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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 6 December 2005

[Miss Ann Widdecombe in the Chair]

Bovine TB

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Cawsey.]

9.30 am

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): I am very grateful and delighted to have secured this debate at a time when the subject is so topical. The effects of bovine tuberculosis in my constituency, across the south-west and throughout the country are becoming a subject of increasing public notice. Between January 1996 and August 2005, 123,800 cattle were compulsorily slaughtered as a result of bovine TB. In 2003–04, bovine TB cost the United Kingdom £88 million. The figure was £92 million in 2004–05, and I understand that it will be similar this year. The incidence of the disease in cattle is rising at an annual long-term rate of 18 per cent. According to the Government, if the disease continues to spread at the present rate, the number of slaughters will rise from the present level of 23,000 a year to 66,000 a year in just five years and the annual costs of testing and compensation alone will be £145 million.

Last year in my county of Devon, there were 396 new-herd incidents. However, I have been given access to the state veterinary service figures for 1 January to 1 December 2005, and they are shocking. The number of new-herd breakdowns in Devon has gone up from 396 last year to 669 in just those 11 months. The number of reactors slaughtered has risen to 6,056 and the number of slaughterhouse cases is 99. That increase from 396 to 669 in the number of confirmed new-herd incidents in Devon represents a rise of nearly 70 per cent. If anything demonstrates clearly that the economic cost to the country of bovine tuberculosis and its present almost uncontrolled spread is becoming financially unsustainable regionally and nationally, it is those figures. They are a call for action from the Government.

I know that the Government have not been entirely idle, and it would be wrong to suggest that the Minister's Department has been doing nothing. There are programmes afoot to look into the question of vaccination and to examine the efficacy of different tests. At the heart of the Government's policy—the subject on which I wish chiefly to dwell—have been the random badger culling trials, which concluded just a week ago.

The human costs of bovine TB, let alone the financial costs, have long been unsustainable. Bovine TB has a slow attritional effect on the morale of farming families. One in five calls to the rural stress information network—to whose work I pay handsome tribute—arises as a result of the direct or indirect effects of bovine tuberculosis. Each of us who lives in rural communities knows that the disease has many farming families in its seemingly relentless grip and we know of the strain that that imposes.
 
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As well as the human costs, however, there are the economic costs. The Exeter university report in May concluded that

I must tell the Minister that those effects will be exacerbated by the Government's proposals to introduce tabular valuations. The university of Reading found that 79 per cent. of dairy farmers and 65 per cent. of beef farmers suffered net losses from TB breakdowns of up to £17,000 per farm. Therefore, it is incumbent on all hon. Members, especially the Minister and the Department, to examine carefully the assumptions on which current policy is based. For some eight years, random badger culling trials have been at the heart of those assumptions. I wish to examine those trials. In 1997, Professor Krebs's commission found:

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I apologise that, due to other commitments, I must leave early. Having set up the Krebs commission when I was a Minister, I can tell the Chamber that the intention of the last Conservative Government was that the Krebs report should identify radical change to deal with this matter. That was eight years ago.

Mr. Cox : I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention because that is precisely what I wish to address. What was the purpose of the Krebs trials? What was their function? Professor Krebs never doubted that the badger represented a significant source of infection in cattle. He said that the strongest evidence came from the four cases in large areas of high herd breakdown incidents where herd breakdown rates were lower following badger removal. That evidence has been amply confirmed this year in the Republic of Ireland's four-areas trial, to which I shall return.

The Krebs trials were initiated with the principal aim of determining, if possible, not the qualitative contribution—not the fact that the badger was an influence in the spread of the disease—but the quantitative contribution, and the effectiveness of various methods of culling. Professor Krebs did not argue, nor, to my knowledge, has any sensible commentator ever argued, that the presence of infected wildlife was the only factor in the epidemiology of the disease. The question that no science has apparently yet been able to answer is that of extent.

The advice to the Government of the Science Advisory Council sub-group on bovine TB just two months ago was that the relative roles of cattle transmission and wildlife are still impossible to determine. However, it concluded that, in the current circumstances, cattle-to-cattle transmission was probably the dominant factor. It is important to be careful in examining what that might mean. The geographical spread of bovine TB within the UK may well be currently influenced by cattle movements.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): Would my hon. Friend care to reflect on the fact that, during the foot and mouth outbreak when there were no cattle movements, TB still continued its spread across the country through some other medium?
 
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Mr. Cox : I fully agree, but my intention at the moment is to examine the review of the Government's advice and the status of their thinking. For now, I shall not deal with whether I agree with the conclusions of the Science Advisory Council; I shall come to that at the end. I am examining the way in which the policy has developed within the Department, and I ask the Minister whether some of the assumptions that I am making and whether some of the inferences that I am drawing from the published material are incorrect.

I do not believe that the Minister or the Department dispute that whether cattle transmission totals 50 per cent., 60 per cent., 40 per cent. or more or less than that, the presence of a pool of infection within this country's wildlife—particularly in hot spots such as Devon—is a significant source of infection. I am fortified in that statement by correspondence from the Minister, which has been given to me by my constituent, Mr. Tony Yewdall. His family farm lost some 90 cattle over a period of two years, and I know that the Minister is familiar with Mr. Yewdall. In that extensive correspondence, the Minister did not seek to deny that the badger is a significant source of infection and likely to be implicated in the breakdown on the Yewdalls's farm, which, in common with many in the same predicament in my constituency, operates a closed herd.

Let us consider the Krebs trials. Will they be an effective way to determine the effectiveness of the culling and the quantitative contribution of the badger? Professor Godfray, who was commissioned by the Government to examine and inspect the Krebs trials, has concluded that they will not prove anything conclusive about the effectiveness of culling. Indeed, Professor Bourne, chairman of the Independent Scientific Group, told the Select Committee in 2004 that the trials' validity would apply only to the cull in the specific manner in which it was done in them.

There are at least serious doubts about the manner in which culling has been carried out in the suspended reactive and proactive triplet areas. In an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) on 8 December 2003, the Minister accepted that, in the poorest conditions, culling efficiency might be as low as 30 per cent. and it remains far below the 100 per cent. advised as essential by Professor Krebs if significant conclusions were to be drawn.

In his original report, Professor Krebs recommended that the reactive trial should involve the removal of

He went on to stipulate

and that recolonisation of setts should be prevented for a reasonable period. There are strong grounds for believing that none of those conditions has been met. The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons has pertinently observed of that failure:

The importance of achieving 100 per cent. efficiency, which Professor Krebs initially regarded as crucial to the effectiveness of the trials, was emphasised by
 
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Mr. Alick Simmons, the head of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs's veterinary endemic animal disease and zoonoses division. In his evidence to the Select Committee in May 2004, he said:

Thus there are serious questions about the effectiveness of the Krebs trials but, to conclude the trials, farmers throughout the country and in the south-west have been told endlessly to wait.

The badger population is currently estimated at well over 500,000. It has enjoyed protected status for many years and is not threatened. Indeed, the badger's status, given its lack of endangerment, is unique. That is entirely right. The badger is a unique and beautiful animal and occupies an affectionate place in the hearts of the British people. Gratuitous cruelty to animals is a disgusting practice and deserves the opprobrium and contempt that it receives when it is discovered. But bovine TB is a killer of badgers, too. Those with the disease can die a gruesome and harrowing death. I have read accounts by scientists of its pathology. A recent article by Dr. John Gallagher described the lungs of a diseased badger:

within the lungs of the infected animal. In parts of the country such as Devon, bovine TB is endemic in the badger population. We have a responsibility to deal with it in both the cattle and the wildlife population to the ultimate benefit of both.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): Unfortunately I, too, have to leave before the end of the debate. In the southern part of my constituency which borders on that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), we have a hot spot in the Audlem and Market Drayton area. It first appeared during the foot and mouth crisis, which rather reinforces the point that was made earlier. Does my hon. Friend recognise the need for a systematic testing of road kills, particularly in the light of the evidence he has just cited, because they are one of the best available sources of evidence to show the spread of TB and how it may not just be the result of cattle transmission?

Mr. Cox : I could not agree with my hon. Friend more. It is obviously vital that all instruments and tools available to us should be examined and expanded. I understand that the recent figures show that one in seven badgers from the road traffic accident testing were infected. Plainly we need to look at those tests much more carefully and expand the testing if possible.

On the strength of the Krebs trials, which the chairman of the Independent Scientific Group on cattle TB described as "of limited application", there has until recently been no development of a coherent and comprehensive strategy for the reduction and elimination of the disease that includes the vital wildlife factor. It is not surprising that events are reaching the pass that the statistics are showing.
 
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Yet I do not want to paint a wholly gloomy picture. For on to this dark horizon, there came a ray of light. It seemed as if at last, for the Government and the Minister, the reality, although long obscured, had begun to dawn. There was the Government's strategic framework for the sustainable control of bovine tuberculosis. Many deride that document, regarding it as something that, after eight long years, is full of pious sentiments promising little in the way of immediate action. However, in the spirit that I intend to adopt for the purposes of this debate of trying to credit constructive action where credit is due, I do not think that all the criticisms are necessarily merited.

Having spent the last eight years in the pursuit of sound science based on the random badger culling trials, the framework acknowledges, just as Professor Godfray had warned over 18 months before:

I do not believe that anybody could seriously object to any of the sentiments outlined in the framework document. Partnership: yes. We can also say yes to an overall, comprehensive approach that deals with both cattle and wildlife transmission. We can also say yes to a regionally tailored approach designed to target those areas where the infection is at its most intense, because in those areas there will be one risk assessment and in the areas that are relatively or entirely clean, the risk assessment will be different. That makes sense, and I understand it.

I also understand the other sentiments in the document, which states:

It has taken the Government eight years to arrive at the conclusion that the science will not prove anything and that we shall have to proceed on the basis of scientific uncertainty. I applaud them if they have genuinely recognised that we shall have to use the best available evidence and assess risks in different areas, knowing that we cannot foresee the precise effects of the treatment that we prescribe in a particular area. As the document says,

I have to tell the Minister that it is his job to make such judgments. As the document says:


 
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The document then adds:

Finally, the document spoke of equity:

In other words, the strategic document contained the clearest concession that there is an issue of equity and of basic, fundamental fairness in expecting the farming community to bear not only the cost of the pre-movement tests involved in controlling this disease, but the economic and human costs of being denied the right to defend their property and to protect themselves against a disease that, as the document said,

There is an issue about allowing this situation to continue and about loading ever more responsibilities on the farmer without tackling the wildlife reservoir of disease.

On 27 June, I attended a meeting with the Minister, along with constituents and representatives of the National Beef Association. The message from that meeting was unmistakable and was consistent with the strategic framework document, which said that it was important not to exclude the possibility of concentrating on cattle transmission alone. The interpretation of all those present was that the Government were moving slowly but ineluctably toward the inevitable conclusion. There was a lively discussion about the means by which a limited and humane cull might be carried out. The constructive engagement of the farming organisation was enlisted.

Then there was the scientific advice that the Government received. Just a few weeks ago, in September, the Science Advisory Council offered this cautious recommendation:

It explained that the efficacy of culling would depend on local and geographical factors. Those are the very issues with which the national and regional policy sketched out in the strategic framework is concerned; hence the need for regionally tailored policies.

Finally, we have had consistent assurances from the Minister since the summer—repeated in this House—that an announcement could be expected in the autumn. I am willing to call December autumn if he will make his announcement now. Timing does not matter—as we know, we can suspend it in the House—so I shall be delighted if he will do so. I plead with him to show the
 
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members of farming communities who have travelled a great distance to attend this debate that although the Government are moving slowly, they are going to take precise and specific action. Last month, the Minister said:

All those statements, and the whole current of Government policy, seem to have been leading to a measured response to the problem of uncertain evidence and the long- neglected right of farming people to have their livelihoods and property protected in a manner in which they can have confidence. I accept that it is essential to assess risk and cost when considering that necessary buzzword in administrative law—what is "proportionate". The Minister has repeatedly said that that is what he is engaged in.

As the Government concede, however, in a genuine partnership, basic considerations of equity and fairness are at stake. Why should farming communities have to bear the cost of new cattle control measures, such as pre-movement testing, reduced compensation and the continuing and dramatic losses and effects of BTB while unable to protect themselves, their living and their animals from the reservoir of disease that everybody accepts exists? A limited resumption of culling must be available as a tool in any co-ordinated and comprehensive policy if it is veterinary opinion that circumstances on the ground call for it.

I accept that the Minister's Department has the spectre of a High Court judge looking over its shoulder, but I ask him to consider the terms of section 10(2) of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992:

In other words, the Act clearly permits the Minister to issue a licence for the taking or culling of badgers to prevent the spread of disease. Subsection (9) of that same section says that that consent

Thus, in a court, the onus would be on the Minister to prove that his consent to the licence had been reasonable.

Every farmer has rights to the peaceful enjoyment of his property under article 1 of protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights. Under the jurisprudence of that convention, a fair balance must be struck between the individual and the interests of society in protecting the badger. It was never the intention of Parliament that farming communities should be denied the opportunity of dealing with the wildlife reservoir if there were a prospect that that might be effective. Given that the Government seem to be unprepared to act even in the extreme circumstances described in the SAC's advice, a blanket policy denying all applications for a licence would stand a strong chance of being found to be unlawful. I hope that such action will be unnecessary.
 
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Only the week before last, the Farmers Guardian announced that the Department had stated that the Minister's announcement could be expected today, so we have arrived at the end of a long and tortuous road—or have we? What new twist of the screw or the knife is to be inflicted on an anxious and expectant farming community? There are worrying developments, with which I ask the Minister to deal. In January 2006, the new EU food hygiene regulations come into force, which will require that dairy producers isolate and discard milk from TB reactor cows. What will that mean for producers in the south-west, where large herd breakdowns take place? We are in December, but there is no guidance from DEFRA on how to deal with the situation.

If there is to be a partnership, let there be genuine and greater flexibility to enable farmers to recover more quickly from a breakdown. Allow them to volunteer inconclusive reactors for slaughter. Where there are large herd losses, use the gamma interferon test to accelerate the diagnosis of infected cattle, and allow fast restocking. Where whole herds are removed—as has tragically been the case in my constituency and other constituencies throughout the south-west—if cattle-to-cattle transmission is the cause, fast restocking should be allowed after disinfection.

The feeling of the farming communities whom I represent is running very strong. They are law-abiding, courageous and decent people whom it is a privilege to represent, but they are at the end of their tether. They are stretched in every direction by one pressure on another and they cannot endure indefinitely. The human cost and misery of the tragedy, unfolding silently, unnoticed by a wider public, throughout the countryside, can no longer be ignored. If the Government fail to fulfil the hopes of an expectant farming community that, at last, pragmatic considerations have prevailed, they will rightly think that Nero himself could not have shown more shocking indifference to the fate of farmers, cattle and badgers alike.

I have received many letters on this subject from constituents—farmers, vets and others who have witnessed the burdens placed by bovine TB on farming families. I shall read only one. Mr. R. E. Colbear of Northlew near Okehampton says:

foot and mouth—


 
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I hope that, at least in discharging that duty, I have been successful today.

10.4 am

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) on securing the debate and on his rhetorical flourishes in advancing the case on behalf of his constituents. It is very important that we discuss agriculture and particularly livestock industries in the House, but we rarely have an opportunity to do so. It seems to me there has not been a debate on this issue in Government time since before the election before last, which speaks volumes about the importance that is now placed on what is still, for many of us in the west country particularly but also for people in other parts of the country, an important industry.

This is an emotive subject for obvious reasons. None of us wants damage to be done to the wildlife in our areas, or rash decisions to be taken in dealing with this disease. As the hon. Gentleman said, there are many uncertainties. We are still vague about the transmission and the epidemiology of the disease, despite the best endeavours of many people over a long time. We know, however, that bovine tuberculosis is present in cattle herds and in the badger population and other wildlife populations, and although we cannot yet prove definitively the transmission between the two, the link is at least logical, given trials elsewhere and the experience of many of our farmers, whose herds are closed and have not been moved on and off their farms yet who see new instances of bovine tuberculosis in them.

It is clear that the major vector is cattle to cattle; everyone should accept that. Nevertheless, it is clear that other transmission methods enable the disease to get into our cattle population. That creates problems for the economy and for the welfare of the animals. I shall deal with the economic problem in a moment, but I want to stress welfare, because this is an animal welfare issue. Some 20,000 cattle are slaughtered every year. I do not happily accept the slaughter of cattle on that scale to eradicate disease; I know the effect that it has on the farmers involved.

I also believe that this is a welfare issue for the badger population—a key issue that has only just begun to surface in the public consciousness. Why on earth are we allowing an animal that we consider to be sufficiently important to list as a protected species to suffer and die from tuberculosis without doing anything about it? This is key to disease control.

Economically, the compulsory slaughter of cattle is costing the country roughly £19 million each year, as we have already heard. That is a huge sum of money that benefits no one. We should try to eradicate the disease rather than continually deal with a recurrent infection rate. The economic effects on each farmer are enormous. The compensation that they receive for their cattle is not important. What is important is the effect on their farming enterprises and the knock-on effects of the ban on movements off their farms that cause them all sorts
 
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of short-term management and husbandry problems. There are all sorts of economic and social effects on the farmers involved.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Has the hon. Gentleman had a case in his constituency like the one in mine, where people living in Pensax have been so intimidated by Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs officials—I have written to the Government about this—that they dare not release their cattle or even answer the phone? That is the extent of the problem, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for talking about welfare.

Mr. Heath : Some of my constituents have had very unfortunate relationships with DEFRA officials, whose response to the disease has meant that there has been no plain sailing in dealing with it. There have been delays, particularly in dealing with bureaucratic aspects, which have caused those constituents a great deal of distress and have damaged their businesses.

I have outlined the economic and social effects on the farming population. I now return to the question of welfare and the disease that is endemic in the badger population. As the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon said, it affects badgers far more than cattle. Another knock-on effect, which I shall not dwell on, is the illegal cull of badgers that is undoubtedly going on all the time. I do not condone it, but it is happening. Some of the road kills on our lanes—in Somerset, there is a dead badger on practically every lane—were not hit by cars, but were put there having been otherwise destroyed. Those are the lengths to which people will go if they feel that their concerns are not being properly addressed.

For a long time, I have advised people that they should have patience on this issue, and I have advised care and consideration for the processes that the Government have had in train. In some ways, I have defended the Government's position because I thought it important to get the scientific evidence that the Krebs trials were supposed to produce—in less time than was taken.

I have always wanted to see the holy grail of an effective vaccine for the cattle population and for other wildlife, and I am interested in the prospective trial of the BCG vaccine on badgers. If there is any evidence that it provides effective damping of the infection rate in the badger population, it should be used more extensively and quickly than is envisaged. Surely, we have learned from foot and mouth that if we get a ring of protection around infected areas and reduce the transmission of the disease within the relevant population by vaccination, we can then start to deal sensibly with the infected animals within the ring.

It seems to me that long-term considerations have outgrown their usefulness because we need to deal with the crisis on our hands that affects our farming communities and our cattle and wildlife populations. That has been emphatically brought home to many of us not only by the farmers whom we represent but by the veterinary surgeons, who have an interest in having a disease-free animal population, and who take no joy from telling people that they have to put down their cattle or take other measures.
 
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The time has come for targeted badger control in infected areas—not across the whole country. I do not want to see a slaughter of badgers; they are an adornment and decoration to the countryside. I know that many people feel great affection for the species, but we have to deal with infected areas and individuals effectively. Given the prevalence of the species—certainly in Somerset, and, I suspect, the whole of the west country—I have no doubt that we will see recolonisation in a short time if such control is used, as there is only one natural predator of badgers: the motor car. The badger is an effective species, which clearly enjoys and proliferates in the ecology still available to it, so let us not be concerned about the future health of the population.

Pre and post-movement testing on mature cattle that are moved from farm to farm should be introduced as a matter of course, although we need to reach a satisfactory conclusion on who should pay for it. Putting more burdens on the agricultural community is probably unsustainable, but we need to put that testing regime in place. We need to maintain the research base for the reasons I gave: to discover the epidemiology and for vaccine effectiveness and production.

I do not know why there was such a small control experiment of post-mortem testing of road kill badgers, which was not done in some counties. Indeed, my county was excluded. That is a huge available resource. If there were post-mortem testing of road kills, we would have a much clearer idea of the extent of the spread of bovine TB in the badger population. That is an elementary step towards understanding the disease and its spread.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I would like to support the hon. Gentleman's comments about the routine examination of road kills. Fortunately, in Northamptonshire, there are very few cases of bovine TB. The Leicester animal health division of the state veterinary service reported only 39 bovine TB cases this year. There is no call locally for a targeted cull in Northamptonshire, but there would be popular support for the routine examination of badgers that fall victim to road kills.

Mr. Heath : That is interesting because that area is outside the main current focus, and I welcome what the hon. Gentleman said. It is not just badgers; we must be wary of widespread infection in other wildlife species. At least as a precautionary measure, we should be doing occasional post mortems of other road kill species—deer, in particular, in my area.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger rose—

Mr. Heath : Have I just said what the hon. Gentleman wished to say?

Mr. Liddell-Grainger : As a fellow Somerset MP, I am aware that there is a large red deer population on Exmoor. During the foot and mouth epidemic, to which I alluded earlier, there was no cattle movement. One of the issues that we explored, and I know that the hon.
 
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Gentleman supports it, was the wholesale checking of all deer that had been killed on Exmoor. Would he concur with that? I think that he probably would.

Mr. Heath : Given that that is what I just said, the hon. Gentleman can be confident that I will agree with him. There is a large deer population, not just on Exmoor and the Quantocks, but in my area—although not red deer, sadly. If they are potential vectors, we ought to know whether bovine tuberculosis has entered the herd.

The last point that I should like to make concerns compensation. We continue to be told that the Government intend to move from a system of 100 per cent. valuation to a tariff or tabular system. That has potential problems. I can see its attractions from the Treasury's point of view, but I fear for its consequences for some of our farmers. Can the Minister consider the difference in value between different breeds of cattle? I am thinking particularly about some of our rare breeds, which have huge potential value, although their market value is not always recognised in the same way. We must at least have variations within that tabular approach to allow for the difference between a pedigree herd and a superannuated milker—without being unkind to the black and whites in my constituency. There is a big difference in potential valuation.

I should also like to re-emphasise the urgency of the matter. When I asked a question on 20 October, the Secretary of State replied:

Yes, I do, but it is my constituents that I am concerned about, because I am paid to represent them. She went on:

I agree with that as well, but if that anxiety is expressed by the Secretary of State, it must now be translated into action by coming to a decision. Frankly, we have waited long enough for that decision. I hope that today is an opportunity for the Minister to stand up and tell us what he is going to do about bovine tuberculosis. If he does not, many people who are concerned about our agriculture industry, and the welfare of our wildlife, will want to know why he is continuing to dither.

10.19 am

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): I apologise to you, Miss Widdecombe, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) that I have to attend the Standards and Privileges Committee shortly. I shall make a short contribution because, like my hon. Friend who represents a neighbouring constituency, I have seen the situation in the west country aggravated by the spread of this disease in such a short space of time.

One of the reasons why the previous Conservative Government commissioned the Krebs report was that we realised that there had to be a fundamental change in policy if the geographic spread of this disease was to be curtailed. It was not only present in the south-west peninsular, but had gone round the corner from
 
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Bristol    and was already into Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. We have now seen the further spread of the disease in such a short space of time.

When I was elected 14 years ago, my most northerly parish, Morebath, which borders Exmoor, had just had its first case of bovine tuberculosis. However, the disease is now well down the Exe valley. Indeed, I say to the Minister—he too is a neighbour of mine—that if he had farms in his constituency, I think that the disease would now be in his constituency too.

The aim of the Conservative Government in commissioning the Krebs report was to stop the geographic spread; we hoped that Krebs would come up with an alternative policy that could be implemented. I understand the difficulty that the Minister has; indeed I have spoken to him privately about that and about what I believe to be necessary, and I now do so publicly. The political will is needed to do something about this disease, which affects farmers to the extent so eloquently described by my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon—the impact on farmers and their families has to be seen to be believed. It is not just about the money, although that of course is important in any business, but about the sheer desperation that people suffer when they are restricted, when they can see their whole livelihood being taken away from them and feel totally impotent to do anything about it.

I have sat in the Minister's chair, and I know that when one is dealing with badgers, which are a protected species, one has to jump through lots of hoops. My hon. Friend mentioned the powers that the Minister has to take action. As a Minister, I issued licences for the killing of badgers but, in order to do so, I had to try to get the permission of all sorts of groups of people, such as badger groups and the official badger panel, that were set up when the species was first protected. I am sure that, at the time, their establishment was well intended. Those groups are there to introduce checks and balances on ministerial decision making but, in a case like this, they hamper the Minister in doing what is the right thing to do.

The Minister will know, because I know that he has seen the data, that there have been experiments and trials around the world, not least the one in the Republic of Ireland, which I have visited twice, once as a Minister and once since. We do not have to reinvent the wheel in the UK. We are part of the European Union, so surely we can respect the scientific analysis of a trial carried out in another EU country, without saying that we have now got to spend years trialling the same thing ourselves. There should be a much faster process by which we can say what works and what does not. I know that, in the absence of concrete scientific evidence, the situation is difficult, but it cannot be left as it is. The disease will soon become endemic in the UK.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) said that there are just a few cases in Northamptonshire. Give it five years, and he will not be standing up here and saying that there is no public feeling for action, because we have seen the same situation in Cornwall, Devon and Somerset. As the disease has spread, we could predict what would happen.
 
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This debate, raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon, is timely because, after eight years, we are now waiting to see what the Government will do to make a difference to the farming community. I urge the Minister to act on this matter. If he does, he will have the support of many people in the House. I am sure that, with his persuasive powers, he can convince even the people who sit behind him in the Chamber that this is not just a slaughter policy; it is about the farming community and how it is suffering and the huge slaughter of farm animals. However, it is also about the welfare of the badger. It was once suggested to me that somehow tuberculosis does not affect badgers as it would any other species—human or animal. That is rubbish. They drag themselves around the countryside and become weak.

I love British culture, but I am worried by an aspect of it to do with animals—"The Wind in the Willows" approach to badgers. That must be changed. If people care about moles, rats and badgers, and other parts of our heritage, the well-being and health of badgers and wild creatures should matter. The Minister is best placed to make that case as the foundation for a change in policy. If that is to succeed, I am convinced that selective culling will be needed. When we commissioned the Krebs report, it was with the assumption that it would result in a need for culling to produce a cordon sanitaire around parts of the country to stop disease spreading down through the south-west peninsula or further north.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): My hon. Friend has mentioned the Krebs report, and she was the Minister when it was implemented. The lack of a cordon sanitaire has led to exponential growth in the number of TB cases in the north-west, Staffordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire. Everything that my hon. Friends have said this morning applies to those counties as much as to the west-country.

Angela Browning : My hon. Friend is right. It was to try to prevent that spread that we asked Professor Krebs to examine existing policies.

I fully understand the difficulties that the Minister has. As a Minister I had to protect staff in what was then the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food from the criminal activity of activists and lobby groups who attacked their persons and their property.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw) : It is still happening.

Angela Browning : I know. I fully understand the sensitivities and difficulties that the Minister faces. However, the task requires political will and I hope that he will exercise that.

10.27 am

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) on not only securing the debate but on the wealth of information that he has provided to hon. Members. Of course, we have been here before, and some of us who have attended such debates and been
 
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members of DEFRA Select Committees before which the Minister and others appeared, are experiencing a certain amount of déjà vu. A huge amount of concern has been generated over a long period.

The figures that the hon. Gentleman has brought before us, which have been available for some time and which show the rising tide of a terrible disease, cannot be disputed. As has been said, recent Government policy has been predicated on the Krebs trials. I had Krebs trials in my constituency: we have triplets in trials in South-East Cornwall. Everyone with any knowledge at all of the Krebs trials has no doubt of their proper intention. They were a real attempt to reach a scientific analysis. However, there are, and have been for some time, questions about the likely effectiveness of the outcome of the trials. If they are to be published, it will be interesting to see what, after such a period of time, they will definitely have established.

I was grateful to the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) who reminded us how long the process, which was set up in her time as a Minister, has been going on and what has been achieved. I am sure that she and her Devon colleagues know that the situation in Cornwall is just as dire. The so-called hot spots are becoming almost a rash, and we must consider where we are, rather than where we want to be or where we hoped or thought we would be.

The science is not exact, and it might not be for some time. The number of incidents has risen significantly, particularly in the south-west, at huge financial and personal cost—we must emphasise the personal costs to farmers and their families and those who work for them; they are under enormous stress—and no effective vaccine is in prospect. However, farmers have also to face other things that compound their problems, such as low market prices; the unprofitability of their enterprises; the introduction of the single farm payment, which will cause concern in the next year or two; and the increasing incidence of bovine TB outbreaks.

The situation is increasingly desperate. Liberal Democrats represent many rural areas, and it is sad to see a lot of empty seats opposite us. The Government have to recognise that, in rural areas, the cry for action is becoming louder. Given the fact that farmers have gone through BSE and foot and mouth and the desperate problems of low prices and outbreaks of TB, how many of them will decide that enough is enough and that they cannot continue? Despite all the social, financial and family implications that will inevitably follow, how many will give up?

In the past two months, I have received a huge number of letters and e-mails from constituents, and I know from colleagues in Cornwall and other parts of the south-west that the situation needs to be properly addressed. As my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, the welfare of the badger has to be taken into account more often than it has been in the past; we are dealing with very sick animals. My party had supported the Government's intentions in the Krebs trials, and had been keen to ensure that animal welfare was at the heart of policy making. However, in view of the crisis, I asked my party
 
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to do something that took a lot of persuasion—to adopt a policy on selective culling. Such a move had been rejected a number of times because we had genuinely hoped that the Krebs trials would produce a scientific solution, that vaccine might be the way forward and that we would finally overcome the terrible disease. However, the situation had become so bad that if livestock farming were to survive in this country, even with long-term solutions in place, we had to get on top of it.

It is always said that bovine TB is a highly emotive issue, and that was true when my party discussed it. Some 10 weeks ago, we decided to adopt a new policy that had three elements: an immediate and focused programme of badger control in the hot spot areas to prevent or control cross-contamination between badgers and cattle; the introduction of pre and post-movement testing of cattle—that is not wholly supported by some of my constituents, which I can understand given the costs of testing, the impact on the value of animals and the effects on farming, but we felt that it was important if we were to support selective culling.

Mr. Heath : It is an important component. The hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) spoke about the situation in Cheshire. It is almost certain that that was caused by cattle-to-cattle transmission due to the movement of herds from the west country to Cheshire, rather than any spread through the badger population. We must be aware of that and be prepared to do something about it.

Mr. Breed : I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention; I entirely agree with him.

The third element was that the Government have a further role to play in providing immediate and increased support for the development of a vaccine. There may be some elements of work on the BSG that could be useful. However, having spoken to a number of companies that are involved in vaccine development, it is clear that they will require significant Government support if they are to advance the programme. The likely profits that will be generated from a vaccine when it ultimately is obtained are not likely to encourage those companies to put an awful lot of their money into research and development.

It was with a heavy heart that my colleagues came to the conclusion that the situation was so desperate and had reached such a crisis, especially in the south-west, that culling was perhaps an inevitability. That was not because mass wholesale slaughter of badgers is a good thing; that would not take place. There would, however, be selective culling in known and persistent hot spots, especially in the south-west, to get on top of the situation while medium and long-term solutions are devised. As has been said by all hon. Members, we, the farming industry and many individual farmers are looking to the Minister and the Government to accept that the time has come for action, however unpalatable that may be, which it is for many. If the situation is not tackled now in a positive way, we will see a continuing spread of the disease, continuing misery in the farming industry, and perhaps we will be no further forward than we are now.
 
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10.37 am

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): It is a great pleasure, Miss Widdecombe, to serve under your chairmanship. I heartily congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) not only on securing this debate, but on his splendid and robust speech. I should declare my interests as set out in the register, namely my agricultural rent. I should declare another interest: I am probably the only MP who has had one pet badger, and I can guarantee that I am the only MP who has had two pet badgers.

I entirely endorse the comments of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), and of my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning). There are real concerns on animal welfare, especially as regards badgers, and it grieves me to think that the descendants of my badgers could be suffering a hideous death due to Government neglect on TB.

There has been a developing hot spot around Market Drayton in my constituency. I spoke to Heulwen Charles of the National Farmers Union yesterday, who estimates that 25 per cent. of the dairy farms around Drayton have been affected by TB. Since I became a shadow Minister, I have made it my business to go around the country. I have been to the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Torridge and West Devon, I have seen Mr Yewdall, and I have asked more than 600 parliamentary questions on this matter. I would like to thank the Minister and the civil servants for the manner in which they have answered my questions because we have flushed out a huge amount of information, some of which I shall touch on.

Conservative Members wish to see a healthy prosperous cattle industry alongside a sustainable, managed and healthy wildlife population. At the moment, we have neither. DEFRA's consultation document of last year stated that we will spend £2 billion of taxpayers' money over the next 10 years not curing TB. In the Minister's own words, in a parliamentary reply:

The numbers are staggering. Another parliamentary reply states that, in 1997, we slaughtered 3,760 cattle. The latest figures up to the end of October show that, this year, we have already killed 25,757 cattle. By the end of the year, that figure will represent a 700 per cent. increase on 1997.

The phenomenon occurs because we will not bear down on disease in both sectors. There is disease in both cattle and wildlife. Transmission may be cattle to cattle, cattle to wildlife, wildlife to wildlife or wildlife to cattle. The phenomenon that demonstrates that is closed farms. A Mr. Evans from Yockleton near Shrewsbury sent me an e-mail last week. They have had a breakdown, with serious badger activity on the farm, and that farm has closed after operating for more than 100 years.

I went to St. Mawes after the Royal Cornwall show. The Miles from St. Mawes have had a farm since 1966. On two sides is the sea, on one side is a village and on another side is a clean farm. They have bought in only three bulls since 1966, yet two years ago they found sick
 
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badgers on the farm—four were dead—and they recently lost half their herd. In a letter to the Minister, Mrs. Miles said:

As Mrs. Charles told me only yesterday in an e-mail:

The Minister told me in a written reply of the extraordinarily high level of infectivity of badger urine when badgers have renal TB. He stated:

colony forming units

Again, the Minister told us on 29 January 2004 at column 483W that TB will survive in manure for two years and on pasture for five to 11 months. He also acknowledges the cruelty to badgers. In another reply, referring to an animal that may have had late-stage TB, he states that

We so nearly got rid of the problem. In the 1930s, 40 per cent. of dairy cows were considered tuberculous. By using the tuberculin test and slaughter, before we had a wildlife reservoir, we got the figure down to 0.01 per cent. of animals tested in 1972. In 1971, a badger with tuberculosis was found in Gloucestershire next to a farm where two heifers had gone down with TB.

We have seen what happens where we do bear down on disease in wildlife. In another written reply, the Minister said:

Again, in the Minister's words,

Again, in the Minister's words:

For two years, we were told to wait for the four-counties trial in Ireland. We now have the results. Removal of the badger population led to a reduction in breakdowns of 57 per cent. in Monaghan, 74 per cent. in Kilkenny, 75 per cent. in Cork and 96 per cent. in Donegal. That was confirmed by a number of vets.
 
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John Gallagher, who has huge experience in TB as a former adviser on TB to DEFRA and as the retired senior vet for Devon and Cornwall, wrote a letter to the Secretary of State in February. There are now 420 vets behind the letter. They have 150 years of experience—frankly, more experience than all the Government's scientific advisers put together—and they are disgusted that badgers are

Pictures were revealed by Dr. Gallagher in an article in the Veterinary Times showing the hideous deaths that tuberculous badgers suffer. Those vets were clear. They said that the Krebs trial, which has been referred to, is now "hopelessly compromised" and that it is

Again, vets who are very knowledgeable on this disease are emphatic that TB leads badgers to die cruel deaths. They have said:

Those vets cannot be blamed for thinking that the Krebs trials are discredited.

In another reply, the Minister said:

It is not surprising that there is perturbation if 70 per cent. of badgers were so scared out of their wits that they scattered around the country spreading disease. The Minister has also told me that 57 per cent. of the traps were interfered with and 12 per cent. of them were stolen.

It is clear at the highest levels of veterinary knowledge in this country what should be done. The president of the British Veterinary Association, Dr. Bob McCracken, said:

Yet, as recently as two weeks ago, the Minister seemed to be in denial. In a written answer, he claimed:

That is in total contradiction to the views of his own scientists. The central science laboratory said that the figure could be as low as 15 to 74 per cent. The Minister's claim has already been refuted in studies by Professor Wilesmith, a world-renowned expert who is convinced that there is badger transmission.

I repeat that transmission can be from cattle to cattle, cattle to badger, badger to cattle or badger to badger.
 
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We have to bear down on both sources of disease, but the Minister is absolutely determined not to do so. In a reply to me, he actually said:

of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992—

He has made up his mind. He has not told Parliament why he has, in effect, repealed a section of British law.

I have tried to help the Minister. I have met scientists at Warwick university, who are convinced that they can get round one of his biggest problems—his fear of unnecessarily culling healthy badgers. Those scientists are convinced that polymerase chain reaction technology—PCR—could identify setts where diseased badgers live, because badgers live in social groups and use latrines. In his reply to me, however, the Minister was looking for an excuse not to accept advances in technology.

I went to Michigan to see how the Americans have handled TB, and they dismissed the Minister's reply as quibbling. They are convinced that there is real use to be made from identifying TB around badger setts, which could help us to take out the diseased badgers and leave healthy ones. We all agree that we want to leave the healthy ones, partly because they are a barrier to the spread of disease by diseased badgers.

There are real lessons to be learned in Michigan. I was astonished by the severity with which the federal and state authorities treated the disease. The lessons are simple: bear down on disease in cattle using fast, accurate and modern means of diagnosis. In Michigan, the authorities gave cattle a skin test and used gamma interferon and PCR. They have rigidly enforced, but workable pre-movement testing and movement restrictions. I went there thinking that pre-movement control was probably a political gesture on the part of the farming community to get action from the Government on wildlife, but it is more than that—it is an integral part of the community success in getting rid of disease in cattle. The farming community recently went for two years without a single herd going down.

However, the authorities also took vigorous, if unpopular, action to bear down on disease in wildlife. The white-tailed deer is iconic, but the culling of deer by means of hunting exceeds the culling of cattle. There is a huge public education programme, and the white-tailed deer population has been reduced by half. People were astonished by the grotesque level of disease in this country.

To take the necessary measures, the Government must keep the confidence of the farming community. It is vital that they do not chisel on compensation, as has perhaps been proposed with the tabular valuation. That runs directly counter to the experience in America, where farmers really co-operated. Reducing the disease is simple, and that will reduce the cost, which will help the Treasury.

It is not only the cattle industry, the beef industry and the dairy industry that are at risk. As the US chief vet in charge of TB said, bovine tuberculosis is a serious zoonosis, which is dangerous to humans. It has already been transmitted to dogs and cats, and some humans have picked it up from cattle.
 
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We were promised a statement on TB this autumn, but I do not count 6 December as autumn. The Government's attitude is incomprehensible. Whatever the reason for it, Government inaction is a scandalous dereliction of their duty to protect the people, cattle and wildlife of this country from an age-old preventable disease.

10.49 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw) : May I, like other hon. Members, congratulate the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) on securing this debate and on his excellent speech, with its Shakespearean flourishes? I do not think that anyone has ever compared me to Nero, but there is always a first time. I am also grateful to him for mentioning the constructive meeting that we held with a delegation of farmers from his constituency. As a fellow Member representing the west country, I am well aware of the level of concern in his constituency, and much of our region, about bovine TB.

I want to correct some of the figures that the hon. Gentleman gave, which I do not think that he would want to remain on the record. I understand that he was not comparing like with like, but was comparing new herd incidence with confirmed incidence. The actual figures are that there were 396 confirmed new incidents last year and 350 confirmed new incidents between January and October this year. I think that the figure that he gave of 600-and-something was not confirmed. However, there is no doubt that there has been a significant increase, as he said. The current trend nationally is about 18 per cent. a year.

This is the most challenging animal health problem that we face. Successive Governments have grappled with it since incidence began to increase in the mid-1980s. As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged, the disease is complex, and some of the key related scientific issues still are not fully understood. However, he was also gracious enough to acknowledge that the Government have not been idle—I think that those are the words he used. I shall come to the wildlife controls shortly, as that is the issue about which hon. Members have been most concerned this morning.

As the hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr.   Paterson) has just acknowledged, international experience shows that good cattle controls are also absolutely essential in the fight against bovine TB. Those controls have been improved in the past year. We have taken a number of measures: we have calculated the routine testing intervals; applied movement restrictions immediately TB tests are overdue; developed a more rigorous and systematic approach to identifying and dealing with potential new TB hot spots; and introduced rigorous testing schedules for new and reformed herds.

It is now widely acknowledged on both sides of the House that the pre-movement testing of cattle is vital to prevent the spread of TB to the majority of areas in the country that are relatively clear of the disease. Scotland has already introduced it, and the rest of Britain cannot delay any longer.
 
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Towards the end of last year we convened a stakeholder group—chaired by a farmer—to recommend an effective and practical mechanism of pre-movement testing. Details of how that will be applied will form part of our forthcoming announcement, which is also likely to contain details of changes to the way in which compensation will be paid, an expansion of the use of the gamma interferon test as a supplement to the skin test and an update on research, including that into vaccines.

Several hon. Members stressed the importance of developing a vaccine, which is, of course, our ultimate goal, but, as they accepted, that is some way off. Vaccine trials in the field have recently been approved, including one on badgers and a new study into potential cattle vaccines.

As hon. Members on both sides of the House acknowledge, just as bovine TB cannot be successfully tackled without strong measures to prevent the spread of the disease between cattle, international experience suggests that it cannot be contained or eradicated if its presence in wildlife is not addressed. That brings me to the thorny issue of badgers.

It has long been accepted that, in this country, badgers are the main wildlife hosts for bovine TB. The problem for the Government, in formulating policy, was that no proper scientific work had been done to study the role that badgers play in spreading the disease to cattle, or what wildlife controls might help to reduce the level of the disease in cattle. That is why they set up the Krebs trials, which started in 1998 and are almost complete. The final season's culling has finished and data will continue to be collected, but because of the urgency of the situation, I asked the Independent Scientific Group, which runs the trials, to provide us with its interim findings as soon as possible, which it has agreed to do. Those findings are currently being peer reviewed. They will help to inform the nature of the announcement that we intend to make soon. We have also carefully studied the experience in the Republic of Ireland, which has carried out its own badger culling trials.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon for accepting—at least in his terms, if not those of his hon. Friends—that December still constitutes the autumn. It was always our intention to make an announcement before the recess, and we intend to stick to that. It is going to be made slightly later than we had originally proposed because of the interim findings from the ISG and the need for them to have a rapid peer review. However, that will be completed on time. A number of hon. Members have tried to tempt me to make an announcement here today, but I beg their patience for a few more days. They will understand, when they see the interim results from the trials, the reason for us wanting to wait for them before making an announcement.

Mr. Liddell-Grainger : Will the announcement be made before the recess?

Mr. Bradshaw : That is our current plan, yes.

Mr. Cox : Will the announcement address the question of the use of culling policy as a tool?
 
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Mr. Bradshaw : It certainly will. As the hon. Gentleman acknowledged himself, there is still quite a lot of uncertainty about the science. He used the phrase that he hoped that policy would be based on the best available science, and I can certainly reassure him that that is the case. However, that leads me on to some of the simplistic solutions that are sometimes volunteered, including, I am afraid to say, by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who gave the impression that targeted culling of infected badgers is a solution. I do not want to have to wait to make a policy announcement on badger culling until the PCR tests, for which the hon. Member for North Shropshire called, are available. That would mean that we would have to wait too long. Given that, any badger culling policy will not be restricted to badgers that are infected. I do not have a problem with that, but there must be honesty in the debate that that is what would happen.

The other thing that Liberal Democrat Members need to be aware of is that, although the science is uncertain, the overall burden of scientific evidence seems strongly to suggest that for a badger culling policy to be effective, it must be intensive and widespread, and that localised, targeted culling—whatever one wants to call it—at best, probably does not help. Most of the evidence so far seems to indicate that the sort of limited culling that is advocated by the Liberal Democrats would make things much worse.

Mr. Breed : Just to clarify that, we are not talking about individual farms, or even a cluster of farms, but about fairly significant areas within the south-west, which, as a part of the whole country, are a localised situation.

Mr. Bradshaw : I am grateful for that clarification, and I am sure that when the announcement is made in the next couple of weeks, we shall have a discussion on the sort of details to which the hon. Gentleman refers.
 
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I think that I am right in saying that, in his previous life, the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon was a lawyer.

Mr. Cox : Yes.

Mr. Bradshaw : Indeed. In that case, I have even more reason to feel grateful for his free legal advice about the pros and cons of badger culling policy. Let me assure him that, in my brief experience as a Minister, I always listen carefully to the advice that our lawyers give me, but then I make a decision based on what I think is the right policy. As he pointed out, it is possible to get legal advice that would militate in favour, as well as legal advice that would militate against, a badger culling policy, for different reasons. What is important is that Ministers make the decision based on what they believe the right policy is.

We have had a constructive debate, although I am sorry not to be able to liberate hon. Members who have attended it from their impatience. I share that impatience, but this is a serious animal disease that causes a great deal of grief and distress, not just to farmers, but in rural communities. I know the constituency of the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon reasonably well. As we have repeatedly said, if the evidence suggests that badger culling would be a successful, cost-effective and sustainable tool in our battle against the terrible disease, the Government will not shy away from recommending it.

10.59 am

Sitting suspended until half-past Twelve o'clock.


 
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