Previous Section Index Home Page

7 July 2008 : Column 1165

Hilary Benn: I am happy to come back to the House on any occasion to report on the progress made in fighting bovine TB, and to be held to account for that and for any other decisions that I make. However, having formed a judgment that the course of action that some have urged upon me would not help us to deal with the disease, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand why I have taken the decision that I have. Why would I want to do something that might make the matter worse, leading to more cattle being culled and more money being spent on compensation?

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): May I invite the Secretary of State to emphasise that his statement today was not about whether we should kill or not kill animals, but about which animals we should kill? So that we can educate our constituents more fully, will he remind us—for the last period he has easy access to—how many animals were killed, and what the cost of that was to taxpayers?

Hilary Benn: For England, the number of cattle slaughtered in 2007 was 19,800. The previous year it was 16,000; the year before, it was 23,000; the year before that, it was 17,300; and the year before that, it was 17,551. The House will see that the numbers go up and down, depending on the progress of the disease. The total cost of compensation in 2006-07 was £24.5 million, but that is a Great Britain, rather than an England-only figure.

Mr. Speaker: I call Mr. Liddell.

Mr. Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Speaker. Mr. Liddell at your service.

Will the Secretary of State accept that the march of TB across Exmoor and into the Levels, which the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) represents, has become absolutely unstoppable? It has got into areas of my constituency that have not seen TB for over a generation, and it is getting worse. Since the Secretary of State has mentioned it twice, will he come down to Somerset and meet some real farmers on Exmoor? They want to know why they should be in livestock production when every time they test their herds, they find TB again, and they go round in a circle of slaughter and re-equipping. Will the Secretary of State meet those farmers?

Hilary Benn: I would be happy to do so. I spend quite a lot of my time meeting farmers, and I am very willing to do so. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Jonathan Shaw), has met farmers in Exmoor to discuss the problem.

Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): I welcome today’s announcement that the proposed cull will not be going ahead. I welcome, too, the Secretary of State’s commitment to work with the industry and to consider funding practical measures to deal with bovine TB. Recent media reports, however, have suggested that some farmers may be tempted to take the law into their own hands. Will he join me in making it clear that the full force of the law should be brought to bear against anyone who kills badgers illegally?

7 July 2008 : Column 1166

Hilary Benn: The legal position is extremely clear under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992. I very much hope that no one will be tempted to do what my hon. Friend described, with regard to the controls in place. Whatever the strength of feeling, which I acknowledge, it is important that we keep the current controls in place because they are the best hope that we have of dealing with the disease.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): Although the Secretary of State is a very reasonable man, farmers in Gloucestershire, where the hot-spot areas are, will greet his announcement with absolute dismay and annoyance. In the past 10 years, 200,000 cattle have been slaughtered and we may be on course for 50,000 cattle to be slaughtered this year alone. That is a huge cost in human and animal misery, and in financial terms. The Secretary of State said, even today, that a proactive cull with hard boundaries may well produce some results. Why has he rejected that option?

Hilary Benn: Because, in the end, I have made a judgment about the likelihood that such a cull could be successfully delivered. It may be successful, and it may not. I say to the hon. Gentleman that his constituents would not thank me if I pursued a policy that ended up making the disease worse. That has weighed heavily on my mind in taking this decision.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): I sympathise with my right hon. Friend, who has had to make a very difficult decision. He has made the right one, and done so on the basis of practicalities as well as scientific evidence. Was one of the practicalities that he envisaged that, in constituencies such as mine, with a densely populated centre surrounded by great swathes of countryside, it would be very difficult to undertake a cull and persuade people in the densely populated centre that that was the right thing to do?

Hilary Benn: That was one factor that I was bound to take into account in reaching my decision, because there are strong views on all sides and public opinion can have an impact on the practicality of a cull. It was entirely legitimate for that to be one of the factors that I weighed up in my mind, but above all the decision has been taken as a result of the science.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): The dairy farmers in Cheshire to whom I spoke on Saturday were disappointed and angry at the lack of progress made on this important matter in more than a year. While prime dairy cattle are being put down and farming businesses put into limbo, the badger population is rising exponentially. Why are the epidemiological studies referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), the Chairman of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, only now being set up? Why have they not been done before? If a vaccine is eventually produced, what guarantees are there that the European Union will allow us to use it?

Hilary Benn: On the last point, we would have to argue our case, and I am sure that the hon. Lady would join me and others in doing so vigorously. Why would we not want to pursue a vaccine if it could be shown to work?

7 July 2008 : Column 1167

Ann Winterton: What would they do?

Hilary Benn: The EU could change the current rules that forbid it.

Ann Winterton: Are there guarantees?

Hilary Benn: There are no guarantees in dealing with this disease, but that should not stop us trying to pursue the right policy. We will be in a much stronger position to argue the case for changing that European rule when we have a vaccine. I look forward to going with the hon. Lady to argue our case when we have the opportunity.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Having served on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee since its inception, I am in a reasonable position to say that our report had more effort and energy put into it, under the leadership of the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), than any of our other reports.

A chilling statistic that we found in the epidemiological evidence was that the rate of infection was doubling every four and a half years, with every potential to speed up. We said that culling could never be the cornerstone of TB control, but what priority has the Secretary of State told the partnership group to give to our suggestion, which should be pursued, that post-movement testing of cattle moving from high-risk to low-risk areas should be accelerated if it is possible and effective?

Hilary Benn: I am happy to say to my hon. Friend that I personally undertake to put that, and all the other suggestions that have been made about further steps that we can take, on the partnership group’s agenda, so that we can discuss them. It is right to do so with the industry instead of my deciding now to impose them. All the controls have a cost for the industry, which is already bearing a considerable cost. It is right and proper that we should sit down with the industry, consider them all and decide between us what is the best thing to do. Most hon. Members recognise that that is right.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): As chairman of the all-party group on dairy farmers, I am absolutely devastated by the Secretary of State’s decision. No doubt it will have to go to judicial review and be decided in the High Court. There will be extraordinary anger among dairy farmers in Shropshire, many of whom are on their knees as a result of bovine TB. There is an extra six-week waiting list there for infected animals to be collected.

7 July 2008 : Column 1168

Will the Secretary of State initiate an inquiry into the leak of this announcement? Why did we yet again have to hear about such a matter on the BBC over the weekend? Why have we learned very little in the House over and above what we found out from the BBC? That is an absolute disgrace, and I want to know who leaked the information.

Hilary Benn: I would like to know that, too, but I take seriously my responsibility to come and report first to the House on the decisions that I have reached. That is exactly what I have done today.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): We will be having an inquiry into that, then, won’t we?

The Secretary of State’s decision has been described as “courageous”. When Sir Humphrey used such terminology in “Yes Minister”, it was normally to dissuade his Minister from making that decision. Is the right hon. Gentleman certain that he has made the right decision? If 18,543 cattle were culled last year and he says that he will keep the decision under consideration, how many cattle will need to be culled before he revisits it?

Hilary Benn: A number of adjectives could be used to describe the decision that I have reached. I have thought long and hard about it and I am convinced that it is right. That is why I am standing before the House to report it.

As I said earlier, the number of cattle that may be culled depends on the progress of the disease. However, that would not change my view about whether badger culling can “meaningfully contribute”, in the words of John Bourne. I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman and I ask him to have another look at the ISG report. It is a thorough, 10-year study and, although it did not produce the result that people expected, when the science shows that a course of action that people believe to be right turns out not to be, we should all give that careful attention, and that is what I have done.

Mr. Speaker: I understand that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) wants to make a point.

Mr. Paice: On a point of order, Mr. Speaker, before I responded to the statement, I omitted to remind hon. Members of my declaration in the register, for which I apologise.

7 July 2008 : Column 1169


4.26 pm

The Secretary of State for Transport (Ruth Kelly): With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on biofuels.

There is widespread agreement in the House and the country that we must step up efforts to tackle climate change through dramatic and global cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

One of the most difficult challenges that we face is the use of fossil fuels for transport. Our cars and other forms of transport are the third largest source of carbon dioxide emissions in the UK. That is why the use of a clean, renewable energy, which can partly replace carbon-based fuels, was seen by experts, environmental campaigners and Governments around the world as a welcome and practical way of slowing emissions growth.

In March 2007, after four years of encouraging biofuel use, the EU went further and set an ambitious target of 10 per cent. of transport fuel from renewable sources by 2020. In the UK, the Government introduced the renewable transport fuel obligation, which came into force earlier this year. That requires biofuels to make up 2.5 per cent. by volume of road transport fuel sales in the UK, increasing by 1.25 per cent. a year to 5 per cent. by 2010-11.

The UK has also been at the forefront of global efforts to develop robust, and workable, sustainability standards for biofuels. As part of the RTFO, we introduced a requirement that transport fuel suppliers should report on the environmental performance of their biofuels. That will give us evidence on the impact of biofuels, as well as creating an incentive for suppliers to source the best biofuels.

We also made a commitment to introducing at the earliest opportunity legally enforceable standards, which will ensure that biofuels are produced sustainably. However, in recent months questions have been asked about the more intangible, indirect effects of biofuels on food supplies and prices and on deforestation, and their overall impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

I am sure the House will agree that our policy on biofuels should be based on the best possible science. So in February, I asked Professor Ed Gallagher, the chair of the Renewable Fuels Agency, to examine the latest available evidence. I welcome the publication of his report today and want to thank Professor Gallagher and his team for their thorough work on a highly complex matter.

Let me outline Professor Gallagher’s main findings. Overall, the report confirms that biofuels can play a role in tackling climate change and that

It finds that by 2020

But Professor Gallagher also concludes that there is a risk that the uncontrolled expansion and use of biofuels could lead to unsustainable changes in land use, such as the destruction of rainforest to make way for the production of crops. That might, in turn, increase greenhouse gas emissions, as well as contributing to higher food prices
7 July 2008 : Column 1170
and shortages. The Gallagher report therefore concludes that the introduction of biofuels should be slowed until policies are in place to direct biofuel production on to marginal or idle land and until these are demonstrated to be effective. The detail of these control mechanisms would need to be agreed internationally.

However, the report rejects calls for a moratorium on biofuels. It concludes that


In short, the report concludes that

The report recommends that the rate of increase in the RTFO in the UK should be slowed to 0.5 per cent. per annum, so that the RTFO reaches 5 per cent. in 2013-14, rather than in 2010-11 as currently planned.

At the EU level, the report concludes that a mandatory 10 per cent. renewable transport fuel target is not currently justified by the scientific evidence, but that a target of 10 per cent. by 2020 could be possible if a number of important conditions are met. Those conditions include sufficient controls on land use change being enforced globally, as part of a new climate agreement, and new evidence providing further confidence that the target can be met sustainably. In the meantime, Professor Gallagher says that a more appropriate range for the 2020 biofuel target would be around 5 to 8 per cent. by energy.

I agree with those key findings. Given the uncertainty and the potential concerns that Professor Gallagher sets out, it is right to adopt a more cautious approach until the evidence is clearer about the wider environmental and social effects of biofuels. We also need to allow time for more sustainable biofuel technologies to emerge. I therefore intend to consult formally on slowing down the rate of increase in the RTFO, taking the level to 5 per cent., as Gallagher recommends, by 2013-14, which would be subject to further confirmation in 2011-12.

Professor Gallagher’s findings are particularly significant in the context of ongoing debates about biofuel targets across the EU. To help to ensure that sustainability is put at the heart of those debates, the Environment Secretary and I are today jointly sending a copy of the Gallagher report to the relevant European Commissioners and to all EU Environment and Transport Ministers. In response to those concerns, including over rising global food prices, the Prime Minister has today been pushing for the G8 to work to develop new global benchmarks for sustainable biofuel production and use.

The Government believe that the EU target of 10 per cent. renewable transport fuels by 2020 can remain an overall objective, but subject to clear conditions. I would like to set those out. First, the EU-level sustainability criteria currently being negotiated must address indirect, as well as direct, effects on land use. Secondly, the 10 per cent. target must be subject to rigorous review in the light of the emerging evidence, so that we can make an informed decision at EU level in 2013-14 about whether the target can continue. As Professor Gallagher also suggests, I agree that we should aim to target support on the development of lower carbon and other so-called “second generation” biofuels.

Next Section Index Home Page