Skip to main content

Animal Welfare: Infectious Diseases

Volume 699: debated on Monday 10 March 2008

rose to ask Her Majesty’s Government what improvements have been made in the management of infectious animal diseases.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I am grateful to have secured this short debate and I thank all those who are going to participate for bringing their expertise and knowledge to these deliberations. I also thank the Minister for his continuous support of the industry. I declare my various interests, held in the Register of Members’ Interests, such as my honorary associate membership of both the Royal College and the BVA. I should add that our family no longer has livestock on the farm.

In my contribution today I shall cover bluetongue, avian flu, foot and mouth and bovine TB specifically, although I know that other speakers may wish to broaden the debate. I am well aware that the Government have no control over the midges that spread bluetongue or over the wild birds that carry avian flu to this country. However, I would be grateful to know of any extra checks that have been put in place following the flu outbreak on the Bernard Matthews complex to reduce the risk of disease brought into this country either by infected legally or illegally imported meat or by the movement of people or lorries.

Is the Minister satisfied that the Government’s emergency plans are sufficiently robust to deal with future outbreaks of bluetongue? I understand that in the United Kingdom vaccination of susceptible animals will be completely voluntary. How will the Government know which animals have or have not been vaccinated? What vaccines have been ordered and in what quantities? When will they be available? In what circumstances will they have to be administered by veterinary surgeons rather than by individual farmers?

Written Answers from another place that were published in Hansard on 20 November made some of the following points. The midges that carry bluetongue are likely to survive the winter; I say as an aside that I understand that they have cross-contaminated some of our UK midges. The virus lives in infected animals for eight weeks or so. Testing for the presence of the virus is concentrated in the protection zones, but it also covers animals that were moved from a protection zone before the registration was put in place plus any that appear to exhibit signs of bluetongue infection. Has the Minister any plans to introduce proactive rather than random testing in areas where midges might be present?

The BVA believes that any cost-sharing arrangements must provide the industry with an incentive for action. There should not be simply a flat levy on farmers; all interested parties should be encouraged to improve their practice. Cost sharing should surely reward those who achieve good animal health and welfare outcomes.

I turn now to the ongoing problem of bovine TB and refer directly to the House of Commons EFRA committee report. TB is a menace to cattle and badgers alike and continues to spread unabated. Figures published this week show that the number of fresh outbreaks of TB in cattle reached a new record for modern times of 4,137 in 2007. The incidence of TB—that is, the proportion of herds tested resulting in a breakdown—increased by 18 per cent on the previous year. Some 28,000-plus cattle were slaughtered as TB reactors, inconclusive reactors or dangerous contacts, and 6,532 farms were under TB restrictions in 2007 because of a TB incident. That TB outbreak is costing taxpayers more than £90 million, let alone the heartbreak to the farmers concerned.

A recent independent report published by the Royal Society suggested that 75 per cent of new TB outbreaks were caused by local effects in high-risk areas, the most significant of which is contact between badgers and cattle. Controls of the spread of TB by cattle movements have an important part to play, but TB will never be brought under control without tackling the reservoir of the disease in the badger population. The report highlights that the disease is now effectively out of control. Clearly something needs to be done urgently.

The Royal Society report recognised the need for a multifaceted approach to the problem. Vaccination, effective biosecurity arrangements at farm level, increased frequency of testing and a greater use of gamma interferon are recommended. The ISG report of 2007 acknowledged that the removal of infected badgers can have a beneficial effect on the instances of TB in cattle in parts of the country where there is a high incidence. The Minister will be well aware of the concerns expressed by dairy and beef farmers in the hot-spot areas, particularly those in the south and south-west, which is where I was this weekend.

The Government’s record of managing outbreaks of foot and mouth leaves much to be desired. The 2001 epidemic, in which thousands of cattle and sheep were slaughtered, was a disgrace. The Government failed to address the original outbreak with the urgency that was needed and, as a result, the disease spread rapidly throughout areas of the country. The Government have learnt lessons from the three inquiries, although I am still unsure whether they are prepared to use vaccination rather than slaughter in the first instance should a new outbreak occur. We debated this subject at great length when we took through the Animal Health Bill.

The 2007 outbreak of foot and mouth at Pirbright was, from a management point of view, dealt with quickly, although I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that the second outbreak was directly linked to the first and, if so, whether the management controls put in place at the time were found to be inadequate. Will he also tell us whether the decision to restrict movement and slaughter rather than vaccinate throughout the immediate area was prompted by a lack of vaccine or whether the Government simply chose not to use it? As the source was known, it seemed an ideal situation in which to use vaccination for the whole of Surrey in a controlled trial.

The government proposals for cost sharing for future animal diseases have been viewed with alarm. The Minister is no doubt aware of the difficult financial circumstances that threaten the survival of many livestock farmers. Indeed, the petition from the National Pig Association last week highlights the industry’s troubles. Farmers well understand that they have a responsibility to maintain strong biosecurity measures on their farms. Equally, they believe that the Government of the day should be robust in keeping out animal diseases from this country and should have strong, foolproof emergency measures in place.

A number of people have asked me how the cost-sharing position will work with regard to the devolved Administrations. In the event of, say, an outbreak of bluetongue that encompasses south Scotland or north Wales and Cumbria, will Defra’s costs be recovered throughout the UK or only from the farmers affected? If the scheme takes the form of an annual premium, will all UK farmers contribute or only those within England? That is not clear. Will the charges that are to be made be based on the inclusion of Defra’s management, administration and overhead costs as well? I assure the Minister that the livestock industry is not wholly opposed to cost recovery, but it would like to know exactly what it will be charged for.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that, at a time when we are experiencing a warmer climate, the chances are that new infectious diseases will be coming to these shores. It is against that background of changing climate that I wanted to introduce this short debate tonight, which I feel is very important. I greatly look forward to hearing other contributions and the Minister’s response to some of the questions that I have posed today.

My Lords, I shall speak on the subject of bovine tuberculosis. In so doing, I must declare an interest as the author of the 1997 report on this topic for the Government. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, has already mentioned that bovine TB is a persistent, costly and increasing problem for farmers in Britain. I will not repeat the figures that she gave. I want to focus particularly on the question of bovine TB and badgers.

The scientific evidence relating to bovine TB and the policy options available have been reviewed more than a dozen times in the past decade, including in my 1997 review. Those reviews show that the problem is intractable, the science is incomplete and the experts disagree—they may be said to be like ferrets in a sack. However, some facts are beyond dispute. First, there is no reasonable doubt that badgers are part—I emphasise, only part—of the problem. They harbour the disease and transmit it to cattle. With that wildlife reservoir, as the noble Baroness said, the disease will be very hard to eliminate in cattle.

It may seem obvious that, if badgers are part of the problem, getting rid of them will be part of the solution. Unfortunately, however, it is not that simple. The culling trials that followed my 1997 report showed that small-scale culling in response to cases of TB actually makes things worse—by, it is estimated, about 27 per cent. Although the reason for that is not clear, it is possibly that culling encourages the movement of badgers and the immigration of new, diseased animals into the areas from which the previous residents have been removed. However, the trials showed that persistent, proactive culling on a large enough scale—what might be called a scorched-earth policy—can work. It was estimated that that could produce a reduction of as much as 25 per cent in herd breakdowns. We should recognise that scale is important in this, because around the edges of the removal area there is an increase in TB in cattle for the reasons that I have alluded to, such as the immigration of badgers. It is estimated that the minimum area for a net benefit, where removal at the middle outweighs the perturbation at the edges, is between 250 and 300 square kilometres. Even on that scale, culling badgers will not completely eliminate the disease.

Should the Government therefore initiate large-scale badger culling? The independent scientific group that oversaw the trials said no, the former Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, said yes, and the EFRA Select Committee in another place said perhaps.

Let us think for a moment what culling would mean. The Select Committee report suggests culling in TB hot spots—the areas mainly in the south-west and south Wales where the risk of TB is high and cattle are tested every year. The total surface area of those hot spots in England and Wales is about 34,500 square kilometres. If one were to undertake the culling of badgers in those places, that would translate into killing 170,000 badgers, which is well over half the British population. Even if culling were only partial and only some of the hot-spot areas were included, the badger mountain would still be very high.

What if the Government were to cull only in certain hot spots? Surely affected farmers in other hot spots would justifiably complain, “Why are we left to suffer?”. Killing half Britain’s badgers would probably be in breach of the Bern convention, and public support for it is not likely to be high. Furthermore, it is not guaranteed to work. In the Republic of Ireland, where there has been large-scale culling since 2002, the incidence of TB in cattle is reported in the Irish Farmers’ Journal to have risen by 15 per cent last year. Perhaps the short-term gains from culling do not last. Large-scale culling is risky in terms of public perception, legality and efficacy.

While the long-term solution must be a vaccine, let me end on a positive note for the short term. Although bovine TB is spreading, its net reproduction number—a measure of its rate of spread—is only just over the critical value. If that number can be brought down slightly, the disease will decrease instead of spreading. That could be achieved simply by a combination of more frequent testing and better husbandry, encouraged by offering incentives to keep badgers away from cattle, as is being trialled in Wales. Will the Minister consider adopting the Welsh approach and recognise that large-scale culling is not the answer?

My Lords, I will not take up the question of TB, as the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, have already done so, but I shall repeat what the EFRA Select Committee in the other place said:

“The impact of the disease”—

that is, TB—

“has reached a stage where further procrastination is unacceptable”.

I agree with that comment. I hope the Minister can enlighten the House on what is in progress. He has heard me recommend before that further work be done on vaccines, especially on a vaccine for badgers.

Today I shall concentrate on exotic threats to our livestock. There are several; some affect the health of the human population while some affect that of the animal population, and there are others too. In safeguarding human health, antibiotic resistance has now become widespread as a pathogen in humans—but it is spreading widely in animals as well. As global trade increases, we cannot be complacent about the role that antibiotic resistance in our food animals might play in human health. In particular, there is a set of enzymes called the extended spectrum beta-lactamases, which are increasing at an enormous rate and produce dangerous levels of infections in food. An example is the recent report of imported chicken meat as a source of Escherichia coli, producing ESBLs. Were that to be eaten in an undercooked state by humans, serious bowel disorders might result.

What monitoring procedures are in place to detect these potentially dangerous pathogens that are resistant to antibiotics? I am concerned particularly by the potential for entry by exotic infections. As the Minister will know, not only may the loss of animals from disease and their poor welfare result, but there is also a major effect on trade in animals and animal products, as was well illustrated by the foot and mouth disease outbreaks of a few years ago, BSE, swine fever and avian flu.

What exotic diseases are of immediate concern? Which diseases are hovering on the horizon, ready to come into this country in one way or another? One is African horse sickness, a devastating disease of equids and humans, which has spread widely in the United States and caused death in horses and humans. Another is West Nile fever, a serious disease of horses and humans. Bluetongue is already with us, and is poised to take off again as the winter disappears, the summer comes and midges become active again. I understand that a vaccine is ready for the control of bluetongue in sheep and cattle. We in the veterinary profession are concerned that, if it is to be administered solely on a voluntary basis by stockowners, a complete control of the vaccine programme might not be appropriate. There is also avian flu, which I shall not go into in detail.

What are the vaccination policies for these infections? What surveillance policies are in place? Surveillance must be robust. The Minister and the House have heard me on more than one occasion say that the price of freedom from disease is eternal vigilance to the disease potential of this country.

New technologies have been adapted in the United States to detect some of these infections, including a 60-minute identification of foot and mouth disease. Will the Minister enlighten the House on how the new technologies have been brought into play for the purpose of extending and improving vigilance towards diseases from exotic areas?

My Lords, I express my gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for introducing this appropriate topic. I declare my interest as a partner with my husband in our small mixed farm in Worcestershire and as an honorary associate of both the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons and the British Veterinary Association.

I offer the Minister my assurance that any criticism that I make of Defra will be on my understanding that its staff are operating under almost impossible financial and manpower constraints, caused in large part by legacies about which we all know. On that basis, I hope that he will accept that I am trying to be constructive.

It is essential that the new-look Defra leadership is strong and that the appointed leaders are allowed to function without having to endure the constant interference that has become a pattern in recent years. In the field of animal health, with its often rapid advances in scientific knowledge, there needs to be a clear decision-making sequence. I am unconvinced that diluting the process by consultation with numerous stakeholder groups makes for effective decisions. Department and agency heads are selected for their knowledge, experience and wisdom. They should be respected and given the freedom, in their turn, to select those who will give them the best truly independent expert advice.

The acceptance of decisions depends much more on the communication of clear, concise and reasoned instructions, based on real expert opinion, than on imprecise and sometimes unreasonable directions given with little clear practical understanding of how they will be implemented. I would appreciate documents that are short and simple to read, which give useful illustrations instead of pretty pictures and which adequately define the technical terms that we must understand.

What is happening on the prevention front? The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, mentioned exotic diseases. Meat illegally imported into the UK poses a high risk of exotic diseases. How has Defra helped to reduce the risk? In the past two years, it has reduced from 11 to nine the number of specialist sniffer dogs at ports of entry, while spending nearly £1 million on items such as pens and toothbrushes, T-shirts and banners, television and newspaper advertisements, and posters. There have been only 11 successful prosecutions since 2003. By contrast, Australia has 75 sniffer dogs and an average of 50 successful prosecutions a year. Will the Minister tell the House what assessment has been made of the deterrent effect of spending so much on advertising and junk gifts compared with that of highly publicised successful prosecutions? What are the purchase and running costs of each sniffer dog and handler? Have leaflets in appropriate languages, advising prospective passengers not to bring meat and meat products into the UK, ever been distributed with airline tickets?

The considerable number of people and vehicle movements from potentially infected food and animal production units on the European continent to the UK must be a cause for concern. Australia and New Zealand are rigorous in their determination that no diseases should be imported from abroad. They require all incoming passengers to certify that they have not been on farms for a specific period or, if they have, to undergo disinfection procedures. Could we not do something like this, especially when we know that there has been person or vehicle contact with possible sources of disease? Compared with the huge financial costs of an outbreak of disease, these simple measures would appear to be cost effective. Does the Minister agree that they are worth considering? If they have already been considered, what were the reasons for rejection?

The farming community’s recent experiences with potentially disastrous outbreaks of infectious diseases have made it vigilant. Its action, and that of Defra officials, has limited the spread of disease—everybody here should be congratulated on their response to the most recent outbreak. There have been major improvements in the speed and accuracy of laboratory diagnosis in recent years, but this is still hampered by shortcomings in clinical diagnosis. It is essential that peer-reviewed knowledge is rapidly incorporated into protocols; for example, up-to-date peer-reviewed information on foot and mouth disease has not yet been incorporated into the protocol for controlling it. There need to be different precautions and zones for diseases caused, or carried, by species that fly such as birds and midges, compared with others associated with land-based animals. This does not yet seem to have got through to the imagination of Defra staff, let alone been translated into action.

When disease appears, we need to know precisely what action must be taken. We all need to know when and where vaccination is to be used before an outbreak occurs. Furthermore, we must work with our European partners to ensure that directives are updated so that trade issues do not stand in the way of scientific advances when disease strikes. Effective contingency protocols work best when they are based on accurate science, have been practised and involve only a small chain of well informed command.

I make a plea. Our climate is changing with worrying speed, and we need to be fully prepared for a number of exotic diseases to strike. Animal health, in particular, must be prepared to ask for and receive advice from scientists whose expertise and experience of exotic diseases are acknowledged by their colleagues around the world. If they are prepared to share their knowledge, they should be welcomed with open arms rather than snubbed in the belief that all the expertise is already available in the UK. I bring to mind the way that the late Fred Brown was so badly treated during the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak.

Finally, it is absolutely essential that the Government understand that science should define the policy and not let the policy define the science. By pursuing the latter, the Government pervert the decision-making process and produce policy that, not surprisingly, provokes the distrust and the disrespect of the citizen. Government should also recognise the limits of science.

My Lords, I, too, congratulate my noble friend Lady Byford on raising this issue. It is a matter of importance and concern to everyone who is interested in the livestock industry. In declaring my interest as a lifelong livestock farmer, I recognise the cost to the industry caused by the appalling error at Pirbright in relation to the foot and mouth outbreak. We now have to deal with bluetongue and avian flu while recognising the other infectious diseases that are concerning the whole of the livestock industry.

I shall concentrate my few remarks on TB. I am old enough to remember the eradication scheme of the 1940s and 1950s. It was a huge success because of co-operation between the farmers, the vets and the Ministry. TB was virtually eliminated throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. We could boast that we had clean herds and TB-free milk for consumers. We followed it up by eradicating brucellosis through a compulsory vaccination scheme. Both schemes were sound as investments and sound in effect. Both were successful. Now, 50 or 60 years later, we should be ashamed to admit that more than 6,500 farms are under restriction.

As my noble friend Lady Byford said, last year 2,800 cattle were slaughtered, at a cost to the taxpayer of more than £90 million. The cost to the farmer is often his livelihood and a herd of stock built up over a lifetime of breeding those animals. Does the Minister accept that the total number of animals affected increased by 18 per cent between 2006 and 2007? And yet in such circumstances we have to wait for the conclusions and recommendations of a political committee and for Ministers to take account, as the Minister in another place said, of the “facets” of the disease. With such problems—which the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, as a scientist, highlighted and understands so well—surely there is a moral obligation to act. Or do we want another 18 per cent increase in the number of cattle slaughtered next year?

Defra’s strategic goal must be to ensure an annual decrease in the impact of the disease. The issue of cattle movements has an important part to play, but the disease will never be controlled without tackling its reservoirs. I refer to the badger population and to other vermin, such as rats, which help the disease to spread. There appears to be a problem with testing. A case was brought to me recently where reactors were not removed from the farm for six weeks, and in one case eight weeks, when of course they should have been removed within seven days.

There are many cases of hardship, too many to mention, involving farmers who cannot sell their stock because of the restrictions. Perhaps I may quote two such examples, or three if I have time. They occurred in Herefordshire, Staffordshire and Carmarthenshire.

The first case involves a young couple farming 189 acres in Herefordshire. Due to the TB restrictions they are carrying the cost of 450 head of cattle, 130 of which should have been sold. The wife is under great pressure. They have a four year-old child, and last month the wife produced a baby daughter. She went into hospital on the Friday and came out with 29 stitches the following Monday so that she could resume work on the farm. They have been pushed heavily into debt. She fields the telephone calls from suppliers demanding payment; npower and BT are pressing them very hard. The supply of animal feedstuffs is a great concern. ARC-Addington, the charitable fund, has sent eight articulated lorry loads of silage and straw, with more help being given this week. Such help can last for only a very short time in such difficult circumstances.

The second case also involves the Addington fund. In 2002 it approved the provision of housing for an elderly couple who are farming in Staffordshire. TB was the main obstacle to their exiting the farm. Six years later, the farm is still under TB restrictions. The husband is now aged 77 and his wife is 75. They are still farming. As tenant farmers their assets are tied up in their stock, but they need to be TB-free to sell up and realise its full potential. There is a similar case in Carmarthen, where a family has been unable to sell its stock since 2002. Apart from the appalling effect that that has had on their family life, their cash flow is moving in the wrong direction. Those are the human problems that exist with this disease. Your Lordships should know what is actually happening on the livestock farms in today’s difficult circumstances.

My Lords, this may be a short debate, but to many people it is an exceedingly important one. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for initiating it. I must declare an interest as I have a Highland pony stud and several breeds of sheep.

I start by saying that I was brought up in Scotland and know the ferocity of the Scottish midge, which make the English one pale into insignificance. Mosquitoes and midges have a lot to answer for regarding infectious animal diseases.

Many of us are concerned about the spread of bluetongue disease. I still cannot understand how so many German cows developed bluetongue after being imported into the UK. What is the incubation period, and should not imported stock be quarantined for that period? With tagging and individual numbers, how was it that the wrong cow was killed at a farm at Great Ayton, near Darlington, and the one infected with bluetongue remained free? Surely before killing an animal the infected one should be marked and kept separate. What progress has been made on a vaccination programme?

I would like to spend the short time I have on the infections of equines. First, there is nothing more distressing than to see a good young horse go down with grass sickness. May seems to be the most dangerous month. There are the acute and sub-acute forms, which are invariably fatal, and the chronic cases that occasionally recover with constant nursing. Research has found that the cause is most likely to be a soil-based bacterium called Clostridium botulinum. More research is needed into this toxin in the hope of finding a vaccine. In Belgium a similar condition has been found in dogs and cats.

The equine industry is very important, involving racing, show jumping and the Olympics as well as breeding, showing and riding of all sorts. There are many emerging infectious diseases. Many factors can influence this, including the expanding human population, the international travel of humans, animals and animal products, and climate change. Climate change has the most influence on vector-borne diseases, with disease that was originally confined to tropical countries on the rise in both Europe and around the world. Bluetongue virus is an example of this. Horses are second only to people in terms of volume of global air travel. Therefore, even if a country is geographically remote from exotic diseases, it is still at risk of exposure.

What is the current progress on the specified-type equine exotic diseases—STEED—contingency plan? Are West Nile virus, a zoonotic disease, and African horse sickness, which has a high mortality rate, included in it? This illustrates the importance of having a Minister with responsibility for the horse. I hope that he is working closely with the World Organisation for Animal Health and that he is making zoonotic diseases a priority.

The emergence of diseases such as HIV/AIDS which compromise the immune response and result in severe cases of human cryptosporidioses have led to wider global awareness of the disease and the parasite. Cryptosporidium is recognised as a contaminant in drinking and recreational water and is a major problem in terms of control due to its resistance to disinfection processes. It is a horrid infection resulting in liquid watery diarrhoea and much discomfort and is most debilitating in humans.

The parasite can infect a wide range of animal species, including humans, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, horses, deer and camelids. As clinical infections tend to occur most in neonatal animals, cleanliness of animal housing is vital. It is easily spread from livestock to people, so it is important to observe good occupational hygiene and wash hands thoroughly before eating to help prevent transmission of infection.

It is exceedingly difficult to get water tested with so much privatisation and passing the buck. I hope the animal health budget will not be reduced. There are so many important demands on it for the health and safety of both animals and humans.

I end by saying that there are many other infectious animal diseases, such as diseases in rabbits, that concern breeders. Will the Minister give your Lordships an update and a progress report on the use of vaccines to help prevent a wide range of diseases in a wide range of animals?

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for initiating this important debate. It is rather unfortunate that we have so many diseases, with such high price tags attached to each of them, to discuss this evening. However, I shall limit my remarks to bluetongue and TB.

I have three questions on bluetongue. If the Minister is not able to answer them, I am happy for him to write to me. My questions concern future policy on a disease that could be eradicated in the short term in this country. However, re-infection from the Continent is always a possibility. First, what advice is Defra giving on the risk to this year’s lambs and spring born suckled calves given that the bluetongue vaccine will be licensed only for stock over four months of age? Does Defra believe that immunity is passed from mothers that have been vaccinated against bluetongue to unvaccinated offspring? Bearing in mind the risk of much greater demand beyond May due to bluetongue, what funding or contingency planning is in place in relation to the National Fallen Stock Company or other bodies to provide an increased level of clearance service for fallen livestock? That last question is relevant only if the outbreak continues and gets worse.

Secondly, TB and badgers is a very difficult issue for many noble Lords and is not as clear-cut as many people who take one side or the other claim. Badgers are a much loved part of our countryside and excite responses in people that few other animals do. I declare an interest as I have three badger setts and a large number of badgers on my estate in Northumberland. However, the love of the British people for badgers does not seem to affect their car use. On driving to the station in Northumberland to travel down here by train, I counted five badgers that had been run over between Rochester and Newcastle. That seems to happen every year at this time when they are on the move.

I received an interesting briefing from the NFU containing two maps of Britain in 1998 and 2004 respectively, indicating where TB outbreaks occurred. It is an indication that we are losing the battle. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, pointed out, more than 28,000 cattle were affected last year at the not inconsiderable cost of £90 million. As was stated, that has a massive impact on farmers who have to deal with the consequences. We in Northumberland are in the happy position of having badgers and livestock. TB is not a major issue in that county but, of course, the situation may change.

The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, mentioned a cull. A cull has to go hand in hand with biosecurity because TB can easily be passed from herd to herd if biosecurity measures are not put in place. However, these pose difficulties in many cases, especially with farmers in the upland areas being under such financial pressure. Therefore, a cull is not an easy solution. The Minister will throw up his hands in horror when he hears me say that for the past year I have been undertaking what I believe is the largest eradication programme of any vertebrate in this country; namely, of squirrels. I mention this because in a year and a bit we have taken out 15,004 as of this morning. We have had enormous success throughout Northumberland because we have been given access to every part of the landscape. There are only two areas to which we have not been given access, and we received permission to go on to one of those areas today. I am not sure that will be the case with badgers. That will be an interesting issue, if a very large area is to be undertaken. Will it be possible to eradicate setts in every area without the consent of the landowners? I am not sure that that consent would be given. We have worked very hard with landowners to go on to the land but there are going to be areas where it will be very difficult. In that case, is legislation going to be needed?

Regarding the size of the area that we are talking about, the EFRA committee talked about areas that should be, ideally, greater than 265 square kilometres. We have almost cleared Northumberland, which is 2,500 square miles. That is not to say that we do not think that there are small populations that we have not been able to deal with. With badgers, that is a major issue. The problem that we have had—this is learnt from hard experience—is that you can take out vast numbers in an area, but it is the last few squirrels that are the hardest to deal with. For example, in Slaley forest we took more than 3,500 squirrels out of that one woodland. When you have individual squirrels and very small pockets of squirrels, what happens—I think this is happening with the badger populations—is that, as social creatures, they will move great distances to look for other populations to be near. That is probably why when you have a cull in badger populations you see those individuals that you have not dealt with moving very large distances indeed to find other badgers.

If a cull is to take place, the EFRA report talked about looking for hard or soft boundaries. I do not think that there are hard or soft boundaries in this country. Even if you talk about rivers being a hard boundary, badgers can go just about anywhere. There are large numbers of bridges over rivers. We found that squirrels were almost using them as motorways to go across, and I do not think that would change with badgers, so you are talking about a very large area for a cull. That has its own implications.

My own view is that a cull should be undertaken in certain areas where the situation is at its worst, because we tend to forget in the debate that tuberculosis does not have an unnoticed effect in badgers. It sickens the badger populations, and they also die a horrible death. When we are talking about the eradication of tuberculosis among cattle, we should also be talking about the eradication of tuberculosis among the badger population, because a healthy badger population is also an aim that we should be looking to achieve.

I very much hope that the Government will be looking to work very hard on the oral vaccination that is being worked on in Gloucestershire, I believe, which has had some very effective results there. It is not difficult to find badger setts, and leaving the vaccination in salt licks has been shown to be extremely effective. That could deal with many of the problems. I wish that this was a situation where there was one side or the other that would be an answer to this problem, but I do not believe that is the case.

My Lords, I join in the congratulations that have been offered to my noble friend Lady Byford on securing this debate at so opportune a time. It has been most valuable.

One look at the speakers list will tell us that those noble Lords present constitute the usual suspects on this subject. That means, however, that we across the House share a similar agenda, and I include the Minister in that category. We have been able to discuss this topic with a genuinely shared interest in trying to make improvements to the existing situation, while acknowledging that it is not easy. I declare an interest in my family horticultural and farming business, although the sheep grazing on our farm are owned and looked after by someone else.

If the past 12 months have taught us anything, it is that, at a time when the threat of animal disease is growing even greater, it is important that we tackle the problems of prevention and treatment in a manner that ensures that the remedy is not more expensive and destructive than the infection. My noble friend Lord Plumb emphasised that the losses borne by our livestock producers are real and substantial. It is likely to take a considerable time for the industry to recover.

It is also important that we take whatever steps are necessary to reduce the range of maladies affecting our livestock. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, emphasised the role that science can play. Avian flu and bluetongue may be brought by wildlife and therefore be more difficult to prevent, but we can and should strengthen our biosecurity to ward off the dangers of diseases such as foot and mouth disease and African horse sickness. The noble Baroness, Lady Masham, talked of the influence of climate change, and the position that presents as a reason why more exotic diseases are arriving in this country.

As the noble Countess, Lady Mar, said, we need more effective control of illegal meat imports. The current position suggests that the Government do not take this seriously. At the same time, we must bring an end to the scourge of bovine TB. The Government have a decision to make. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, graphically described the options available to the Government and the nature of that decision. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, referring to the incidence of roadside casualty badgers, brought to mind the fact that, when I was a child, badgers appeared only in Rupert books, but now they are everywhere, particularly by the roadside. The noble Lord also emphasised the difficulty of the decision that the Government will have to make. I know that the Minister has his own view. It would be helpful if he could explain his thinking to us, so that we may assimilate his ideas to aid preparation for the action plan that will be announced.

In a Written Answer published in Hansard on 20 November, the Government referred to the stringency of the new commission regulations on animal movements in an area where bluetongue has been confirmed. I am particularly concerned about the situation of pregnant ewes and cattle that need to be moved from a protection zone to birthing facilities elsewhere. Can the Minister tell me whether there are any proposals under discussion to ease the problems of these animals and the farmers who are trying to adhere to the welfare rules, while at the same time earning enough money to stay in business?

In addition, the past six months have seen the emergence of further problem areas associated with movement restrictions. We have an unequal distribution of abattoirs in the UK. Unlike France, where it appears to be a local government responsibility at département level to ensure the provision of adequate slaughterhouses, we are particularly short in certain areas. The whole question of selling animals for store and slaughter has been a serious concern to farmers and auctioneers alike. I have received a regular update from Newark livestock market on the situation. They have benefited enormously from the vector-free period. This window is due to close on 15 March—the Ides of March—and there is much apprehension about the consequences.

This is something that should be dealt with by all the interested parties getting their heads together to work out solutions that avoid unnecessary wastage or massive cost. By “all” I mean to include not only the Government, but opposition parties, supermarkets, livestock markets, farmers’ markets, abattoirs, farmers, vets and all the rest. It may be that the only workable solution is to create a protection zone that covers the whole country.

Several speakers have touched on cost-sharing. My noble friend Lady Byford questioned both the coverage of any such scheme and the nature and content of the costs that Defra would seek to recoup. We know from an Answer from Mr Jonathan Shaw in another place that Defra is committed to reducing the animal welfare budget by £121 million by 2010-11 as a result of the most recent spending round. The Minister himself told the EFRA Committee last week that decisions on the spending round impinge on other areas of the department’s work, particularly in the animal welfare field, where resource implications have led to reordering of priorities and the abandonment of some work schemes. Exactly which work schemes? It sounds like cuts to me.

We, as the Opposition, are prepared to support cost-sharing in principle. We are, however, anxious that the system that is introduced provides an incentive to good husbandry and biosecurity, and a reward for the achievement of excellence. There must be a genuine partnership if cost-sharing is to be accepted by the industry. Not only should the costs be shared, but the system should allow for measures for recovering an element of the cost of dealing with the outbreak of a disease where that outbreak has been caused by some person or agency failing to do their job correctly. It follows that the make-up of the costs to be shared must be clearly enumerated and firmly controlled. It also implies that all parties to the agreement must have both major input to the schemes of disease control for which these charges are made and a substantial role in their monitoring and review.

I am sure that the Minister has been most thoroughly briefed for this debate. None the less, I hope that he has been given some new perspectives and ideas by the contributions that noble Lords have made. It is a most serious topic and I look forward with interest, and not a little hope, to his response.

My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and congratulate her on initiating this debate. I hope that it will be seen to be helpful and useful for those involved in the livestock sector.

I shall not be able to do justice to all the points raised, but I want to put some issues on the record and answer as many detailed questions as possible. I shall start with two points, as that will save me having to raise them later—that is, the references to the cost and Defra’s responsibility-sharing programme.

In December, we published a document for discussion over an 18-week consultation period involving a national seminar and 12 or 13 other seminars around the country. They have not yet finished. I have participated in two of them in some detail—in Stourport-on-Severn and last week in York—and this week I shall be in Carlisle. In those seminars, I heard some of the most measured contributions and debates on cost and responsibility-sharing that I have heard anywhere from farmers and from those representing the industry.

The interactive parts of the seminars are facilitated by an independent person—they are not driven by Defra—and people believe that their views have been taken on board. This exercise is not about a policy as such but is intended to help us to construct a policy. It will be much later in the year before we can come forward with anything that resembles a policy, and there will then be further proper consultation on it. I cannot go beyond that; we are in the middle of the process.

Another point that I want to clarify concerns interchangeability. I understand from the experts—I am not one of them—that references to animal health and animal welfare are interchangeable, but, to me, they are not. When I talk about animal welfare, I am referring to specific issues relating to work in Defra, and when I talk about animal health, I am talking about health issues. At the Select Committee last week, I specifically referred to animal welfare, not animal health, and I mentioned a welfare programme. Junior journalists from the Telegraph chose to connect that with the animal health budget but it was not true. I was not talking about the animal health budget; I was giving evidence on the Veterinary Surgeons Act. I was asked to give examples of Defra changing priorities, and the ones that I gave related to welfare, not health. That was the quote that the noble Lord read out. I was talking about something entirely different from the subject of this debate. The fact is that difficult decisions have had to be taken and they will be promulgated over time. I gave answers to the Select Committee but half of its members were asleep and they did not question me further on what I said.

Last year was particularly challenging for the farming industry, with avian influenza, bluetongue and foot and mouth. They all had very serious consequences, which are with us today, as I fully accept. I realise that movement restrictions, markets being disrupted, prices being affected and exports being halted are absolutely tragic for some areas of the country. However, there is no doubt that the rapid introduction of tried and tested disease control measures showed that in 2007 we had learnt the lessons of the 2001 outbreak. Dr Anderson’s report, which is to be published imminently, will confirm that one way or the other. Although normal trading conditions have resumed, we have been left with the legacy of those outbreaks, which is substantial among hill farmers.

We have been tackling these exotic outbreaks against the backdrop of the ongoing threat of bovine TB—although it is hardly a threat because we are having to live with it. It is the country’s biggest endemic animal health issue, costing the taxpayer some £80 million to £90 million a year, in addition to the even greater cost to farmers. I do not intend to mention the farms that I have visited because that would not compare with what the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, said when he explained how substantially people’s lives are affected by this disease. I recognise the strength of feeling. My views have been given to the Select Committee, which published an absolutely first-class report; some people have described it as a lifeboat. It remains to be seen what decisions are taken and I cannot go beyond that tonight. I would like to answer some of the details, but I am in no position to do so because decisions will be made and announced—we are not waiting for anything else—after the Defra report and all the other reports. Vaccine research is ongoing all the while. At the moment, it is illegal to vaccinate cattle for TB. We are doing the research and spending a fortune, but it is illegal to vaccinate. We do not have the vaccine, so the issue does not arise.

Who would pay for vaccine for badgers? No one has asked that question. Someone will have to do it, but the Government have made it quite clear that they will not. I pay tribute to the work that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, did for his initial report, but in answer to him I say that the Government have made it abundantly clear that they will not organise or pay for any cull of badgers. I cannot go beyond that because the position has been made clear in the Select Committee report. Further to badgers, there are the cattle-to-cattle issues, but the situation will become clearer once the Secretary of State has made the necessary decisions. The complexity of the issue cannot be overstated—I make no bones about that.

There is more certainty surrounding bluetongue. On the discovery of the disease last year in England—we were expecting it—we were the first member state to place a vaccination order with a pharmaceutical company; we asked Intervet to supply over 20 million doses. We have in fact ordered 22.5 million: 2.5 million for Wales and 20 million for England. That was as a result of discussion with the industry—the figure was not plucked out of thin air. The order will ensure that the vaccine will be available from May; it is not available at present. No one has ordered the vaccine for type 8 strain. I cannot understand why the Belgians, the Dutch and the Germans have never ordered vaccine for type 8 strain, but they did not do so. I am told that they were not well organised. We will have the vaccine quite quickly and it will have temporary certification with the Veterinary Medicines Directorate. The efficacy will not be known until the vaccine is out in the field.

It is important to point out that our current control measures—the bluetongue control strategy, which we published before the onset of bluetongue in this country, as we had been working on it for 18 months—relating to free movement, testing and surveillance, have been successful in picking up recent cases. I speak from memory now because I will not have time to go through all the notes. We have tested 40,000 cases. The ongoing surveillance for bluetongue is enormous. We found 25 extra cases, which tell us the degree of confidence that we have in the control and protection areas that we put in place. The testing has continued. The total number of positive cases did not quite reach three figures but we have tested 40,000. We appreciate that bluetongue will return. Either it has overwintered in the British midge or we shall get more plumes across the Channel as the weather changes. There is no doubt about that.

Similar conditions have been put in place to tackle the threat of avian influenza. The practice of remaining vigilant, exercising good biodiversity, which has not always been the case in the poultry industry, and the rapid reporting of any suspicious symptoms associated with the disease among both wild and domestic stocks have minimised the risk surrounding each outbreak.

I shall bring noble Lords up to date on the current situation. At the end of last month—effectively last week—we reported that a Canada goose, picked up as part of our wild bird surveillance programme, tested positive for the highly pathogenic H5N1 strain. The bird was found less than a mile from where the previous cases were collected earlier this year. As a result of that discovery, the exotic disease contingency plan was put in place and a wild bird control area was established around the affected area. The swift and effective way in which we have handled the latest outbreak and the outbreaks that have gone before could happen only with the full co-operation of the farming industry and domestic poultry keepers. I pay tribute to that excellent co-operation and give ever grateful thanks to the industry, which has worked very hard in co-operation with civil servants, vets, other agency workers and, of course, the wild bird reserves. I take this opportunity to congratulate everyone.

The very unfortunate outbreak of foot and mouth—I use careful language to describe that—is a completely different disease. It spreads easily through the air and requires a completely different approach. On the noble Baroness’s point, it has been accepted that the second outbreak was part of the first. In fact, case five was actually case three. It was not reported by the farms concerned; it was not picked up. It had been more than 30 days since the previous outbreak. There was no evidence and no idea that there was still an outbreak around because all the normal checking had been done trying to find animals in an area of low density.

We were ready to vaccinate, which is the question the noble Baroness asked. Unlike in 2001, there will be no argument about vaccinating as a principle. We are not against vaccination, which we proved with bluetongue. We will deal with it. With foot and mouth, compared with 2001, at the sign of the first outbreak—within hours—60 vets and officials were taken off the farms and placed in quarantine in hotels around the country. They were ready so that vaccination could have started an hour after the decision was made by Ministers and the vets. They were legitimately stood down on the basis that the outbreak looked controlled—a single source in a low-density-cattle part of the country. Unfortunately, we had the second phase of the first outbreak. The vets who had been stood down were stood up again—or different people were used—which is part of Defra’s public-good cost of taking 60 or 70 people out of work and into quarantine so that they are ready. Because of the nature of the outbreak, it was decided not to vaccinate. The nature, scale and low density of the population of cattle were the reasons for that. Otherwise, other decisions could have been taken.

We have a grip on that outbreak and we hope that we will not have to deal with it again. As I said, Professor Anderson was asked by the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State to look at what Defra had done and to see whether we had learnt the lessons of 2001, and his report will be published imminently, but I cannot discuss the detail now. We are considering all the recommendations of the EFRA TB report and I cannot go beyond that for the noble Baroness who started the debate. I hope that I have answered her question on cost-sharing responsibility, which is an ongoing issue, and on which we will be reporting back in due course.

I cannot say any more about badger culling. We will consider the impact of measures and what the science tells us. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, was open about that. We also need to consider how practical and cost-effective the solution is for those who will pay for it, which is not the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, asked about vaccines. We are spending a considerable amount of money on vaccination because, long-term, if it can be successful, it will certainly form part of a balanced package of measures. No one single issue will deal with that, but we are still maintaining our commitment to do research costing tens of millions of pounds.

New diseases are arriving with climate change and bluetongue is a good example of that. It is probably a direct result of climate change; I say no more than that. As the noble Lord says, we may have to make the countryside a complete zone to continue trade. We do not want to close the countryside or damage ourselves unnecessarily.

I can tell the noble Countess that I know we are open to criticism at whatever level, but the management of those exotic diseases by Defra staff last year was magnificent. As the Minister, I am incredibly proud of the department. One after another, we were hit by problems, for which you cannot usually plan. But we had planned and the precautionary measures were in place. Everybody knew what they had to do with the decision tree and the bird tables that were reporting in to get an early grip with a different plan for each of the diseases. To deal with more than one at the same time was incredibly complex, but I repeat that it could not have been done without the co-operation of the industry.

I do not criticise the stakeholders. We go by the science, but we have to be practical about the industry. It is important to have people on board as much as possible. The noble Baroness asked about food imports. That has been raised a lot at the seminars on cost sharing. Along with HMRC, we have recently relaunched the campaign against the personal imports of meat. I have taken part in probably a dozen different slots for minority TV channels and radio stations around the country with a backdrop of what looks like 50 different languages on not bringing in personal imports. There have not been a lot of prosecutions, but there have been 8,000 stops at the airports in the last year for which I have figures. We target specific parts of the world because they are risky: the Caribbean and parts of south-east Asia. We stopped 1,200 people from New Zealand and Australia, but the big stops are from those risky areas.

We warn people about prosecution, confiscation and massive delays at the airports. Why do we say, “Don’t bring in personal imports of meat”? The first reason is animal health; the second is human health. There is a direct connection. We must protect ourselves. Although it is true that you can see the posters at the airports, they are not as massive as the ones in Australia. I was asked whether we ask people whether they have been on a farm in the past six months. I do not think that we do, but it seems a sensible question. When 90 million people are coming in or out, it is a simple question. We are an island and we can probably protect ourselves better than we do.

I give my apologies but, on this debate, I will make an exception: anything that I have not covered, I will write to noble Lords about. On horse disease, the vigilance is such that notification of a potential African horse disease, which had been discovered by a vet, crossed my desk about five or six weeks ago. We were alerted quite quickly—within hours—of the possibility that we had found one for the first time, but the laboratory tests proved negative. That was good news, but the real news is that we were looking for it, the vets were alerted to the fact that it was a possibility and the tests were therefore put in place.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, raised the issue of fallen stock. The example that he mentioned was bluetongue, but we prefer vaccination as an alternative to slaughter for that. We made it clear after the first seven animals were slaughtered that we would not have a slaughter policy for bluetongue. The details on vaccination were developed with a core group of representatives from farming and veterinary organisations, the devolved Administrations and scientific experts.

I shall conclude on this, because time is catching me up. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, asked about the summer outbreak. On the impact of the summer outbreak of animal disease as well as the flooding—it is right to bring the two together—we announced what I accept is a modest package targeted to the hill farmers, with some money to the rural crisis charities. I am extremely grateful for the work of the agricultural charities, although we do not overly rely on them. I have had discussions with the banks during the winter and will be having further discussions with them on this issue shortly. We have some major issues to deal with.

We are engaging fully with the lessons learnt. Apart from external people looking at what we did about particular diseases, there is no doubt that it would be useful to look at how this government department dealt with the emergencies over 2007 and to see whether it will be fit for purpose to do the same in the future. The point is that the flooding came just before the foot and mouth; I realise that the after-effects were bad. The flooding was in June and July; foot and mouth hit us around 1 August; bluetongue hit us while we had foot and mouth; and in the mean time avian influenza was at both Bernard Matthews and the other place in Suffolk. I am not saying that what we did was perfect, but it was well managed and we are prepared.

All our adjustments to both personnel and finance in Defra, which I accept are difficult, have not diminished our capacity to deal with these outbreaks. We may not get the solutions—compensation, financial arrangements and other packages—as quickly, but our top priorities are to deal with the disease, to get trade restored as quickly as possible, to protect animal health as far as we can and to deal with the consequences to humans. I assure noble Lords that we will not cut corners in those areas. On issues that I have not dealt with, I promise that I will put together a full letter.

House adjourned at 8.49 pm.