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Mr. Bradshaw: DEFRA is not ruling anything in or anything out, but if the hon. Gentleman reads the document that we have published today, he will note that we suggest three different scenarios for consultation. He is right that none of them gives the state a role in any culling process. It would be carried out by farmers not only for the reason of cost that he suggests, but because of practicality, as well as the capacity of the Government to deliver. Farmers and farming bodies have understood that during conversations that other Ministers and I have held with them. There is a general desire that farmers should have ownership of any policy that is pursued.

On effectiveness and farmer compliance, the hon. Gentleman put his finger on one of the real question marks over how effective a culling policy could be if compliance was not high. The Krebs trials that reported last night showed that the more edges there are, the greater the edge effect. It is better, if possible, to have coherent areas in which culling is intensive and widespread. It is a problem if farmers and landowners in such areas do not want culling to take place on their land because there is no way in which the Government would compel them to cull.

The discussions that we have had with farmers and the industry show that they do not envisage that threats to farmers would be a major problem. On the contrary, they rather think that the scheme would be more effective if it were run by farmers because local farmers could get together to organise any possible cull.

The Krebs trials have not finished yet. Although the culling has finished—the last culling took place about two weeks ago—the independent science group is still evaluating the latest figures. As the group has indicated, we expect that the latest figures will show more benefit than the earlier ones because, as I said, the evidence suggests that the longer repeated culling goes on, the greater the reduction of bovine TB. The data will be provided as they come through during the consultation and, no doubt, afterwards.

On pre-movement testing and costs, I remind the House that the costs to the taxpayer at present are more than £90 million a year. I hope that there is cross-party support for the idea that the taxpayer should not shoulder all the costs and that they should be shared if the Government are doing something that we think will help farmers. In respect of the hon. Gentleman's question about valuations, there is no appeal.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Like most Members with rural or part-rural seats, I have regular discussions with my local branch of the National Farmers Union. I am sure that the NFU will welcome the statement made today, as there is a serious risk of the loss of farmer co-operation, which is so
 
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essential if we are to eradicate the disease. I seek the Minister's reassurance on a point made recently to me by the NFU. Is not there at least a theoretical risk to human health? That is starting to concern the NFU, the rural community and all food consumers—all of us in the United Kingdom, in fact—so could my hon. Friend reassure us in that regard?

Mr. Bradshaw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for today's announcement. He is right: bovine TB is probably our most serious animal health problem. It is devastating for the farmers whom it affects; it is extremely distressing for a farmer to lose some, or in some cases all, of their cattle. It is also a serious health and welfare issue for badgers, but as my hon. Friend rightly says there are potential human health risks—they are not even theoretical—if we do not get the disease under control.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): Paragraph 58 of the Minister's consultation document on culling states:

yet paragraph 59 states:

Given those conflicting statements, will the Minister spell out to the House, against the background of a Department that relies on sound science for its decision-making process, what criteria he will deploy to make the decision at the end of his 12-week consultation period?

Mr. Bradshaw: I refer the right hon. Gentleman to the executive summary. The criteria—this is nothing new—would be that culling was supported by the best available science, and he is right to highlight the fact that there is still a degree of uncertainty about the science. It would have to be successful; we would have to be convinced or satisfied that what we did would be effective, cost-effective, practicable and sustainable.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): This is a difficult and contentious issue where it is important to make progress quickly, but is not it important to build on consensus? One point of consensus is improved farm biosecurity. Surely that is why pre- and post-movement testing is so important. Is the Minister committed to the maximum scope for pre-movement testing? When will it start and who will carry the costs?

Mr. Bradshaw: Pre-movement testing will begin in February. As my hon. Friend will know it has already begun in Scotland where post-movement testing also takes place. He is right that improved biosecurity is important, although it will not solve the problem completely. One thing that the rationalisation of compensation will help to do is to create more incentive for farmers to improve their biosecurity. If we go ahead with badger culling at the end of the consultation period, we shall ensure that where badger culling is licensed, it is in return for certain standards of biosecurity.

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): Does the Minister recognise that there will be profound disappointment in the farming community that the
 
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Government have not seized the nettle and taken action? In the light of the consultation, which we understand will take three months, will the Minister guarantee that at the conclusion of that three-month period a decision to act will be taken? Will he tell us who will take the decision—the bovine advisory group, the Government or DEFRA? Will he give us those assurances now?

Mr. Bradshaw: I do not accept that today's important announcement should be greeted with disappointment. No previous Government of either political colour have ever consulted on a significant badger cull in this country. I hope that he accepts and appreciates that, and takes that message back to his farmers. As for the consultation, as I said, we have brought it and the decision forward. My firm view is that the time for decision is nigh. It will be made at the end of the consultation by the Government. Of course, we will listen to the independent TB advisory group, and to the opinions expressed during the consultation. In the end, however, it will be a decision for the Government.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): I am afraid that I must tell the Minister that my constituents will be very disappointed and that their hearts will be heavy at the thought of another three months spent waiting for yet another consultation. In the hot spot of Cheshire, which is on the front line in the spread of bovine TB, particularly around Audlem in my constituency and Market Drayton, which is the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), may I suggest that the Minister institute a pilot scheme for culling, as he would do in any other area of Government performance, to help to demonstrate the evidence that he has to weigh up in that 12-week period? Pilot schemes have obviously helped in other areas of Government policy making, and the time is ripe for one to be used in this instance.

Mr. Bradshaw: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman reveals a lack of knowledge of bovine TB. The Irish trials took three years to achieve results, despite intensive culling using snares over wide areas. A pilot lasting a few weeks in his constituency, as he has suggested, would show absolutely nothing, and would be worse than useless. Let us have the consultation. Incidentally, he is not right that it is yet another consultation, because no such consultation has been held before. There was no consultation on a policy of badger culling under the Conservative Government, so I do not know what he is talking about.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): The Minister stated that bovine TB was a serious problem not just for cattle and dairy farmers but for animal welfare and human health. Has he ever seen a badger with TB, and the distress and pain that it suffers before it dies? Can he give us an accurate figure for the amount of money that the problem will cost the taxpayer in compensation to farmers? It is clear to those of us who are concerned about both the dairy industry and animal welfare that culling is the only effective way to rid this country of TB, which is damaging to our dairy herds.


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