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Bovine Tuberculosis

3. Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of the spread of bovine tuberculosis among cattle herds. [29232]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): Bovine TB restrictions affected approximately 5.2 per cent. of cattle herds in Great Britain between January and September 2005, compared with approximately 4.7 per cent. for the same period in 2004. Corresponding figures for Cheshire show that 2 per cent. of herds were restricted owing to a TB incident in the first nine months of 2005, compared with nearly 3 per cent. for the same period last year.

Ann Winterton: Notwithstanding the Minister's answer—I think that the figures are shocking in spite of the fact that Cheshire has done slightly better in the past
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year—will the Department not take the advice of the professionals, namely veterinary surgeons? Is he aware that the immediate past president of the British Veterinary Association said that

Is the Minister aware of the letter sent to the Secretary of State by more than 350 distinguished members of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons saying that unless immediate action—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I must tell the hon. Lady that there is more than one supplementary question there for the Minister to handle.

Mr. Bradshaw: It might help the hon. Lady if I reassure her that we are well aware of all the representations made by professional veterinary organisations, including the BVA, and we expect to make an announcement on the issue shortly.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will my hon. Friend take some advice from this side of the House? Given that the Government have made it clear that the only answer to bovine TB is science, is not looking for short-term solutions, whether that is blaming the badger as the cause or blaming it as the transmission mechanism, as wrong as arguing that the badger does not have a part to play? If we look for short-term solutions, we will end up in a bigger mess.

Mr. Bradshaw: My hon. Friend is quite right. It is critical that Governments of all political colours do not make decisions that either are short term or could make the situation even worse. We must take that into careful consideration when we make our announcement later this autumn. A difficulty highlighted by the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), who talked about targeting infected badgers, is that there is no way of telling whether a badger has TB until it is dead.

Dr. William McCrea (South Antrim) (DUP): I am sure that the Minister will agree that the farming community is doing its utmost to prevent the spread of TB in the farm animal population. What will the Department do to rid the wildlife population of the disease? We cannot expect members of the farming community continually to test farm animals for TB while their animals are being re-infected, probably from contact with wildlife.

Mr. Bradshaw: I accept that many farmers take sensible biosecurity precautions, but there is always room for improvement. Eighty per cent. of TB cases are spread from cattle to cattle, but there is always more that we can do. I expect that some of the announcements that we will make later this autumn will be about what more can be done to prevent the spread of TB between cattle as well as how we may address the wildlife problem.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): About a year ago, the Minister promised me that he would look into the possibility of putting badgers on the pill. Has he made any progress?

Mr. Bradshaw: Slow progress, I am afraid. Humane sterilisation or contraception that can be administered easily—namely, orally—is still some way off.
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Avian Influenza

4. David Wright (Telford) (Lab): What action she is taking to protect the UK from an outbreak of avian influenza. [29233]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): We are closely following international developments in the spread of the disease and taking action proportionate to risk. As a temporary measure within Europe, we have banned all wild bird imports into the EU and are also restricting gatherings of birds.

David Wright: What work is being done jointly with the Department of Health to look at how an epidemic may spread if the disease comes to the UK and human-to-human transfer develops? What advice is my right hon. Friend putting out, with colleagues at the Department of Health, to GPs and primary care trusts?

Margaret Beckett: We are indeed in contact with colleagues at the Department of Health, and with regard to the international aspects of the issue, with colleagues at the Department for International Development and so on. We are engaged at all necessary levels. The issue of potential human-to-human spread—which, I stress, to the best of my knowledge has not so far been identified—and advice to GPs are rather more matters for colleagues in the Department of Health, but I assure my hon. Friend that just as we are doing everything that we can to ensure that people who keep birds or are in association with birds are aware of potential risks, so too are our health colleagues dealing with those wider issues.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Although I very much welcome the precautions that the Government are properly taking to avoid the importation of avian flu, I am concerned that they seem to be in a muddle about the number of birds imported into the European Union. A moment ago the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), told my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) that more than half the birds coming into Europe go to the southern states and that there was a total of 60,000, yet on 8 November he gave a written parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend stating that TRACES, the EU computer system, recorded that 67,480 birds came in last year, of which 66,500 came to the UK, and that this year the figure is 120,000 for the EU as a whole, of which virtually all came into the UK. The answer that he gave to the parliamentary question—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am going to stop the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps one day we will get a short supplementary. That would be very helpful to me indeed.

Margaret Beckett: Very briefly, it is the case that the EU maintains computerised records, which are based on the logging of consignments as they arrive. The hon. Gentleman is right to identify the fact that CITES figures are different. We are not responsible for those figures and I cannot account for that.
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David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): In the interests of ongoing protection, will my right hon. Friend give careful consideration to the evidence of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the BioVeterinary Group and others about the health hazards of pet fairs, and be prepared to reconsider proposals in the Animal Welfare Bill for licensing pet fairs?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend correctly identifies the fact that there are such concerns, and I understand that they are widespread. There will be an opportunity to discuss these matters when the Animal Welfare Bill comes before the House. It is evident that various organisations, which perfectly legitimately are and have been campaigning on these issues for quite a long time, are taking the opportunity of the particular circumstances to raise them now.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): Given that Northern Ireland, uniquely within the United Kingdom, shares a land frontier with another EU member state, what discussions and representations have been made to the Government of the Irish Republic about preventing the importation of bird flu into Northern Ireland and thereby into the rest of the UK? That is a matter of great concern to people in our part of the world.

Margaret Beckett: Any direct liaison would be a matter for the Northern Ireland Office, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that as members of the EU the Irish Government are bound by exactly the same overall international regime of supervision as we are, and are dealing with the same legislation in the same way.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): Does the Secretary of State accept that the Department's own epidemiology report on the events at Pegasus Birds reveals that DEFRA does not know why the four finches that were dead on arrival died, when the incinerated birds died or what they died of, or when the 31 finches that were refrigerated died?

Margaret Beckett: All that the Department can know is information that is available. As far as I am aware, there is no clear indication why the first finches died, but the right hon. Gentleman knows that one reason why people oppose that trade is the high mortality rate. We know that the birds that died first were not carrying avian flu, because they were tested and the results were negative.

Mr. Letwin: On 15 November, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), assured the House:

However, the Department's epidemiology report shows that a total of 50 birds that died in quarantine were not examined. How does the Secretary of State explain the fact that her Department allowed a quarantine centre to
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fail to test birds that died in quarantine and to keep detailed records of the dates of death, when we have faced a clear threat to our biosecurity for two years?

Margaret Beckett: There may be a slight misunderstanding here. There has never been individual testing of all birds. Indeed, for many years the practice has been to pool samples, because it is convenient and because the interest in the past has always been in whether a whole consignment is infected—if disease is detected, the whole consignment is killed. I know that the House will understand that the Department must tread with particular care in respect of incineration. The appropriate authority, which is the local authority, is conducting an investigation, and we were not in a position to say anything about that investigation without its agreement. It has now agreed that there should be mention of the fact that some of the birds died and were incinerated, because it is important to account for all the birds in the facility. However, I cannot say more to the House about an ongoing investigation.

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