Select Committee on Agriculture First Report


The Agriculture Committee has agreed to the following Report:-



1. In April 1999 we published our Report on Badgers and Bovine Tuberculosis, which considered the Government's five-point research and control strategy to tackle TB in cattle.[2] The centrepiece of this strategy was the implementation of the Krebs programme, which we endorsed in its entirety, including the controversial badger-culling trial. Our continuing interest led us to request an adjournment debate in Westminster Hall on 10 February 2000. Ten months later, with all ten locations for the triplets to be enrolled in the trial finally known,[3] we decided to hold a single session of oral evidence to follow up the many outstanding questions in this important inquiry. We therefore took evidence on 22 November 2000 from the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (ISG) and from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The transcript of that session and related memoranda are published here as appendices. Once again, for this short inquiry, we have benefited from the expert assistance of our two specialist advisers, Professor Peter Hudson of the University of Stirling and Professor Tim Roper of the University of Sussex, to both of whom we extend our thanks. This short Report highlights the key issues arising from our meeting with the ISG and Baroness Hayman of MAFF.

The scientific basis of the trial

2. In our first Report we were concerned about the ability of the trial to deliver the robust results which will be necessary to determine future policy decisions on the control of bovine TB in cattle. We sought reassurance that the statistical power of the trial was sufficient and that power calculations[4] had been done which indicated that this was the case. Our recommendation that an external expert verify the original data behind the power analysis was accepted by the Government and implemented this summer with the appointment of Professor Denis Mollison of Heriot-Watt University. His first report, on the initial statistical calculations establishing the scale of the trials and the policy on release of data from the trials, was placed on MAFF's website on 22 November and sent to us two days later.

3. At the time of our evidence session with the ISG, we had available to us the Group's Notes on statistical aspects of the badger culling trial prepared for and endorsed by Professor Mollison. This paper was highly dismissive of the discussion arising from our concerns, regarding it as "based on a total misunderstanding of the role of the power calculations".[5] Not surprisingly, we disagree with this view. The power calculations matter because they determine the shape of the trial and whether it can be expected to achieve a sufficiently precise outcome. If they are wrong, then the trial could fail to deliver results within the set timespan or at all with any degree of clarity. However, we can agree with the ISG that "the power depends, in the end, on the data that is actually generated",[6] and we recognise that the increasing rate of herd breakdowns[7] should therefore help the trial to achieve results more quickly. We welcome Professor Mollinson's report and we firmly support his recommendations, accepted by the ISG, that the Group "should give a more refined estimate of the expected duration and precision of the trials once sufficient data are available" and "should clarify the circumstances in which the trials might either be stopped early or prolonged beyond their originally projected duration".[8] We look forward to the fulfilment of these undertakings by the ISG, expected after the first interim analysis of data from the trial. In the meantime, we believe that a more positive approach from the ISG towards constructive criticism of their analysis would be helpful, whether this consists of undertaking analysis to convince this Committee or of involving in their work other academics who have serious concerns about the scientific basis of the trial.

Implementation of the trial

4. The ISG expressed itself "broadly content" with progress made in implementing the trial after the initial difficulties.[9] The enrollment of the ten triplets is following the timetable set out in the second Bourne Report of early 2000 which envisaged that all ten would be announced and culling should have begun in seven of them by the end of 2000. Initial culling will begin in the remaining three triplets in 2001. The Group was also "confident that, with the exception of one triplet, operations are achieving an acceptable badger clearance rate" in proactive areas.[10] An independent audit of the procedures for despatching badgers made some recommendations for improvements but concluded that "in almost all, if not all, cases the despatch procedures used meet the humane ideal of painlessly causing instant death, or permanent loss of consciousness until death".[11] There is a need for continued monitoring and evaluation of the work relating to animal welfare issues. We welcome the reassurance provided by the audit of animal welfare issues and are reassured that MAFF has appointed a replacement auditor to fill the gap left by the resignation of the original appointee.

5. We have two outstanding concerns about the conduct and implementation of the trial. First, it is inarguable that the timetable has slipped considerably from that projected by the original Krebs Report. This delay is regrettable. Whilst we accept the ISG's assurance that the trial is now on track and "it may be as early as 2002 that we have some useful hard data that can be usefully translated into policy options"[12], it remains the case that results are not likely to be available until 2004:[13] that is, seven years after the publication of the Krebs Report in December 1997. This delay puts ever greater pressure on those farmers whose support for the trial is vital to its success but whose sense of desperation is growing, as bovine TB in cattle continues to spread. At the moment, MAFF is reporting co-operation from landowners and farmers "in excess of 80 per cent".[14] This is good news but doubt must remain over illegal activity outside the trial areas if the timetable for the trial is not rigorously adhered to and shortened, where this is possible without harming its scientific rigour. Second, the Committee also noted the concern raised by the absence of a trial area in Wales despite the high incidence of bovine TB in Wales. We reiterate our support for the trial as the only feasible way of obtaining the information essential to establishing the relationship between bovine TB in cattle and badgers and whether culling is a viable policy option, and reaffirm our belief that it is in the wider interests of the farming community, as well as in the long-term interests of conservation and animal welfare organisations, to co-operate fully with the trial. There are lessons to be learnt from the slow implementation of the trial but nothing to be gained from abandoning it, before it has had time to achieve robust results.

The road traffic accident survey

6. Following the recommendation in our Report, the ISG proposed a road traffic accident (RTA) survey of dead badgers in seven counties, plus badgers found dead on farms in trial areas.[15] Regrettably, this work has been delayed by MAFF and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), first because of difficulties over the laboratory facilities for post mortems and then because of the diversion of resources to deal with classical swine fever over the summer of 2000.[16] The announcement that the RTA survey was finally to commence came the week before our evidence session and was greeted with relief by the ISG but they remained concerned that "its scope, at present, is quite different to the scope that we envisaged initially".[17] It involves not the collection of all dead badgers in the areas prescribed but only those spotted by "Staff from the State Veterinary Service who are out on routine travel".[18] Professor Bourne stressed the importance of the RTA, saying that "It is the only handle we have on getting some information on the prevalence of TB in badgers outside trial areas".[19] He had "told ministers we will accept the situation as it stands, but we would wish to review the situation in January when we expect the swine fever episode to come to an end, and expect a more rigorous input from MAFF into the road traffic accident survey".[20] When questioned on this matter, Baroness Hayman expressed the hope that MAFF "will be able to increase the human resources going into the RTA" as the demands from the swine fever epidemic diminished.[21] We deeply regret the delay in implementing the road traffic accident survey and the half-hearted attempt at its commencement announced in November 2000. There is a worry that the delay has very undesirable consequences which may prevent the development of understanding of the spread of the disease. We recommend that MAFF make it a priority to provide sufficient resources to enable the road traffic accident survey to be carried out according to the directions of the ISG.

7. We note that the concerns of the HSE at laboratory staff handling possibly infected badger carcases led to part of the delay. We also note that these concerns do not appear to have been reflected in the handling of definitely infected cattle and the passing of meat from these animals into the food chain. The Government should seek advice on the appropriateness of current controls.

Husbandry and the TB99 questionnaire

8. The one shortcoming which we identified in the Krebs Report was the relative lack of attention it paid to husbandry. We recommended that a working party be established to review the available scientific evidence on husbandry and the role it might play in controlling bovine TB. This panel was finally established on 17 January 2000 and reported on 16 May 2000. The Government's response to the report is still awaited. The ISG regarded the husbandry report as "a useful scrutiny of the literature", which, however, did not submit the literature to any detailed analysis.[22] There is clearly a need to investigate further the role of husbandry and we recommend a more detailed study to run alongside the work of the ISG. The aim will be to improve information exchange with farmers and landowners and to seek practical measures to try to reduce the spread of bovine TB.

9. The ISG believed that husbandry issues were better pursued through the use of the TB99 questionnaire which is designed to identify risk factors for further investigation.[23] Recently, there have been problems with the application of TB99. Professor Bourne was "disturbed" by suggestions that it "would not be adhered to in the way that was agreed as a result of the swine fever activities in East Anglia".[24] The ISG had "strongly advised MAFF that the use of the questionnaire in trial areas is critical and should be resumed immediately, even if it cannot be used elsewhere in the country at the moment."[25] Baroness Hayman told us that she was "disappointed" that it had been necessary to divert staff from the TB99 survey and that MAFF had now restarted the questionnaire.[26]

10. We share the ISG's concern at these developments. They have reached the point with the TB99 survey where they have been able to conduct an initial analysis,[27] and we recognise that it is vital that this work be completed. Given the lack of indication in the husbandry report of any factors ripe for experimental investigation at this stage, there is little point in investing public money in a husbandry-related research programme until TB99 provides some solid indication of which factors are likely to be relevant to the control of bovine TB. Data from TB99 is a necessary precondition for all further progress on husbandry-related factors which is why it is so important. MAFF's decision to cut the resources necessary to conduct the survey is liable to misinterpretation as lack of commitment both to the TB control programme in general and to the non-badger elements within it in particular. TB99 is doubtless not perfect: it has been criticised in some aspects by the National Federation of Badger Groups and also by ourselves, in its original form, for its length and complexity. Nevertheless, it is central to the search for practical solutions to controlling bovine TB in cattle and we recommend that MAFF make an absolute commitment to its implementation as a priority.

TB Forum

11. A further development since our last Report is the establishment of the TB Forum in December 1999 as a "forum of interested parties to meet, discuss and plan what could be done in the short term to control cattle TB by focussing on 'cattle' options".[28] The Forum has discussed "a number of proposals" on cattle movements and the provision of better information for purchasers of cattle about their TB status.[29] We believe that the TB Forum is a valuable addition to the range of activities which come under the umbrella of the Government's five-point strategy. We therefore regret the decision of the NFU to withdraw from the Forum, following the exclusion from discussion of the issue of TB in badgers.[30] Baroness Hayman and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are "having conversations with the NFU" about rejoining the Forum in the new year[31] and we wish them every success with these talks. We believe that, whilst the absence of the NFU does not detract from the usefulness of the Forum since other producer groups are still participating, the NFU should reconsider its position in order to ensure that its members are properly represented on such an important issue. The NFU would also provide valuable input on further suggestions to restrict cattle movements or on TB testing which we believe should be considered by the Forum. Among the subjects discussed so far have been the frequency of and availability of information from bovine TB tests. We would suggest that the increased incidence of herd breakdown and the lack of prospect of any new direction until the trial is complete requires further action. An increase in the frequency of tests and a requirement to produce test data on sale both appear prudent. We are also disappointed that progress has not been more rapid towards the development of a more accurate test and hope that work will be pressed forward in this area.


12. Ultimately, the most sustainable strategy for controlling bovine TB is likely to be a cattle vaccine. MAFF has recently published a report on progress made in the TB vaccine research programme in the period July 1999 to June 2000. This included the particularly interesting information that a vaccine which did not interfere with the tuberculin test (one of the main criteria to be met by a successful candidate) was being tested in a large cattle vaccination experiment in New Zealand. Dr Reynolds, Veterinary Head of the Endemic Animal Diseases & Zoonoses Team at MAFF, played down the significance of this.[32] However, we are hopeful that progress is being made and that MAFF's collaborative links will put the UK in a position to benefit from this work. As ever, the development of a cattle vaccine is ten to fifteen years away.[33] We recognise that there can be no short cuts and that the absence of a vaccine makes

it all the more important that the current programme delivers in terms of a strategy to control bovine TB.

Future policy

13. It is now two years since the start of the trial, with a projected end-date of 2004 or possibly 2002.[34] We believe that it is time that MAFF turned its attention to possible policy options once the results of the trial are known. After the long-drawn out implementation of the Krebs programme, a further prolonged period of contemplation following the completion of the trial would be wholly unacceptable. MAFF continues to state merely that "policies will be judged according to the impact on public health, on animal health and welfare, on the environment and on the economy, in particular the farming industry and public expenditure".[35] However, it appears that no forward planning has been put into what the policy options might be, especially if, as seems likely, the advice put forward by the ISG is disputable and disputed. The Minister told us that she "quite envisage[s] circumstances in which policy options will be before Ministers, without the clarity and certainty of data and information that everyone agrees on, and everyone agrees on the way forward," and that she would be looking to the ISG to interpret data where the results from the different culling strategies were contradictory.[36] We believe that Ministers have to recognise that this might mean deciding to extend the trial beyond the end-date or beyond its current scope or it might mean finding some Plan B, which does not seem to be in development at the moment. It is the responsibility of Ministers, not of the ISG, to make the ultimate decisions and we believe that this process must be put in train now and not delayed until the crisis of no clear results from such an expensive and controversial programme is upon us. We will continue to take an active interest in this inquiry and look forward to receiving the third Bourne Report early next year and further annual progress reports from MAFF thereafter.

2  Fifth Report from the Agriculture Committee, Session 1998-99, Badgers and Bovine Tuberculosis, HC 233.  Back

3  The field trial involves comparing three different badger control strategies (proactive culling, reactive culling following the discovery of bovine TB in cattle, and survey only) in ten triplets located in TB hot-spots. Details of the programme are set out and discussed at length in our Fifth Report of Session 1998-99.  Back

4  Power calculations are used to establish the probability of detecting an effect of a given size with a stated level of significance. Back

5  Ev. pp. 4-7, Annex A. Back

6  Q 31. Back

7  A herd breakdown is said to have occurred when a cow has reacted positively to the TB test. It is the standard way of measuring the incidence of bovine TB. Back

8  First report of the Statistical Auditor, Back

9  Ev. p. 2, para 7. Back

10  Ev. p. 2, para 7. Back

11  Humaneness of MAFF's Badger Despatch Procedures, p. 16. Back

12  Q 1. Back

13  Ibid, Back

14  Ev. p. 23, para 29. Back

15  Ev. p. 4, para 24. Back

16  Ev. p. 21, para 22. Back

17  Q 2. Back

18  MAFF News Release 387/00. Back

19  Q 3. Back

20  Q 2. Back

21  Q 96. Back

22  Q 52. Back

23  Qq 53-4. Back

24  Q 54. Back

25  Ev. p. 3, para 21 Back

26  Q 88. Back

27  Q 89. Back

28  Ev. p. 4, para 28. Back

29  Ev. p. 26, para 50. Back

30  Ev. p. 46. Back

31  Q 136. Back

32  Q 134. Back

33  Qq 128-129. Back

34  Ev. p. 17; Q 1. Back

35  Ev. p. 28, para 57. Back

36  Q 153. Back

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