Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Fourth Report


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

2. The increase in incidence of cattle TB suggests that the Government's current method of controlling the disease, that of surveillance, testing and slaughter, is not working effectively. Our visit to Devon, one of the hot spot areas, illustrated the growing frustration felt by farmers in that region who are sceptical that testing and biosecurity, measures recommended by central government, are not able in the short-term to break the cycle of infectivity between cattle and badgers.

3. Our Report does not intend to be the definitive account of the disease. Our inquiry initially focussed on the conclusions of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (ISG), which was set up by the Government in 1998 to conduct the Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) in order to establish the effects of badger culling on the incidence in herds of cattle TB. The ISG published its final report in June 2007. The ISG concluded: "After careful consideration of all the RBCT and other data presented in this report, including an economic assessment, we conclude that badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB in Britain."[1] However, a subsequent review of the ISG's Final Report, produced by the then Government Chief Scientific Adviser Sir David King at the Government's request, produced a different interpretation of the same basic data. Both reports said that badger culling would have an overall beneficial effect. However, whilst the ISG concluded that culling would make a "modest difference" in the incidence of cattle TB, the King report concluded that at 300km², culling "would have a significant effect on reducing TB in cattle".[2] It appears that the main conclusions of the two reports differ mainly because the ISG concluded that it was not practically or economically feasible to carry out culling on the scale necessary to gain beneficial effects. Sir David King's group of experts did not include the practicalities or costs of culling in its considerations.

4. Our conclusion is that there is no simple solution that will control cattle TB. The Government must adopt a multi-faceted approach to tackling the disease, using all methods available. 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.

5. The Committee recognises that under certain well-defined circumstances it is possible that culling could make a contribution towards the reduction in incidence of cattle TB in hot spot areas. However, as there is a significant risk that any patchy, disorganised or short-term culling could make matters worse, the Committee could only recommend the licensed culling of badgers under section 10 of the Protection of Badgers Act 1992 if the applicants can demonstrate that culling would be carried out in accordance with the conditions agreed between the ISG and Sir David King, which indicated that there might be an overall beneficial effect. These were that culling should: be done competently and efficiently; be coordinated; cover as large an area as possible (265km² or more is the minimum needed to be 95% confident of an overall beneficial effect); be sustained for at least four years; and be in areas which have "hard" or "soft" boundaries where possible. We recommend that no application for a licence should be approved by Natural England, which already has statutory responsibility for the granting of culling licences, without scrutiny to ensure that it complies with the conditions set by the ISG and Sir David King. It is important that were such a cull approved, other control measures should also be applied. Any cull must also be properly monitored by Defra. It is unlikely that such culling would be sanctionable in more than a limited number of areas. We recognise that culling alone will never provide a universal solution to the problem.

6. The National Farmers Union (NFU) has put forward a proposal for an organised licensed cull by farmers, or their contractors. They believe it would fulfil the conditions agreed by the ISG and Sir David King. If the NFU is able to meet the licensing requirements laid down by Defra, can satisfy Natural England both that it would conduct any cull in accordance with its animal welfare requirements and would satisfy the conditions agreed by the ISG and Sir David King, we accept that a licence for such a cull could be granted.

7. Crucial gaps in the knowledge about cattle TB and the way it spreads remain. If Defra is to save expenditure in the long run it must continue to fund work to fill the gaps. Central to this work must be an answer to the question of what is the precise mechanism of the infection between badger and cattle. Defra's approach to future research into aspects of cattle TB must not be determined simply by its wish to reduce its overall level of spending on combating the disease.

8. Defra currently faces budgetary pressures. However, simply saying that more money cannot be found for spending on measures to control cattle TB is not a solution. The measures we have recommended will require an increase in financial support from Defra. However, this is necessary if the Government wants to avoid ever-increasing expenditure forecast in future years, which could total as much as £1billion between now and 2013. Ministerial assertions, driven by Defra's budgetary control problems, that the budget for cattle TB will be reduced are unrealistic. Defra has a continuing responsibility to seek to end the incidence of this disease just as it does with BSE. Defra is now justified in making a case to HM Treasury for a "spend to save" policy. But in so doing it will once and for all have to commit itself to a strategy with clear goals against which progress can be measured.

1   Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Bovine TB: The Scientific Evidence: Final Report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, June 2007, p 14 Back

2   Sir David King, Tuberculosis in Cattle and Badgers: A Report by the Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir David King, October 2007 Back

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Prepared 27 February 2008