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Bovine Tuberculosis

Volume 754: debated on Wednesday 25 June 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to modify their strategy to control bovine tuberculosis in the United Kingdom in the light of the independent expert panel report on the pilot badger culls.

My Lords, in April we launched our TB strategy, setting out our plans to achieve officially TB-free status by 2038 through both new and existing tools. We have always been clear that lessons would be learnt from the badger control pilots. Having considered the report of the independent expert panel, we have accepted its conclusions and are currently working to implement its recommendations in advance of the second year of culling in Gloucestershire and Somerset.

I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer. In the light of the fact that vaccination is likely to be a significant, although not the only, tool in the future long-term and sustainable control of this terrible disease, can the Minister give this House an assurance that the three important goals of research into and development of an oral vaccine for badgers, the registration and deployment of a cattle vaccine and the research into and development of appropriate cattle diagnostic tests will not be hindered by a lack of resources?

I can give the noble Lord that assurance. I hope that he was pleased to see the strategy announced at the beginning of April, which makes it very clear that culling is only a small part of an overall approach to this disease. He has outlined some very important areas, and Defra has pledged significant support to take that research forward. I hope that the noble Lord will also be pleased with the announcement of support for vaccination on the edge between the areas with a high incidence of bovine TB and those that currently have a lower incidence.

My Lords, can the Minister tell the House what proportion of the culled badgers were found to have actually had tuberculosis on post-mortem examination?

I can trust my noble friend to ask me a question like that. I read the report a month or so back with enormous interest. I took a great number of notes but I cannot remember the answer to that, I am afraid, and I shall have to write to him.

My Lords, is there a possibility that the Government might reconsider their methodology of culling? Instead of having people running around firing guns at night, they might consider using gas, which is heavier than air in badger setts during the day. That seems to be much safer and much more efficient.

All areas are being looked at. There has been research into gassing but at the moment we are finding that this method has significant practical challenges. The noble Lord can be assured that further research is being taken forward in this area, although as yet it does not involve live badgers or active setts.

My Lords, given that Professor Rosie Woodroffe has said that badger culling is unequivocally ineffective and extremely inhumane, can we have clarity from the Government that culling will not continue under any future circumstances? Can we also have an assurance that, wherever possible, scientific advice will be followed? For example, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, has shown that the mathematics relating to this issue are absolutely plain.

As the noble Lord will know from having looked at the science, one thing that came out of the research by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, was that you could not stop culling after one year—you had to continue it for several years, otherwise there would be an adverse effect. Therefore, the culling will continue in the areas in which it was started, as was always planned. That is based upon scientific advice from the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. As I am sure the noble Lord will know, there was a reduction in the incidence of bovine TB in the randomised control areas that were looked at, but that reduction was only around 16%, and therefore other strategies are needed too.

My Lords, as the Minister will be aware, the efficacy of the pilot can be evaluated properly only if both the number of badgers at the start and the number killed are known. As noble Lords will recall, last year the badgers notoriously changed the goalposts at the last minute. How precisely will the number of badgers be estimated in the future pilot cull? Can she in particular confirm that Defra will not rely on the numbers reported by the contractors, as the independent expert panel advised that those numbers were quite unreliable? For example, the contractors initially claimed to have shot more than one badger per bullet fired.

Perhaps they were all lined up. We could recently have done with some moving of goalposts in Brazil, could we not? The noble Lord is right to emphasise the importance of a much more comprehensive coverage. He will know from his own trials that in many of the areas he was working in, the process started slowly and picked up. There are a number of recommendations in the independent expert panel report about how to ensure that there is more systematic and comprehensive coverage, and we are taking those recommendations forward.

My Lords, as the Minister who initiated the recommendations of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, at the beginning of this very serious problem—which we know is complicated not only by science but by the ability of badgers to evade culls of whatever kind—I remind your Lordships’ House that the cost of this problem of tuberculosis in cattle now exceeds £1 billion to the taxpayer, let alone the distress caused to those in our dairy industry who see their herds and livelihoods destroyed at the same time. We urgently need to find a solution and I suggest to the Minister that it should occur in a much shorter timescale than is currently envisaged. Although I welcome the strategy, the timescale is something that we can ill afford. If this problem endures, the cost to the taxpayer and our dairy industry will be between £2 billion and £3 billion.

The noble Lord is absolutely right to bring us back to that. I would also point out that it is also not in the badgers’ interests to have bovine TB running through their population. Therefore, whichever animal one is concerned about, but in the interests of both, it is a problem that must be tackled.