HL Deb 20 May 2002 vol 635 cc515-8

2.54 p.m.

Baroness Trumpington

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What their position is regarding badgers and bovine tuberculosis.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, tuberculosis in cattle is one of the most difficult animal health problems that we face and the increase in its incidence continues to give considerable concern. The Government are seeking to proceed on the basis of sound science drawn from independent scientific and veterinary experts. The causes of the disease are complex, but there is evidence to suggest that the badger plays a role in bovine TB. The badger field trial is designed to quantify any such role and, if it exists, to find out whether culling badgers has a part to play in controlling the disease.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Have the researches taken into account whether other European countries have bovine TB, whether we are high in the pecking order of countries that have it, which countries do not have it, and whether the countries that have it have badgers?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I do not have that information at present. We are certainly taking account of the spread of TB in other European countries. It appears that the growth in the incidence of TB in cattle has been greater here than in other European countries. However, I shall write to the noble Baroness with further information on the matter.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, how many farms have been affected by bovine TB in the past year, and was testing delayed due to the outbreak of foot and mouth disease?

Lord Whitty

Yes, my Lords. Throughout more or less the whole of last year a delay in veterinary testing was caused by the priority given to controlling foot and mouth disease. Since then, it is clear that there has been an increase in the incidence of bovine TB. Approximately 10 per cent of all cattle herds have been affected. The total number of individual cattle affected thus far is quite low—some 9,000 in a national herd of 8 million—but the incidence of the disease is growing in a worrying way.

Lord Addington

My Lords, does the Minister accept that in this current environment there is a grave danger that farmers will feel under pressure and may start illegally to cull this protected species? What measures are the Government taking to restore confidence that their actions will affect the rate of TB infection?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I hope that that would not be the response from farmers. I recognise their anxiety but it is important that we operate on a scientific basis. The group headed by Professor Bourne indicates that about four months has been lost on the Krebs trial rather than a full year, as is sometimes suggested. Over the past few months we have significantly reduced the backlog in testing. It has come down from 27,000 to 22,000, and that improvement will continue. Therefore, I hope that farmers are assured that we are moving in the right direction as rapidly as we can within the resources available.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, first, I congratulate my noble friend on raising a very important Question on the subject of badgers. To the best of my knowledge, debates on a connection between badgers and bovine tuberculosis have been going on for at least 20 years, as have attempts by the Ministry of Agriculture to find out whether there is any such connection. Is not 20 years rather a long time, and should we not have found an answer much more quickly?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the allegation of a connection between badgers and bovine TB has, indeed, been long-running. However, the scientific basis for it has been unproven. That is why Sir John Krebs and his team proposed a scientific trial. The trial was to last five years and was set up on the robust basis of having three different parallel forms. Of course, the foot and mouth outbreak set that back slightly, but, as I said, we are still on course for a delay of only four months. We need to see the full results of that trial before we can be absolutely sure whether there is such a connection and to what degree, whether badgers are a contributing factor and what other factors are involved.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, is not there something very wrong with this country? On the one hand we have unproven allegations that MMR vaccine in human babies causes all sorts of nasty side effects and the Government are insistent that MMR is the right course to pursue; on the other, as my noble friend, Lord Onslow, pointed out, the situation as regards badgers and TB is unproven yet we continue to cull badgers.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is clear that there is a correlation between the growth in the number of badgers and the growth in bovine TB, but not area by area. Correlation does not mean cause. Therefore, we have to assess whether there is a causal element in the badger population. We are culling in a specific, targeted and scientific way. This is not an overall cull, and we would not engage in one. I understand the frustrations to which the noble Earl refers. I understand also the anxiety that we do not cull badgers unnecessarily. However, the experiment is designed to try to deliver a scientific basis on which we can proceed sensibly and not by allegations and rumour.

The Earl of Sandwich

My Lords, the Minister continually mentions the scientist but only occasionally and reluctantly mentions farmers and, I would add, gardeners. Does not he think that the new department is becoming lackadaisical in producing the results of research that has been carried out for many years? Would he go into the South West and talk to some of the farmers about the effects which badgers are having at present?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as regards going into the South West, I was at the Devon County Show on Saturday, where a number of farmers made clear to me what they thought about badgers, bovine TB and the general stance taken by the department. However, it is important that whatever we do as regards agriculture has a scientific basis. The strong scientific advice was that the trial had to run for the full five years. There has been a slight set-back; nevertheless, that must be the basis of the way forward. I believe that most farmers recognise fully that a scientific basis is needed to justify the approach to badgers which some of them would like to pursue.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is the Minister aware that we used to have a tame badger? Is he also aware that one of my children sometimes slept in the straw with the badger and never developed any kind of TB?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I was unaware of the sleeping arrangements referred to by the noble Baroness, and shall not comment further. Clearly, there are people who are fond of badgers. Equally, as I hear from the farmers, there are many who blame them for many of their ills.

Lord Glentoran

My Lords, is the Minister aware—there is no reason why he should be—that I, too, was at an agricultural show on Friday, this time at the Royal Show in Belfast? Coincidentally, not knowing that I would be responding to this Question, I spoke about bovine TB and brucellosis, both with farmers and the department. Since the ceasing of testing for foot and mouth disease, the situation has become worse and people are concerned. Can the Minister assure the House that serious measures are being taken to catch up with the testing for those two diseases? I am not a Bertie Badger knocker, but farmers in my part of the world are convinced that there is a close association between the spread of bovine TB and badgers. Can he also tell the House, because I do not know the answer, whether bovine TB is transmissible to humans?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, in response to the last question asked by the noble Lord, bovine TB is transmissible to humans. However, the vast majority of cases which have occurred within this country are in people significantly over the age of 55 years, who probably developed the disease from unpasteurised milk rather than through contact with animals. The perceptions in Northern Ireland reflect the situation in England. Many farmers are similarly convinced. Nevertheless, I underline the need for a strong scientific basis if we are to move further down the culling road. It may well be that there is a partial causal effect. However, we are also examining other means of transmission, in particular, direct cattle-to-cattle transmission. We want to have the full results of that research before we have the final strategy.

Finally, I assure the noble Lord that we are addressing the backlog which, as I indicated earlier, has been rapidly reduced.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, would the cattle-to-cattle transmission be relevant in Cumbria? Until recently, there was no bovine TB in Cumbria but, since foot and mouth, there has been.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I have to be careful. The answer is that it may be relevant. Although there was a significant increase in TB prior to foot and mouth— it increased by 20 per cent from a relatively low level—it is also possible that some of the latest outbreaks, particularly in areas which did not have TB prior to foot and mouth, are related to restocking. That is a matter we are examining.