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Bovine Tuberculosis

Volume 711: debated on Thursday 11 June 2009


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will review the amounts of compensation given to farmers whose cattle have been killed due to bovine tuberculosis.

My Lords, there are currently no plans to make significant changes to the table-based valuation compensation system for TB-affected cattle.

My Lords, I am grateful for that response and I formally welcome the noble Lord to his new ministerial post—I think that I am correct—at Defra, although he is the third person to be responsible for this Lords brief in little more than a year, which is regrettable. Is he aware that, in 2006, a cattle compensation advisory group was established? Recommendations were made that have not been implemented. Will he address this matter urgently?

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Baroness’s comments, although they do not quite have the accuracy that she normally reflects. I am being asked merely to take primary responsibility for Defra in the House, although I have some other responsibilities in the department. On the Question, which is the most important thing, she will know that the fairness of the compensation scheme has recently been tested in the courts. I cannot comment too much on that, except to say that, in the case that was brought, the judgment was in favour of the way in which Defra operates the scheme. There is the possibility of appeal to the House of Lords, so I am not in a position to comment much further. The scheme that was introduced in 2006 is the subject of some anxiety and concern, but she will recognise that that will always be the case with the valuation of compensation, particularly when the disease is still pronounced in certain parts of England and Wales. That is as far as I can go at this stage.

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that approximately 10 years ago some 5,000 cattle were being killed because of bovine tuberculosis, whereas last year, I understand, the number was 40,000? Is it not a bad use of taxpayers’ money to pay ever more compensation to slaughter ever more cattle because of bovine tuberculosis when it seems that nothing is being done, at the moment at least, to eradicate the cause of the problem?

My Lords, of course we are concerned about the costs of compensation. That is why we introduced the new valuation scheme in 2006; we wanted to produce a further degree of fairness for the taxpayer as well as to ensure that farmers are properly compensated. However, my noble friend is not right to say that nothing has been done. Considerable work is being done to develop a vaccine. We have already put £20 million into the research programme and we are looking at ways of developing that research further. We are concerned that all measures should be taken to reduce the incidence of the disease. Let me make the obvious point that, if compensation is set at the proper level, which we believe it is, it encourages farmers to give early notice and to take early action to prevent the development of the disease.

My Lords, I should declare that I am an owner and landlord of agricultural property. Two weeks ago, the president of the British Veterinary Association said that in some areas TB was out of control. As the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, has rightly said, the incidence of the slaughter of cattle is increasing year in, year out. The problem has gone from bad to worse since the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in 1998 kindly came to my former constituency. Nothing seems to be being done. It is also a badger welfare problem in that badgers suffer a terrible death if they get TB. Given these shocking figures, will the Government follow the lead of the Welsh Assembly and immediately authorise a badger cull in TB hot spots?

My Lords, we certainly are following closely developments after the Welsh Assembly Government’s decision to carry out badger culling, but the scientific evidence that we have indicates that that may not prove to be a significant solution to the problem, although it may make a contribution. If it proves to be successful, of course we will learn from those lessons. Scientific evidence from a committee set up to examine exactly this issue does not lead us to believe that we can invest in the concept of badger culling in its totality.

My Lords, does the noble Lord recognise that bovine TB is not just a disease of cattle and badgers? It has been found in 30 different species of wildlife, including sheep, goats, pigs and camelids. With the number of bacilli expelled by badgers and cattle floating about in the atmosphere, there is a risk of it becoming a public health problem. What is the Department of Health doing to observe the atmospheric numbers of bovine TB bacilli and what precautions are being taken?

My Lords, the noble Countess emphasises just how significant this issue is. I am not briefed by the Department of Health on this issue; I am dealing with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. We are concerned to tackle this issue as effectively as we can. The noble Countess has identified how extensive and how difficult the threat is and why any single solution may not prove to be a solution at all.

My Lords, although, touch wood, I do not have the problem on my farm, surely the best solution is vaccination, rather than the killing of the 40,000 cattle last year and perhaps badgers in the future. If a vaccine for Mexican flu can be produced in months, why will it take another 10 years to produce a TB vaccine for cattle?

My Lords, vaccine against illness in humans affects a large percentage of the population of the world, so it is not surprising that enormous resources are put into that far beyond any contribution by any single Government. We are dealing with an issue that is restricted to parts of the United Kingdom, to Spain and to Ireland; it does not occur in most of Europe. We are not able therefore to bring together resources for research beyond our own. As I have indicated to the House, we are interested in doing exactly what the noble Lord says, which is to do the research that we hope will produce the vaccine.

My Lords, with regard to my noble friend’s Question, exactly what are the noble Lord’s ministerial responsibilities? Does he have an office in the Ministry of Agriculture, as was? The departure of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, was much lamented by the industry, as he exercised over that department an iron control with great effect, the absence of which has become all too apparent. Perhaps I may remind the Minister and the Government that they probably have another year in office and that they should do something properly about the department with responsibility for agriculture. They owe it to the farming community.

My Lords, that is a pretty general question on the matter of this disease. Of course I lament the loss of my noble friend Lord Rooker from the department. I also lament the loss of my noble friend Lord Hunt, who followed him and occupied the role with great distinction. I have an office in the department and I will do my best.

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on his new responsibilities. I come back to the question of the tabular valuations of cattle and suggest that there are one or two deficiencies that could be looked at. I refer to false positives on the one hand and, on the other, to the inconclusives, of which the Minister will also be aware. The inconclusives are retested and, if they continue to be inconclusive, are deemed to be positive and are taken. Often at slaughter they are negative, and negative also at culture test. They have never been positive. Could the valuation form be looked at to take account of these anomalies?

My Lords, we have gone from the general to the precise and I now find myself floundering on the precise. There are real issues with regard to the compensation scheme, as my noble friend appreciates. I will take on board the point that he makes about the problem of definition and see what can be done.

My Lords, would the Minister like to demonstrate joined-up government? While I appreciate that he is dealing with agriculture and the environment, none the less, given the extreme rise in the bacilli of the tuberculosis infection in the children of farmers whose farms are heavily infected with tubercular cows and killings, will he not connect with the Department of Health and try to make a reality of referrals of those children to the department? It is a very serious problem.

My Lords, that is the second time that the point has been made about the importance of the Department of Health in this respect. It is a very serious point and I will take it on board. The noble Baroness will forgive me if I felt that being briefed on the Defra aspects of this Question was quite sufficient today without looking too much into the health aspects.