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7 July 2008 : Column 1159

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): I should like to thank the Secretary of State for giving me an early sight of his statement. I also wish to draw attention to my declaration of interests in the register, and to say that the farming business for which I have a responsibility recently underwent a tuberculin test and three cattle were found to be reactors and the results for 11 were inconclusive. That is the first time that that herd and that farm have experienced TB for more than 50 years.

I commend the Secretary of State for one thing this afternoon: that he has come to a decision. It is difficult to know, however, whether that decision was made on the grounds of populist appeal or sound science.

Following the Bourne report, Sir David King propounded a larger scale cull to overcome the reservations of Bourne’s conclusions, but the Secretary of State has completely ignored Sir David King’s views. The EFRA Committee suggested a pilot large-scale cull, possibly in the south-west, to test Sir David King’s views, but the Secretary of State has also ignored its recommendations.

The Secretary of State says that further evidence may reverse the decision on culling. Where does he see that evidence coming from, and what research has he commissioned on that? The right hon. Gentleman says he will invest more money in vaccine development, yet the Select Committee was given evidence that the limiting factor in vaccine development is time, not resources. He says that some landowners may not have supported the badger cull, but how many farmers will support the proposed bovine TB partnership group when they feel so let down and demoralised at the moment? With outbreaks of bovine TB increasing rapidly, what will the cost to the country be over the next three years? Will the Secretary of State revisit the compensation payments for pedigree and highly valuable stock?

The situation of the farming industry and the Government is very sad, and no one would wish to cull wild animals for the sake of it. But the role of badgers as a reservoir for TB infection is unquestioned, and the Secretary of State has no answer on how to eliminate it.

Hilary Benn: I agree with the hon. Gentleman when he describes the situation as very sad, and I am sorry to hear about the effect on his herd. However, the answers were not based on populism: they were based on an assessment of the science. I assure him that I ignored nothing. I apologise to the House for having taken a year to reach a decision on this issue, but I took the responsibility placed on me very seriously. I have looked at all the evidence and I have talked to all those who have a view.

Sir David King looked at the science and said what the effect would be if we met all the conditions. By his own acknowledgement, he did not consider the practicality. In reaching a decision, I am bound to consider both the science and the practicality. Self-evidently, if all the badgers were, for the sake of argument, to be culled—[ Interruption.] I know that no one has argued for that, but my point is that the science only takes us so far. I also have to consider practicality and effectiveness, and whether a cull could be delivered. My judgment is that it might not work in those circumstances. The evidence base is strong, because the one substantive bit of evidence that we have about the impact of culling is the randomised badger trials, which were carried out over 10 years.

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I met the teams who are working on the vaccines about six weeks ago. The advice that I have received is that putting more money in will help to improve the likelihood of getting a successful vaccine, but will not of itself speed up the process. On the issue of compensation, we are awaiting the outcome of a judicial review, and it would be prudent to see what that judgment is. How many of those in the industry will support the group that I am establishing? I hope that people will support that group, because whatever the anger, disappointment and other strong feelings that they will have about the decision that I have made—and announced to the House today—the disease will remain, we will have to deal with it, and we will be able to do that only by working together.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I thank my right hon. Friend for listening to the totality of the ISG report, rather than picking parts of it. I also thank him for ignoring the former chief scientist, because some of us have grave doubts about the part that he played and the way in which he chose to reinterpret the evidence. Will my right hon. Friend say something more about the vaccination programme? He will know that I have part of it in my constituency. As much as time and money are of the essence, surely there is a need to test the vaccines in several different places and ways so that we can find the solution—and the only solution is vaccination—as soon as possible?

Hilary Benn: I thank my hon. Friend for his words, although I must point out that I have not ignored anyone’s opinions, including those of Sir David King, but considered them all extremely carefully. There is a three and a half year injectable badger vaccine field trial under way, and work is also going on to develop an oral bait. The demonstration project, which I wish to work with the new partnership group to put in place, is intended to build confidence in the industry in the potential of vaccines to help to deal with the problem.

In the case of a cattle vaccine, which is a bit further away, the first requirement is for an effective DIVA—differentiation of infected versus vaccinated animals—test to distinguish between infected and vaccinated animals. Secondly—and this will be an issue that the House will need to address—European legislation forbids the vaccination of cattle to deal with bovine TB. If and when we get a vaccine and a satisfactory DIVA test, I would hope that the whole House would think it sensible to argue the case for vaccination as a better way to deal with this disease in the medium to long term than culling, of cows or badgers—when the science shows that that could make things worse.

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): Farmers in the intensely infected area of Devonshire that I represent will regard this decision as a spineless abdication of responsibility. Why, if the considerations that the Secretary of State has taken into account are so compelling, have the Welsh Executive decided to pilot a trial of just the type that the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, on which I have the honour to sit, has recommended to him?

Hilary Benn: With respect to the hon. and learned Gentleman, I do not accept that characterisation of my decision. The Welsh Assembly Government have made
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their own decision and of course I considered that. I weighed very carefully in my mind what the Select Committee had to say. It was an outstanding report, but, in all honesty, I formed the judgment that I have, which I have told the House about today. The judgment had to be made about whether, in the light of the science, it was worth taking the risk when one could not guarantee that a cull on such a scale could be sustained given the strength of feeling about the question on both sides of the argument. That was the judgment that I formed and the decision that I took.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands) (Lab): Representing as I do a hot-spot area, I know that many farmers will be disappointed by this decision. May I invite the Secretary of State to visit a hot-spot area such as mine to discuss with farmers a number of issues, including the level of compensation for farmers, particularly those with pedigree animals at risk, and biosecurity measures, as we have had a huge increase in the number of badgers in farms? How will he monitor the cull in Wales and draw lessons from it so that we learn from that initiative?

Hilary Benn: On my hon. Friend’s last point, the Welsh Assembly Government have announced that a cull in one area is intended to form part of their intensive treatment programme. We do not yet have any details about where that would be or how it would be undertaken. Of course, I will look carefully at the effect of that. That is why I said in my statement that we would revisit the decision if the scientific advice changed.

I am always happy to visit and to talk to farmers. At the royal show on Friday I talked to a couple from Devon who have been badly affected by bovine TB. I have visited a farm as part of the process of gathering evidence and views in order to take the decision. We will, as I indicated earlier, have to work with farmers in all parts of the country, particularly in the hot-spot areas, to find effective ways of dealing with the problems that they are experiencing.

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Having been a member of the Government who set up the original Krebs inquiry, I was disappointed that Krebs did not take into account the work done in the Republic of Ireland by the East Offaly project. The Secretary of State says today that proactive culling gives only limited benefit, but why has he not looked more closely at trials in places such as the Republic of Ireland and modelled his project on well-researched and long-established work done just across the Irish sea?

Hilary Benn: I have looked at all the evidence. Clearly, the circumstances in the Republic of Ireland are different from those in England. It is true that the Republic has culled badgers. As the hon. Lady will be aware, herd incidence fell from 6.4 per cent. in 2002 to 4.9 per cent. in 2004 in the Republic. It has subsequently risen again to a provisional figure of 6.1 per cent. in 2007. Based on those figures, it is difficult to form a judgment about the impact of culling or other measures that the Government in the Republic of Ireland are taking. I draw the hon. Lady’s attention, too, to the experience in Northern Ireland, where, as she will know, there has been no culling. Cattle measures were tightened in Northern Ireland and the herd incidence decreased from 9.9 per cent.
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to 5.4 per cent. between 2002 and 2007. That tells us just how complex the relationship is between the policies that are pursued and the outcome in terms of disease control.

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle) (Lab): I congratulate the Secretary of State on making the decision, because it must have been very tempting to kick the issue into the long grass and go on holiday. Time will tell whether the decision is right or wrong, but is not the reality that the science did not justify a cull, and that the practicalities make a cull impossible? Many of us believe that the Welsh decision will never be implemented. Does he not think that more money should have been spent on research into a vaccine long before now?

Hilary Benn: I am sure that my hon. Friend will believe me when I say that the easiest decision that I could have taken would have been to announce another study, another review, another piece of work— [Interruption.] No, I could have done that, as opposed to finally taking a decision in light of a 10-year scientific study, in which the Government have invested £50 million, or we could have culled badgers to see what the impact would be. The study is our strongest evidence base from which to work. We have already invested a lot of money in vaccines, and I hope that the House will welcome the fact that I have announced a significant increase today.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): Words will not describe the despair of the farmers in Eddisbury and Cheshire at the uncharacteristically weak and gutless arguments advanced by the Secretary of State today. They will be looking for reassurance that he has a sufficiently open mind to allow them, as an earnest of intent, to volunteer their area as a pilot area, or hot spot, for the removal of badgers to limit the spread. That is a sensible idea, as Cheshire is contiguous with Wales. It would be a good test bed for the same reasons as Wales is, which he hopes to monitor. May I ask him to comment on that?

Hilary Benn: I am the first to understand how the decision will be received by those who think that culling is the right thing to do, but that does not change my decision, because I have weighed all the evidence. In the end, my responsibility is to take decisions to do things that will be effective, and not to take decisions that might result in the disease being made worse. We have an evidence base, on which I have drawn in reaching that view. On whether I have an open mind about the future, I hope that the hon. Gentleman knows me well enough to recognise that I do. I have had to take the decision on the basis of the evidence that we have thus far. That is why I have taken the decision that I have.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for receiving representations from many of us with concerns on the issue, and for taking this courageous decision. He is putting scientists before pressure groups, in contrast to both the main Opposition parties, whose motto in these matters is, “If in doubt, kill something.”

Hilary Benn: I thank my hon. Friend for acknowledging that the decision that I have taken is based on the science. This has been an exceptionally difficult issue to grapple with, and an exceptionally difficult decision to
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take. No matter what has been said in the Chamber today, many hon. Members on both sides of the House recognise the difficulties of the question. In the end, we have to respect the different conclusions that we have drawn, but it does not mean that either of the views taken are wrong in their own terms, and I stand by the decision that I have reached.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): There will indeed be a great deal of anger among people in the farming communities in the west country, not least among those who, like several of my constituents, run closed farms. There are cases where there has been no cattle movement on or off a farm, and where all the biosecurity measures that can legally be taken have been taken, yet TB has appeared within a dairy herd. They will not know what to do next. May I raise a question, asked by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) on the Conservative Front Bench, about the welfare of the badger population? We have a large number of badgers in Somerset, and TB is endemic among them. Is nothing to be done to rid the badger population of bovine TB?

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): They are suffering.

Hilary Benn: The hon. Gentleman talks about the suffering of badgers. As he will be aware, section 6 of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 allows someone to put down a badger if it is seriously injured or in such a condition that to do so

That is what the law currently says.

I understand the frustration felt by those with closed herds, but the evidence from the randomised badger culling trial was that the reaction would be, “I’ve got a closed herd, there are badgers, it must have come from them, let’s cull them.” That is reactive culling, and the evidence was very clear that reactive culling makes the disease worse. That may not be what people would assume to be the answer to the question, but it is. A lot of badgers were culled in order to provide that information, on the basis of which I have made my judgment.

Sir Peter Soulsby (Leicester, South) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State’s measured statement. It is clear that he has considered the overwhelming scientific advice and the conclusions of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report. Will he join me in regretting the statement made last week by the National Farmers Union, which described the culling of cattle as a

Does he agree that, while the NFU has a job to do in reflecting the genuine concern and distress of its members, it should not pretend that the culling of badgers is some sort of panacea? It should be well aware of the evidence and therefore know that it should not pretend that there is any realistic prospect of culling doing anything other than making the situation even worse.

Hilary Benn: Nobody wants to cull any animals unless it is necessary. At the moment, the culling of cattle is an important part of the disease control system for bovine
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TB that we have in place. We have already discussed at some length the evidence regarding the culling of badgers. I agree with my hon. Friend. As I said, we should all want to be able to move to a different way of dealing with this disease. That is why a significant investment in vaccines must be the right thing to do for the medium to long term. As in other areas, as vaccines are developed, we can provide protection without having to resort to culling, and that is surely the way that we should go in future.

Mr. Anthony Steen (Totnes) (Con): Devon has been savagely hit by this disease. Many thousands of animals have been destroyed and multi-millions of pounds have been paid in compensation. If the badgers cannot be culled and there is not to be widespread inoculation against TB, what are farmers supposed to do?

Hilary Benn: I accept entirely the difficulty faced in Devon and other hot-spot areas, and I recognise the frustration that farmers feel because they think that culling is the way to deal with the problem. All that I can do is to draw attention to the experience of trying to respond by culling, which can be found in the RBCT report, and to the conclusions of Professor Bourne. That is not what people expected, but it is what was found, and I must act on that judgment. I recognise that it is very difficult. We know that badgers are infected and are a source of infection—no one argues about that. The question is what is the effective way of dealing with it, and the only way to do so currently is to seek to develop a vaccine. That is why one of the things that I want to do, working with the new partnership group, is to develop the vaccine deployment project. Perhaps that could be tried in Devon; I am open to suggestions.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): The Secretary of State is to be warmly congratulated on his courageous decision, which is evidence-based and science-based. He has taken on the irrational claims of Opposition Members, not one of whom has given any examples of how culling works. It has never worked anywhere. It did not work in Ireland, where there are hardly any badgers left but there is still a high level of TB. Is not the best way forward to attack the real problem—cattle-to-cattle infection—by having farmers insure their own sheep instead of relying on compensation, and to cut down the number of animal movements to markets and shows, many of which are unnecessary?

Hilary Benn: We need to use all the measures that will be effective, including the cattle controls to which my hon. Friend refers, but it will also be important, as I have acknowledged, to find a way of dealing with BTB infection in badgers. The evidence is that culling is not an effective way of doing so; vaccination could be, and I hope that the House will support it.

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I refer hon. Members to my entry in the register.

What will be the statistical measure of the success or failure of the Secretary of State’s policy: the number of cattle infected or culled, the geographical spread of the disease, or the financial cost? Will he agree to come back to the House if the point is reached, based on any of those three criteria, where it is apparent to the wider public that his policy has failed?

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