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6.32 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I congratulate the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) on securing the debate. He ended with a rather refreshing and candid admission that he did not know what the solutions were. The problem with tackling a disease as serious and as long running as TB in cattle is that if I, or previous Ministers from either side of the House, had known what the solutions were, they would have been implemented there and then. I might try to tease some of the solutions out in a little more detail as I reply to the right hon. Gentleman's debate.

I agree that TB in cattle is the biggest animal health problem facing agriculture at present, particularly in the parts of the world that the right hon. Gentleman and I represent. I reread Thomas Hardy's "Tess of the D'Urbervilles" over new year, which reminded me of the historic importance of the dairy industry in Dorset and West Dorset, which he mentioned.

It is right that the problem is at the top of the agenda. This is not the only debate on it that we have had. There have been a number of debates on the subject in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall, and there has been scrutiny in the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which has produced reports on it. I begin by reassuring the right hon. Gentleman that I take the matter extremely seriously. We are trying all the time to move forward with solutions to the problem. I always welcome constructive suggestions, wherever they come from, whether from the farming community or from wildlife groups. Where they agree, all the better. Unfortunately, on too many of the difficult questions that we face, they do not agree.

I do not accept that the Government's approach has been bumbling. The issue is extremely difficult and complex, and involves a number of scientific questions that are still not perfectly understood. The Government are determined to tackle it, and a sign of that determination is the fact that we have spent £74 million of public money on TB in this financial year, and we expect to spend a similar sum next year.

It may be helpful to the House if I outline some of the measures that we have adopted in the past 12 years, which I hope indicate that we are not just sitting around on a non-war footing, as the right hon. Gentleman suggested. As he acknowledged, we have reduced the backlog of overdue TB tests, following the foot and mouth outbreak. We have also imposed automatic restrictions on herds with TB tests three months or more overdue, again aimed at reducing the risk of spreading TB. Back in February, we announced a review of the TB strategy. We announced a scientific panel to review the randomised badger culling trial and associated research in April. There was a consultation on a proposal to permit trained and competent non-veterinarians to

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perform skin testing of cattle. There has been consultation on the rationalisation of compensation payments for animals slaughtered for disease control purposes. In December, we published the vaccination scoping study of the independent scientific group on cattle TB, of which the right hon. Gentleman may well be aware. As he also said, in November Ministers made a decision to suspend the reactive culling element of the randomised badger culling trial, and I shall explain later exactly why we made that decision.

We must bear in mind that, distressing and serious as the problem is in West Dorset, Devon and other parts of the country that are badly affected, only about 3 per cent. of the national herd is affected by TB restrictions at any one time. Our major priority at the moment is to try to prevent that geographic spread before we control and reduce the existence of TB in the areas where it is already a problem. I hope that some of the short-term changes that will come out the current consultation will be in place soon, and they will be aimed primarily at trying to restrict the further spread of the disease, which I hope most hon. Members will agree should be any Government's priority.

It will take a bit longer to reach agreement on the longer-term strategy, but we are committed to taking measures that we think will be helpful and necessary, and I hope that we will receive the co-operation of the farming community, the veterinary profession and wildlife groups.

As I have said, we have reduced the backlog on TB testing, and I pay tribute to the work of the state veterinary service, which has done a terrific job in achieving that during the past few months. The movement restrictions on herds with tests three months or more overdue from the start of October has also acted as a powerful incentive to get things done more quickly, and data from November shows that of the overdue tests, 48 per cent. are less than one month and 90 per cent. are less than six months overdue, which is a considerable improvement on the previous position.

There has been some debate and controversy on the lay testing proposal and no decisions have been made at the moment, but there is an argument for suggesting that in order to speed matters up and reduce costs, it may be a good idea to allow lay testing for the simple procedure of the skin test. We are still assessing the feedback from the consultation, and I hope to be able to make an announcement on that to the House shortly.

I suspect that the comments that that right hon. Gentleman quoted from Professor John Bourne on "Farming Today" were in relation to the gamma-interferon test. I have regular contacts with Professor Bourne and he has not made the general point to me that he thought that we were fiddling while Rome burned, but he has had a concern about the speed with which we have extended the gamma-interferon test. The main reason for that is that it has been quite difficult to get farmers to take part in the pilot, partly because they worry that if it is more sensitive it will lead to more breakdowns and more herds being subject to restrictions. But we are making progress. We now have 77 farms that have agreed to take part in the pilot, and we are working hard to increase that number all the time.

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Earlier this year, an Audit Commission report raised concerns about some of the compensation payments made in Wales, which were not necessarily close to market values. As the Government, we have to be responsible for the proper use of taxpayers' money, and we are thinking about how we can ensure that farmers receive the full market value for their slaughtered cattle, as they should. The right hon. Gentleman was right to highlight the difficulties of the dairy industry, particularly in recent years, with the milk price. It is right and proper that farmers should get the full market value for their cattle, but there is disturbing evidence that in some cases, they have been getting considerably more than that. I would like to know why, and to see what we can do to ensure that that does not happen in future.

As for a vaccine, I was not around in politics 10 or 15 years ago, as the right hon. Gentleman was, and I do not remember Ministers in the then Conservative Government saying that a vaccine was at least 10 years away. There is no doubt, however, that although a vaccine would be a holy grail solution, it is not going to happen in the short term, as the vaccine scoping study published in December made absolutely clear. This is not because we are not committing enough resources to the issue. Among the first questions that I asked my scientific advisers when I was appointed were, "Can we speed this process up? Is the problem that we are not spending enough money on it?" I was reassured that that was not the case. The fact is that we cannot force the speed of scientific research. We are also carrying out some very useful collaborations with the Irish and New Zealand Governments on aspects of vaccine research. I hope that, in the medium and long term, vaccines for either cattle or badgers will help us to tackle this disease. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, however, to say that there is no point in raising expectations in the industry that a vaccine solution is just round the corner.

The decision to suspend the reactive culling element of the randomised badger culling trial was taken because farmers could not wait until 2006 for the outcome of the Krebs trials, as was made clear to me by farmers in Devon, among others, when I was first appointed. Ministers cannot pre-empt the outcome of a scientific trial; we cannot jeopardise the authenticity of what that trial will discover. I made it clear to Professor Bourne when I was appointed that if there were any significant interim findings before 2006, I wanted to know about them, because if they were important, we could make policy decisions sooner than that date. However, we had no control over the fact that the interim findings that were dramatic were perhaps not the ones that I, or most people in the farming industry, were expecting. That is science.

There was no doubt, however, about the advice that I was given by my scientists, including the chief scientist in the Department. The research was peer reviewed, and it has since been peer reviewed and published in December's issue of Nature. It found that, in the reactive culling areas, the impact of the culling had been to increase the incidence of TB breakdowns in cattle by 27 per cent. No Minister faced with that figure could sit back and say, "Well, we're just going to carry on and see what happens." The farming industry would have been

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up in arms, and would have said that we were continuing with a policy that was making the problem worse, and the badger rights people would have said that we were continuing with a policy that involved the unnecessary killing of badgers and was also making the problem worse.

We had no choice but to abandon the reactive cull. That does not mean to say that we have ruled out badger culling as a long-term option. The proactive culling is continuing, and I have also said to Professor Bourne that I want to know about any significant data that emerges from that before 2006, which would enable us to make an earlier policy decision.


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