HC Deb 22 February 1999 vol 326 cc153-60

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—Mr. [Betts.]

11.51 pm
Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands)

In May 1997, just days after I was elected, a planned cull of badgers in my constituency was stopped. Understandably, that caused much anxiety among local farmers and ensured that badgers and bovine tuberculosis quickly became a key priority for me as a new Member of Parliament. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for having received a delegation of six farmers from my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean), with whom I share the debate. He also took time to visit the farm of Mr. George Richardson at Ham in my constituency to discuss the problems that badgers posed in his environment. Sadly, I have learnt since then that Mr. Richardson's farm has gone down with TB. On that farm the Minister saw how difficult it is for farmers to follow Government advice on keeping badgers and cattle apart.

Over the past decade the number of cases of TB in cattle has risen steadily. Although the west country is the traditional stronghold of the disease, it is spreading rapidly in Staffordshire, particularly along the border with Derbyshire. During 1998 there were 30 confirmed TB herd breakdowns in Staffordshire, but the most worrying fact is the rate of increase of TB incidence, at around 30 per cent. year on year. The other main concern is the virulent strain of TB that seems to be prevalent in Staffordshire.

Following the Krebs report, the sum of evidence strongly supports the view that badgers are a cause of bovine TB outbreaks. However, due to the previous Government's failure to grasp the nettle there has been no proper experimental study to enable firm conclusions to be drawn about the effectiveness of badger culling and other methods of controlling the disease, so I strongly support the Government's decision to implement the culling trial. We must establish whether the culling of badgers influences bovine TB cases and which culling strategy is the most effective. I was disappointed that, given the spread of the disease in Staffordshire, the area was not declared a hot spot. That would have allowed careful examination of the worrying local situation.

There is frustration in my constituency that nothing seems to have happened locally since the cull was stopped in May 1997. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister is acutely aware of the hardship and real trauma caused by TB breakdown, having met some of my local farmers. He should be congratulated for increasing compensation to the full market value of infected cattle. Farmers in my area have told me how grateful they are for the increased compensation, although, as my hon. Friend will recognise, those facing prolonged periods of shutdown suffer substantial additional losses. The National Farmers Union has calculated that the new compensation arrangements meet only 16 per cent. of the costs of the breakdown. I quote the figure to indicate how desperate farmers become at the prospect of a herd breakdown.

I would like to read a short letter that I received last week from Christine Chester, a dairy farmer from Foxt in my constituency. She wrote: Dear Charlotte, As from yesterday we have become another statistic in the Tuberculosis in cattle story. We have previously had over 40 years clear of TB in a closed herd, i.e. no bought in cattle. What have we done to deserve this? I am old enough to remember the cost and effort of clearing the country of TB in cattle in the 1950s-60s. I never thought we should have to go through it all again. I am concerned about the way in which some farmers and wildlife trusts have reacted to the problem of badgers. They should be working together, rather than fighting each other. My biggest fear is that farmers will take the law into their own hands. It has been reported to me that poisoning is going on around the Wetton area in my constituency. It has been said that potatoes have been injected with strychnine for badgers to pick up. No one wants that to happen. Most farmers are caring about their animals. There is a real concern that badger numbers are getting out of control. Their main predator now is the car, which kills twenty times the number that the Government propose to cull.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

As a Staffordshire Member of Parliament, may I put on record that I welcome the remarks of the hon. Lady, and look forward to hearing from the Minister that compensation will be suitable in the circumstances, and that adequate resources will be made available to deal with the problem?

Charlotte Atkins

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

The Woodchester park experiment has found no relationship between population density and the incidence of disease in badgers.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I am no expert on Staffordshire, but the Woodchester park research station is in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the key improvements that could be made is an effective testing regime, not just for cattle but for badgers?

Charlotte Atkins

I agree, and it is vital that we get the testing right. Concerns have been raised about the culling programme in Devon. It would be a disaster if we were to embark on a cull of badgers and a testing regime on cattle—which can be stressful for all concerned—if no reliable data emerges from the trials.

One of my main concerns is that it seems that the badger population has increased by about 76 per cent. in 10 years. That raises the question of ecological balance, and particularly the influence of badgers on other animals, such as ground-nesting birds. I represent an area with a strong tourist industry—an area of great natural beauty. People come to the area to observe the wildlife, and there is concern at the effect of TB on wildlife and on the local tourist industry. Inevitably, there will be opposition to the culling, and I recognise the strongly held views of animal welfare groups. However, I believe that TB is not good for cattle, badgers or people, and we must get this right.

Up to 50 per cent. of TB cases are likely to be outside the trial areas—in places such as Staffordshire, Moorlands. Action must be taken in those non-hot-spot areas. It is not realistic to expect non-trial areas to wait until at least 2005 before action is taken. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider those non-trial areas and ensure that the Ministry presses ahead with advice and work with the farming industry to evaluate different animal husbandry methods and ensure that we keep the spread of disease under control. I also advocate the early and comprehensive recommencement of post-mortem examination of badger road casualties. Wildlife trusts should co-operate in that experiment; very often, badger carcases are quickly removed from the roadside.

Many more resources should go into developing a vaccine and into scientific research on the health and growth of the badger population. We do not have enough information at present.

12.1 am

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing this debate on a subject that is extremely important to both our adjoining constituencies. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to take part.

My hon. Friend read a profound letter from her constituent. I can also remember the cattle being tested for TB when I was growing up on a farm in the 1950s. It was a time when herds were gradually regaining their TB-free status. My parents, like other farmers, hoped and prayed that there would be no reactors to the tests each time those tests took place. That was especially significant to them as my father had had TB himself in the 1930s.

In the years that followed, some parts of the country, unfortunately, continued to have problems with bovine TB, but in most areas it was considered a problem of the past. One of the farms in my constituency had been free of TB since 1952; and that farm also has always had a closed herd. Therefore, when there was a reactor in August 1997, it was clear that the infection could have come only from the land itself. Over the next few months, the farm continued to have reactors, losing 42 of its 90 cattle.

Thankfully, there have now been two clear tests and my constituents can only assume that that is because they have ceased to use for grazing any fields where there is evidence of badgers. That means that they have ceased to graze 20 of their 65 acres. I certainly hope that the herd remains clear. If it does, with my constituents' expensive husbandry methods, that could provide vital evidence both on how to contain TB in cattle and on the connection with the badger population.

Such good husbandry experiments need to be evaluated, even though they are, as my hon. Friend said, currently outside the trial cull areas. It is also vital that, if there are any lessons to be learned from the trial cull areas as the experiments take place, action should not wait until 2005, especially if it is likely that there could be any delay taking the trial beyond that date.

It is important that animal welfare groups, badger groups and farmers work together in the next few years, for the sake of the badgers and the cattle. No one wants any animals to be slaughtered needlessly. It is essential that there be full co-operation with the trials to ensure that the experiment is valid. It is important to monitor the number of badgers and their condition without interference, and that badgers remain protected outside the designated cull areas.

As my hon. Friend said, farmers on the Staffordshire-Derbyshire border who are affected are disappointed that their area has not been included in the trials, especially as there has been a rapid spread of herd breakdowns in an area where a cull had been due to start in 1997 and where it seems that there is a virulent strain of TB.

My constituents were grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for meeting them and listening to their concerns. They welcome the Government's decision to pay the full market value of infected cattle. However, as my example of the way in which my constituents have tried to protect their cattle from infection shows, good husbandry can be expensive. Indeed, on some farms, it may be impossible to isolate the cattle from the badgers.

It is essential that we establish once and for all the connection between the badger population and the incidence of bovine TB. It is essential that we show whether the number of badgers in an area is significant. We must find the best way to contain the problem until the ultimate solution of a cattle vaccine is a reality. I know that the Minister is well aware of the problems that bovine TB has caused to many farmers. This is a sensitive subject, but it is vitally important to the welfare of badgers, cattle and, ultimately, human beings.

12.5 am

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Jeff Rooker)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) on securing this debate. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mrs. Dean) and other hon. Members who are present tonight. This is a serious issue and the Ministry and I have taken it seriously. Indeed, in a few weeks' time I will appear before the Agriculture Select Committee, and I have run a check on my activities. As a Minister, in 22 months, I have had 40 separate meetings or visits with farmers and scientists to discuss the issue. It is constantly before me in my work as a Minister.

It is to the credit of the previous Government that they set up the Krebs inquiry, because if they had not done so we would have had to do something similar. As it was, we had Professor Krebs' report by December 1997. I take full responsibility for stopping the badger removal operation, or cull, moving into new counties before the Krebs report was published. Four farms in Staffordshire were expecting badger removal operations and I have met some of the people involved. However, I decided, supported by my ministerial colleagues, that it did not make sense to continue a policy that clearly did not work into new counties before the publication of the Krebs report. Apart from any other issue, we might have needed areas to conduct trials of the very nature that Krebs in the event recommended. That does not satisfy the farmers in Staffordshire but as my hon. Friends know—and I am grateful for their comments—I have visited the farms and met the farmers in my office in London and I know the situation at first hand.

The incidence of TB in cattle in Great Britain has been rising since the early 1980s, with a much more significant rise in recent years. Nearly 4,000 cattle were compulsorily slaughtered in 1997. I do not have the final figure for 1998, but it will be more than 6,000. The number of incidents in 1997 was 515. We already know that in 1998 there were at least 720 and we expect that there were 30 more, although it can take six to eight weeks to complete the tests and they sometimes have to be repeated. That is why there is a caveat with regard to the figures—but we expect a 40 per cent. increase over 1997.

In Staffordshire, there were no TB incidents in 1994, but there was a worrying increase to 24 in 1997. In 1998, we have had 30 confirmed incidents so far, an increase of 25 per cent. Indeed, for the first time in many years, TB has been confirmed in the Moorlands constituency and I have discussed that with my hon. Friend the Member for Moorlands.

There are no easy fixes. No single policy option is available to the Government to fix or solve the problem—hence our adoption of the recommendations of Professor Krebs, which have been put into practical effect by the independent expert group, chaired by Professor Bourne. As the scientists point out, our multifaceted strategy will allow us to come up with a sustainable policy for controlling and eradicating TB in cattle. It is not the Government's policy to eradicate the badger: it is not an endangered species in this country.

The five-point strategy announced last August put the protection of public health first and gave due weight to our commitment to animal welfare. Until around this time last year, my Ministry and the Department of Health were not checking human cases of TB to determine the exact strain, but we are now monitoring all human cases for M. bovis.

The long-term strategy is to develop a vaccine: 10 years ago, such a vaccine was 10 or 15 years away, and that is still the case. We intend to devote a lot more money to the development of a cattle vaccine. We took all the bids and made the relevant assessments last autumn, and we shall announce the details of our research programme for the next financial year.

In addition, we have a strategy for looking at research projects so that we can better understand how the infection is transmitted. Whoever finds the route of transmission that infection takes will win a Nobel prize, but as yet it is not known.

We also have policies for the detection and prevention of cattle-to-cattle spread. At present, we are examining the arrangements to see whether they can be strengthened to stop the spread of the disease in the short term.

In addition, there is the culling trial. From what some hon. Members and commentators have said, it would be possible to believe that we are doing no more than holding the culling trial. In fact, that is only part of the overall strategy to find a way to control and eradicate TB in cattle.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon)


Mr. Rooker

I give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. I appreciate the generosity of the Minister in giving way, but I feel that I must point out that Adjournment debates such as this are the personal possession of the hon. Member who moves the motion. That hon. Member—in this case, the hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins)—is entitled to a full ministerial reply. This is not a generalised debate. It is about tuberculosis in Staffordshire, and other hon. Members who intervene are taking away from the hon. Member who has been given the opportunity of the debate time in which she can get a full reply.

Mr. Rooker

I am grateful for your guidance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Torridge and West Devon will understand what you have said.

Of course, the culling trial is not taking place in Staffordshire. So far, we have announced only the first two triplets, which will take place in Devon and Cornwall, and in Gloucester-Hereford. We did not successfully complete the culling strategy in one of those triplets. At present, we are in the close season of February, March and April, when no culling will take place in any event. In the near future, we will be in a position to make the decisions involved in organising the strategy for the summer.

I have to say that there was some minimal interference with the trial in December. The policy is to take 10 triplets of 30 areas in the country, and I do not know whether Staffordshire or other parts of the country will be chosen by the expert group for the other triplets. It is clear that there are areas in Staffordshire where the problem is very severe indeed, but I do not know whether the incidence there is sufficient to make up three triplets for the strategy to be operated for the culling trial.

The Government and the independent expert group have said that decisions to choose the triplet areas for the reactive, proactive and survey-only culling will be taken on the basis of the latest available information. That is very important for farmers in Staffordshire and other areas that are not traditional hotspots for the disease. In other words, we shall not be looking at the sort of snapshot that was examined by Krebs three or four years ago. The latest information—which of course will be from 1998—will be assessed this spring. If a pattern is detected in the change of breakdowns, areas of the country other than the south-west will be chosen.

I am grateful for what has been said about the increase in compensation. It was right to increase it to 100 per cent. of market value, with no upper limit. Farmers who have come to my office, and whom I have gone to see on their farms, have been literally broken men as they have watched their prize beasts, worth thousands of pounds, go down with TB. Those farmers were paid next to no compensation under the old system: at least today we can offer them the market value of the beast. I accept that compensation amounts to only about 16 per cent. of the total loss of a farmer, and the previous policy provided about 11 per cent. That comes nowhere near compensating for the effect of the distress on the farm and the loss to the farm of income and other support. It is, however, the best we can do at present.

We are spending a considerable amount of extra money, allocated under the comprehensive spending review, on vaccine research and on the trial. For vaccine research, there will be more than £1.5 million. We were severely criticised by the Krebs report for putting proportionately more money into compensation and testing than into looking for a vaccine. We shall spend about £16 million on testing and compensation, and the trial will cost nearly £10 million in addition to other work.

I do not know where the triplets will be, but I want to emphasise that participation in the culling trial areas is entirely voluntary. There is no compulsion. The Government and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food do not have the legal authority under the Animal Health Act 1981 to conduct a compulsory experiment for the trial. A press release has been issued today on behalf of organic beef farmers which refers to our debate and to the Select Committee on Agriculture's inquiry. However, farmers in the triplet areas who do not wish to participate do not have to. There is no compulsion, and there never has been.

Some landowners have allowed us to survey for badgers, but not to cull them. We have had a good response in the Devon and Cornwall area where the trial took place, and the results are still being analysed. The scheme is entirely voluntary, and not every farmer wishes to participate.

I do not see widespread badger culling as the answer. There is a problem for farmers outside the culling trial areas. When all 10 triplets are up and running, they will cover only a very small part of the land area of the United Kingdom, and a small part of the areas affected by tuberculosis. Our only real hope lies in the work that we are doing to check other wildlife species for strains of TB, the road accident surveys that we shall start in the new financial year, and the advice and guidance that we shall publish in conjunction with the National Farmers Union on husbandry techniques.

The latter is no criticism of farmers' existing husbandry techniques, but we are trying to review all the areas in which there has been a breakdown in the past. That has not been done before, but we want to consider all the evidence from breakdown areas to see whether there is any pattern. There may be an environmental pattern or a weather pattern or some other lesson that we can learn from previous incidences that would allow us to give information to farmers in other parts of the country.

In the areas of the south-west where the great hotspots are, there are massive numbers of breakdowns already, but there are also areas including farms that have never had a case of TB even though there are badgers on the farms. There is a great contradiction that makes it extremely difficult to conduct a policy. Farmers and those in the food production chain need to know that we have a policy, but we cannot have a policy without firm information and valid science to underpin it. We have not had that in the past, and no previous strategy has worked, as is proved by the rising incidence in current herd breakdowns. If previous policies had worked, we would not be where we are now.

We have no long-term plan to eradicate badgers, even though we are doing so in a small area of 10 sq km in each of the 10 triplet areas. We intend simply to test our strategy, and we shall not know the results for two or three years. We cannot base our policy on the trials of the first or second years, for which we shall not have the results until the following year.

I cannot give my hon. Friend the answers that she seeks, but I hope that I have given the House some indication of how seriously the Government take the problem. We have put in far greater resources for the new financial year starting in March, and we have doubled the number of employees that we are recruiting to the wildlife unit to ensure that we can do the job properly. We have to take care of MAFF staff, who have a difficult job: they are out all hours, in all weathers, and firearms are involved in their work. I am not prepared to have the safety of MAFF staff put at risk in any way and I do not want anyone to take the law into their own hands, for that would interfere with the validity of the trials and would not help farmers in the long run.

The badger is a protected species, but it is not endangered—there are people currently serving gaol sentences for interfering with badgers. We shall operate the law as set down and as we are required to do. There will be no free-for-all and no one is encouraging farmers to take the law into their own hands, because that will not serve the purpose of finding a policy to control and eradicate tuberculosis in cattle, which is our basic objective.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past Twelve o'clock.