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Bovine Tuberculosis

11.31 am

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con) (Urgent Question): I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to ask an urgent question, of which I have given notice. Will the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs make a statement on the conclusions of the independent study group on the triplet studies of bovine tuberculosis and what action she proposes to take?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): This morning the Government announced new measures to tackle bovine tuberculosis. At 9.30 am, a written statement was published. These measures include a 12-week public consultation on the control of badgers to reduce the disease in high incidence areas, the introduction of a requirement for the pre-movement testing of cattle to reduce cattle-to-cattle spread, and changes to the compensation arrangements that will bring payments for bovine TB into line with those for three other cattle diseases. Copies of all the relevant documents have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses and are available on the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website.

Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the Minister for his reply and earlier conversation with me.

This year roughly eight times as many cattle will be slaughtered as in 1997 from reactions to TB tests. Herd incidence is rising at 20 per cent. a year. The whole farming world believes that the Government have spent the past eight years putting off what we all recognise is   a difficult decision. However, I welcome the introduction of pre-movement testing, for which we have been calling. I ask the Minister to reflect again on the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin). I do not think that he fully appreciated the question that was being asked.

Can the Minister tell us whether there will be a regional basis for pre-movement testing or does it apply automatically across the whole country? Will he publish the proposed table for compensation under the new arrangements? Will there be an opportunity for farmers to appeal against whatever is allocated to them?

I welcome the extension of gamma interferon tests, but why do the Government persist in their own little world of trials of testing systems? Is it not clear from other countries that gamma interferon and polymerase chain reaction can significantly improve test results and reduce the culling of unhealthy cattle, and can indicate whether badgers in a particular sett are carrying TB? It is worth emphasising that badgers suffer mercilessly from TB.

Why have the Government not published specific proposals for badger culling? Is it not clear that the low level of trapping in the triplet studies, down to 30 per cent. in some areas, has caused massive disturbance, making badgers move into adjoining areas, thus spreading the disease rather than controlling it? Does the Minister agree, therefore, that only by efficient and humane culling of whole family groups can we be certain of removing infected animals?
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We agree that strict cattle controls and better testing are necessary, but alone they will not work. I believe that the Minister will have general cross-party support for a badger culling programme. Such a decision is clearly distressing and unwelcome, but it is inevitable and the further delay for another consultation is unnecessary. We do not wish, however, to create a badger-free zone, so will the Government develop a plan so that badgers from clean areas can be reintroduced once the infection has disappeared? Then we can have what we all desire: healthy cattle and healthy wildlife.

Mr. Bradshaw: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments and questions. He is right to stress that this is a health and welfare issue for badgers as much as for cattle. It is not quite fair of him to say that the Government have been putting off a decision for six years. After all, the Government initiated the Krebs trials. No previous trials had been conducted by Governments to get to the bottom of the role played by badgers and, indeed, the extent of that role. I think that he would be the first to acknowledge that there is still a lot of uncertainty in the science.

Far from putting anything off, we brought this announcement forward to today; a lot of people did not expect the Government to say anything until 2007—a year after the Krebs trials finish. The hon. Gentleman asked why have a delay and a consultation now, but he should accept that it would not be right to jump to conclusions less than 24 hours after we have received the results from the very long-running and important tests. I want hon. Members and other people to have the opportunity to take a careful and, I hope, calm and rational look at not just the results of the Krebs trials, but the experience gained in the Republic of Ireland and elsewhere in the world. The executive summary to the document that we published today states:

We go on to say:

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the dilemma that is posed by the results that were published last night by the independent scientific group on cattle TB, which showed a significant benefit in terms of the incidence of bovine TB in the area where badgers are culled, but a significant disbenefit in a circle around the periphery. It also showed, however, that the balance of benefit tended to improve with the intensity of culling and with the size of area. It is clear that a number of uncertainties still exist, which is why the Government think it important to have a proper, full and open consultation.

In answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about pre-movement testing, it will not be regional as such, but for the first year at least, there will be a requirement for all cattle moving out of one and two-yearly testing herds. It will depend on the incidence of TB, rather than on an arbitrary regional boundary. Yes, we will publish the tabulation system for compensation, if it has not been published already in the documents before the House.

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman does not think that I responded to the point made by the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) on pre-movement testing
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and the charges. I did not quite understand it—perhaps someone else may like to put it to me again during this session—but the testing will be a private transaction between a farmer and a vet. Certainly, DEFRA has no intention of profiteering or charging more than would otherwise be charged. Indeed, our objective is to roll out testing by lay testers, which should significantly reduce the cost to farmers.

The hon. Gentleman asked about gamma interferon and PCR. It is important to stress that nothing that we are announcing today means that we can take the foot off the accelerator in terms of the work that is already going on to develop a vaccine both for badgers and for cattle, or to develop a PCR. He is not quite right to suggest that we have already got a reliable PCR test for bovine TB in badger setts. That work will continue, as will the rolling out of the gamma interferon test, which is an important adjunct to, not a replacement for, the skin test.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): I am grateful to the Minister for announcing that there will be pre-movement testing. I am sure that he is aware that bovine TB was introduced into Cumbria, following the restocking from the west country after the foot and mouth outbreak, because there was no such testing. It is over 10 years since I asked what progress was being made on a vaccine for bovine TB. There seems to have been no progress. Is that because of a lack of resources or a lack of will?

Mr. Bradshaw: It is neither of those things. We announced field trials for vaccines for badgers back in the summer and there is more work to be done to progress the field trials to cattle, too. However much money one throws at such difficult scientific, medical and veterinary issues, I am afraid that one cannot hurry the science. Scientific research on the development of an effective vaccine cannot be speeded up—it takes time. That challenge is faced by not only this country, but other countries that suffer similar TB problems.

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall) (LD): I welcome the statement. I think that we can wait another 12 weeks given that we have waited several years for Government action to address what we all accept is a crisis in the countryside regarding bovine TB.

The Minister is apparently ruling out any chance of DEFRA being involved in any control measures for badgers and is leaving it all to the farmers. I suspect that he will tell us that that is because of cost, but if the action was successful, compensation payments would reduce, which would cover some of the cost of any control measures implemented by DEFRA itself. How will he ensure that such control measures are effective if all farmers in a specific area do not propose to participate? Does he perceive that farmers who undertake such control measures might be threatened or intimidated? What is the current state of the Krebs trials? Are they just continuing, or will the results be available before the implementation of any measures that he might introduce after the consultation process?

I support the contention that pre-movement tests will result in pretty significant costs, especially for small farmers. At the minimum, could there be a transitional
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period so that they would not have to meet the full force of those costs straight away? On the tabulated valuations, I am sure that there will be disputes about the value of specific cattle because of their pedigree and so on. Does the Minister intend to have at least an appeal system so that farmers are not just told, "Sorry, that's what your valuation is."? We need a mechanism whereby farmers can challenge the valuation of compensation.

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