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Bovine Tuberculosis

Volume 694: debated on Thursday 26 July 2007

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare my interest as a dairy farmer in Cheshire.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they now propose to take to combat the incidence of tuberculosis in cattle following the recent independent scientific group report.

My Lords, we welcome the independent scientific group’s final report, which further improves the evidence base. We are carefully considering the issues that the report raises, and will continue to work with industry, government advisers and scientific experts in reaching policy decisions on these issues.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply. I join others in paying tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for her excellent work from the opposition Front Bench.

I am sure that my noble friend must be aware of the acute distress that this disease increasingly causes to livestock farmers, as he set up the Krebs trials 10 years ago while a Minister in another place. In 1997, 500 herds were affected; by 2006, it was nearly 11 times that number, with more than 5,848 herds affected. Given the methodology of the trials, is my noble friend content that the scientific conclusions are robust enough for decision-making, given the criticisms expressed, among others, by a group of vets from his own department’s former State Veterinary Service and against the background of a wealth of alternative scientific research, data and risk management experience available and accessible worldwide? Will this jeopardise his department's strategies for sharing costs and responsibility with the industry?

My Lords, I must say to my noble friend that I am reluctant to go much beyond my Answer at the moment. This is an important report and I pay tribute to Professor Bourne and the team that produced it. I have reread some of the original statements made in 1998 and 1999 as advice to Ministers. We were told that if we set up the Krebs trials, within five years we would know about the transmission route between badgers and cattle, if it exists, the cost benefits involved and what needed to be done in terms of policy. The fact is that we do not. The report makes it quite clear, on page 173 at paragraph 10.49, that there is an awful lot that we do not know. Nevertheless, it is important for us to work with industry because of the cost-sharing and responsibility arrangements that we want to put in place. As I said, we are examining the issue with government advisers and scientific experts and we will reach a decision as soon as possible.

My Lords, following the Krebs trials—unfortunately named after me—that were set up 10 years ago, we now know from reading the report of the independent scientific group that culling is not a viable policy option. There is no wriggle room. Does the Minister agree with the ISG’s conclusion that badger culling is not a viable policy option? Furthermore, does he agree with the ISG that cattle-based measures alone could reverse the spread of bovine tuberculosis, including better cattle-control movements, better biosecurity and the introduction of the gamma interferon test, which is more sensitive than the current skin test?

My Lords, my past is coming back to haunt me. I am grateful to the noble Lord, but I am not going to go beyond my Answer. I am actually reading the report; since the reshuffle it is part of my day job as well as other things. Others in the Government are also reading it, or have already read it. The report constantly rules out culling as it was done during the randomised culling trial. It virtually states that every time culling is mentioned, saying, “Done as we did it, it does not work”. Obviously, we now have the gamma interferon test and, as the noble Lord said, an awful lot can be done in respect of biosecurity and cattle movements—and it will be done. It is an impost on farmers, but we have to close down every possible route. I cannot for the life of me understand why some farmers in non-hotspot areas are buying cattle from hotspot areas without getting them tested.

My Lords, could I, too, pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and say what a pleasure it has been working with her?

Does the Minister accept that there are many other wildlife carriers and that one problem with the Krebs trials as they were designed was that they concentrated simply on badgers?

My Lords, to get the full picture, we should look not only at the report that has just been published but at the report of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, which was commissioned by the previous Administration and delivered in December 1997 to the current Administration. There is enough evidence out there to know that there is a connection. What we were told was, “Do this, and in five years you will know what the transmission route is”—but, if there is a transmission route, we do not know what it is. The current trials have not exactly explained that.

There is TB in other wildlife, particularly in the deer population. The fact of the matter is that there is a disease out there affecting food production animals and, frankly, we have to do something about it. We cannot simply keep the status quo.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware of the disquiet, despite what has been said, among agriculturalists and the veterinary profession about the ISG report. My understanding is that very useful work has been done by the Veterinary Laboratories Agency on an oral vaccine for badgers which will either stop infection in badgers or stop infected badgers shedding the organism. Will the Minister bring us up to date with the progress of that vaccine and when it is likely to be in production? If it were to be so, the whole issue of culling badgers and control of cattle would largely disappear, because the vaccine would prevent it.

My Lords, I do not want to make a cheap point by saying that 10 years ago we were told that the vaccine was 10 years away, but we are in virtually the same position today. I am visiting the VLA on Monday and will get an update on this.

We have invested quite a bit in vaccination; in fact, between 1998 and 2008, we will have invested more than £17 million, which is quite a lot. Within one to five years, we have got identification of candidate vaccines and different tests, but we are still more than five years away from a vaccine—and if we had a vaccine for badgers, we would still have to deliver it, which is a bit of a problem with badgers.

A vaccine for cattle could have a perverse effect on trade, so we have to be very careful. It could be a solution but it may not be the best solution. However, we are spending millions of pounds on it, as was promised following the report from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, because it was part and parcel of the whole thing. The report was not just about culling; it was about cattle movement, biodiversity and looking for a vaccine.