Skip to main content

Bovine Tuberculosis

Volume 703: debated on Monday 7 July 2008

My Lords, with permission, I will repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, I wish to make a Statement about the Government’s plans for tackling bovine TB in England. In doing so, I thank the EFRA Select Committee both for its comprehensive and thoughtful report and for allowing me additional time to respond to it, which I have now done. I am also grateful to Professor Bourne and the members of the Independent Scientific Group for their thorough scientific study.

“Bovine TB is not a new problem. For over 70 years, successive Governments have implemented cattle controls based on surveillance, testing and slaughter of reactors. These have been designed to protect public health, to reduce the economic impact of the disease on farmers and, more recently, to comply with our obligations under European legislation.

“By the mid-1970s, the incidence of TB in cattle had reached an all-time low. However, since the 1980s, disease incidence has increased again, with a significant rise following the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic. Last year, nearly 3,200 new TB incidents were recorded and 18,543 reactor cattle were slaughtered in England.

“Bovine TB is a serious problem, particularly in the south-west and the Midlands. Although over 90 per cent of herds are TB free at any one time and some significant cattle farming areas are largely without the disease, I know from listening to farmers living with it just how difficult it is. For those who are most seriously affected, the economic and human consequences are simply devastating. That is why we should take the right decisions to help.

“Bovine TB is transmitted between cattle, and between cattle and badgers, but what has dominated debate is whether badger culling could be effective in controlling the disease. The 10-year randomised badger culling trial, overseen by the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB—the ISG—culled some 11,000 badgers to discover what impact that would have. The ISG’s final report, published last year, concluded that reactive culling—killing badgers in areas where there had been local TB breakdowns—made the problem worse and that proactive culling, which means taking an area of about 100 square kilometres and repeatedly culling badgers over a number of years, produced only marginal benefits because, although TB was reduced in the area, it increased outside because of the disturbance and movement of badgers.

“While scientists agree that a prolonged and effective cull over even larger areas—some 250 to 300 square kilometres—could reduce the incidence of bovine TB, the ISG’s judgment was that the practicality and cost of delivering a cull on this scale meant that badger culling could not meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB.

“Having listened carefully to a wide range of views from scientists, from farming, veterinary and wildlife organisations, and from many others, and having considered all the evidence, I have decided that while such a cull might work, it might also not work. It could end up making the disease worse if it was not sustained over time or delivered effectively, and public opposition, including the unwillingness of some landowners to take part, would render this more difficult.

“I do not think that it would be right to take this risk. Therefore, and in line with the advice that I have received from the Independent Scientific Group, our policy will be not to issue any licences to farmers to cull badgers for TB control, although we remain open to the possibility of revisiting this policy under exceptional circumstances or if new scientific evidence were to become available.

“This has been a very difficult decision to take and I know that some farmers who are affected will be disappointed and angry. We all want the same thing, which is to beat this terrible disease. But I have had to reach a view about what will be effective in doing so, guided by the science and practicality of delivering a cull. Having made a commitment to farmers and others that I will take a decision, I believe that, now that it has been made, we need to put all our efforts into working together to take action that can work in all affected areas.

“I have therefore also decided to make vaccination a priority as recommended by the Select Committee. Effective vaccines could in future provide a viable way of tackling disease in both badgers and cattle. We have invested £18 million in the past 10 years in vaccine development, which has delivered good results, including providing evidence that vaccinating young calves is effective, making progress towards developing a test to differentiate infected from vaccinated cattle, showing that injectable BCG can protect badgers and developing oral badger vaccine baits.

“I now intend to increase significantly our spending on vaccines by putting £20 million into this over the next three years to strengthen our chances of successfully developing them. I will also provide additional funding to set up and run a practical project to prepare for deploying vaccines in the future.

“It could be some time before an oral vaccine for badgers, or a cattle vaccine, becomes available, so for now we must reduce the spread of the disease and try to prevent it from becoming established in new areas. We have cattle controls in place to tackle TB and have strengthened them in recent years with the introduction of pre-movement testing and the targeted use of the more sensitive gamma interferon test. But the action that individual farmers take, in particular to deal with the risk of importing disease into their herd, will also remain critical.

“Disease control is not just a matter for the Government, notwithstanding the considerable cost. Farmers have the main interest—the burden of controls falls most heavily on them—and they must be involved in working out how we go forward. It would be possible to tighten cattle measures still further, as recommended in the Independent Scientific Group report, but this would come at a high cost and whether it would be worth while is as much, if not more, a question for the industry as it is for the Government. There is a choice to be made.

“That is why I have also decided to set up a bovine TB partnership group with the industry to develop a joint plan for tackling bovine TB. We will discuss with the industry who should be on the group and how it should work, and I want to get started as quickly as possible. The group will have full access to information on the TB budget and will be able to make recommendations about its use. It will be able to propose further practical steps to tackle the disease, including whether, for example, there should be tighter cattle controls. It will help to reach decisions about the injectable vaccine deployment project and it will be able to look at ways of helping farmers to manage the impact of living under disease restrictions, such as by providing incentives for biosecurity or maximising the opportunities to market their cattle by looking again at the restrictions around red markets and encouraging the establishment of more exempt and approved finishing units. I am prepared to make additional funding available to support such initiatives if the group makes a strong case for doing so.

“The House is united in its determination to overcome bovine TB and, as much as we would all wish it, there is no quick or easy way of doing so. Our best chance is to work together and therefore I hope that the industry will respond to the proposals that I have made so that we can get on with it”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made earlier in another place. Three months ago, the Minister told this House that the report of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee that outlined the need to address the reservoir of TB in badgers was “absolutely first class”. Today he has announced that the Government are ignoring its central recommendations. What has changed? Certainly not the increasing evidence of the devastating impact of bovine TB.

The figures are alarming. In 1997, 3,963 cattle were slaughtered under bovine TB control measures. Last year, that figure had risen to over 28,000. Will the Minister confirm that, on current trends, over 40,000 cattle will be slaughtered this year? All this comes at great cost not only to farmers but to the taxpayer, who has borne costs now exceeding £600 million since 1997. As the Minister has previously acknowledged, the cost is unsustainable. What is his forecast for expenditure on bovine TB control measures over the current Comprehensive Spending Review period? In the absence of any new estimate, can we assume that the 2004 Defra paper, Preparing for a New GB Strategy on Bovine Tuberculosis, is still accurate and that costs to the taxpayer will rise to over £300 million per annum by 2012-13?

The Opposition have consistently called for a comprehensive package of measures to tackle this dreadful disease. Simply targeting badgers is not the solution, but even Professor Bourne has said that the disease cannot be eradicated without addressing infection in wildlife, which is, after all, responsible for the majority of TB breakdowns. However, it is clear that the Government are pinning their hopes on a vaccine. We have been here before. In 1998, the Government set out their five-point plan, one point of which was developing a vaccine. In 2005, the five-point plan was updated and the search for a vaccine “actively continued”. Of course we welcome the extra resources on vaccine development, but can the Minister give the House any indication of when an oral vaccine for badgers or a cattle vaccine might become available? What happens in the mean time?

I want briefly to give the Minister an opportunity to answer some of the questions that the Secretary of State in another place ducked. Is he satisfied that pre-movement testing is cost-effective and that farmers are not moving stock without tests? What steps are being taken to examine other factors, such as the role of maize and possible trace element deficiencies in the spread of TB? Does he believe that the current frequency of testing is adequate, especially in areas adjacent to infected areas? Has he discussed this Statement with the European Commission to see whether it believes that it has any hope of success, or are we at risk of infraction proceedings?

Is nothing to be done to rid the badger population of TB, because badgers with TB die a painful and prolonged death? The decision to ignore the clear role of badgers goes against not only the demands of farmers and the recommendation of the Select Committee but the advice of Sir David King and even the evidence collected by the ISG. Did not that evidence show clearly that the removal of badgers in hotspot areas was associated with a reduction in the number of TB breakdowns by 23 per cent and has not the continued monitoring of those areas since the final report now shown a reduction of some 53 per cent?

The Statement failed to mention the polymerase chain reaction test. Would not the suggested areas in north Devon have been an opportunity to validate the use of the PCR test to establish whether setts contain infected animals? If it could be shown that removal was primarily of infected animals, would that not make it more acceptable and in the interests of badgers as well as cattle? PCR may not be 100 per cent accurate, but neither is the test that is used as the basis to slaughter tens of thousands of cattle.

To conclude, surely it is in the interests of a healthy badger population as well as a healthy cattle population that we tackle this disease from all angles. It is clear from the Statement today that the Government are not prepared to do so.

My Lords, I apologise for missing the start of the Statement, which caught me quite by surprise. I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement because I know that this is a difficult subject. It is unfortunate if we make too many comments about the Government not understanding the problem or doing virtually nothing. I understand the problem and I know that the Minister has listened to many farmers on the subject, which is a matter that has aroused a great deal of anger within the industry.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, said that we always talk about bovine TB as if badgers do not suffer with the disease and are just carriers. Of course that is not the case; indeed, one of the issues is that most people would say that a cull would be unfair on badgers. The problem, of course, is that as bovine TB spreads through the hotspots, the badger population itself is more likely to contract TB. Happily, I come from an area without TB and we have badgers mixing with cattle quite happily. However, if bovine TB turns up, it will not be just cattle that suffer; the badger population will, too.

The Minister talked about the vaccine process. Many of us have heard about the progress that is being made. I understand that, because of the science behind it, the process is a long, slow and laborious one that needs to be done in methodical way. Is there any indication of when we will be able to start field-trialling injectable TB vaccine for cattle and oral vaccine for badgers?

The Minister has now stated again that no further cull will be undertaken, against the advice put forward by EFRA. The problem with a cull is that, if it is not handled properly, you might well get a spread of disease. The Minister will groan when I say this, but we have had a problem culling grey squirrels. When you wipe out a large proportion of the population and leave just a few, you find that those few grey squirrels move off into areas that they have not entered before looking for other squirrels. That behaviour spreads squirrel pox and of course there is a problem with TB being spread in the same manner. However, we should take into account the fact that mapping the spread of bovine TB into new areas over the past 10 years has shown that there has been a gradual increase.

The Statement says that the Government will take new evidence into consideration. However, as they have decided not to undertake any culling, what basis would that new evidence have? I note that there is to be a targeted cull in Wales, which is, of course, a devolved matter for the Welsh. I hope that as much scientific information as possible can be taken from the Welsh experience.

Like the Minister and everyone who has dealt with farmers over the past few years, I understand the anger that farmers feel about this. Having your whole herd annihilated by a disease that you think could be preventable has a devastating effect. The bovine TB partnership could be a useful tool—it could act as a halfway house between the Government and farmers, especially because a number of farmers might, after the Government’s decision, decide to take the law into their own hands, which would be an unfortunate consequence of the Statement.

My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords for those responses. I confirm the trends that were referred to. I cannot estimate the cost of this. As I have repeatedly said, this is the single biggest disease that we deal with and it costs Defra some £80 million to £90 million a year. That is taxpayers’ expenditure and it is our cost—it is the cost on farmers. I cannot estimate what the cost will be in 2012-13 because I do not know whether the disease will continue to spread as it is currently doing.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, asked about vaccines. The earliest projected date for the widespread use of a BCG cattle vaccine is mid to late 2015. The earliest projected date for the widespread use of a badger vaccine is 2014 for oral badger vaccines; injectable BCG badger vaccines may be available in 2010 but they are not expected to be widely used because of the cost and practical issues involved. One has to ask, “Who will pay for it?”. The taxpayer will not do so.

It is illegal to vaccinate cattle against TB. Therefore, European Union rules and law have to be changed. When we have a vaccine that seems to work—one that is efficacious—we will make proposals to the EU. These things are not just around the corner.

I come to the second set of questions from the noble Lord, Lord Taylor. He listed a series of questions that he said that the Secretary of State had refused to answer and he expected me to answer them. Frankly, I will not do that; I simply will not do so. He was wrong on one count: the Secretary of State indicated in answer to a question this afternoon that he discussed the issue and informed the EU commissioner this morning. I have nothing further to add to what the Secretary of State said.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement. I declare my interest as a partner in a small mixed farm, where we have 18 or 19 beef cattle. Does the Minister agree that the accuracy of testing is vital? Will the agony felt by farmers, who may lose their valuable stock, not be ratcheted up by doubts? What will the Government do to ensure that testing is done accurately and by skilled people? That is very important. He mentioned the EU. Negotiations there take a long time. Does he agree that now is the time to start opening negotiations with the EU to get the rules changed? We cannot proceed with the vaccination until the rules have been changed and we want to be able to proceed as soon as the vaccine is passed.

The Minister mentioned the bovine TB partnership group. Will he ask his right honourable friend to ensure that pure and applied scientists—veterinary surgeons and medical practitioners who have a lot of experience with TB—are incorporated into the group? We have heard about stress from the perturbation of badgers. Does he agree that there is also stress with moving cattle and mixing cattle in new herds? A lot of herds have been wiped out by TB and the cattle have been replaced because there is no other way of maintaining the countryside, as steep hillsides and so on have to be grazed. Is there no way in which cattle can be kept on the ground that they are already on? If they are obviously ill, they should be disposed of, but if they are not ill, they could be kept there until such time as they are ill, to save bringing on to farms new animals and infecting them.

My Lords, I cannot answer all the noble Countess’s questions. On her last point, as was said in the other place, this is not a question of moving cattle on and off farms—closed herds are going down where no cattle are being moved. There has to be a reason for that. The Secretary of State made it clear that there would be wide discussion of membership of the partnership group. He said that we will approach the European Union only after we have a vaccine that works. Tests are conducted by skilled people but the fact is that they are not 100 per cent anyway. That is part of the issue. We are using gamma interferon more, but that gives a different result because it looks at the potential of the disease earlier than the skin test does; one is therefore looking at the age of the disease, perhaps, in the cattle at a different time. We are using that test, which is more expensive. Neither test is 100 per cent perfect.

My Lords, will the animal health laboratory at Pirbright be involved? If so, will it be made absolutely clear that enough money must be properly invested so that we do not have a repeat of the fiasco that occurred over foot and mouth? I must declare an interest: I am a landowner, I have cattle on my property and I am vice-president of the Surrey county agricultural show. Will the noble Lord please make sure that there is no repeat of the Pirbright incompetence over foot and mouth?

My Lords, it is for the noble Earl to ask his own questions but that is an incredibly unfair one. Pirbright has nothing to do with TB. The Veterinary Laboratories Agency at Weybridge is the reference laboratory for TB; that is where the work goes on. Pirbright is a world reference laboratory for foot and mouth and other diseases. So far as I know, it is not involved in TB, although there may be some ancillary work. The main work is at the Veterinary Laboratories Agency, which is a Defra executive agency; it is under the control of Defra, unlike Pirbright, which is not a Defra laboratory.

My Lords, I have previously declared my interest as the owner of a dairy herd that has suffered severely from bovine TB, which is very prevalent where I live in east Somerset. I confess that I found reading the Statement extremely depressing in view of the huge cost to the taxpayer and the serious losses falling on farming—not just dairy but also beef and maybe sheep, too. Why has no consideration apparently been given to serious and rigorous culling in isolated, compact areas such as the Isle of Wight or the west of Cornwall, which is surrounded by sea on three—if not more—sides? Other areas may be found, such as land surrounded by motorways or water barriers. What thought has been given to that? Why is the experience of Ireland, which has conducted extensive and rigorous badger culling, not relevant to England when it has markedly reduced TB in cattle? I support what has been said about Wales and I hope that some useful lessons will be learnt from there. On vaccination, my understanding—I am quite likely wrong—is that several continental countries have been vaccinating their cattle for years. The result of that may well be that there is a low level of TB infection in the whole of their cattle population. I do not know the answer; perhaps the Minister does. It has taken us 10 years not to find a suitable vaccine. That is 10 years too long and I hope that something can be learnt from the continental experience.

My Lords, I could be completely wrong, but I do not think we have anything to learn from the continental experience because the Continent does not have bovine TB. It is almost unique to the United Kingdom, although Scotland and parts of northern England are virtually exempt. As the Statement said, it is very much a regionalised issue. No one on the Continent is vaccinating cattle against TB. It would be illegal if such were the case. It is only in the UK and the Republic of Ireland where serious issues of bovine TB arise. Other areas have had the disease, New Zealand in particular, but that was a wildlife issue thought to be related to the possum, so it was a different situation. I do not think we have anything to learn about vaccination.

The Secretary of State read out some figures in the other place about what has happened in the Republic of Ireland, as culling has been used. These show that the incidence has gone up and down. The point he made is that there is no direct link. As to the noble Lord’s initial question, the Secretary of State fully considered all the issues, what was said by the people to whom he had spoken and the written reports about culling in hot spots. He was not prepared to countenance that on the grounds of practicality and because the science did not support it.

My Lords, could my noble friend confirm that public acceptability was introduced as a criterion in determining policy and, if so, why? He will remember that when he was a Minister in the department way back in the 1990s when the Government were dealing with BSE, the criterion was purely science driven with recognition of a risk assessment. Surely science and a risk assessment is a better way of dealing with these issues than introducing the concept of public acceptability, which is extremely woolly.

My Lords, I agree with what my noble friend said about science. The analogy with BSE does not quite square. Even today, we still do not know the incubation period of new variant CJD. That is why many of the BSE controls are still in force. It is a supreme public health issue on which the precautionary principle weighs incredibly hard.

On bovine TB, the milk was always used because it was pasteurised—Louis Pasteur gave us the answer—but in early 2006 it was decided at European Union level that the milk of reactors could not be used. The carcass meat goes into the food chain minus the lesions. That is a fact and there is no new announcement in respect of that. My right honourable friend also took into account other matters put to him by the public.

My Lords, I lived through the virtual elimination of TB and was involved in searching the countryside for TB-free cattle. It was eliminated county by county. Indeed, we used to go up to Castle Douglas in Scotland to get TB-free heifers. I had a badger sett on my smallholding in the 1980s, but there was no TB around and so I did not tell anyone that I had it. But the situation now is totally different.

The deputy chief vet in Ireland says that its culling policy saves up to 15,000 cattle a year at present and he challenges some of the decisions that have been made this side of the border. I do not expect the Minister to give the show away, but is there a difference of opinion between government vets and Defra?

My Lords, the Secretary of State received veterinary advice from experts within Defra, who advised him that without addressing the reservoir of infection in badgers it would not be possible to eradicate bovine TB in endemic areas. The Secretary of State took this into account alongside other considerations when reaching his decision not to allow licences to be issued to cull badgers.

My Lords, the Statement repeated by my noble friend says that bovine TB is transmitted between cattle and between cattle and badgers. Is it not correct that it is also transmitted between badgers? It goes on to say that what has dominated the debate is whether badger culling would be effective in controlling the disease. Surely what has dominated it is whether this problem can be solved by tackling the disease solely in cattle and not in both cattle and badgers.

In deciding not to issue any licences to cull badgers for TB control, why have the Government dismissed the recommendations of the EFRA Select Committee in another place, together with the scientific evidence of a more practical control area put forward by the ISG report and the advice of the scientific adviser at the time, Sir David King?

Everyone accepts that vaccination will be the answer, but a vaccine has always been years away and is more a function of time than money. My noble friend is aware of the frustration felt in livestock areas at the paucity of progress in tackling TB. I speak as a dairy farmer in Cheshire. I am, fortunately, not under any disease control restriction, but a near neighbour two miles away is one of the 1,826 new herd test breakdowns between January and April this year, with confirmed premises 15 per cent up on last year’s figure. Surely the pre-movement regime should eliminate all cattle-to-cattle transmission.

The Statement refers to risk management. Can my noble friend state who is taking the risk in the countryside? A judicial review case is pending on the discriminating and unfair system of tabular evaluation, yet the Holstein-Friesian cattle society put forward a reasoned, independently assessable schedule of value. Why has this system not been accepted? The number of false positives taken under the gamma interferon blood test has also caused extreme distress to livestock families because the cost of error falls on the farmer. I fear many farmers may well say that it is not right for them to take this risk.

My Lords, my noble friend asked too many questions for me to answer in the time available. I cannot say anything about compensation because of the judicial review that is under way. My right honourable friend in the other place made it clear that he was grateful to the EFRA Select Committee for its report. He also made it abundantly clear that he took the view that, from a practical point of view, a culling operation would not succeed and could make matters even worse.

My noble friend is quite right that badger-to-badger transfer takes place in large setts with more badgers and more food. Living in crowded conditions was how human beings caught TB in the first place. Badger-to-cattle transmission is heavy; I understand that it accounts for about 70 per cent to 80 per cent of cases and that cattle-to-cattle transmission accounts for about 10 per cent of cases. It is difficult to be precise. Of course, if you have a closed herd, you have a real problem if it contracts TB.

My Lords, am I wrong in recalling that, in his valedictory address at the most recent Parliamentary and Scientific Committee lunch, the previous chief scientific adviser to the Government urged a badger cull, and am I right in inferring from what my noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach said that the successor agrees with his predecessor?

My Lords, I gather the noble Lord was talking about the government chief scientific advisers. Sir David King’s view was much maligned because he agreed with the conclusions of the independent scientific group; I heard him saying to Professor Bourne, alongside whom he was sitting, that he agreed with him. He went on to say, however, that he thought that in the circumstances a widespread regulated cull could make a significant contribution to the reduction of TB, and that was the advice he gave the Government. Just before we received the ISG report, the former Secretary of State, David Miliband, asked Sir David to give us a view. He put together a group of independent people who had not been involved in the studies over the year, and they gave us a view and a report that was published last year, regrettably later than intended because of foot and mouth delays. I do not know the views of Sir David’s successor, although I understand that he disagrees with his predecessor.

My Lords, the Report stage of the Housing and Regeneration Bill will resume immediately at the end of the dinner-time business. We will not be adjourning for pleasure.