In fact, no assessment of the badger population was made at the start of the culls. Instead, once four years of culling were finished, there was a retrospective attempt to estimate what the population might have been at the start—to back-calculate what the populations were. People have talked about the methodology that we adopted being crude, but how is that for crude? The RBCTs did not even assess the population before they started, and then they retrospectively tried to estimate what the population was.
Compare that with the approach we took this year, which is set out in great detail on pages 10 and 11 of the guidance. We took the end point of the population last year as this year’s starting point. We followed the IEP’s advice and used the cull sample matching method to try to predict the end population after last year’s culls. We then used a number of models, which are set out in detail, to take account of population growth. Those models are largely rooted in long-standing population measurements in places such as Woodchester park over many years—there are 20 years of data—to establish how populations change over a given winter. At the end of that process, as with the RBCT, which is all the IEP had to go on, we finally submitted the population to method 4, which is where one looks at the real activity on the ground. There were sett surveys and sett sticking. We have looked at the latrines and measured actual activity in badger setts. That is a kind of reality check, to check whether our data models are giving the right information.
The shadow Secretary of State highlighted the fact that different approaches were taken in Somerset and Gloucester, and asked why. We set that out in great detail on pages 12 and 13 of the guidance. In Gloucester, there was greater consistency in what the models were telling us about the population, so it was easier to meet that condition. In Somerset there was a conflict between some of the models, so it went with the most reliable model, which used real data in real time on real activity in setts.
We are making progress. In fact, we have been talking to an accreditation organisation about whether we could get farmers to sign up to a package of measures to improve biosecurity, including keeping badgers away from their farmyards, for example, to try to reduce the spread of the disease.
There is a misunderstanding about the IEP. Last year, the IEP was not out in the field in the middle of the night with binoculars to observe the culls. That was done by Natural England staff last year, and they did it again this year in the same way. The IEP did not carry out the post-mortems on badger carcasses last year. It was done by the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, both last year and this year. The IEP had a one-off role last year in informing us of how we should treat the raw data that came from AHVLA and Natural England. The IEP was not in the field; it was a desktop exercise. The IEP completed its work, and we do not need to repeat it this year. Do we need the British Ecological Society to repeat what the IEP did last year? No, we do not, because that job was done and completed last year, and this year we have a process that will be audited. If the British Ecological Society has an opinion, it can express a view on this very detailed, 34-page report. People like Professor Woodroffe say that they do not agree with the report, but they have yet to explain why.
I will not give way, because I want to get through as many other points as I can. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) and others highlighted the situation in Wales and the limitations of vaccination. He is right that it is wrong to read too many conclusions into the fall in incidences of the disease in Wales. The vaccination trials in Wales cover only about 1% of the land area. We are running our own vaccination trials in the edge area. I have met a number of wildlife groups to discuss taking that project forward to check the spread of bovine TB, so vaccination has a role in fighting this disease. Vaccination is part of the Government’s strategy.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Miss McIntosh) mentioned the inaccuracy of the skin tests. We know that the test is only about 80% effective, but where we have a serious breakdown, we often use it in conjunction with the gamma interferon test, which has fewer false negatives but a few more false positives. We can use that where we deem it necessary. The shadow Secretary of State mentioned that the RBCT proves that culling does not work, but that is not the case. The RBCT actually proves that, at the end of the four-year cull period, there was an improvement in the number of breakdowns.
I finish by reminding hon. Members that we have the worst bovine TB situation in the developed world. We cannot let that continue if we want competitive, productive and profitable beef and dairy sectors. Other countries that have faced similar problems, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish) pointed out, have demonstrated the route to long-term disease freedom. They show us that addressing the risks posed by wildlife must be part of any coherent and comprehensive approach to tackling this disease.
We now have a very clear strategy for achieving our goal of official TB-free status in England. The approach includes deploying tighter cattle measures, strengthening biosecurity, and vaccinating badgers to prevent the disease from spreading from the TB high-risk area to the edge area. Unlike the Opposition, we are clear that any coherent strategy to eradicate TB must include measures to address the disease in wildlife in TB hot spots. We will continue to use all options available to us today to fight this dreadful disease, which has been out of control for 20 years. Doing nothing is no longer an option, which is why we intend to stick with this strategy.