HL Deb 28 April 1998 vol 589 cc218-33

7.48 p.m.

Lord Luke

rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what assistance they will give to those farmers whose farms are outside the badger culling study areas proposed by Professor Krebs and whose herds are affected by outbreaks of tuberculosis.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question I am asking this evening concerns an issue that has been exercising the minds of scientists and politicians for a considerable number of years and is, of course, a highly emotive subject.

It was first recognised well before the turn of the century that milk infected with the bovine strain of tuberculosis could infect human beings, particularly infants, though at that time far more cases of TB in humans were caused by the human strain of the disease which was, and still is, highly infective.

Attestation of herds as being free of the disease did not really start until after the war. It was highly successful. In 1961 only some 15,000 out of over 9 million cattle in the national herd of dairy cattle reacted positively and were slaughtered. In other words, the prevalence of TB in dairy cattle had fallen to less than one-fifth of 1 per cent. compared with approximately 40 per cent. 30 years early.

But that improvement was not uniform and in some areas the incidence of reactors was far higher than the national average. Those areas were the south west and particularly Cornwall. A MAFF team of vets in 1972 found no answer to that but, at the same time, a farmer in Gloucestershire, whose farm had suffered from repeated infections of TB, found a dead badger. A post mortem showed that the badger had suffered from an extensive infection of bovine tuberculosis.

Tests on badgers then took place widely and many badgers were found to have the disease, probably forming a reservoir for the disease in certain areas of the south west from which reinfection took place. Further experiments and trials took place based on this through the years, but with little tangible effect. Several inquiries have also been instituted; notably that of the distinguished zoologist Lord Zuckerman in 1980. None of those solved the problem, and the Conservative Government asked Professor Krebs to set up a committee to look into the matter again in as scientific a way as possible. His main suggestion is to set up trial areas in the south west to try to establish once and for all how much badgers contribute to the spread of bovine TB. One of his other suggestions is that there should be a complete ban on the culling of badgers outside the trial areas. Hence my Question—and I must apologise for its long time in coming.

Compensation for slaughtered cattle, and more particularly to farmers hit by subsequent movement controls and the inability to carry on a viable business, has never been considered by farmers to have been either fair or adequate. It is for this main reason that experiments in the past have not worked, as the farmer has carried on illegally slaughtering what he considers to be his main antagonist, the badger. For the recommendations of Professor Krebs to work at all, it is essential for compensation to be paid to farmers to persuade them to co-operate totally with the trials, or these will be worse than useless and lose all scientific credibility.

The Krebs report proposes a five-year study of the effects of badger culling in 30 sites, each 10 kilometres by 10 kilometres, in the south west of England, chosen as the areas which have suffered the most repeat breakdowns, or next door to them, over the four years to 1996. Of those, 10 sites will have a proactive culling strategy; 10 sites a reactive strategy; and 10 sites no culling whatever. It is estimated that in these squares some 67 per cent. of total breakdowns will be covered. That leaves approximately some 33 per cent. of breakdowns which will occur, or are likely to occur, in areas where there will be no study work at all. If one then adds in the 10 squares where there will be no culling, it follows that a total of some 55 per cent. of all breakdowns will be occurring in areas where there will be no assistance to farmers to deal with the problem. The sites for the trials are all in the hot-spots of the south west, which means that the areas where breakdowns are occurring now, such as the Welsh borders, Shropshire and Staffordshire, will he untouched by the trials.

Farmers' compensation payments are based on the average market price for the two months previous to the month in question. This means that on a falling market payments have dropped from a maximum of £666 last summer to a maximum of £537 in April this year. What are the Government planning to do to help these farmers outside the area where the cull will take place? Are they aware that many farmers are threatening to take the law into their own hands and start destroying badgers, which, although it cannot be condoned, is surely understandable in the circumstances in which they find themselves? Will the Government consider creating some sort of cordon sanitaire round those areas where breakdown numbers are increasing to stop the spread of the disease further into the north west of the country and the Midlands? Might the Government consider increasing the percentage paid, especially to those farmers outside the control areas, or possibly freezing the compensation so that it does not fall any further?

A major problem for farmers affected by breakdowns is the imposition of movement restrictions, which mean that cattle can leave an infected farm only to go direct to slaughter. This means that many dairy farmers who sell calves or young store cattle cannot do so other than through the calf processing scheme, under which they are slaughtered immediately. This obviously means, in turn, that once the scheme ends, as it is expected to do shortly, farmers with herd breakdowns will not be able to sell any calves. The result of these restrictions is that farmers often face serious accommodation problems in keeping all their stock until the time for slaughter. Yet there is no assistance for all those extra costs incurred. This aspect is often the one that causes farmers more problems than the issue of compensation. So will the Government urgently review the present movement restrictions with a view to easing the problems caused to farmers who are suffering from continued breakdowns in areas where badgers are not being controlled?

The Government have not yet made any announcement about the costs of implementing the research proposed by Professor Krebs. What estimates have they made of the cost of fully carrying out the work, and will they undertake to ensure that the validity of the trials is not jeopardised by a shortage of funding? Can the Government ensure that when cattle have tested positive they will be removed from a farm within 48 hours?

I look forward to noble Lords' speeches and in particular to that of the noble Lord the Chief Whip. I believe that an opportunity has come to settle this matter once and for all if—and it is a big "if'—the Government deal with it in the right way. I think they have made a good start in announcing that MAFF will conduct research into finding a vaccine for cattle. Can the Government confirm that work on the development of a vaccine to prevent bovine TB in badgers began under the Conservative government in 1994 and that some £1.5 million has been spent to date? Will this continue while the new work is begun on seeking an effective vaccine for cattle? What do the Government believe to be the major obstacles to the efficient application of vaccines to both cattle and badgers?

The badger is an attractive animal which does not deserve to be, as I fear it undoubtedly is, the villain of the piece.

7.57 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath

My Lords, the House should be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Luke, for giving us the opportunity to discuss a serious matter. I hope that my noble friend, in replying, will be able to respond particularly in regard to the question of vaccines, to which the noble Lord referred a moment ago.

Perhaps I should first explain that I have a longstanding interest in this species, which I was able to watch and study for a long time before I became a Member of the other place in 1970. I always took the view when I became a Member of the other place that my interest in nature conservation should remain a matter for private relaxation. But, unfortunately, in the early 1970s a gang of badger diggers in south Yorkshire attacked virtually every sett and behaved with the utmost brutality. The last straw came when one of them placed a gin trap by the side of a badger sett and also at the side of a nature trail set out for schoolchildren, including some of those whom I had previously taught.

I thought it appropriate to present a Private Member's Bill in the other place and one was also started in this House. Those initiatives resulted in the Badgers Act 1973. It was not a particularly extensive Act—a modest Private Member's Bill rarely is if it is to be successful, as that one was. But shortly afterwards I was fortunate in securing first place in the Private Members' ballot, and I presented the Bill which became the Conservation of Wild Creatures and Wild Plants Act 1975. We touched on badgers' interests in that Act. However, by that time, the Ministry of Agriculture had developed suspicions about the relationship between badgers and bovine TB, and we could have nothing in those Bills which in any way prevented the Ministry of Agriculture from taking appropriate and sometimes hard action. That was understandable. But it is over a quarter of a century since the first of the badger Bills was presented. I had hoped that by now the problem would not have persisted, but it has.

There are causes for anxiety. The noble Lord has touched on a very serious one. How can Professor Krebs' research be truly scientific if people are going to destroy badgers in areas where the scientific research requires them to be unmolested? We have to ensure that farmers are not allowed to disregard the need for an adequate scientific base in the research.

There is another anxiety. There is a very serious reason why I was eager and willing to accept that we should not seek to interfere with the Ministry's control of this disease or problem. I was fearful that the popular press might seize on the issue in the 1970s and indulge in the most astonishing and sensational treatment of the matter, which might well have encouraged all sorts of people to feel that badgers should be destroyed, even though there was not a problem and is not a problem in much of England. Fortunately, such sensational treatment did not develop and the Ministry acted properly.

The Ministry accepted the view that I then expressed that if any control of badgers was to take place, the responsibility should be the Ministry's alone. For example, it should not harness the efforts of the badger diggers, who would have been delighted to receive an invitation from the Ministry of Agriculture to control the badger population. They would have done so with the appalling brutality which has disgusted many of us in those areas of England where such gangs operate.

So we sought protection, but not complete protection. The Ministry had a virtually free hand. It continued to have a free hand when badger protection was further developed under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which strengthened matters a little further. There have been successive private Member's initiatives such as that of my noble friend Lord Islwyn in the late 1980s. Indeed, as far as I can see, the framework of protection is now complete, and yet we still have this problem.

My hope is that, whatever the Ministry does now, it will seek to ensure that there is no feeding of rumour and suspicion which might extend the persecution of badgers in areas where this problem does not arise. I hope that my noble friend is also going to ensure that steps are taken to validate the research that is proceeding. That may well mean that the question of compensation arrangements, to which the noble Lord referred, should be considered.

There has to be another step taken as well. It may be that there are some cases of bad husbandry. If a farmer is to behave in a way which is scarcely responsible, it is hardly reasonable for the taxpayer to pay out on an unlimited basis, or for the badgers to be destroyed simply because of someone else's carelessness. I am not making a general accusation, but it is touched on in the views expressed by the RSPCA. It makes the point in its representations that the scientific validity has to be considered and the question of bad husbandry should not be ignored.

There is another possibility. It was almost by accident that the badger was found to be infected with bovine TB. It is at least a possibility that there are other creatures that can also be infected which may well be playing a part in the change and development of this dreadful condition.

I hope that the Government will also consider that the badger is a popular animal. The noble Lord said that it had become a villain. It remains a very popular animal indeed. It is the subject of countless successful television programmes. I saw one such programme on television the other day. It is the emblem of the County Naturalists Trust. It is certainly highly favoured in the Yorkshire Wild Life Trust area. I am a patron of that trust and have been a member for many decades.

To put it mildly, it would be injudicious if the Government were to make decisions which inflamed the anger of the conservationists; offended the people who care for the badger; and irritated those on the badger groups who have done so much to ensure the survival of the species. They ought to be a little more careful than they have been in suggesting that the badger population is substantial and robust. It is not as strong and robust as many believe. The sett may be formidable and the excavation may appear to be substantial, but there may be very few badgers in the sett. We lose a lot on the roads and we have lost a lot because of the destruction of the habitat. We have seen large numbers of badgers destroyed by the cruelty of diggers. I hope that we shall not see any unnecessarily destroyed by the Ministry.

8.5 p.m.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Luke, for introducing this debate. I have every expectation that the farming community, especially dairy farmers, will look to the reply of the noble Lord, Lord Carter, with great interest because this matter is of great interest and concern to livestock farmers in this country.

My noble friend Lord Luke provided an interesting and comprehensive account of bovine tuberculosis and the wild badger. At one time bovine TB was the scourge of the national dairy herd, with 40 per cent. of all dairy cattle affected by tuberculosis and an estimated 0.5 per cent. of all milk containing the tubercle bacillus. Before eradication that was responsible for 2,500 human deaths from bovine TB, particularly of children, with the untold misery associated with that.

The eradication programme was commenced in 1935, and it took 30 or more years to reach the level that my noble friend indicated. By 1965 the reactor incidence in the national herd was 0.06 per cent., representing 1 per cent. of the national herd. That was achieved by routine tuberculin testing, the clinical examination of cattle, the slaughter of the reactors and the introduction of the pasteurisation of milk.

Bovine TB in humans is now virtually non-existent: it is a rarity. It is about 1 per cent. of all the tuberculous cases in the human population. By any measure, that has been a splendid effort on the part of farmers, who have co-operated with the eradication programme over 30 years, of veterinary surgeons, and of the then Ministry of Agriculture and now MAFF, which continues with the eradication programme.

However, as we have heard, progress towards eradication has slowed down. That has been associated with a spill-over of bovine TB into the wild badger population. Now 20 per cent. to 30 per cent. of badgers are infected. Many have severe infection and open lesions, which leads to the contamination of grass and pasture. The weight of epidemiological evidence implicating the infected badger as the principal source of bovine infection now is beyond controversy.

Tuberculosis is endemic in certain badger setts in certain areas of the country. It has been shown that badgers are an ideal host for TB. They can survive for long periods while infected and infectious. They can produce viable young, and the disease does not seem to affect numbers or the structure of the badger population. Indeed, the Krebs report states that the evidence is "compelling" that badgers are implicated in the transmission of TB to cattle. As has been mentioned by my noble friend Lord Luke, in response to that finding the Krebs report proposes the setting up of 30 experimental areas in hot spots, each being 10 kilometres in size, to compare proactive culling, reactive culling and no culling at all over a period of five years to obtain firm scientific evidence on the role and mode of transfer of TB from badgers to cattle, and whether culling has any effect, temporary or permanent.

It is recommended that there should be no culling outside those areas. It is that aspect of the report which causes particular concern and disappointment that a more robust approach to the problem has not been proposed. Bearing in mind that fanners and vets worked hard and willingly to eradicate TB over a period of 30 years, many now feel that they deserve more sympathetic consideration and that firmer action is warranted.

Many questions arise. What will happen if new hot-spot areas develop outside the three control areas? Will badgers in those areas remain untreated and unculled as TB infection spreads? What compensation will be offered to farmers with TB-positive cattle in the non-culling areas? Will the so-called simple husbandry techniques contained in the Krebs report to be applied outside the hot-spot areas receive financial assistance?

A simple husbandry technique would be to fence off badger setts, but those who work on farms know that fencing to prevent badgers moving outside an area and to prevent cattle entering it costs money. Farmers who have experienced TB in their herds know well about the loss of income and the expense arising from movement restrictions, as was mentioned by my noble friend Lord Luke; the increased stocking rates when that occurs; the secondary diseases that may occur because of overcrowded farms and the increased veterinary bills that result.

Wider concerns relate to human health. Such concerns have not yet been mentioned, but raw milk is sold and used in this country. The original danger to humans from bovine tuberculosis came through milk. Should we be concerned about that? I believe that we should be. Much raw milk is drunk on dairy farms and it may well be that cows are secreting infected milk before the infection can be detected by the tuberculin test.

Another area that has not been taken into account is that badgers infected with TB often carry enormous burdens of the bacterium and spread it through urine and open lesions on to the grass and herbage. There is a fear that they will contaminate suburban areas, including vegetable gardens and leisure areas for the human population. There is a danger that humans, and particularly children, will become infected from using play areas or eating contaminated vegetables.

There are many areas on which the expert group to be set up to consider vaccination and other matters will need much guidance. It will need much guidance from Her Majesty's Government. I hope that they have it in mind.

Finally, I would not suggest for a minute that there should be any persecution of badgers, but I believe that the human health implications of the dangers of badgers and dairy cows with tuberculosis must also be considered.

8.14 p.m.

Lord Islwyn

My Lords, I endorse the thanks that have already been expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Luke, for initiating this short but useful debate. I am afraid that my approach to the subject will be a little different from his and more in line with the words of my noble friend Lord Hardy of Wath who spoke so eloquently earlier.

First, I must declare a certain interest, although not a financial one. As a Member of another place, I was responsible for a private Member's Bill which became the Badgers Act 1991. It sought to protect badgers from cruel persecution by evil people. It laid particular emphasis on protecting badger setts. There is still a need for that Act. About a week ago, on 22nd April, a report on the front page of the South Wales Argus gave details of a party with dogs and spades, digging out a sett on the outskirts of Newport. The men were digging up the sett to capture the cubs born this year so that they could train their dogs on them. Apparently, the same sett was dug up 12 months previously when the cubs were ready to be weaned.

On 16th December last year, Mr Jeff Rooker, MP, the Minister responsible for food safety, announced in the other place that the Government had accepted the Krebs report. The report, by Professor John Krebs, recommended a four-point strategy for dealing with TB in cattle and badgers. It called for the ending of the current policy of limited culling of badgers and suggested that that should be replaced by a policy of no culling in most parts of the country.

There has been much conjecture about the link between badgers and TB. As I understand it, the jury is still out. Indeed, it is suggested in some quarters that TB is given to badgers by cows in the first place.

My first question is: how many badgers will be culled under the new policy? Krebs estimated that 10,000 badgers would be culled over three years, but I understand that the figure could turn out to be almost 20,000 because it is suggested that Krebs underestimated the number of badgers in certain areas. We must recognise that many of those badgers will not be infected with TB. It is reckoned that between 1,000 and 2,000 badgers are killed annually. Therefore, the new policy will mean a huge increase in culling. Can that be justified? I very much doubt it.

I understand that 703 herds are affected out of a total of 119,000 in the country as a whole. Over the past 23 years, more than 25,000 badgers have been officially culled in an attempt to eradicate TB, but the disease is still increasing in cattle herds. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior, said, it is now widely believed that culling badgers is not an effective solution to the problem of TB in cattle and badgers. What we need is an integrated approach involving better cattle husbandry, the use of vaccines and more focused research into the transmission of TB, as well as improved detection in cattle. Yet under the so-called five-year trial period many thousands of badgers over large areas of Wales, the South West and the West Midlands will be killed. Such an onslaught on this lovely wild animal can never be justified. It is suggested that farmers are taking the law into their own hands and killing badgers. I believe that they should be given an official warning and if they refuse to accept it they should be prosecuted.

Finally, I tend to disagree with the noble Lord who presupposes that badgers are solely responsible for TB in cattle. There is insufficient evidence to justify such a conclusion. Other wildlife may be involved. Studies in Ireland have indicated that even the weather may be a factor. Should cattle be kept in for a longer period during a rainy spring? These kinds of considerations lead me to believe that Professor Krebs may have got it wrong. I hope that there will be a rethink on the part of the Government.

8.21 p.m.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, as has been said, this Question is a timely one. The noble Lord, Lord Luke, is to be congratulated on having brought this matter before the House. It places before us the multifarious difficulties associated with the problem that has been raised by noble Lords. Some noble Lords have a great deal more expertise than I having introduced Bills and other measures into Parliament on this subject. My only connection is that my great-uncle and the great-uncle of the noble Lord, Lord Gainford, wrote an early book on badgers entitled The Life and Habits of the Badger—I regret to say that it is not in your Lordships' Library—but that does not make me an expert.

It is quite clear that in the immediate past too little urgency has been applied to this problem. The one matter on which everyone I have spoken to is united—I have spoken to quite a number of people—is that the previous administration whiffled about and got nowhere. I am delighted to hear this evening that they did put money into research into vaccination. I believe that to be a very important part of what needs to be done. I shall return to that in a moment.

The Krebs study will extend knowledge, but in my view it does not get to the heart of the problem. I do not follow the previous speaker in believing that it has not got its facts and deductions right. On the whole I believe that it has. But the heart of the problem is to assume what most people are sure about; namely, that badgers and cattle infect each other. What we must do as a matter of urgency is find a vaccine with which we can immunise both. I am not a great defender of the scientific establishment, but I know from experience that if it is given a problem with a high priority and is given the resources it will come up with solutions.

I do not advocate that we throw money at the problem but that we move it sharply up the pecking order of priorities. Until we come up with the answers farmers outside the study areas must be given permission to cull or be fully compensated for what happens as a result of their inability to cull. That is the hard choice that the Government must face. But much more important than any of those matters is the need to begin looking for a vaccine. The Krebs study will produce very interesting information which may have a considerable bearing on what we do in future. But we need a vaccine quickly to inoculate both badgers and cattle. I think it is now accepted that they infect each other.

8.24 p.m.

Baroness Anelay of St Johns

My Lords, I too thank my noble friend for giving the House the opportunity to discuss the consequences of the implementation of the Krebs report for those farmers who will not be allowed to cull badgers even though their cattle suffer breakdowns. As my noble friend has pointed out, 55 per cent. of breakdowns will occur outside the cull areas.

I welcome the response of the Government to the Krebs report. Bovine TB has posed problems for a very long time. I recognise that it raises very sensitive issues of animal welfare. It is a matter of animal welfare between species— badgers and cattle—and between animals and humans. There are threats to the farming economy and potentially to human health. Those sensitive issues are not easily resolved. I listened with great interest and humility to the experiences of some noble Lords who have had the interests of badgers at heart for even longer than I am able to remember, if I may dare say so.

During the experimental period it is vital to maintain the confidence of farmers and conservationists alike. We are looking forward to a period of five years. Even if it is possible to develop a vaccine for cattle—I hope that it is—the report itself says that it may take 15 years. Therefore, we are in for a very long haul while farmers suffer a threat to their livelihood. That is not a matter of criticism of anybody but simply a practical point.

The questions that I put to the Government this evening concentrate on the issues involved in maintaining the confidence of both farmers and conservationists during the coming years. The Krebs report makes recommendations as to study areas and timescales. Will the Government consider adopting the CLA's recommendation that the experimental areas should be doubled on the basis that to increase the sample size can reduce the time taken to obtain conclusive results? That would make it three and not five years.

My noble friend has already referred to the costs of the experiment and the need for the Government to guarantee that the costs will be met. Do the Government agree with the National Farmers Union that direct financial contributions by the farming industry to control a disease of national interest is not an option? What will the Government do to meet the Krebs recommendation that the role of the MAFF should be to provide incentives to the industry to participate, or do the Government intend to follow the New Zealand example quoted in the Krebs report where the farming community contributes to the costs of both bovine TB research and bovine TB control?

As other noble Lords have explained this evening, it is vital that the research is successful, and for that to happen it is essential that it is not disrupted. What steps will the Government take to ensure that the trials are not disrupted by those farmers who are outside the culling area and feel aggrieved that they cannot safeguard their herds? Will the Government need to put in place new statutory or regulatory powers to take all badgers in control areas perhaps regardless of the views of landowners and animal welfare organisations? If new legislation is not required, which existing procedures and powers can the Government use to guarantee the integrity of the culling procedure?

I also have particular concerns as a result of paragraph 31 of the Government's response to the Krebs report. Do the Government recognise that they have a special duty in respect of compensation to farmers in relation to culling in response to Krebs? As I understand the legal position, it is not possible for an individual to sue for damages for negligence in respect of pure economic loss. Is that a correct interpretation of the law of tort? Even if farmers outside the culling areas suffered loss because the Government had forbidden them to mitigate their losses by culling, they would have no legal recourse via the courts. Surely, that places the Government under a greater duty of care to those who suffer loss as a result of being excluded from experimental culling areas. I believe that that may put us in a new situation that is not covered by the existing principles that govern compensation.

Finally, I turn to the question asked by noble Lords about the potential impact of good husbandry upon bovine TB outbreaks. The Krebs Report states: We suggest that areas outside the experiment would be suitable for an experimental comparison of proactive husbandry methods … As part of its role in encouraging a more proactive and constructive approach to husbandry, we recommend that the government should also give further consideration to whether incentives might be offered". Have the Government done so, and. if so, what incentives are planned? What discussions have the Government had with farmers' representatives about the recommendations in the Krebs Report with regard to husbandry practices? Do the Government recognise that at times special local circumstances can frustrate the best attempts to separate badgers and cattle? For example, it may not just be the cost of fencing that could be a problem for the farmer. Secondary fencing is not allowed in certain parts of the south west, particularly in national parks. I understand that there could be difficulties with regard to rights of way.

I return to paragraph 31 of the Government's response—do the Government intend merely to impose sanctions of lower compensation upon those who do not adopt good husbandry practices, bearing in mind that Krebs talks about incentives and not penalties? I look forward to hearing the Government's response.

8.31 p.m.

Lord Carter

My Lords, like all other noble Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Luke, for raising the issue of bovine TB and the culling of badgers. All noble Lords' contributions have been valuable. Bovine TB is, thankfully, a relatively uncommon disease in Great Britain as a whole. New confirmed TB infections were detected in 471 cattle herds in 1996. The provisional figure for 1997 is 515 herds.

The disease is concentrated in certain parts of the country. There are some areas—for example, that of the noble Lord, Lord Luke, in Bedfordshire—which experience little or no TB infection in cattle. In other areas the disease is more common. In parts of south west England, new confirmed cases occurred in over 1 per cent. of herds in 1996. Where the disease occurs, it is potentially a serious problem for the affected farmers. Despite the limited badger culling policy of the "interim" strategy, the annual incidence of bovine TB has been increasing in south west England since the late 1980s.

In 1990 the figure for south west England was 104 new confirmed breakdowns. By 1997 that had risen to 414. That is a provisional figure. It has also been occurring in areas with no recent history of infection in the West Midlands and South Wales. As we have heard, there has been considerable debate about the role of the badger in the spread of bovine TB, particularly in the light of increasing badger populations.

As has been said, in November 1996 Professor John Krebs and a team of leading scientists began an independent scientific review on behalf of the then government into the links between bovine TB and badgers. Their report was published in December 1997.

The Krebs Report concludes that the sum of evidence strongly supports the view that badgers are a significant source of TB infection in cattle. However, it points out that it is not possible to state how large a contribution badgers make to cattle infection as the relevant data have not been collected and analysed. Moreover, the report makes clear that there has been no proper experimental study to enable firm conclusions to be drawn about the effectiveness of culling as a means of controlling bovine TB.

The report concludes that control of TB in cattle is a complex problem for which there is no single, simple solution. It therefore recommends a combination of approaches on different timescales. We view the bovine TB problem very seriously and are determined to tackle this issue in a rigorous and scientific way. That is why we welcomed the report by Professor Krebs and his team. We believe that that represents the best available scientific advice across this area and the Government are, therefore, disposed to accept the report's recommendations in principle, subject to further consideration of the public expenditure, legal and practical implications.

The report recommends a proper experimental trial of the effectiveness of badger culling in areas at highest risk of TB infection in cattle. Professor Krebs concludes that such a study is the only way to test rigorously the effect of different strategies: it would provide unambiguous evidence on the role of badgers in cattle TB. Most importantly, it would also yield quantitative data for a cost-benefit analysis of different strategies, including the absence of culling.

The Government therefore plan to carry out the culling experiment recommended by Krebs. That is worth doing only if it is robust and gives a sound basis for long-term policy. We have appointed an independent expert group to advise on the experiment design and implementation and are seeking everyone's co-operation. The first task of the expert group is to advise on the design of a trial which will produce scientifically robust conclusions. To do so it will assess the implications of the various practical, welfare and other problems which have been raised.

Outside the trial areas, Krebs recommends that no culling should take place and we have therefore ended the "interim" strategy. Even if culling were effective in reducing breakdowns (and that remains to be tested by the experiment), extending it into areas of lower breakdown rates would provide diminishing returns in terms of the number of breakdowns prevented. The expert group will, however, monitor the TB situation closely, and it will be open to it to recommend new areas be recruited to the experiment at any stage. I shall return later to the point about the West Midlands.

Farmers affected by bovine TB continue to be compensated under the current rules, which are long established. Most importantly, however, it is essential that money spent in this area is directed at finding answers to the key questions underlying the problems we face with cattle TB.

A small proportion of farmers will experience TB breakdowns. That may affect farmers in areas where pro-active and re-active culling is being tested as well as those in areas where there is no culling. The Government realise that the effect of breakdowns on farmers can be serious. Except for cows for slaughter, movements in and out of the herd are restricted until all the animals in it have been tested with negative results.

In order to help contain the outbreak, the cattle which react to the TB test, and animals which have been in close contact with them, are compulsorily slaughtered. There is, of course, compensation for those animals which are compulsorily slaughtered. It has been pointed out that compensation is 75 per cent. of the value of animals slaughtered, subject to a limit linked to a proportion of the average value of dairy cattle. Compensation is 75 per cent. of 125 per cent. of the average market price for two months before valuation. If my arithmetic is correct, that is effectively 95 per cent. of the average market price. There is 100 per cent. compensation of the value of animals slaughtered because they have been in close contact. There is also payment of the costs incurred in valuation of the animals. Those arrangements are long established and were introduced, as we all know, after discussion with the farming industry.

In the light of Krebs, the Government have considered requests to increase compensation to recognise the disruption and economic loss that TB breakdowns can cause, but we do not see grounds for distinguishing TB from other diseases which cause disruption and loss, and for asking taxpayers to meet a larger share of farmers' losses from TB. As Krebs pointed out, there are other measures in place to ensure that TB in cattle does not pose a threat to public health. There is also the possibility of insurance, although I am aware of the expense and of the limited coverage of insurance in areas of infection. It has been argued tonight that farmers deserve additional compensation because they are prevented by law from taking action to protect their herds by culling badgers. However there is little evidence that the interim culling strategy was working effectively to control the spread of TB. I have already referred to the increase in incidence.

More fundamentally, Krebs has argued that neither the precise role of badgers nor the impact of the culling strategy has been properly evaluated. That is why he recommends the experiment and the various pieces of research to improve our understanding of the causes of herd breakdowns and the effects of the currently available strategies to reduce breakdowns.

We believe that farmers' interests are best served by the full implementation of the report and the development of the scientifically based control strategies which are sustainable in the long term. We understand that the NFU is preparing a case for additional compensation. When we receive it, we shall certainly study it carefully, but we can offer no assurances beyond that. We need to be satisfied that the money that is spent in this area is best directed at finding answers to the key questions underlying the problems we face with cattle TB. That is a key point when we are talking about taxpayers' money. That aim is essential if we are to achieve our objective of controlling and ultimately reducing the incidence of TB.

Professor Krebs recommends a refocusing of research priorities for bovine TB. These are reflected in the research requirements document which was issued on 20th April.

A key recommendation concerns the gathering of improved data on herd breakdowns so that we can better analyse and understand factors contributing to local variations in the risk of herd breakdown.

The Krebs Report further concludes that improved husbandry methods by cattle farmers may play an important role in reducing bovine TB outbreaks in the longer term.

We will be pursuing discussions with the farming industry on establishing an experimental comparison of different husbandry methods in areas outside the culling trial. We agree with Professor Krebs that it is important that the farming industry itself takes a clear lead in this area.

Perhaps I may respond to some of the points that were made in the debate. Due to pressure of time tonight, and for reasons that we all understand, I will undertake to write to all noble Lords whose questions I do not have time to answer. A large number of important questions were asked.

The noble Lords, Lord Luke and Lord Beaumont, asked about the possibility of a vaccine. We can confirm that work on the development of the badger vaccine began in 1994 and that £1.5 million has been spent on that work to date. The Krebs Report recommends that the best prospect for the control of TB in British cattle is to develop a cattle vaccine and that this should have a high priority. However, it also makes clear that a cattle vaccine is a long term policy and that it will be 10 years or more before a vaccine is likely to be available even for field trials. Its success cannot be guaranteed. The report also recommends that the option under the badger vaccine should be retained as a fallback position in case the more stringent requirements of a cattle vaccine cannot be met. Much of the work done in the early years of developing a cattle vaccine will be applicable to the badger vaccine.

As regards a cattle vaccine, I highlight two crucial aspects which are relevant to application. First, any vaccine will need to be complemented by a diagnostic test which would enable the naturally infected animals to be distinguished from the vaccinated animals. The diagnostic test which is currently used does not allow that. Secondly, there will be a need to amend the current European legislation which governs TB testing so that properly vaccinated cattle will not be subject to trade restrictions.

A badger vaccine will clearly present problems in terms of development and delivery. Moreover, we do not yet have an experimental system enabling the development and testing of a badger vaccine. Section 6.4 of the Krebs Report sets out in some detail the key issues surrounding the development and application of both the cattle and the badger vaccines and I commend that to your Lordships.

I turn to the inclusion of the West Midlands area. Determination of criteria and the selection of areas to be included in the experiment is a matter for the independent expert group which has been set up to advise on the design and implementation of the experiment. It clearly seeks to ensure that the areas selected will best meet the needs of the experiment. Selection for inclusion in the experiment does not mean that a culling regime will be applied in that area. Krebs recommends that one-third of the trial area should allocated to a no culling policy.

The noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, asked what the Government will do to meet the Krebs recommendation that the MAFF role should be to provide incentives to the industry to participate and discussions with farmers' representatives. Professor Krebs recommended that the Government should consider whether incentives might be provided to farmers in the context of an experimental evaluation of husbandry practices. The Government agreed that it is important that industry should take ownership of this issue and take a lead role because that will ensure an evaluation that is best able to deliver results. As with the culling trial, the benefits of any results will accrue to the industry.

We are currently considering responses to the consultation on this and other recommendations in the report. Ministers will make a further announcement as soon as possible. In the meantime, preliminary discussions have been held by officials with all the key interest groups and Ministers have made clear their intentions to ensure that close contact is maintained with all the relevant interest groups as we move forward with implementing the report.

The noble Baroness asked whether the Government will need to put in place new statutory regulatory powers and which existing powers the Government can use to guarantee the integrity of the culling experiment if new legislation is not required. Those are important issues. A number of important practical issues must be addressed before we can move forward with the current trial. The first task of the expert group is to advise on the design of a trial which will produce scientifically robust conclusions. The Government expect to receive advice from the group in June.

It is in the interests of farmers and landowners, conservationists and all who care about our countryside that the trials should work and achieve valuable results to help us combat TB.

I am running out of time, but I will ensure that all noble Lords receive a written answer to all the questions that were asked. I repeat my thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Luke, for tabling the Question. It is an important matter which involves human and animal health. Noble Lords can be assured that the Government are fully aware of the problem and consult extremely widely as further recommendations and suggestions come forward.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.50 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.46 to 8.50 p.m.]