Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Tenth Report


Tenth Report



Introduction

1.  Our Fourth Report of Session 2007-08, Badgers and cattle TB: the final report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, was published on 27 February 2008 as HC 130.

2.  Our Report considered that cattle TB was one of the most serious animal health problems in Great Britain today, with the number of infected cattle doubling every four and a half years. The consequential growing cost of the disease to the taxpayer and to the farming industry was unsustainable. In "hot spot" areas where the prevalence of the disease was highest, the farming industry had reached a breaking point as the disruption to business in both human and economic terms had become unacceptable. The final straw for many farmers had proved to be the introduction of a new system of valuations for their slaughtered cattle which had proved inequitable in many cases.

3.  We concluded that the Government's current method of controlling cattle TB, that of surveillance, testing and slaughter, was not working effectively. We recommended that Government adopt a multi-faceted approach to tackling cattle TB, using all methods available. We concluded that the Government's strategy for cattle TB should include: more frequent cattle testing, with more frequent and targeted combined use of the tuberculin skin test and the gamma interferon test; the evaluation of post-movement cattle testing; greater communication with farmers on the benefits of biosecurity measures; the deployment of badger and cattle vaccines when they become available in the future; and continued work on the epidemiology of the disease.

4.  We also recognised that under certain well-defined circumstances it was possible that badger culling could make a contribution towards the reduction in incidence of the disease in hot spot areas. However, we acknowledged that badger culling alone would never provide a universal solution to the problem of cattle TB.

5.  We agreed to the request of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs who asked that the Government be allowed more than two months to respond to our Report. We eventually received the Government's response on 4 July 2008, in advance of the Secretary of State's announcement on TB policy to Parliament on 7 July, and we publish it as an Appendix to this Report.

6.  We are extremely disappointed that the response was so tentative in many areas. It also appears to play down the serious nature of this disease, asserting that the problem is a regional one, that the Government's cattle TB policies are working effectively, and that the position is not as "bleak" as our Report suggested. We note that PSA 9 (adopted in 2004) set a target for Defra to reduce the spread of cattle TB to new parishes to below the incremental trend of 17.5 confirmed new incidents per annum by the end of 2008, but not a target for the reduction of TB in existing hot spot areas or overall. The Departmental Annual Report 2008 says that the Department is "on course" for meeting its targets for limiting the spread of cattle TB to areas currently free from the disease. Whilst this might explain the optimism contained in the Government response, the statistics for incidence of cattle TB in 2007 show that the number of herd breakdowns is still increasing.[1]

7.  The Government is unwise to have put all its eggs in one basket and to have chosen to focus its energies and funding on the long-term goal of developing cattle and badger vaccines when it is unlikely that a badger vaccine will be available before 2014 and a cattle vaccine before 2015. The response indicates that there is little in the Government's strategy, beyond the current policy of surveillance, testing and slaughter, to tackle the disease in the short-term. This is not good enough—it fails to recognise fully the seriousness of the situation.

8.  In addition, the Government has said that many of its decisions on whether to implement stricter cattle-based measures will be made in consultation with the industry, by a new Bovine TB Partnership Group. The Government is thereby opting out of leadership of the issue, and subcontracting important decisions with high cost implications. It is unclear what levels of support, financial or administrative, the Government will be providing for this Group, or what levels of information and research Defra will allow the Group to have access to. Moreover, Defra's plans for partnership with farmers on the issue of animal disease control appear to be in disarray as the farming industry has walked away from current discussions on responsibility and cost-sharing.[2] This will surely have serious consequences for the credibility of the Government's plans for a Bovine TB Partnership Group to discuss cattle-based measures with the industry.

9.  We set out our views in more detail below.

Comments on the Government response

CATTLE-BASED MEASURES

10.  Paragraph 17 of the Government response states that it is committed to using all available methods which are "practical, cost-effective, and which can reasonably be expected to have a positive effect on reducing and controlling disease incidence", and that the Government is focussing on preventing spread of the disease to new areas rather than tackling the disease where it is already prevalent. Further examination of the response reveals that no additional measures, beyond what the Government is already doing, are proposed. The Government considers that it already has a "strong package" of cattle-based measures in place. We note that this package includes "zero tolerance" for overdue tests, and yet the number of overdue tests rose from 3,627 in 2006 to 4,806 in 2007. Although that figure has fallen again in the first four months of 2008 to 4,181, it remains higher than in 2006. [3]

Cattle Testing

11.  A review of the first full year of the use of the gamma interferon test is underway and we are pleased to note that the Government will consider the Committee's recommendations as part of this review. In paragraph 42, the response also states that the Government will "continue to work to increase the understanding of the gamma interferon test and build confidence in the role it can play in tackling disease". It is not clear what form this work will take.

12.  Paragraph 24 of the response states that initial cost benefit analysis of measures such as increasing the frequency of cattle testing or making more extensive use of the gamma interferon test has suggested that they would come at a high cost with limited benefits. The Government has decided that the value of such measures first should be discussed with by the Bovine TB Partnership Group to be set up by Defra with the industry. We ask Defra to provide the Committee with the analysis it has already undertaken of the costs involved in increased testing and increased use of the gamma interferon test, and also to provide details of the work to be undertaken on increasing understanding of the gamma interferon test and its accuracy. The Committee would also value details of any further work which Defra is undertaking to assess the efficiency of the skin test.

13.  As previously mentioned, the NFU and some livestock associations have withdrawn from cost-sharing discussions with Defra and are sceptical over the role of the new Bovine TB Partnership Group.[4] We are concerned that important discussions and decisions on cattle-based measures will be delayed should the industry not be prepared to participate in the work of the Bovine TB Partnership Group.

EPIDEMIOLOGY AND BIOSECURITY

14.  In its response to the Committee's paragraphs 22 and 166, the Government acknowledges that the lack of certainty over the feasibility of husbandry measures in reducing the disease risk has meant that farmers have reservations about accepting Defra's advice on biosecurity. In response to the Committee's paragraph 117, the Government said that it had decided that further research was "unlikely to yield conclusive answers on the exact means of transmission between cattle and badgers" but that it would "continue to consider new ideas". The Government must clarify what it means by considering new ideas about the transmission of the disease between cattle and badgers and provide further explanation as to why a conclusive answer on the spread of cattle TB cannot be produced.

15.  The response suggests that the new Bovine TB Partnership Group could have a role to play in deciding how the Government communicates biosecurity measures agreed by the Bovine TB Husbandry Working Group, but the response is unclear on how the Bovine TB Husbandry Working Group will decide what measures are effective, other than recommending that "by introducing a number of measures and following best-practice advice the cumulative effect may result in a reduction of bovine TB incidence". Results of a Government-funded husbandry research project currently underway, including a cost benefit analysis of husbandry measures, is not due to become available until early 2010. As observed in our Report, the Welsh Assembly Government has set up a Husbandry Intensive Treatment Area to evaluate the effectiveness of improved biosecurity measures. The Government response suggests that it might trial a similar approach in England, but that it intends to wait for the outcome of the Welsh Assembly Government's work in this area. Further information on the real benefits of improved animal husbandry in the fight against cattle TB is unlikely to be available in the near future. We urge Defra to make the results of the biosecurity research available as soon as possible. It should use its close working links with the Welsh Assembly Government to learn from its experiences on the Welsh animal husbandry intensive treatment area, and make preparations to introduce a similar scheme in England on a pilot basis at short notice.

16.  In paragraph 48, the response states that the Government would consider making additional funding available to support initiatives aimed at assisting parts of the farming sector "in managing the impact of living in high risk areas". The Government should provide more information on what this means, and on the incentives it might provide to farmers in hot spot areas for implementing biosecurity measures.

VACCINES

17.  We are encouraged by the Government's response to paragraphs 187-189 of our Report which recommended that the Government prioritise the development of a vaccine strategy. The Government has been working with scientists and stakeholders on developing such a strategy for the potential use of vaccines. This strategy will be vital to the Government in the approach it has decided to take towards the disease.

18.  We are also encouraged that the Government has decided to invest more funds in vaccine research, as we were told that although extra funding was unlikely to bring the current vaccine timetable forward, it would make the projected timescales for vaccines more robust. Vaccines still remain a long-term solution and there are many administrative, hurdles both in this country and the EU, before a vaccine strategy could be implemented. The Government should commit to early discussions with the European Commission to establish clearly under what circumstances it might accept a vaccine solution to cattle TB as we are unique in Europe in pursuing this approach.

19.  We understand that the £20 million announced by the Secretary of State on 7 July to be spent on vaccines research over the current CSR period of 2008-11 consists of the following elements:

The research projects will continue for a number of years and will straddle the current CSR and the next one (2011-2014). This effectively represents an additional funding commitment in the next CSR. As a result, further £15m is anticipated to be spent on vaccines research to develop fully licensed vaccines in the next CSR period.

20.  The Secretary of State also announced that additional funding would be provided for the injectable badger vaccine deployment project. The Government should announce as soon as possible the terms of reference of the new vaccines research to be funded by the Government, together with the total amount of funding that it intends to invest in the injectable badger vaccine deployment project. The Government should provide the Committee with further information on all the Government-funded vaccine research projects currently underway, including breakdowns of the funding provided on each project, together with a clear timetable for licensed badger and cattle vaccines. Also, Defra should include in its Departmental Annual Report to Parliament a detailed update on the progress of its vaccine development work.

21.  In addition, in paragraph 19, the Government states that it will continue to invest in research into various aspects of cattle TB in order to inform policy making. Defra should provide the Committee on a six monthly basis of details of any other scientific research into cattle TB that is under way.

COMPENSATION

22.  The recent decision by the High Court on 14 July 2008 suggests that the Committee was right to conclude that the current system of table valuation was unfair to pedigree farmers.[5] We await with interest Defra's decision on whether to appeal against the High Court judgment, but reiterate that if Defra wishes to continue with its policy of cost-sharing, and regain the confidence of the cattle industry, it must be prepared to pay a fair price for cattle which are compulsorily slaughtered.

23.  In response to our recommendation in paragraph 35 on a clearly defined compensation policy for species other than cattle, the Government states that it has had discussions with the camelid industry, and that an interim policy is in place. We ask whether representatives of the camelid industry have been invited to sit on the Bovine TB Partnership Group to assist Defra's work on a wider policy on cattle TB in species other than cattle.

THE DECISION NOT TO CULL

24.  In paragraph 12 of its response, the Government states that it has considered the evidence on the practicality of culling, the international evidence, and that it has discussed with issue with farming, veterinary, wildlife and police organisations and it has concluded that licences for farmers to cull badgers over a large area to prevent cattle TB will not be issued. However, Defra says that "we remain open to revisiting the policy under exceptional circumstances or if new scientific evidence were to become available." We would have hoped that Defra would have had detailed discussions with the NFU in the South West of England where the conditions are exceptionally serious. We are disappointed that Defra is unclear whether or not it had assessed the viability of the NFU's planned cull in the areas of South West of England designated as "VLA 9". Defra should set out what assessment it made of the NFU's plans for an organised, long-term and large-scale coordinated cull.

25.  The Government's statement on revisiting the policy of culling is vague and its implications are unclear. The Government should provide a clearer indication of the evidence it would need, and the circumstances that would be required, for it to revisit the policy of culling. In particular, it should state whether there is any scientific research currently under way that could produce new evidence?

SCIENTIFIC ADVICE

26.  Finally, we were disappointed, considering the Government's considerable investment in the ISG's ten year research programme and the continuing cost of cattle TB to the Government, at the Government's negative response to our recommendation that dialogue continue between the ISG and the new Government Scientific Adviser. We are surprised that the Government has based its decision not to cull on the ISG's final report, but does not wish to make further use of the Group's expertise.

27.  We ask Defra to respond to the points raised in this report. We will also be asking the Secretary of State to give oral evidence on his response to our original Report.



1   See 2007 statistics for Cattle TB at http://www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/tb/stats/07/2007gb.pdf and those for the first four months of 2008 at http://www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/tb/stats/08/april08gb.pdf  Back

2   See NFU press release "Government refusal to cull badgers is a disgraceful abdication of responsibility", 7 July 2008, http://www.nfuonline.com/x29039.xml Back

3   Defra statistics on Bovine TB in 2006 are at http://www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/tb/stats/06/2006gb.pdf  Back

4   See NFU press release "Government refusal to cull badgers is a disgraceful abdication of responsibility", 7 July 2008, http://www.nfuonline.com/x29039.xml Back

5   R (on the Application of Partridge Farms Ltd) v The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, 14 July 2008 Back


 
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