Departmental Annual Report 2012-13 - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

3  Policy and delivery


31.  This Report provides us with an opportunity to comment briefly on a number of topical policy areas which we have not otherwise had the opportunity to do substantial inquiries into.

The badger cull

32.  In 2013 we published our Report on Vaccination against Bovine TB, but we did not comment on the badger cull.[36] Bovine tuberculosis (TB) is one of the biggest challenges facing the cattle farming industry in the UK today. It is a disease with public health and international trade implications caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium bovis (M. Bovis) which can infect and cause TB in many other mammals as well as cattle, including badgers, deer, goats, pigs, camelids, dogs and cats. Bovine tuberculosis is estimated to have cost the UK taxpayer more than £500 million over the last decade in recompense for slaughtered cattle. It is predicted that it will cost more than £1 billion over the next 10 years unless there is further action to reduce spread of the disease.[37]

33.  The Government is clear that control of the disease in cattle requires it to be tackled in badgers. The UK is not the first country to consider the culling of infected wildlife as a means of combating bovine TB in cattle; the USA (white-tailed deer), New Zealand (brush tail possum) and the Republic of Ireland (badger) have all included this approach in their efforts to control the spread of the disease. The UK is, however, the only EU country in which the wildlife vector, in this case the badger, has also been given protected status.

34.  In December 2011, the Government announced that it would run two pilot badger culls. These began in the autumn of 2013 in designated areas of Somerset and Gloucestershire. The purpose of the culls was to assess the humaneness, effectiveness and safety of controlled shooting as a method of badger control. To deliver an effective cull, Government guidance states that the following requirements must be met:

in the first year of culling, a minimum number of badgers must be removed during an intensive cull which must be carried out throughout the land to which there is access, over a period of not more than six consecutive weeks. This minimum number should be set at a level that in Natural England's judgement should reduce the estimated badger population of the application area by at least 70%.[38]

35.  The figure of 70% is based on evidence from a decade-long Randomised Badger Culling Trial (RBCT) that ended in 2008. It means that 70% of badgers in an area must be removed for the cull to reduce TB in cattle. The RBCT also found that culling fewer than 30% of badgers led to an increase in TB infections in cattle, as badgers fleeing the cull zone would spread TB more widely in an effect called perturbation.[39]

36.  Estimates of the badger population in the two pilot areas chosen by Defra have twice been substantially reduced since the pilots were announced.[40] In spite of those reductions, at the end of the initial cull period, less than the revised 70% target had been achieved in both cases.[41] In the first six weeks of the cull in West Somerset, 850 badgers were killed, and a further 90 were shot during a three-week extension. This represented a total reduction of 65% of the revised estimated badger population. In West Gloucestershire, 708 badgers were killed, which represents 43% of the 1,650 target; of those, only 543 were killed by controlled shooting. The cull in Gloucestershire was granted an eight-week extension.[42]

37.  Extension of both pilots caused some controversy.[43] Defra's Chief Veterinary Officer Nigel Gibbens and Chief Scientific Adviser, Ian Boyd, advised that extending the pilots would help to reduce the spread of bovine TB in cattle, whereas not doing so would raise the risk of increasing bovine TB through perturbation. However, the Chair of Natural England's science advisory committee, David Macdonald, called for the agency to turn down the request for an extension:

My personal opinion as a biologist (is) not to continue the cull. One could not have significant comfort that the original proposals would deliver gains to farmers. Extending the cull would make the outcome even less predictable and even more unpromising.[44]

38.  The Secretary of State told us that tackling the spread of TB in wildlife to help protect cattle was essential. He said:

All we are doing on these two pilots is establishing whether controlled shooting by skilled marksmen is a safe, humane and effective method of removing diseased wildlife. [...] it seems to me that after the first few weeks in Somerset and Gloucestershire, [...] these trials have proved to be safe and all the reports coming back to me are that they are humane.[45]

39.  He also explained that the pilots were part of a programme which would last many years and that the UK target was to eliminate bovine TB in 25 years. He said that the original six-week period of the pilots was "an arbitrary time period"[46] and that an independent panel would evaluate the effectiveness of the cull.

40.  Subsequently, the Government announced that the extension of the second pilot would end earlier than originally planned, on 30 November, "at the behest of the cull company and the National Farmers Union (NFU), with the agreement of Natural England to coincide with the end of the open season for cage trapping."[47] The Government also said that the 40% cull rate achieved meant that the pilot had been successful:

The decision to extend has been shown to be the right one, with significant numbers of badgers removed at the point that the extension was ended. In the additional five weeks and three days of culling, 213 badgers have been removed, giving an overall total of 921. This represents a reduction of just under 40% in the estimated badger population before culling began. The extension in Gloucestershire has therefore been successful in meeting its aim in preparing the ground for a fully effective four year cull.[48]

41.  The two pilot badger culls set out to assess the humaneness, safety and effectiveness of using controlled shooting as a method of badger control. Accurate estimates of the local badger population are crucial if the success of a cull is to be accurately judged. Repeated revision of those estimates undermines confidence in the process. As part of its evaluation of the culls, the Government must demonstrate whether there is any evidence of badgers moving from the cull zones into neighbouring areas and thereby risking the spread of bovine TB.

42.  The Randomised Badger Culling Trial demonstrated that at least 70% of the local population of badgers need to be killed in order for a cull to reduce the incidence of TB in cattle. We invite the Government to set out why the first year of the pilots failed to achieve the target figure in the allotted time and what changes are required in order for the planned future culls to be effective. The Committee will continue to monitor developments in this area.

Biodiversity offsetting

43.  The Department is also responsible for government policy toward the natural environment. This includes protecting and enhancing biodiversity, the countryside and the marine environment, and adaptation to the effects of climate change. In November 2013, a report by the Wildlife and Countryside Link—a consortium of 41non-governmental organisations—assessed the Coalition's environmental record and concluded that, although some policies are delivering positive results, the Government was failing to deliver more than one third of its natural environment commitments, including on biodiversity. [49]

44.  After the 2010 election, the Government promised to be the greenest government ever. Speaking to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the Prime Minister said: "I don't want to hear warm words about the environment. I want to see real action. I want this to be the greenest government ever."[50] The promise was repeated in 2012 when Mr Cameron announced at the Climate Summit for world energy Ministers that, "When I became Prime Minister I said I would aim to have the greenest government ever and this is exactly what we have."[51] Both statements were made in relation to reducing carbon emissions. However, the Government's responsibilities in relation to the environment go wider than this.

45.  In September, in response to a recommendation from the Ecosystems Markets Task Force (EMTF)[52]—set up to review the opportunities for UK business from expanding green goods, services, products, investment vehicles and markets which value and protect nature's services—the Government initiated consultation on biodiversity offsetting in England[53]. Biodiversity offsetting is a process whereby damage to habitats associated with a development at one site is compensated for by providing equivalent replacement habitats elsewhere. The consultation Green Paper states:

Biodiversity offsetting is a measurable way to ensure we make good the residual damage to nature caused by development which cannot be avoided or mitigated. This guarantees there is no net loss to biodiversity from development and can often lead to net gain for nature. It will not change existing safeguards in the planning system, but makes it quicker and simpler to agree a development's impacts to ensure losses are properly compensated for. Offsetting can also help create a ready market to supply compensation for residual damage to nature.[54]

Biodiversity offsetting is not a new idea: the practice has been used in Australia, Germany and the US, and according to the Green Paper, in more than 20 countries worldwide.[55]

46.  In July 2012, we published our Report on the Natural Environment White Paper and commented on the White Paper's biodiversity offsetting proposals.[56] We concluded that biodiversity offsetting has the potential to deliver a considerable positive impact on the natural environment providing that the first priority is that biodiversity is enhanced. Following publication of the Green Paper, we have concerns over the Government's timetable for implementing its proposals, and in relation to the geographical spread of offset locations.

47.  Six pilot offsetting projects were started in 2011 and they are planned to conclude in April 2014.[57] As we said in our Report on the Natural Environment White Paper, there is little evidence on the likely impact of these pilots as they have not yet concluded. Consequently it is still too soon to assess the biodiversity gain of they might provide, or whether the policy can be an effective means of compensating for biodiversity loss. Nevertheless, in its Response to the Task Force, and the subsequent Green Paper, the Government states that it intends to develop proposals, using contributions from the consultation, and publish these before the pilots have concluded:

The current biodiversity offsetting pilots have already provided important information that has influenced the Government's thinking about biodiversity offsetting. In particular, they have shown that offsetting needs to achieve a critical mass to deliver a flourishing and effective system. The Government does not want to delay the introduction of biodiversity offsetting if it can deliver more for the economy and the environment. [...]Following the Green Paper consultation the Government will develop its detailed proposals for using biodiversity offsetting and plans to set these out by the end of 2013.[58]

48.  The Secretary of State told us that he wants to "improve the environment"—to leave it in a better state than previously—and to safeguard the country from animal and plant disease: all objectives enshrined in his four priorities for the Department.[59] It is hard to disagree with these objectives but it is equally important that policy making is evidenced-based. The Government has initiated six pilot offsetting projects and it is difficult to understand why it does not wish to assess these properly before embarking on a wider rollout.

49.  The Government must obtain independent evaluation of its pilot schemes before moving to implement the Department's biodiversity offsetting proposals. Following the evaluation, if the proposals are implemented, the Department must ensure the programme is monitored to ensure the biodiversity benefits are being realised.

50.  Our second concern relates to the geographical radius within which biodiversity offsets will be provided. The Green Paper proposes that offsetting could be provided locally or further afield. Allowing offsets further away might be less expensive or more efficient environmentally. The Green Paper suggests that one advantage of offsetting is that "compensatory habitat can be provided away from the development site by specialists on less-expensive land."[60] But it also acknowledges that distant offsets could have adverse effects on local communities.[61]

51.  The Secretary of State acknowledged this issue was "really tricky".[62] He added:

What would be really good would be offsetting within a nearby range, and the geographical area is incredibly important in this. [...] You will not have public support if an environment asset is lost and the offset is too far away.[63]

There is a risk that distant offsets could lead to undue geographic concentration of habitats and species which could render them more susceptible to threats such as diseases, weather and climate impacts, than they would be exposed to if offsets were provided close to the original habitat.

52.  Any offsetting scheme should take account of reduced public access to the biodiversity which is lost as a result of the development. If local people's enjoyment of habitats and wildlife will be directly affected by development, consideration should be taken of this when determining the location of the offset.

53.  A sufficient geographical spread of offset locations must be maintained to minimise the impact of threats to species and habitats. We invite the Government to set a geographical limit to offsetting, and to set out the specific circumstances under which exception may be made, in any future proposals.

Partnership funding

54.  Since April 2012, the Environment Agency has operated the Flood and Coastal Erosion Resilience Partnership Funding model which aims to encourage non-Government sources to provide funding for flood defence schemes. We have previously supported the principle that beneficiaries such as developers should help to fund new flood defence schemes. However, we are concerned about the small amounts of private sector funding that have been secured to date.

55.  We invite the Department to confirm the amount of contributions received from external sources under the Partnership Funding approach to date, and to demonstrate how the Partnership Funding model for flood defences will deliver much greater private sector funding in the future.

Plastic bags

56.  Plastic bags are a major cause of seaborne pollution, and a serious hazard for marine life. Currently available biodegradable plastic bags do not fully break down all the particles which are harmful to the marine environment.[64] The Government estimates that in 2012, supermarkets gave out over eight billion single-use carrier bags across the UK, equating to approximately 120 bags per person.[65] While the use of these plastic carrier bags in England has increased since 2010,[66] usage was cut dramatically by the Republic of Ireland after charges were introduced in 2002. A similar charge in Northern Ireland has reduced carrier bag usage since April 2013. Supermarkets in Wales reported a drop in use of up to 76% after a charging scheme was brought in two years ago.[67]

57.  In February 2013, Defra announced that it did not think the time was right for the introduction of a charge on single-use plastic carrier bags. The then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Richard Benyon MP, told Parliament:

We are currently assessing various measures to reduce the distribution of single-use carrier bags. This includes monitoring the results of the single-use carrier bag charging scheme in Wales, Northern Ireland's plan to launch a charge from April 2013, and the outcome of the Scottish consultation on a charge. However, we recognise the pressures on household budgets at this time; levying even a small charge may not be the best option.[68]

58.  In September 2013, the Deputy Prime Minister, Rt Hon Nick Clegg MP, announced that the Government would bring forward charges in England for single-use bags given out by supermarkets.[69] The charge will not include re-usable 'Bags for Life' or paper bags.[70] Nor will it apply to organisations with fewer than 250 employees.

59.  We asked the Secretary of State why it took so long to reach this decision for England. He said he was being cautious and wanted to see the results elsewhere first. He continued:

We have gone for the charge, which has led to remarkable reductions in Wales and in Northern Ireland. They are a blight on land and they are certainly a blight when they get into any waterway or into the sea. [71]

60.  The Secretary of State went on to explain that he would like to see the development of a genuine biodegradable bag which was compostable.[72] He told us that the current generation of biodegradable plastic bags did not fully "break down to the molecule" and therefore was still harmful to the marine environment. The Department has since launched a call for evidence about the type of plastic bag which will be exempt from the charge; how best to tell people about the charge; and how to make sure that organisations are applying the charge.[73]

61.  We encourage industry to follow-up on the Secretary of State's desire to see the development of a genuine biodegradable plastic bag which can be used to carry shopping. We are pleased that the Government has finally agreed to impose a charge for single-use plastic carrier bags in supermarkets and larger food retailers. However, we are disappointed that the charge will not come into effect in England until 2015, despite evidence of its success in reducing plastic carrier bag usage in other parts of the UK and Ireland.

62.  Reducing the number of single-use carrier bags which are given away is a quick win: reducing both waste and environmental pollution with little effort. While we would welcome the development of a fully biodegradable shopping bag to replace existing plastic bags, this should not be a condition for the introduction of the charge. Given the evidence elsewhere, we recommend the early introduction of the charge. When fully degradable plastic bags are available, these should be exempt from any charge.

GM Technology

63.  The Secretary of State has spoken out publicly in favour of making greater use of GM technology in the production of food.[74] Although widespread cultivation in the EU is banned, the Government has allowed small scale cultivation trials of GM crops. For example, Rothamsted Institute is currently field-testing a GM wheat line that has been modified to repel aphids and recruit the natural predators of aphids such as ladybirds. The objective is to replace insecticide spraying with a more benign repellent effect, making the crop more environmentally friendly.[75]

64.  GM foods are also used in imported products, particularly soya in animal feed. Supermarkets have said that they cannot guarantee that the meat they sell did not come from animals that, at some stage, might have eaten GM.[76] The Secretary of State told us the technology was now well established and produced safe and nutritious food.[77] He said there was support for GM technology among the farming community and he wanted the UK to be a centre for the development of new agricultural technologies.[78]

65.  We have recently put out a call for evidence for a new inquiry into food security. We intend to explore the use of GM and other new technologies in this inquiry.

36   Environment Food and Rural Affairs, Second Report of Session 2013-14, Vaccination against Bovine TB, HC 258 Back

37   Environment Food and Rural Affairs, Second Report of Session 2013-14, Vaccination against Bovine TB, HC 258  Back

38   Defra, Guidance to Natural England, 2011. Back

39   Natural England overruled its adviser to extend cull in Gloucestershire, The Guardian, November 2013 Back

40   In October 2012 there were an estimated 3,600 badgers in West Gloucestershire; in February 2013 this was revised down to between 2,657 and 4,079, before further revision in October 2013 saw a new estimate of 2,350. Back

41   Gloucestershire badger cull granted eight-week extension, Farmers Guardian, 23 October 2013, BBC, Official documents doubt cull extension, 29 October 2013 Back

42   Ibid, Farmers Guardian Back

43   Paterson: We won't be knocked off-course, Farmers Guardian, 29 October 2013 Back

44   Stop badger cull immediately, Farmers Guardian, 23 October 2013 Back

45   Q80 Back

46   Q89 Back

47   2 December 2013, Col34WS [Commons written ministerial statement] Back

48   2 December 2013, Col34WS [Commons written ministerial statement] Back

49   Nature Check 2013, November 2013; "Cameron failed to deliver on promise of greenest government ever," The Independent, 19 November 2013. Back

50   Cutting emissions by 10% in 12 months, 14 May 2010. Back

51   Prime Minister's address at the clean energy Ministerial, 26 April 2012. Back

52   Ecosystems Markets Task Force, March 2013; Q125 Back

53   Defra, Biodiversity Offsetting in England: Green Paper, September 2013 Back

54   Green Paper, P1 Back

55   Defra, Biodiversity Offsetting in England: Green Paper, September 2013 Back

56   Environment Food and Rural Affairs, Fourth Report of Session 2012-13, Natural Environment White Paper, HC 492 Back

57   Qq118-120 Back

58   Government response to the ESTF, Realising Nature's Value, September 2013 Back

59   Q73 Back

60   Biodiversity Offsetting in England Green Paper, op cit, p6 Back

61   ibid, para 28 Back

62   Q125 Back

63   Q121 Back

64   Q105 Back

65   Defra, Call for evidence: Plastic bag charge in England, November 2013 Back

66   Wrap, Carrier Bags, July 2013  Back

67   Defra, Call for evidence: Plastic bag charge in England, November 2013 Back

68   HC Deb.5 February 2013, col135W [Commons written answer] Back

69   Nick Clegg unveils plans to charge shoppers 5 p for every plastic bag, Huffington Post, 14 September 2013  Back

70   Defra, Call for evidence: Plastic bag charge in England, November 2013. We note concerns about the potential for cross contamination in reusable bags which the Environmental Audit Committee is exploring.  Back

71   Q105 Back

72   Q105 Back

73   Defra, Call for evidence, 25 November 2013 Back

74   Food Minister, Owen Paterson, backs GM crops, The Telegraph, 8 December 2013  Back

75   Secretary of State backs a science and evidence-led discussion on GM, 21 June 2013 Back

76   Q101 Back

77   Q101 Back

78   Q102 Back

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Prepared 7 January 2014