As the result of a Poll with over 165,000 signatures Westminster Debated the Enlarging of the Badger Cull in England, here is the Hansard report. of the 27-03-2017.
it Runs to 25 pages but is well worth your time to read it.
27 March 2017
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 165672 relating to badger culling.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. The petition reads:
“Since 2013, thousands of badgers have been killed in a Government cull attempting to control bovine TB. Against scientific advice & before a 4 year trial has completed, the government is now expanding the cull to new counties—tens of thousands of healthy badgers could be killed.
Experts in disease control and animal welfare agree that pilot badger culls have proven both ineffective and inhumane. Shooting badgers is also expensive, costing tax-payers some £5,000 per animal. Bovine TB is a serious problem but killing badgers is not the solution, and could actually make the situation worse. It is a costly distraction from an effective solution incorporating vaccination, increased cattle movement control measures and improved testing.”
I have no special expertise in this area, but I am grateful to the Petitions Committee for asking me to move the motion. However, I have one claim to authenticity, which I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden): a predecessor of ours, Roy Hughes, who represented the areas we now represent, sponsored a private Member’s Bill in 1991 that was intended to control the abuse of badgers taking place at that time by protecting their setts and making activity against them illegal. We therefore have a good tradition in Newport.
I share with most people a great affection for these beautiful creatures. As the superior species, we have a responsibility towards them; as the intelligent and thinking species, we have a duty to ensure that all sentient, living creatures are protected from gratuitous violence or cruelty. I believe that the Government’s policy on badger culling is evidence-free and prejudice-rich. The present Government have a long record of appeasing farmers—everything farmers want, normally farmers get from this Government, however unreasonable the demands might be.
The case has been made powerfully in other parts of the world for the futility of culling, which appears to be a simple solution only to those who believe in shooting first and thinking later. We heard similar nonsense in the debate about hunting; some people thought that it was a reasonable method of pest control to take 100 riders and horses across the countryside to deal with one fox. Sadly, that rural attitude is not as respectful as it should be of all animal life.
My hon. Friend is making some strong points. He spoke about the evidence-free approach being taken in England. Does he agree that the approach being taken in Wales has demonstrated clear evidence that the cull was unnecessary? We have continued to see massive reductions in bovine tuberculosis, much greater than those in England—47% in Wales over eight years, compared with 16% in England. Even this year infections have continued to decrease, according to the latest information provided by the chief veterinary officer.
The badger has an honoured place in Welsh literature and history—it is known in Wales as mochyn daear, the earth pig, which is a very descriptive name for the animal—and the attitude taken to it in Wales has been very much science-based. The UK Government say that they are using every tool in the box, but they are using the rusty tools out of a medieval box, such as the crudest way to diagnose—with a skin test rather than the other scientific tests available—and culling. In Wales, however, the authorities have quite sensibly said that the effective way is to use vaccination, which we did for four years between 2011 and 2016. Sadly, there is now a world shortage of the vaccine, because it is needed against human TB, although some nations have secured their future supplies.
Wales is in a fortunate position. The chief executive of the Badger Trust rightly said:
“We are delighted to see confirmation that badger vaccination is leading to a substantial reduction in the prevalence of TB in badgers and that any temporary halt while the global stocks of BCG vaccine recover, will not lead to an increase in the spread of the disease in badgers.”
He was also disappointed to see criticism such as that from the Farmers Union of Wales, which talked about the £700 cost to vaccinate a badger even though the cost of the cull is a great deal more.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman—I do not agree, clearly, but I am listening carefully, as we should on both sides of the argument. I accept that vaccination is one element, but does he agree that experiences in Australia, Ireland and New Zealand show that culling is also an important element in the control of bovine TB?
We could go through every country in the world—I will mention a few others—but I am talking about a recent experience that is nearer home, in Wales. I also want to talk about the Krebs trial, which is the most ambitious trial carried out, and one that was entirely science-based and prejudice-free. Furthermore, the cost of killing one badger in the culling process in England is not £700, but nearer £7,000.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the problem with relating badger culling in England to killing possums in New Zealand is that they are two very different animals, with different ecologies, and in completely different landscapes and environments?
Indeed, yes. It is deer in Australia, and there are various problems throughout the world, but in Wales, the neighbouring country to England, we have a very satisfactory situation. Peter Martin was critical of the Farmers Union of Wales for not appreciating what had been done in Wales. He suggested that it should be celebrating the success of the Welsh Government and
“calling on DEFRA and the NFU in England to follow the Welsh example of reducing bovine TB by focusing on improved cattle testing and movement controls. New incidents of bovine TB in cattle are now down by 28% in Wales with a 45% cut in the number of cattle being slaughtered. This now leaves 94% of the Welsh herd TB free, without killing any badgers.”
Ireland has had a fascinating experience. In the 1980s the Irish decided to slaughter all the badgers in the country, which were estimated at 70,000. They exceeded their own expectations, however, because they have culled 96,000 badgers since 1985. The national operation consisted of teams of 100 contractors setting up 6,000 snares a night, working for eight months of every year. In 2012 a whopping €3.4 million was spent culling 6,939 badgers, yet after all that slaughter an examination found that the reduction on the previous year in the number of cattle diagnosed with TB was 55—after that huge expense. That is €61,818 for every cow below the previous year’s figure. It is staggering that that huge amount was spent and so many animals were killed for so little benefit.
Is that not even more perverse, given that the badger population is responsible for only about 5.7% of the spread of TB in any form whatsoever? Investing that money in other biosecurity measures would surely be far better value, let alone more moral.
As we know, there is a great deal of confused and unscientific thinking about this issue. TB can be spread from badger to badger, from badger to cow, from cow to cow and from cow to foxhound, among which there was recently a significant new outbreak. The Government’s approach has been crude and crowd-pleasing, not science-based. Strangely, in their reply to the petition, the Government actually had the cheek to mention the Krebs report, which was done under another Government, as a matter of some credit to them.
TB is also spread by the spreading of slurry on fields. That is not tested, so other measures could be taken. Badgers and cows do not share the same space at the same time. Further research is really needed in that area to prove whether even 5.7% of the disease is spread via badgers.
That is a really serious problem. We have been permissive in allowing the spreading of slurry. As we know, there is a new case involving the Kimblewick hunt, which hunts in five counties and spreads the infection where it goes. There is permissiveness in not recognising the importance of infection from slurry. It is much easier to blame the badger—to find one culprit and blame it. The Government have their policy. They mentioned the Krebs report, which I believe is the biggest and most scientific analysis that has been conducted anywhere in the world.
I am sorry that I was not here at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman’s speech—there are certain things happening in Northern Ireland—but is he aware that we have a pilot scheme in Northern Ireland that is looking at capturing badgers, testing them, vaccinating them and then releasing or, if they have TB, euthanising them? We are looking at different methods. We are not just saying, “Cull all badgers,” but finding a new way forward. We need to learn from that rather than blaming all badgers.
That is an entirely intellectually respectable and humane approach to this issue. Krebs looked at the problem and three approaches were trialled: a reactive approach in which, following TB outbreaks, badgers were culled on and around farms but not elsewhere; a proactive approach in which as many badgers as possible were culled in the whole area and badger numbers were kept as low as possible; and a survey approach, where no badgers were culled but the land was surveyed for details of badger activity. The cull went on for nine years, some £40 million was spent and 10,000 badgers were slaughtered. Reactive culling was suspended in the early days of the trial due to an increase in bovine TB outbreaks in reactive culling areas compared with areas in which no culling had taken place. That was a surprising result, but the independent scientific group advised that reactive culling should not be used to control bovine TB.
After that long period, Mr Krebs announced his decision. He said that the trial evidence should be interpreted as an argument against culling. This is not some prejudice-based release put out by a political party seeking favours; this is scientific proof of the highest order. He said:
“You cull intensively for at least four years, you will have a net benefit of reducing TB in cattle of 12% to 16%. So you leave 85% of the problem still there, having gone to a huge amount of trouble to kill a huge number of badgers… It doesn’t seem to be an effective way of controlling the disease.”
He said that he had recommended randomised badger culling trials in 1997 because it was not known then whether a cull would be effective or cost-effective. His view on the issue was formulated after he saw the results—it was based on evidence. No party should have returned to the idea of culling after that impressive evidence and all the scientific reports that supported it had come out.
Imperial College London researchers reported that
“reductions in cattle TB incidence achieved by repeated badger culling were not sustained in the long term after”
culling took place. Within three or four years, badger numbers were up to their previous level. The researchers added:
“These results, combined with evaluation of alternative culling methods, suggest that badger culling is unlikely to contribute effectively to the control of cattle TB”.
My hon. Friend is being incredibly generous with his time. Is it not really perverse that, throughout the culling process in 2016, badgers were not tested to see whether they were carriers of TB and we therefore really do not know what impact the cull is having?
That demonstrates the Government’s amateurish approach. They wish to get the animals out of the way, but they have not made a serious attempt to find out how bovine TB is spread.
We now have another worry: the Kimblewick hunt. That must be taken into account, but there does not seem to be a great deal of enthusiasm from the Government to take it up. The Kimblewick hunt is an amalgamation of three hunts. It hunts in Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Hampshire, Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire. Campaigners discovered that the hunt’s hounds are infected with bovine TB. There have long been complaints, as my hon. Friend the Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) pointed out, about poor farm hygiene and hunts feeding disease-ridden “fallen cattle” carcasses to foxhounds. The fact that 25 of that hunt’s foxhounds had to be put down because they were infected with bovine TB and a further 120 are undergoing testing is a cause for serious worry, and I have asked the Government what they will do about it.
The infection of foxhounds was not seen as a threat in the past, but few animals are free to cover and infect more territory than hounds undertaking trail hunting or chasing foxes, so this is a really serious new risk. The news has been kept quiet since December. The hunt itself suspended hunting but is apparently carrying on using visiting packs. The problem could be widespread. There are reports that some farmers have belatedly tried to protect their cattle by banning hunts from their land. Farmers local to the hunt’s kennels are refusing to let it hunt on their land. As my hon. Friend the Member for York Central said, it is suggested that the hounds were fed raw, TB-infected meat, even though that contravenes meat hygiene rules and bovine TB controls. Do the Government believe that that is happening or there is a risk of it happening? We are all familiar with the close association that there has long been between hunts and the farming industry, and the way that hunts were used to dispose of fallen cattle. The danger seems to be substantial.
I believe that there is sufficient evidence for a new investigation into the prevalence of bovine TB among foxhounds and a case for suspending hunting until that has been proved to be a risk or otherwise. Let us put that to the test. I have recently put down many questions and had unsatisfactory answers to all of them. We now have a chance to answer the concern of the great majority of the public who do not believe that culling is an effective way of controlling bovine TB and believe it is inhumane and cruel. That is the view that the petitioners have expressed.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his excellent speech. As he concludes his remarks, does he agree that one thing the Minister could take from the debate is to look again at the Welsh Government’s experience, which has been less expensive, more humane and ultimately more effective?
Indeed. Unfortunately, because the Welsh Government are the only Labour Government in the United Kingdom at the moment, the UK Government have been tempted to use them as a bit of a punch bag, almost always irrationally and always unfairly. The Welsh Government have had a great many achievements, and one that I would like to see copied in this House is presumed consent for organ donations.
I urge the Minister to take a fresh look at the figures. The Government’s ambition now is for a programme that will go on for 25 years. That is an extraordinary way to protect themselves. If we say, “It’s not working,” they will say, “We’re only five years into the programme,” or, “We’re only 10 years into it.” They are talking about seeing a real improvement in 25 years. We have already seen that improvement in Wales, and Ireland, after 32 years of trying to wipe out the entire badger population, is now going for the vaccine—it has vaccine stocks. If it has stocks of the vaccine, why can we not have them here?
I applaud the sentiments of all those people who have taken up this cause with great skill and a mountain of scientific evidence. Now is the time for the walls of Government prejudice to come down. We should adopt a scientific and humane approach.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter, and to see my hon. Friend the Minister on the Front Bench. I start by drawing attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am a farmer, but I do not have any livestock. However, I represent one of the country’s greatest agricultural constituencies and, unfortunately, one of those that has been most affected by bovine tuberculosis. Sadly, I speak with some experience on this subject.
My constituency is home to one of England’s largest cull zones, spanning the whole of the north Cotswolds. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the hard work and effort displayed by my farmers, who have committed a great deal of time and money to maintaining and protecting their badger cull zone in the face of numerous attempts at sabotage. To all those who say that farmers are not in favour of the culls, I simply say: why did they go to such considerable effort and expense if they did not believe that culling works?
The only real way to control TB in badgers is for scientists to invent an oral vaccine that could be incorporated into a bait to be fed to badgers. That method was successful in eradicating rabies in foxes on the continent. An oral vaccine for badgers has been “just around the corner” ever since I became a Member of Parliament in 1992. I urge the Minister today to redouble the Government’s efforts to find such a vaccine, because that would be the ultimate solution to this unpleasant problem.
This is an unpleasant problem. TB is a nasty disease, whether in cattle or badgers. Badgers who contract it either go to the bottom of the sett and die a long, slow, painful death from the disease, or lie semi-comatose at the top of the sett, with up to a third of their body covered by lesions. In that state, the animal is highly infectious to other badgers, so no wonder TB spreads from badger to badger.
It is important that we eliminate TB in badgers to prevent that cruel death among badgers. TB is also in cattle; not only does the disease cause them a great deal of pain, but they become less productive. When the disease is detected, they have to be slaughtered, so there is considerable economic loss to both the taxpayer and the farmers. In the past 10 years, a total of 314,000 cattle were slaughtered, costing the taxpayer and farmers more than £500 million; that will be £1 billion by the end of the decade. One need only see the emotional effect on farmers in my constituency of seeing the cattle that they have bred and cared for prematurely slaughtered. I think Opposition Members often forget the effect that this dreadful disease has on farmers.
I am listening carefully to my hon. Friend’s excellent speech. Does he agree that those who oppose the cull look at the badger as a friendly, lovable animal, which in effect it is not? Factually, the badger is responsible for destroying bee hives, hedgehogs and ground-nesting birds such as skylarks, grey partridges and meadow pipits. [Interruption.] That is true. It is also responsible for the loss of wood warblers, nightingales and stone curlews. Those are facts. The badger is a danger, and like all wild animals that have no natural predator—just like deer and foxes—it should be culled, so that numbers are maintained.
Order. A reminder that interventions should be brief.
I commend my hon. Friend for putting some of the facts about wildlife on the record. He is right about the reduction in some of our bird and mammal species, such as the hedgehog.
Will the hon. Gentleman be kind enough to cite the source of the evidence he just supported?
Well, the source is evident to any countryman out there. There has been a rapid decline in hedgehogs, and we know perfectly well that badgers eat hedgehogs’ young, wild birds and birds’ nests. That, however, is not the subject of the debate, and I do not want to get drawn on that red herring.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Provided it is not on that subject.
It is on facts and evidence. The hon. Gentleman is generous in giving way. Clearly TB is a terrible disease, whether it is in badgers or cattle, and everyone wants to see it reduced. Looking at the evidence of the measures taken in Wales and the much less effective methods taken in England, how can he explain the disparity between the two?
I am so glad that the hon. Gentleman mentioned Wales. In Wales, although BTB has decreased, the current vaccination programme operates in only 1% of the country and is only in its second year, so it is difficult to see how vaccinating has led to the reduction in BTB.
I suggest to the hon. Gentleman, before he asks me to give way, that other factors are involved. Having said that, I would like to comment on the costs, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who introduced the debate. He has read all the literature, and he is an intelligent chap of a scientific mind, so he knows perfectly well that for a vaccination programme to be successful, the badgers have to be vaccinated for five years. As he said, each year costs £662; that is well over £3,000 for every badger vaccinated. He also knows perfectly well that vaccinations have no effect on the poor, diseased badgers I described—the ones who are really suffering—that go on to spread the disease to healthy badgers. I therefore cannot see how a vaccination programme can be successful.
Will the hon. Gentleman please be patient? I will give way in a minute. He is jumping up and down like a yo-yo. The hon. Member for Newport West and anyone who knows anything about this subject will also know how difficult it is to trap a badger. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Richard Drax) implied, badgers do not just sit there in a trap and lie dormant; they bite and try every way of getting out of the trap, so the people who do the vaccinations have to be skilled and well trained. It is not easy to get all badgers into vaccination traps. I therefore suggest to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty)—I will give way to him once more—that vaccination is not very effective in itself. Where it is effective and has a role is in targeted areas around trial cull areas to stop perturbations spreading the disease further.
The hon. Member for Newport West, who mentioned the shortage of BCG vaccine, made a point that was in my speech: the BCG vaccine has been around for decades. It would be useful if my hon. Friend the Minister could say something about that, so that where we do want to carry out vaccination on the edges of trial cull areas, that option is available. We need to ensure that happens. I will give way to the hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth one more time. This is the last time I will give way, because a lot of people want to speak in the debate.
The hon. Gentleman is generous. I never suggested that vaccination alone was a solution. The chief veterinary officer for Wales has been clear, and has spoken of a combination of increased testing frequency, improved biosecurity and other cattle control measures, as well as vaccination. There is a huge disparity between the 16% reduction in England and the 47% reduction in Wales. Clearly, there is a difference in the way the approaches work.
I was coming on to the issue of biosecurity, which obviously has something to do with it, as do more accurate tests. There are a number of things that could help. In a spirit of constructive debate, which I hope is what this afternoon is about, I want to suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister methods by which we can all help to eliminate the disease, and support the 25-year elimination programme. It is important, in the trial areas, that we eliminate TB in badgers, to prevent this cruel death. Farm biosecurity has rightly been improved, and that has been extended across the country. The Minister has, in this Government and the coalition Government, taken a number of steps to improve testing and biosecurity on farms. Examples include post-movement testing and more accurate skin tests in certain areas. All those things have a role to play; I hope we all agree on that.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No. I did say that I was not going to give way again. Other people want to speak. By the time I finish, I will have spoken long enough and will be reprimanded by the Chair.
In other countries, such as Australia, New Zealand and, I am afraid, Ireland, controlling the TB reservoir in wildlife has had a significant effect, eliminating or severely reducing the incidence of TB in cattle. Fifty per cent. of England is set to be TB-free by next year, with all 10 badger control operations achieving a successful outcome, according to the targets that have been set.
Sitting suspended for Divisions in the House.
As I was saying, we need to use all the methods at our disposal to get on top of this dreadful disease; I have already described the suffering in badgers and cattle that contract it. It is important that we find a variety of mechanisms in our locker to combat it.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will say more about this, but the opposition to the culls always harps on about biosecurity. However much the biosecurity is improved—some simple things can be done, and have been done over the years, such as putting the water trough and feed trough in places where badgers cannot get at them—the plain fact of the matter is that where badgers roam on pasture, and cattle feed on pasture, there is inevitably intermingling.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I said I would not, but since we have had a break, I will give way one more time and no more.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is highlighting some alleged facts in relation to the engagement that badgers have with cattle. I would like to suggest that there is absolutely no evidence to substantiate that view whatsoever.
I simply say to the hon. Gentleman, who is an intelligent chap, that every bit of logic points to the fact that there must be a link. If badgers have TB and cattle have TB—I do not think this island is alone; this takes place in the rest of the world —any scientific hypothesis would assume there is a link. It is not credible for him to suggest otherwise.
We have to take every opportunity to improve biosecurity in the ways I have mentioned. We also need to improve the testing. We know that the traditional swelling test leaves an element of cattle undetected. We need to work on better tests, whether they be skin tests or others. We need my hon. Friend the Minister to ensure that we have the resources to research tests that are much more reliable. The polymerase test is being adopted in some areas, which gives a more reliable result. The problem is that it also detects the disease in some animals that do not have it, so they show up in the test as having it. We need to keep trying to develop a more effective test. As well as that, in edge vaccination areas, we need to stop the perturbation effect that I described. We rely on the Minister and the Government to ensure that we have sufficient supplies available to do that, because there is no doubt that that is part of the armoury.
The final part of our armoury is the trial culls. The opposition to the culls tries to maintain that the culls are not improving the situation. Any initial assessment of my constituency would show that where trials have taken place—for example, on the hard edge of the Severn—the incidence of TB has reduced. It is early days, but even the evidence from Krebs and pre-Krebs of the gassing of badgers showed that where badgers are eliminated, the incidence of TB declines.
One thing that my farmers want to know from the Minister today is what regime will succeed the original three cull areas. It seems that everybody has gone to a huge amount of trouble to eliminate badgers in those areas. If the whole thing were stopped dead now, it would be rather a waste of time. They want to know what sort of regime will succeed that. They hope that it will be a light-touch regime and not too onerous. I can tell my hon. Friend that getting the big trial area up and running in the north Cotswolds was very onerous indeed for the farmers involved. I think that he needs to look at ways in which the regime can be made lighter-touch.
In conclusion, my local farmers suffer emotionally and economically. The taxpayer suffers economically. The badgers suffer a painful death. The cattle become unproductive and have to be slaughtered prematurely. It is essential that the Minister reassures the House today that resources are being put into trying to find a satisfactory oral vaccine for badgers; that would be the ultimate solution to the problem. We need to find more effective skin testing, so that all the animals that have this dreadful disease are detected and eliminated from the national herd. We also need to look carefully at the spread of the disease to other species. There is increasing evidence that this terrible disease is spreading into the deer population. Perhaps my hon. Friend can say something about that this afternoon, and about the total situation in relation to TB. Is it stabilising in the main areas affected, or is it still increasing? We need to find that out.
We need to use all the tools in our box. I urge the Minister to keep on with the trial areas; that is what my farming constituents want. They believe that that method works; the proof will come when all the results are evaluated, but anecdotally, so far, they believe that it works.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown)—I was going to say “my hon. Friend”, but of course formally we are not friends. The hon. Gentleman has made a passionate defence of Government policy. I hope he understands that other people feel equally passionately on the other side of the debate. It is testimony to the nature of this place that we will continue to have robust debates, in the best democratic tradition, whatever happens.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will of course, although I have not said anything yet!
May I first refer to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which I forgot to do earlier? The hon. Lady rightly says that views are passionately held on both sides. Certainly on one side, there is sometimes, by a minority, mindless violence and intimidation. Will she condemn that?
I am always happy to condemn violence and intimidation of any kind.
I congratulate the lead petitioner, Simon King, who has not been mentioned so far and who managed to amass the 100,000 signatures needed to secure the debate. That we managed to get over the 100,000 threshold demonstrates the degree of interest in this topic outside the House. At this point, it is important that I declare an interest. I am a member of the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, in which the lead petitioner plays a very active part, so I think I ought to put that on the record.
The debate was opened by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), who made a very thoughtful contribution. However, I take slight issue with one of his points. For me, this is not about whether farmers get whatever they want from the current Government. I understand that farmers struggle very hard to secure a decent living. Their way of life is often very hard. Currently, many aspects of our agricultural sector are struggling to make ends meet. I want to put that on the record.
I also think that if we are to find a way forward on this issue, it is important in the long term to find consensus and common ground. I applaud those charities, including the Wildlife Trusts and the Save Me Trust, that have tried very hard—and are in many instances succeeding—to establish working relationships with farmers, so that we can start to find a way forward that brings all parties to the table, and so that we have constructive attitudes and dialogue instead of the rather divisive debate that has characterised all the discussions on badger culling so far.
I will not rehearse the whole history of badger culling over the past four to six years. Suffice it to say that at the heart of all the debates, all the questions tabled in the House on badger culling and all the disquiet relating to badger culling is a very deep sense of unease about the Government’s rather cavalier attitude towards the science on this issue.
I will start with the randomised badger culling trial. That 10-year project drew the conclusion, at the end of the period, that no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in England could be made through the use of badger culling. That was clear, and the Labour Government in 2009-10 determined that culling was not the way forward and invested in vaccination programmes. The incoming Government, as was their right, decided to act otherwise.
In April 2011, a panel of independent experts was convened to set clear parameters for pilot culls. What was really important about that period was that the Government had parameters that reflected the discipline established by the RBCT. I am referring, of course, to the land boundaries for culling, the time period allowed for culling, the percentage of animals to be culled and the need for repeated culling over a period of years. Those were the principal parameters put in place by that panel of experts in April 2011, and it was according to those parameters that the pilots were given the go-ahead. Despite significant opposition from parliamentarians such as myself and from huge numbers of people in the country, the pilots were given the go-ahead, and they were of course located in west Somerset and west Gloucestershire.
For me, the first breach of the science was the decision to go against the conclusions drawn by the experts at the heart of the RBCT. The second breach came when the first round of culling in the two pilot areas took place in 2013, because the number of badgers killed in the allotted six-week period was nowhere near the target required to make the cull in any way effective and so the time period was extended—I think it was nine weeks in one of the cull areas and 11 weeks in the other. The second breach, therefore, was of one of the key parameters for the pilot culling. The extended time period was the second breach of the science by Government policy.
The science was further breached when the independent experts panel reported on humaneness after the first round of culling. It stated that at least 7% of the badgers killed were killed inhumanely. However, rather than responding constructively to the panel’s findings, Ministers disbanded the panel—got rid of it.
That was followed in 2014 by new culling areas being announced. Let us remember that it was decided, when the parameters for the pilot culls were established, that a four-year culling period would be needed to demonstrate whether the approach would be effective. Despite all that, just two years into the pilot project, the practice of culling was extended. That was despite the data on the numbers at that point not demonstrating success in terms of meeting the criteria set in 2011. That was particularly the case in relation to the numbers that they managed to kill in those first two years in the two pilot areas.
Then, in 2015, the Government formally relaxed the criteria for culling in relation to the land area. The required land area was at least 150 square metres in extent, but that was suddenly reduced to 100 square metres, despite the majority of those responding to the consultation saying that such a change would be wrong. There was relaxation of the criteria in relation to the period of time allowed for any one cull and the minimum land area used for culling; the recommendation was that a minimum of 70% of the land area in the zone would need to be used for the culling, but that criteria was relaxed.
In summary, as time has gone on we have witnessed a blatant refusal by Government to follow the science. They have not only pursued this policy in opposition to the outcomes of the RBCT; they have gradually but significantly moved further and further away from the original scientific parameters established in April 2011. They have moved so far, in fact, that at this stage it is probably now impossible, in relation to the extended culling areas, to determine whether the approach is effective at all. They have moved so far away from the original parameters that culling, as practised in the last four years, has therefore been discredited. It has no basis in science, because the science has been distorted, twisted and, in the end, utterly abandoned.
The very least the Government can do is furnish Parliament with a full evaluation of the impact of culling in the two pilot areas—west Gloucestershire and west Somerset—where four years of culling are now complete. Back in the debate in September 2016, the Minister failed to answer my question about whether an evaluation would be commissioned. It is hard to imagine that this policy can do anything—other than lose the last desperate shreds of its credibility—unless such an evaluation is not only completed but made available to Parliament. The Government have an opportunity to rescue at least some credibility in relation to this issue, if they would only ensure that that is done. Having a pilot suggests that an evaluation will be made of whether it has worked. The Government need to do that work and present it to Parliament. If, on the basis of that evaluation, it is then concluded that the approach has not been effective, at that point the Government would have to explain why they further relaxed the criteria in 2014 and ’15 and why, in particular, they allowed the culling to be extended to other areas of the country.
In conclusion, we need to see a thorough, independent assessment of the pilot culls. We also need the Government to make international comparisons, and not only with other culling practices. Somebody has said to me already this afternoon, “You didn’t make your usual statement.” I will make it now: Badgers are not possums. They really are not; they are completely different creatures. The Government should be making international comparisons with countries that have focused on vaccination as an alternative, where vaccination is used, as it is with other species, to establish a critical mass of immunity. That is the key point about vaccination. It is not about individuals necessarily; it is also about critical mass and ensuring immunity at a level that gives a country a sense of moving forward and eradicating diseases such as TB. There are countries that have focused on vaccination as an alternative. We have heard a lot about Wales this afternoon, where the approach appears to be working, and we know that Ireland is considering a shift to a different approach that would involve vaccination. Finally, and above everything, we need the Government to commit to abandoning culling if an independent evaluation of the pilot areas demonstrates a failure to deliver a meaningful, long-term reduction in the incidence of bovine TB.
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on leading the debate. I want to touch on two issues: animal welfare and science. Anybody who has been brought up in the countryside and who understands rural England—I was brought up in rural Dorset, surrounded by farm land and livestock—knows and understands the devastating effect of epidemics and pandemics of bovine TB, foot and mouth disease, swine fever and bird flu. It is hard to describe how bad they can be—bad for humans, certainly, but infinitely worse for the wildlife and livestock affected.
My eldest son, who is now a vet in practice, began his career before he had even joined a practice by seconding himself to the Ministry of Agriculture and going out and ordering the destruction of thousands of cattle. He watched grown men, maybe twice or three times his age, burst into tears as he gave them the verdict. You and I know, Mr Streeter—you are from Devon—because we have seen those piles of carcases in flames, and it is not a pretty sight. I am not trying to suggest that bovine TB has yet reached pandemic proportions, but to the individual farmer and the individual holding the effect is the same: it is devastating.
Of course, for the wildlife and livestock it is equally bad. It has been said correctly on both sides of this Chamber that bovine TB is a terrible, painful, awful disease. It affects cattle, badgers, dogs and, we believe, deer, and it appears to be spreading. To do nothing is not an option, but we have to do the right thing. Just doing something might superficially play to the gallery and please a few people in rural England, but it is not going to solve the problem. I will not put words into your mouth, Mr Streeter—you are sitting in the Chair—but I suspect that you and I both understand that.
Apart from the hon. Member for Newport West, I am probably the only person in this Chamber who is old enough and ugly enough to bear the scars of Krebs. I have been through those debates and discussions and know very well that the outcome was what can only be described as conclusively inconclusive. People on both sides of the cull debate took from it what they wanted to prove their own cases. Post Krebs one could argue—I would not, but one could—that it was worth a try. Well, it has been tried, and it failed. With 15,000 badgers at a cost of £7,000 each—let us be generous and say £6,000 a badger—hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent for virtually no proven effect whatsoever. That is the bottom line.
My hon. Friend the Minister knows full well that I am a member of the Conservative Animal Welfare Foundation, which has been widely misrepresented by some people in this House but is actually an organisation committed to farm animal welfare. We support many of the aims that the Government set out in their manifesto and we want to help see them through, but on this issue I believe that successive Ministers and Administrations have got it wrong. One of the things we have always tried to do is base our arguments on the science. The British Veterinary Association—I am merely an honorary member, but I do not think that I am misrepresenting its view—does not regard this as a satisfactory way forward. Why? Because it is wrong in science. That brings me to the second of the few remarks I wish to make.
I share a similar position to that of my hon. Friend in the BVA, which believes:
“Badger culling in a targeted, effective and humane manner is necessary in carefully selected areas where badgers are regarded as a significant contributor to the presence of bTB”—
I thought it would be helpful just to set out the BVA’s position.
I am afraid that the BVA is a faith of many churches. To some extent, it probably depends on which veterinary surgeons people listen to.
I, too, am an honorary life member of the BVA. The BVA has made it clear that it does not support the free shooting of badgers, because it is inhumane, as was proved by the independent expert panel. As things stand, the BVA is not particularly happy with how the culling is being conducted.
There is an attitude that we have to use every shot—unfortunately literally in this case—in the locker, and I believe that we are going down the wrong path. I say that with no pleasure whatsoever. If culling worked and eliminated TB in badgers and cattle, I could probably live with the fact that it was necessary, because in the long run it would be the kindest thing to do. But we do not know how many of the 15,000 slaughtered badgers have even had TB, because they have not been tested. Where is the science in that? We do not know whether cattle are giving TB to badgers or badgers are giving it to cattle, or both, because that has not been proven.
I accept that vaccination is costly and difficult, but it is nothing like as costly and difficult as shooting badgers. We know that in Wales, where vaccination has been used much more widely—again, let us discount the wilder claims of success and say that that has probably had a 20% to 25% success rate—culling, at best, has had a 4% success rate. If the Minister has other figures and can demonstrate conclusively that the facts are otherwise, I would be very interested to hear them. So far, we seem to be a little short on statistics giving any indication that the policy that we are currently pursuing works. I want a policy that works. Whichever side of this argument we are on, I guess we are all on the side of wildlife and farmers, and everybody in the Chamber wants a policy that works.
The Republic of Ireland has developed what it believes will be an efficacious vaccine. The bottom line is that we are all looking for that, and I want to see us go down that road. Instead of wasting more time, money and effort going down a blind alley—pursuing a policy that does not work, has not worked and will not work—if we put all those resources and all our effort into finding a vaccination that works for cattle and badgers, we can solve the problem. I urge the Minister to take that away and think about it again. I am not saying that he has not thought about this issue—patently he has; he probably goes to sleep at night dreaming about it—but we need a solution that works.
Two things have not been pursued: one is vaccination, which I have mentioned; and the other, which others have mentioned, is proper ecological bio-control of the movement of cattle and of livestock generally. We know that works because we tried it during the last pandemic, so instead of messing around at the margins, let us get this right.
I did not expect there to be time for me to speak—I am a late entry—so I am extremely grateful to you, Mr Streeter. I thank the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) and other Members who have spoken for approaching the issue in such a reasonable and measured way. Most of us have spent many hours debating this topic in this Chamber, and debates have not always been conducted in the most generous manner, so today has been an interesting and significant improvement.
However, I will argue against a couple of points that the hon. Gentleman raised—I know he will forgive me. Let me begin with the Government’s position. It was slightly suggested that the Government are interested in only one way of dealing with this problem. I suspect that the Minister will come to that, but throughout the time I have spent observing the Government’s reaction, they have always been adamant that culling is not the only solution, but part of the wider package involving a number of different measures that they are trying to test and improve all the time. Culling forms part of that, but of course it is not the only solution in town.
[Ian Paisley in the Chair]
To make a more light-hearted comment, the hon. Gentleman referred to the Government’s policy as a crowd pleaser. From the Minister’s point of view and that of one or two colleagues, I suspect that a policy of culling wildlife is seldom likely to be much of a “crowd pleaser.” If there was another way in which the Government could have approached the problem, I suspect that they would have, so I am not sure that I would have used that expression.
The farmers would not want a cull if there was another way of doing it, because it is very expensive, time-consuming and everything else; it is just that there is no other way of doing it. Even if it means that there is a slight reduction, they are prepared to go to the expense and take the time to do it.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am unlucky enough to represent a constituency in one of the areas in the UK with the most herd breakdowns, where TB is most prevalent, and farmers in my area would absolutely endorse my hon. Friend’s comments.
Rather conveniently, I was about to come to the Wales comparison. As the hon. Member for Newport West will recall, not many years ago the Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition in Cardiff first addressed the problem in policy terms. At that stage the advice that they—and the UK Government—had from the chief veterinary officer was that culling could form an important part of the overall control measures. It is being portrayed here, as it has been before, that somehow the advice to the Welsh Government has changed over the years; that somehow the Welsh Government are working to a different set of proposals. The truth is that the advice they have today is exactly the same as the advice they had then. For those who wish to go into the archives, that advice still maintains a reference to culling as potentially part of the programme for eradicating bovine TB in Wales.
It is fair to say, as my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) did, that the vaccination area in Wales, just north of where I live, covers a small, limited area. That vaccination programme has had to be suspended due to a reduced number of vaccines, as the hon. Member for Newport West commented. The reality is that the very encouraging statistics that have been quoted from Wales for the reduction in herd breakdowns from bovine TB are universal across the whole country. They do not simply reflect the activity in north Pembrokeshire and south Ceredigion. The implication that the vaccination programme has resulted in the 47% reduction in herd breakdowns completely misrepresents the truth. Those figures relate to a tiny land area just north of where I live, whereas the statistics that are being bandied about in the same paragraph relate to the whole of Wales. We keep talking about the importance of relying on science, but we also need to rely on proper, validated statistics. Making comparisons about a few hundred square kilometres of north Pembrokeshire and pretending that that is a reflection of the rest of Wales is a bit misleading.
Does my hon. Friend quarrel with the fact that in the vaccination areas there has been, at worst, a reduction of 20%, whereas in the cull areas the equivalent figure is miniscule—about 4%?
My hon. Friend made my next point for me. I absolutely recognise that there is a discrepancy between those two numbers, but the problem is that we are trying to compare a non-identical set of figures and a non-identical timeline of events leading up to the particular measurement of the figures—I do not think I put that very clearly.
It is misleading to compare the numbers acquired over four years in north Pembrokeshire and south Ceredigion, during a five-year programme that had to be suspended, with a much longer process involving a different set of calculations in England. I myself find it frustrating, but we are not comparing apples with apples when looking at the two systems and processes in those two different areas. Saying, “Here is a solution that works; why don’t the stupid Government use it?” is massively over-simplifying the problem. Again, I do not want to put words in the Minister’s mouth, but we have known each other a long time, and if there was a solution or a magic pill that he could administer to make this all go away, I suspect that he would have done so by now.
The hon. Gentleman’s speech gives rise to two suggestions. One is that he might argue, along with me, that we ought to have a proper evaluation of the pilots in England. The second is that if we want to compare apples with apples, perhaps we need a proper, Government-sponsored vaccination pilot project in England.
I think that you, Mr Paisley, would come after us if we went down the road of discussing the merits of devolution and having a different set of policies in Wales, which I suspect might be the only way to achieve those aims. However, I have no problem with proper evaluation, and I suspect that the Government have none, particularly given the importance of science, of which we are rightly frequently reminded. As the hon. Lady said herself, it is a pilot scheme, and we are fairly early in the lifetime of the project. To come up with figures now that present an absolute position on where we are and where we should go is a little premature—not necessarily that premature, but the moment is not quite with us.
I have two further points. Reference has been made to the Irish comparison. I made some brief inquiries when we went to vote in the Divisions just now. To suggest that the culling in Ireland was a success, but that it has given way to a different regime that is a resounding failure, is again not an absolutely accurate reflection of the position. When herd breakdowns occur in Ireland, as they still do, an epidemiological investigation is held in the area, followed by an absolutely thorough cull. The idea that culling forms no part of the Irish Government’s approach to eradicating bovine TB is a misrepresentation of what is happening.
We have talked about the cost of vaccination. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds mentioned a figure of about £672 annually for a vaccine that is irrelevant in dealing with badgers already carrying the disease, making the injection a completely pointless and expensive approach. There is some doubt about the exact number—I have not been able to ascertain it for 2016-17—of infected badgers that have been unnecessarily vaccinated recently.
It seems extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman brushes aside the fact that Ireland has slaughtered 96,000 badgers without any beneficial effect. If he wants to know about the number of infections, he should ask his Government to test the slaughtered badgers. Tests have been carried out on roadkill badgers, and the percentage contaminated with TB is very small indeed—about 5%.
I suspect that the Minister will deal with the second part of that intervention. As for the first part, I will say only that the Irish Government would not deem their approach to the eradication of bovine TB quite the failure that the hon. Gentleman portrays it to be.
On the cost of culls and/or vaccination, I agree that both figures are eye-wateringly significant, but very little attention seems to have been given in this debate to the cost of the disease to taxpayers, farmers, contractors and the great supply chain that survives on agriculture. If the Minister was to mention the damage done to the economy of rural Britain as a direct consequence of this as-yet-unsolved problem—he probably has the figures at the tip of his tongue—the figures that the hon. Gentleman has quite reasonably mentioned would pale into insignificance.
The British Veterinary Association has been mentioned. Like many colleagues, I am not a scientist, but I hope that I am reasonably practical about these issues. However, I have not spent a career in this area of science, and neither have most of my colleagues, so often what we are treated to is a debate among high-powered, articulate people representing entirely opposite views. As juries who must listen to expert witnesses occasionally find, it is sometimes difficult to separate fact from opinion, and genuine, current science from bogus science. It is sometimes difficult to get a proper measure. That is why—I should have declared my interest; I apologise for forgetting to do so at the beginning of my speech—I refer to and rely on organisations such as the BVA.
To my mind, of all the organisations from which we take evidence and to which we listen, one stands out from the crowd as scientifically focused, objective, sensible, measured and, above all, more experienced on this issue than any of us ever will be. The BVA has done all that for us: listened to the science, filtered out the nonsense from the good sense, and listened to farmers and—I hope—politicians. It has done all that, and has come to this conclusion, which I mentioned just now but will mention again:
“BVA believes badger culling in a targeted, effective and humane manner is necessary in carefully selected areas where badgers are regarded as a significant contributor to the presence of bTB in cattle.”
That is not just the pro-cull members of the BVA versus the anti-cull members; it is a policy position from one of the country’s most respected veterinary resources. Frankly, as much as I would love to know more, my view is that if it is good enough for the BVA, it is good enough for me.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) on opening this debate with an excellent speech. We last debated badger culling on 7 September 2016, in a debate that I led in this Chamber. Today, we are debating e-petition 165672, which calls for an end to badger culling, rather than an extension of culls to new areas.
Ending the badger culls is an eminently sensible and empirically sound proposition supported by almost 110,000 members of the public. I welcome the public support for the issue, and Mr King’s leading role in initiating the petition. The e-petition notes that experts in both disease control and animal welfare agree that badger culls have proven to be ineffective and inhumane. I add that the culls are also ruinously expensive, wasting taxpayer money at the rate of more than £6,000 per badger inhumanely slaughtered.
In September, I noted that bovine tuberculosis, or BTB, affects beef and dairy cattle herds in England, and that although Scotland has been officially free from the disease since 2009 and Wales is increasingly demonstrating how to bring it under control, the incidence of infection in England is rising, particularly along the edge areas, which threatens further herd outbreaks and the perpetuation of absolute misery for England’s farmers.
I join my hon. Friend in commending the work done in Scotland to ensure that we have been certified free of the disease for the last eight years. Does he share my concerns about the repercussions for TB control, particularly among cattle, of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU?
I absolutely agree, particularly in relation to the evident risks of the spread of infection if appropriate cattle movement control and biosecurity measures are not implemented. That is why the Scottish National party is participating in this debate, even though it relates primarily to England and to the impact of bovine TB on England’s farmers.
We should be in no doubt that bovine TB is a very serious problem, and that killing badgers on an industrial scale is probably making the situation worse. Badger culling is nothing less than a costly distraction from the implementation of an effective solution, which requires a focus on sound animal husbandry and biosecurity, including vaccination, increased cattle movement control measures, and improved infection testing.
We know that bovine tuberculosis is caused by mycobacterium bovis, which is excreted by infected cattle on to the land they graze, where it survives in the soil and is then passed to other cattle and other species. Nevertheless, the predominant mode of transmission in cattle is nose-to-nose, and such transmission is encouraged by trading and moving cattle between herds. Indeed, evidence suggests that the number of new herd breakdowns appears to double approximately every nine years.
In the last decade alone, the UK Government have slaughtered 314,000 otherwise healthy cattle in an attempt to control infection. In 2013, more than 6 million bovine TB tests were performed in England in an ineffective attempt to identify the disease, leading to the slaughter of more than 26,000 cattle. Such skin tests are only 20% to 50% effective. The Minister will be interested to know that a new study, published just last week, shows that, as I argued in September, the tuberculin skin test fails to identify up to 50% of reactive cases. The skin test has always been a herd test, not an individual test. Its efficacy is hindered by the ability of the disease to hide in animals whose immune response is suppressed. In cattle, this could be due to a range of factors, including age, history of exposure, pregnancy and fluke parasite burden.
The ineffectiveness of the test means that in the last decade, the rising incidence of the disease has cost the UK taxpayer more than £500 million. Today, 20% of all new herd breakdowns are detected only in the slaughterhouse, such is the ineffectiveness of the overall testing programme. The inability to bring the disease under control resulted in a cost to the UK taxpayer of almost £100 million in 2014 alone, and the additional cost to farmers is estimated to run into tens of millions of pounds annually. The financial costs are staggering. The rise in the incidence of the disease in England is giving rise not only to an increase in the number of beef and dairy herds affected, but to increased geographical spread and consequently a spiralling cost to the UK taxpayer—more than £1 billion in the next decade alone, by the estimate of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
The crisis that England’s cattle farmers, and their families and communities, face cannot be overstated. If the disease continues to increase unchecked in England, it will also begin to threaten herds in other nations that are currently free of the disease, such as Scotland, and that are successfully combating it, such as Wales. I am certain that we all want to avoid that. In that context, it is frankly inexplicable that the rising incidence of bovine tuberculosis in England is being attributed to badgers, because research shows that, even in remote areas of England where bovine TB is rampant, 86% of badgers are clear of it.
The Government must stop allowing farmers to believe that the level of infectious TB in badgers is much higher than it is, and that culling might make a difference when we know that it will not. Despite the huge amounts being spent, no substantial or respectable body of scientific work has ever been produced that contradicts the conclusions of the study by the independent scientific group on cattle TB, which initiated the randomised badger culling trial in 1998. That study, as we have heard, found that reactive badger culling resulted in significant increases in cattle TB incidence, to the extent that culling was abandoned early in the trial. The study concluded, first, that
“badger culling cannot meaningfully contribute to the future control of cattle TB”;
“weaknesses in cattle testing regimes mean that cattle themselves contribute significantly to the persistence and spread of disease in all areas where TB occurs”—
that is, cattle themselves are the disease reservoir; thirdly, that
“cattle-to-cattle transmission…is the main cause of disease spread to new areas”;
“substantial reductions in cattle TB incidence could be achieved by improving cattle-based control measures”;
and, finally, that
“agricultural and veterinary leaders continue to believe, in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, that the main approach to cattle TB control must involve some form of badger population control.”
In short, the scientific evidence does not identify a causal relationship between the presence of badgers and a rising incidence of bovine tuberculosis in cattle. The current approach means that the people of England can have as much bovine tuberculosis as the UK Government are prepared to pay for.
History shows us that bovine tuberculosis is an ugly opponent, and that dealing with it requires scientific precision in testing, movement controls and selective removal. In the 1960s, bovine tuberculosis infection was reduced by around 80% in under four years. That reduction involved short-term actions in return for long-term benefit. The intelligent and evidence-led approach is to deploy interferon gamma and apply the emerging late-stage tests for hidden bovine tuberculosis, such as RPA 7, alongside biosecurity measures and cattle movement restrictions. Resources must be directed towards testing and control, and plans for expensive and divisive badger-culling pilots in England must be put on hold. There is already more than enough evidence to show that the controversial free-shooting method does not work. The strategy must now be to seek to deploy gamma testing in the pilot areas, and plans should be initiated to invest heavily in supporting livestock controls, with unequivocal backing from the UK Government.
Further attempts to disguise the failure of the badger cull programme are futile. Compelling recent evidence from Wales and Ireland shows that there is no value in addressing the hypothetical contribution from badger culling, especially while the overwhelmingly critical cattle-to-cattle transfer remains uncontrolled. No other country is seriously considering such a pitifully crude, wasteful and ineffective solution to bovine tuberculosis as badger culling.
In September’s debate, the Minister noted the policies that he is overseeing:
“We have annual testing in the high-risk area and four-yearly testing in the low-risk area. We have annual testing in the edge area and six-monthly testing in hotspots in the edge area, and we continue to consider rolling that out. We have contiguous testing in the high-risk area where there is a breakdown, and we have radial testing in the low-risk area, going out to 3 km, where we have a breakdown. We are now consulting on greater use of the gamma interferon test so that we can pick up the disease faster. We are also looking at what more can be done in other species. We are constantly trying to refine and improve our cattle movement controls”.—[Official Report, 7 September 2016; Vol. 614, c. 219WH.]
There is scope for further work on those points. What progress has the Minister made on controlling slurry spreading, on managing deer populations, on limiting hunting with hounds, on restricting cattle movements and, above all, on challenging weak biosecurity measures, including feeding infected cattle to hounds? I say “weak”, because it has recently been brought to my attention that Natural England has rolled back on farmers’ risk assessments; indeed, I understand that in five of the seven new cull areas, only 5% of participants’ farms had received biosecurity visits from Natural England by mid-September 2016. It is unsurprising, then, that Natural England failed to release information from its biosecurity monitoring forms for all the new cull areas and has abandoned the assessment ratings of good, fair and poor that were used up to 2014. Why is that, Minister?
By 2015, the percentage of participants’ farms with cattle that had not—I emphasise not—been visited by Natural England monitoring staff was 55% in west Gloucestershire, 63% in west Somerset, and 68% in Dorset. I repeat that those are the percentages of participants’ farms that were not visited. That is not science-led or evidence-led practice, Minister. Why was a small team of between just seven and 10 people monitoring biosecurity visits from 2012 to 2015? Has the team been expanded to an appropriate level? I also note that the UK Government no longer collect data on the humaneness of culling badgers. Again, why, Minister?
There is also further evidence of a failure to assess the wider ecological impacts of culling. A report by the Food and Environment Research Agency in 2011 identified a range of outcomes from the culling of badgers that could result in disruption to ecosystems. The report identified the potential impact of the resulting change in the abundance of other species on a wide range of habitats, and it indicated that screening exercises and appropriate assessments should be carried out where badger culling was proposed. However, with a total of 10 licences having been issued to date, the UK Government have failed to conduct appropriate assessments to determine whether badger culling is creating wider ecological impacts that affect species and habitats protected under the Bern convention. That is yet another reason why badger culling should be suspended.
The historical and contemporary evidence increasingly demonstrates that the true engine driving the ongoing spread of bovine TB is, and always has been, the so-called problem herds with recurrent and/or persistent chronic TB. The proposition that the inhumane persecution of badgers will miraculously control TB infections is ridiculous, which is exactly why the Welsh Government have abandoned badger culling and why the European Union has never agreed with the UK’s policy in this area. This is a disease more likely to be carried on the boots of human beings than by badgers.
The UK Government should abandon the tuberculosis skin test as the primary means of identifying infection and new herd outbreaks, and should instead adopt modern methods and technologies to address this disease. Specifically, they should adopt gamma interferon tests and robust systems of biosecurity. Combined with a co-ordinated badger vaccination policy in high-risk areas for bovine TB in England, and restricted movement of cattle, this course of action would represent a more progressive and intelligent approach, and it would realise results within months. It would also be more humane and better support England’s farmers.
Just as I did in September, I again ask the Minister to please look to Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales; to recognise the important contribution of rigorous blood testing regimes and effective movement controls to reduce the risks of cattle-to-cattle transmission; to introduce a centrally co-ordinated and comprehensive badger vaccination policy in high-risk infection areas in England, focusing on reducing the incidence of this dreadful disease in cattle; and to please stop the regressive and medieval practice of badger culling, which the public abhor, and which diminishes our collective humanity.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley, and to have the opportunity to respond to this debate today for the Opposition.
I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) for opening the debate and demonstrating, with his usual eloquence, his passion for the subject. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) made some important and knowledgeable contributions to the debate. I stress the fact that she talked about the importance of consensus. If we are going to solve this problem and eradicate this disease, we need to work together. The hon. Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) clearly set out the importance of using science and evidence, so that we can develop a policy that works. He also stressed the importance of developing a vaccination, as did the hon. Member for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown).
As we have heard today, bovine TB has a significant impact on farmers by causing loss of livestock, particularly for small dairy farmers, who are already under significant financial pressure on a daily basis. The compensation they receive for slaughtered cattle is not good—up to a maximum of £1,225 for non-pedigree dairy cows and less for beef cows. Quite simply, bovine TB must be urgently controlled and eradicated. However, I want to be absolutely clear: the Labour party opposes badger culling, because we do not believe that it is the most effective way of managing the disease or that is it the most humane.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge also mentioned the fact that during the last Parliament the independent expert panel, which was appointed to monitor the effectiveness, humaneness and safety of the first year of the badger culls, concluded that the 2013 culls had failed on both effectiveness and humaneness. A number of other hon. Members also mentioned that during the debate.
Last August, the Government agreed that seven new culling areas would be permitted in England, in addition to the existing areas. Culling in these areas will be carried out over four years. In 2016, culls took place in each area between 29 August and 18 October. Although the Chief Veterinary Officer has advised that the culls were humane and effective, and show that culling can help to achieve disease control benefits, environmental experts have questioned the validity of the evidence base and argue that there is no basis for drawing conclusions about the effectiveness of culling in reducing bovine TB.
We welcome the Government’s commitment to pursuing other measures, including tighter cattle controls, biosecurity, and the design of the new badger edge vaccination scheme. However, it is disappointing that the Government propose licensing a supplementary form of badger control only after a cull has been completed over at least four years.
Clearly, it is time for long-term solutions to combat bovine TB. We would like to see an alternative, science-led approach, combining a number of methods, to prioritise the development of a vaccine, together with improved cattle testing and cattle management, with tighter biosecurity measures and improved animal husbandry. Evidence-based and science-led policy must be at the heart of everything we do.
We have heard extensively about the different approach taken by the Welsh Government. Since 2012, they have vaccinated more than 5,600 badgers in Wales and the number of cattle herds under restrictions from bovine TB is now at its lowest level there since 2006, with 95% of Welsh herds TB-free. We have heard how there has been a 47% reduction in new instances of the disease in Wales, as a result of increased testing frequency, improved biosecurity and other cattle control methods alone. That compares, as we have heard, with the net reduction of just 16% of new incidents of bovine TB over nine years of randomised badger cull trials in England. We have heard about the cost—the cull cost of £6,700 per badger. I cannot believe that any hon. Member would consider that to be anything other than an extraordinary amount of money, considering—as the RSPCA notes and as we have heard—an estimated cost of £662 per badger vaccinated in Wales. The substantial amount of money that would be saved by vaccination would be better invested in supporting the farming industry.
I am sorry to bore Members with this, but that is an annual figure. The hon. Lady needs to look at it over the lifetime, rather than as a single figure.
It may well be an annual figure, but there is still an extraordinarily significant difference between the two figures.
It is 10 years.
Well, I consider it to be extraordinary, and I think that many colleagues do, as well.
The policing costs for the cull areas would be zero if it were not for the effects of the protesters; therefore we cannot compare one figure with another. As my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) just said, and as I said in my speech, when the annual cost of vaccination is extended over five years the actual cost is not £660 per badger but £3,000.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It only goes to show that we really need proper evidence. However we look at it, it is much more expensive, per badger, to cull.
Does my hon. Friend agree that vaccination has the effect of giving immunity on a continuing basis, by removing the disease, whereas culling has proved to be effective for only short periods, with instances of the disease then returning in great numbers? Last year there was a large number of new cases and 35 areas that were previously bovine TB-free were declared infected. The culling is therefore failing.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. The important thing is that we have effective long-term solutions, and vaccination has been shown to play an important part in that.
The example of Wales has shown what we need to emulate here in England. The randomised badger culling trial—RBCT—which has been mentioned, is the largest ever study conducted to examine whether culling badgers would reduce TB in cattle. It concluded that
“badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain”,
and went on to state:
“It is unfortunate that agricultural and veterinary leaders continue to believe, in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary, that the main approach to cattle TB control must involve some form of badger population control.”
In 2012, Lord Krebs, President of the British Science Association and a key scientist involved in the RBCT study, called the Government’s cull policy “mindless”, adding:
“The scientific case is as clear as it can be: this cull is not the answer to TB in cattle. The government is cherry-picking bits of data to support its case.”
An October 2012 letter to The Observer, signed by 31 eminent scientists, described the cull as a “costly distraction” and stated:
“As scientists with expertise in managing wildlife and wildlife diseases, we believe the complexities of TB transmission mean that licensed culling risks increasing cattle TB rather than reducing it.”
In 2015, a group of scientists and wildlife experts wrote another letter, this time calling on the Government to
“reconsider, immediately, the decision to continue and extend the culling of badgers.”
We have been falsely presented with the impression that without large-scale badger culling, bovine TB cannot be effectively controlled. It is all very well to say that culling a certain percentage of badgers in an area will halt the spread of the disease, but who is to say the culled badgers are not disease-free and the surviving badgers are carrying the disease? We must be careful not to do more harm than good by dispersing infected badgers into previously unaffected areas and spreading the problem. That is something no one wants to see.
It is clear that we need urgent investment in a widespread vaccination programme and a proper biosecurity strategy. That means reducing the chances of cattle and badgers coming into contact, directly or indirectly, to minimise the risk of the disease entering a farm. We have heard that in 2015 the British Veterinary Association withdrew its support for the shooting of free-running badgers, stating:
“it has not been demonstrated conclusively that controlled shooting can be carried out effectively and humanely”.
In a letter to the Prime Minister last summer, Professors John Bourne, Rosie Woodroffe and Ranald Munro wrote:
“We urge you to review the considerable evidence that culling badgers is a risky, costly, and inhumane tool in the fight against bovine TB. We submit to you that expanding this unpromising programme would fly in the face of scientific evidence. We publicly call on you at this time to halt—not expand—the failed badger cull.”
They concluded that
“the roll out into many more areas will immediately increase the risk of a considerable number of badgers being injured and suffering”
for a cull that “doesn’t actually work.”
Bovine TB has been a problem for a long time, and badger culling has been attempted as a solution for many years, yet the disease has not gone away, so it is clear that efforts are not working. Although it is very welcome that the Government are pursuing other measures, such as tighter cattle controls, biosecurity and the designing of the new badger edge vaccination scheme, subject to a global shortage of the vaccine, it is disappointing that they continue to pursue culling.
Now is the time to change our approach. Vaccination and biosecurity must be the priority, and I urge the Government to prioritise them, along with improved cattle testing and management. We must urgently find long-term solutions to stop the spread of bovine TB, but we must do so in a humane way, following scientific advice.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate all the petitioners. I understand that more than 108,000 individuals signed the petition, led, as has been said, by Mr King. That shows that this is an emotive, but incredibly important, issue, and it is right that we spend this time debating it.
The hon. Member for Penistone and Stockbridge (Angela Smith) declared an interest, in that she is a member of the Wildlife Trusts. If that is considered an interest, I should probably join her by declaring that I am a member of the Wildlife Trusts in Cornwall. They do some fantastic work, but it has to be said that this is one area on which I and my local Wildlife Trust have to agree to disagree. The truth is that TB is an incredibly difficult disease to fight. It is slow growing and not easy to detect. We are constantly trying to improve diagnostics, and I will come on to that. No vaccine is fully effective. The best we have is the BCG vaccine, which we know is only about 70% effective.
The disease has a huge impact on our livestock industry. Last year, we slaughtered about 29,000 heads of cattle. This is a disease that costs us £100 million a year to manage and fight. There are no easy solutions and there is no single measure that provides the answer to a disease of this sort, which is why the Government have set out a comprehensive 25-year strategy that involves us using all the tools at our disposal to bear down on the disease.
The hon. Member for Penistone and Stockbridge pointed out that the previous Labour Government decided not to proceed with a badger cull. I have to say that had they acted as one should with any animal disease—swiftly and assertively to get it under control—it might have been easier to turn the situation around. The reality is that we had 15 years that can be best described as a period of dither, when clear action was not taken on all the available fronts to tackle the disease.
Will the Minister compare that with what the Irish Government did? They took every action possible, in slaughtering every badger they could find—in fact, they slaughtered more badgers than they thought were in the country. That was wholesale, mass slaughter and it failed, miserably. They are now going on to do vaccinating. It is nonsense for the Minister to try to use a political argument when there is no basis for it in science.
I was going to return to that matter later, but as the hon. Gentleman has raised it I can deal with it now. There is a bit of a misconception about what Ireland has done. They have pursued a successful cull strategy, which has significantly reduced the incidence of TB. Having got the badger population down to a lower level, they are now exploring how to deploy vaccination in the way that one should, as an exit strategy from a cull once the population has been reduced and not as an alternative. To make a comparison, had the Labour Government grasped the nettle and acted swiftly, we could have been in a similar situation and had the disease under control by now.
Will the Minister not acknowledge that in their earliest days, the last Labour Government did act by ensuring that they funded, organised and gave the green light to the 10-year study, which attempted to establish a sound scientific base for how to intervene effectively, especially in relation to culling and how to respond to demands for it? Will he not also accept that the lifting of controls with foot and mouth disease in 2001 necessarily had a major impact?
Obviously the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak had an impact, but my point is that there was a loss of 10 years when the science had been clear about what was required since the ’70s. It would have been possible to act earlier, although I will return to the science, as a number of Members mentioned it.
Many Members talked about the importance of cattle movement controls, and I completely agree with that. In fact, it is not in doubt; we have a consensus on that. Cattle movement controls are absolutely at the heart of the Government’s strategy, and have been for many years. I simply ask Members to look at the controls we have now. We have annual testing in the high-risk area. We have four-yearly testing staggered in the low-risk area. We have annual testing in the edge area. In hotspots in the edge area, such as Cheshire, we have six-monthly testing, and we are exploring opportunities to expand that methodology. We have contiguous testing in the high-risk area when we have a breakdown and radial testing in the low-risk area when we have a breakdown. We have pre-movement testing before animals can be moved off a holding, and we now have post-movement testing once animals are moved to a holding in the low-risk area.
Last year we consulted on, and have now implemented, a new approach to using the interferon gamma test much more often than before. When the skin test and the surveillance test detect a problem, we are deploying the interferon gamma test much more often, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan) highlighted. We have also just implemented an approach of taking a much harsher interpretation of some of the inconclusive tests, as some of the evidence is that an inconclusive test often means a delayed response. We are constantly looking at whether we can refine things. Members should bear in mind that when we do these tests and detect a problem, all those holdings are placed under restriction. I agree that cattle movement controls are a crucial part of the fight against the disease, but I put it to Members that we are doing everything possible that there is to do at the moment. We are already doing what Members are asking us to do, and we have been for some time.
A number of Members raised the issue of vaccination. As I said earlier, we believe that vaccination of badgers could give us an exit strategy from the cull once we have reduced numbers. That is why we continue to spend millions of pounds trying to develop an oral vaccine for badgers, and that work is ongoing. In 2015, we had an edge area vaccination pilot, where six voluntary groups came together to support us in rolling out the trapping and vaccination of badgers in the edge area. As a result of the shortage of vaccine and a request from the World Health Organisation that the vaccine we had be reserved for medical use in humans only, we had to suspend that programme, in common with Wales. We hope to secure new supplies of vaccine and to resume that edge area vaccination project in 2018.
The Minister has accurately noted some of the initiatives he mentioned at the conclusion of his speech in September 2016. Can he tell us what impact those measures have had? What action has he taken to address other issues, such as slurry spreading on fields and feeding infected cattle to hounds and perhaps other animals?
We publish the disease surveillance data annually in August. To pick up on the point that the hon. Member for Penistone and Stockbridge made, that includes data specific to the cull areas that we have under way. Having just implemented the new use and the adoption of the interferon gamma test, it is too early to tell how much impact that will have. What we do know is that the basic surveillance testing measures, pre-movement testing and restrictions have been in place for a number of years. As in Wales, they have undoubtedly contributed to holding the disease in check, but we know that, on their own, the measures will not be enough to roll the disease back.
We continue to do work on developing a cattle vaccine. The BCG vaccine can be used in cattle, but we know it is not 100% effective. It probably gives between 65% and 70% protection to herds, but that would nevertheless be beneficial if we could secure the right kind of test that could differentiate the vaccine from TB. Some years ago, we did manage to get in place an interferon gamma blood test that could do that, but it unfortunately threw up a lot of false positives, which is a common problem. We are now doing work to consider the skin test. We believe that we are close to getting a skin test that can distinguish between the disease and the vaccine. When we are able to get that in place, we will work towards starting trials of that.
A number of Members have raised the issue of Wales. As my hon. Friends the Members for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) and for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) pointed out, the area in Wales under the vaccination pilot represented just 1.5% of the country. Wales’ cattle movement restrictions almost mirror ours; there is very little difference. The differences tend to be in the types of restrictions on cattle markets, but they are minor differences. All the other approaches, on surveillance testing and restrictions, are remarkably similar. If we look at the figures, the latest statistics show that 95% of Welsh herds and 94.2% of English herds are TB-free, so the difference is not enormous.
The large drop in TB in Wales that has been quoted by a number of Members seems to be based on a reference point of 2012-13, which was a year with a very high prevalence of disease. In the past year, Wales has seen a 23% increase in the number of cattle slaughtered due to TB, while England has seen just a 4% increase, so we can trade statistics, but I simply point out that the approach in Wales to cattle movement controls is remarkably similar to what we are doing in England. The area covered by Wales’ vaccination pilot is nowhere near large enough to draw the conclusions and inferences that some Members are drawing.
To turn to the badger cull and the science, the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn)—he opened the debate, and he has a long track record of campaigning on wildlife issues and animal welfare issues—rightly pointed out that badgers are sentient creatures and that we would not do the cull unless we needed to. As I have made clear many times before, I would not sanction the cull unless I believed it was necessary to combat this terrible disease. The advice we have from our chief veterinary officer is clear that we cannot eradicate the disease unless we also tackle the reservoir of the disease in the wildlife population. While the policy is contentious, it is the right policy. Sometimes Governments have to pursue the right policy, even if it is not popular.
I have been listening very carefully to what the Minister has been saying. I do not understand how he and the chief veterinary officer can assert that the reservoir is there when none of the animals that have been eliminated have been tested.
The issue was looked at extensively during the randomised badger culling trials, and we know that in the high-risk area, where there is a strong prevalence of the disease, around a third of badgers have bovine TB. That has been demonstrated previously.
On the science, there is no example anywhere in the world of a country that has eradicated TB without also addressing the reservoir of the disease in the wildlife population. TB was first isolated in badgers as long ago as 1971. In 1974, a trial was conducted to remove badgers from a severely infected farm, with the result that there was no breakdown on that farm for five years. Between 1975 and 1978, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food funded extensive work and demonstrated conclusively that there is transmission and a link between badgers and cattle. Subsequent work in Ireland reaffirmed that finding.
The Krebs review observed that, between 1975 and 1979, TB incidence in the south-west fell from 1.65% to 0.4% after the cull—a 75% reduction. Subsequently, in the late ’70s and early ’80s, more extensive work was done in three exercises. One was in Thornbury, where the TB incidence fell from 5.6% in the 10 years before culling to 0.45% in the 15 years after, which was a reduction of 90%. In Steeple Leaze, there were no breakdowns for seven years after the badgers were cleared. In Hartland, the incidence dropped from 15% in 1984 to just 4% in 1985—a reduction of more than two thirds. I have pointed out the historical data, as I did in the previous debate, because it is often tempting for this House to feel that it is considering issues for the first time, but the challenge of fighting TB is not new and a great deal was learnt during the 1970s and ’80s.
I am grateful to the Minister for being so generous with his time. He has given various examples that suggest that culling badgers has been successful in reducing the incidence of bovine TB. Can he tell us the full range of variables that were tracked and monitored in each of those experimental cases? How do we know that the assertion that badgers were responsible for the infection rate is not just an artefact of poor experimental design?
It was always recognised that the trials did not have controls alongside them in a scientific way. That is why, as I was going to explain, the RBCT trials were carried out.
I thank the Minister for being generous in giving way, and just for people to be clear, my constituency is Penistone and Stocksbridge, with an s in the middle. That is very important.
The Minister referred to the review by Professor Krebs. If the review was valid, presumably the 10-year trial—the scientific study led by Professor Krebs—was also valid, and its conclusions should have been taken more seriously by the Government.
The full benefits of that RBCT trial presented themselves in the years after the report was concluded, as is now widely accepted. The average reduction in incidence, even if we take account of the theory of perturbation, was 16% during the trial, as everybody accepts, but in the 18 months after culling ended in the RBCT, there was a very sharp, 54% reduction in the incidence of the disease. The average across the period was 28.3%, so the evidence was pretty clear that removing and reducing the badger population in a proactive way could contribute meaningfully to this issue.
The issue was looked at again in 2013 by Professor Charles Godfray, who conducted an independent review of all of the science, which brought together leading UK experts. It concluded that TB spreads within and between populations of badgers and cattle, and that the spread from badgers to cattle is an important cause of herd breakdowns in high incidence areas. Policy is based on evidence that has been clear since the 1970s. The latest review conducted by Professor Charles Godfray with leading experts supported that conclusion.
There are issues that we continue to look at. I have an open mind to additional approaches that can help us bear down on the disease. My hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Sir Roger Gale) mentioned the importance of biosecurity. I agree with him. In fact, a couple of months ago I launched the cattle herd certification standards scheme, an accreditation scheme where we try to incentivise farmers to sign up to high levels of biosecurity. We are now looking at new ways in which we might incentivise them to do that and to put more emphasis on that.
Some hon. Members mentioned the handling of farmyard manure. We know that the disease bacterium can spread through farmyard manure and through latrines via badgers. That is recognised and not disputed. We already have many restrictions in place on when farmyard manure from infected herds can be spread and where it can be spread. I constantly keep such issues under review, and in recent months I have asked our policy team to look again at whether there is anything further we can do. We are continually looking at whether we can strengthen and improve genetic resistance to the disease.
The Holstein UK society is doing very important work to try to breed resistance to TB into the dairy herd. We support that and stand ready to assist if required. There is also some novel research going on, very much in the early stages, into whether we could develop a self-disseminating vaccine for badgers. That would mean using something like a herpes virus. The vaccine would be inserted and would spread naturally through a badger population. If we could perfect something like that, it would be a major breakthrough, although we are some way off.
What we are hearing is all very welcome news indeed. I am pleased to have it on the record, but it would be good to have an answer to the key question: when will we get publication of an independent evaluation of the pilot culls?
I was moving on to that. Data on bovine TV incidence in the cull areas are published annually. Because of the low prevalence rate, we need aggregate data over a year. We have already published the first two years. The third one will be published in August, so we are already publishing the data on disease incidence in the two cull areas.
I want to move on and cover some of the other points that were raised. The hon. Member for Newport West raised the issue of the Kimblewick hunt and dogs. Our veterinary advice is clear that dogs are not a major contributor to the spread of the disease. The incidence of TB in dogs is very rare. We occasionally get incidents, as we do with cats. Three years ago we had an outbreak of TB in cats in a particular area, but the veterinary advice is clear: it is not a key contributor. In the case of the Kimblewick hunt, an epidemiological investigation is under way. Until it is completed, it would be wrong to speculate on what the origin or route of the disease was. On the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion of stopping hunting, although I understand that he has a wider objective to do that, it would not be a proportionate step, based on the risk that we have.
The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge raised the issue of the independent expert panel. It was only ever intended that that would be for the first year to review data. It was never intended that it would report each and every year. She asked about evaluation. I have been clear that the evaluation is ongoing. We have already published the first two years and the third will be published in August. She mentioned the need to reduce the population by at least 70% within six weeks. I will simply point out that the RBCT never estimated its badger population at the start. It retrospectively guessed how many it thought it had reduced, so there is a danger of having false precision around some of the figures.
Will the Minister give way?
I am afraid I have given way generously. I will press on because I believe we may have a Division shortly.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds asked what happens after the current culls have ended their four years. As was pointed out by the shadow Minister, in the two cull areas that have concluded four years, we will—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I extend my gratitude to everyone who has returned to the debate, as some hon. Members will have detected that I was getting towards the end of my contribution. I have gone through my notes to check whether I overlooked anything earlier.
To pick up on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds on the culls that have completed their four years, as I explained just before we suspended the debate, at the end of last year we consulted on having low-level maintenance culling to keep the population in check. That would very much be a small operation with much-reduced numbers—not like the culls we had for the first four years. My hon. Friend also mentioned deer and other species, and he is right that wild deer can carry TB, but our veterinary advice is that their role in transmitting TB is significantly lower than that of badgers, because of their nature and how they move about. TB spreads less freely among deer, because badgers live underground in close proximity to one another. Nevertheless, deer are a potential concern, but we believe badgers to be far more prevalent in spreading the disease, and do so in far greater numbers, in particular in the south-west, the high-risk area, so that is where we are focusing our attention at the moment.
The hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross asked us to learn lessons from other parts of the UK. As I pointed out in his debate on badger culling and bovine TB, Scotland is officially TB-free, but Scotland has an incredibly low badger population. It is the only part of the UK not to have a large badger population.
In Northern Ireland, which was mentioned, the approach is to trap, test, and vaccinate or remove. We follow the evidence from that approach closely, but the difficulty is that there are no good diagnostics for picking up the disease, as I said earlier. The people in Northern Ireland might therefore release up to 40% of badgers that have the disease, although they would not have detected it. In addition, they could be vaccinating and re-releasing badgers that had already had the disease. That approach is by no means perfect, even though superficially it sounds logical.
The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), mentioned costs. All I can say is that in year 1, the costs were higher—a huge amount of surveillance and post-mortem testing was going on, we had the independent expert panel and policing costs were higher—but the costs have been reducing as we have rolled out the cull. We also have to put that in context: every year, the disease is costing us £100 million, so doing nothing is not an option.
There has been universal agreement across the House on one point in the debate: if we can find an oral vaccine, that is a possible solution. Will the Minister say something about the Government’s research into oral vaccines? I am thinking in particular about meningitis B and a vaccine for babies, on which I have campaigned. That new vaccine is manufactured in a totally different way. Will he look at the science behind such vaccines to see what lessons can be learned?
One of the challenges of TB is that it is a bacterial disease, and it is notoriously hard to get vaccines to work in that context, whereas with a virus, if the vaccine is cracked, the virus is cracked—as with, for example, the Schmallenberg vaccine. We have to recognise that despite decades of medical research, the best TB vaccine available is still the BCG. As I have said, however, we are spending millions of pounds on research to develop an oral bait that badgers would take and that would immunise them. As the hon. Member for Newport West pointed out correctly, if we can get the vaccination right, a herd effect in badgers could pass on the immunity. We are also in the very early stages of looking at the notion of self-disseminating vaccination with a positive, contagious vaccine that could spread through the badger population. My hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds is right that that is an important area of research, but I go back to what I said at the beginning: vaccination is only one of our tools for bearing down on the disease. I am afraid, however, that a badger cull is an essential part of any coherent strategy to eradicate TB. That is why we are continuing with the policy.
A number of hon. Members mentioned the BVA and its comments on the free shooting of badgers. As I said before, I live quite near Bushy Park, across the bridge from Kingston, and every autumn a sign is put on the gate stating, “The park is closed today because a deer cull is going on.” No one bats an eyelid. People do not say, “This is terrible”, and we do not get protesters running around dressed up as deer or in the middle of the night, trying to disrupt things. People seem to accept that.
I put it to hon. Members that we have to keep some sense of perspective. We are trying to fight a difficult disease and the veterinary advice is clear: a badger cull has to be part of any approach to eradicating that disease. Is it really that different from the approach that we take to controlling other wildlife, such as foxes, or deer in royal parks?
The reply that we have had from the Minister is very disappointing. He has said that he will not take any action on hounds, because it is very rare for bovine TB in dogs or hounds to be transferred to other species. The Government cannot have it both ways, if that is their policy, because the chief veterinary officer, Mr Nigel Gibbens, took to the airwaves in 2013 to proclaim that it was not safe to take one’s pet Labrador, or let one’s pet cat, out into the woods, as it might catch bovine TB from badgers and subsequently infect its owner. I think that that was taken as a rather extreme view at the time, but if the veterinary view is that bovine TB is infectious to other species from hounds, we must take very seriously what is happening in a hunt that has been trampling over six of our counties. We should look, too, at other methods and ensure that, if there is a new source of infection, such as hounds, we carry out inspections. The reason we do not know whether TB is in hounds is that we have not looked, and it is about time that that was done.
An interesting claim was made about possums in New Zealand. In 2009, the New Zealand Government reported that the incidence of bovine TB in possums was 0.004%, which is vanishingly small, and pointed out that the virtual elimination of the disease from the possum population was to do with cattle control—reducing movements of cattle around the country—and nothing to do with culling. It is entirely false to pretend that it was. Some Government Members put forward a sort of Enid Blyton view of wildlife—that wild animals should abide by the ten commandments and not go out and eat other animals, or follow their natural life. That view is put forward sentimentally by some to defend what are barbaric acts against these dumb animals.
Some other points made in this debate were entirely false. The figures about Wales that one Government Member gave were just untrue. We know that the system in Wales is working, but the system in England is not. Between November 2015 and 2016, there were 36 new herd incidents in which official TB-free status was withdrawn—we are going backwards with those—and the number of cattle destroyed was up 8% in some areas. We know, too, that the number of herds that are identified as infected with bovine TB at slaughterhouses is in the hundreds. The crude, unscientific system that we have for detecting TB is not working. The Minister gave some pie in the sky hope for the future about things that are unlikely to come to fruition for many years, but the Government have shown a lack of conviction in this policy by setting a 25-year target for its delivery. I do not think many of us will be around to see that, and the Government will constantly use the excuse, “You must give us time to deal with this.”
I accused the Government of being crowd-pleasing. I was talking about the farming crowd, not the general crowd. The Government have outraged the majority of the public. It is not reasonable to mock those who sacrifice their time and safety to protest vigorously against unnecessary acts of cruelty that have no basis in science or what happens throughout the rest of the world. The worst mistake that politicians make is to say, “Something must be done. We can’t think of anything intelligent to do, we can’t think of any practical to do that will work, but we must do something.” I am afraid it is one of the great sins of this House and the way that we legislate that the worst mistakes we make are often in the pursuit of “something must be done”. Badger culling is a very bad idea. It is cruel, and the country will rightly show its contempt for a Government who continue with it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 165672 relating to badger culling.