§ 7.53 p.m.
§ Baroness Byfordrose to ask Her Majesty's Government what progress is being made towards the eradication of tuberculosis in cattle.
§ The noble Baroness said: My Lords, bovine TB is a serious disease. It is one which I believe is totally out of control. In 1979, there were 72 herds in Great Britain with TB reactors. Yet in 2002, there were 4,047 (4 per cent) under restriction at some time during the year, and there were 3,157 new herd incidents. The GB incidence is increasing at the rate of around 25 per cent year on year.
§ In 1992, new confirmed breakouts occurred in West Wales, Gloucestershire, West Wiltshire, Avon, Cornwall and parts of Devon. The rate of new incidence in 1996 was 1 per cent; in 2002, it was 4 per cent. In 2002, there were many more cases in endemic areas, but more worrying was the spread to new areas such as Hereford, Worcester, Shropshire, Staffordshire and into Powys. These appalling figures speak for themselves, which is why I maintain that this crippling disease is out of control.
§ From the financial point of view, government figures given to me in response to my Questions for Written Answer are equally stark. Compensation figures in 1998-99 were £3,491,000. In 2000–01, they had risen to £6,632,000. In 2002–03, they had risen to £31,146,000. Including all costs for compensation, TB testing, laboratory support and SVS staff, the figure for 1998–99 was £19,355,000, but by 2002 that had risen to £60,599,000. That is a huge cost to the public purse. Surely these increases cannot be sustained.
§ Between 1997 and March 2002, 34,686 cattle had been compulsorily slaughtered. These are stark facts and in no way reflect the stress experienced by the farmers affected. Many of them have said to me that they considered an outbreak of TB within their herd a more devastating experience than having to cope with a foot and mouth outbreak. With foot and mouth, once the disease had been confirmed, all animals were slaughtered. With bovine TB the disease can keep reoccurring and months and years of restriction can follow.
§ While farmers receive 100 per cent compensation for the value of the slaughtered cattle, this fails to cover the loss of income associated with a TB breakdown and the subsequent movement restrictions. This may include the loss of milk sales, a halt to trade of live animals, disruption of breeding plans and the loss of genetic lines. The increased cost of housing extra animals or loss of calf values due to the inability to 495 keep or sell them, puts immense stress on a farm's ability to survive financially, whether that farm is large or small.
§ Farmers can help themselves by ensuring pre-movement and post-movement testing of cattle to minimise cattle-to-cattle transmission of TB, something which I know the NFU encourages.
§ The vast majority of TB outbreaks remain within the TB hotspots. In these areas there is a high level of cattle movement restriction and there is a high frequency of cattle testing to limit animal-to-animal spread. Despite this, breakdowns keep occurring, which underlines the contamination effect of the wildlife source. In all TB hotspots there are reports of a great deal of badger activity.
§ It has been claimed by some parties that TB is of little consequence compared to other endemic diseases of cattle. The reality is that TB is a notifiable zoonotic disease of serious consequence. I believe that it is the duty of the Government of the day to have in place suitable containment measures. To work properly, these measures must involve all species that are significant carriers of the disease.
§ Perhaps I may ask the Minister some practical questions. First, in the TB hotspots where the testing of cattle regularly takes place or where new outbreaks occur, are TB tests made at the same time on local wildlife outside Krebs trial areas, for example, on badger and on deer? Secondly, are tests on all road casualties of badger and deer within those areas carried out on a routine basis? If not, why not? Would it not be beneficial to test all road casualties wherever they occur so that the infection can be traced in advance of new outbreaks?
§ Thirdly, does not the Minister agree that an overall strategy embracing cattle and wildlife risk should be routine? Fourthly, what studies are under way to identify bovine TB in wild and farmed animals, notably deer? An article in the spring edition of Deer Farming makes alarming reading as it suggests strongly that deer, and possibly other wildlife, conceal TB infection and may not be picked up by routine TB tests. What work is being done in this area?
§ I also ask the Minister's view of the decision in Scotland to order whole-herd slaughter when TB was recently confirmed. Should that happen in the rest of the UK? I further understand that the VLA is considering new tests that would define whether cattle were reactors or diseased. What progress has been achieved in that respect?
§ I understand that the Government are considering using lay TB testers. Is that due to a shortage of veterinarians available to do such work, or the increasing number of cattle awaiting testing? How reliable does the Minister consider the tuberculin skin test to be, and how accurate are its results? I am told that there is a 40 per cent variation rate, which suggests that, at post-mortem, many cattle were not infected.
§ From the escalating figures that I cited at the beginning of my speech, your Lordships will realise that I am extremely concerned about the current situation. Action needs to be taken to eradicate TB— 496 and quickly. The implications of failure to do so and the impact that an uncontrolled spread of the disease could have on animal welfare and animal health, on farm livelihoods, on the wider rural economy and, indeed, on the taxpayer, are recognised by all.
§ We all want a healthy cattle and wildlife population. However, the current position is unsustainable. If action is not taken now to address the continued spread of bovine TB, many more badgers, as well as cattle, will suffer unnecessarily and the current management of the countryside will eventually be affected. Farmers, too, have their responsibilities. They should automatically test incoming cattle, but it is equally the Government's responsibility to introduce a proper strategy to deal with this devastating disease.
§ Finally, I thank all noble Lords who will speak in this short debate. I know that it is a Thursday night and that speaking means them staying on when they would otherwise have been able to get home earlier. I know that one noble Lord has had to change his arrangements to speak in the debate. I am extremely grateful to all the speakers, as I am to the Minister, for participating in the debate. I look forward to hearing their contributions.
§ 8.2 p.m.
§ Lord Plumb
My Lords, I declare an interest as a livestock farmer with particular concern at the current spread of TB in cattle, which has been fully reported by my noble friend Lady Byford.
I remind the House that I was heavily involved in the eradication campaign that started in the late 1940s. We celebrated our belief that we had eradicated the disease in the early part of the 1960s. It was then a fine example of complete co-operation between government, farmers and private veterinarians, guided by an excellent veterinary service within the Ministry of Agriculture. It was a success story by any standards. We then moved to the eradication of brucellosis and justifiably claimed that we had the most disease-free cattle in the world. Our exports of breeding cattle were then beginning to increase.
In her reply, the Minister may claim that dealing with the BSE crisis, foot and mouth disease and many other problems has reduced the resources available to concentrate on TB. We must accept that. But since the 1970s, TB incidence has risen consistently, as my noble friend told us. From the 1990s well into 2000, the rate of increase has accelerated considerably, affecting 2,255 new herds during the past year.
I accept that some measures have been taken on cattle movements and that trials of the gamma interferon test are well under way, with the aim of reducing the time a herd remains under movement restrictions. But despite these measures, the disease has reached alarming levels. It is causing economic hardship in farming and to the nation. There is also the trauma of losing long-standing breeding stock and the consequences of that financial loss. Live animals cannot be sold and bull calves have to be shot at birth because they cannot be moved. As for the disposal of 497 carcases, of course, today's law terms on farms mean that we cannot bury them. The copious extra paperwork and regulation creates, above all, in farming terms, frustration that farmers are unable fully to rectify the problem themselves.
Many farmers have gone to great lengths to protect their herds from TB carriers in the wildlife area. They are convinced that the main carrier is the badger. It is becoming more commonly known that TB may also be carried by squirrels. I know of fanners who have put electric fences right around the boundary of their farm and lifted their water tanks so that the cattle can drink but the badgers cannot get to them—anything to keep badgers off their land and away from their cattle.
One farmer I know well is testing every eight weeks and has been doing so over the past three years. He says that his cows are becoming needle cushions. So to suggest that there is no proof that badgers are the carriers beggars belief. I saw it myself not so terribly long ago in a ministry veterinary laboratory—of 19 badgers, 18 were riddled with TB. One recent test by Defra of 32 badgers found 29 infected. Surely that is sufficient proof of the disease spread over more than a decade.
The stress on farming family life on many livestock farms has become unbearable in these areas. Doing no more than testing and restricting animals in their movement is, in my opinion, not an option.
It is sadly ironic that the Government claim to be ambitious in developing an animal health and welfare strategy. We have to get more vets on farms more often—that would obviously be a help. In times of adversity and financial uncertainty, farmers need convincing that that is a cost they can meet.
On TB eradication a lead for positive action from the Government is, as my noble friend Lady Byford has said, long overdue. I am well aware that Weybridge is working hard on a vaccine, and I realise that this takes time. Perhaps the Minister can tell us more about the work that is taking place there.
The loss of more than 20,000 breeding cattle through TB each year on top of the foot and mouth disease disaster is a loss the country can ill afford. Surely it is time we concentrated on the source of the problem and applied a bit more sense with science.
Compensation at 100 per cent for the value of the animal does not cover the consequential loss of income, and it is far from easy to readjust a whole farming system in order to survive. It is estimated that the on-farm cost of TB breakdown could be as much as £36,000, on average, per affected farm. In this situation, does the Minister not accept that the longer the disease is allowed to spread in the badger population, almost totally unchecked, the bigger and more expensive the problem becomes?
The Krebs report of 1997 concluded that there was compelling evidence that badgers contributed to cattle TB. We are waiting for further results, but it has already been indicated that we will not have those results until 2007 at the earliest. That is totally unacceptable. There is a growing consensus that the 498 problem of infection in badgers and consequently in cattle will not be solved without a vaccine, which requires active research and further advances in molecular biology and immunology. That would reduce the severity of the disease in infected badgers, breaking the chain between badger and cattle.
The situation is extremely serious. The disease is spreading widely in many parts of this country and in Northern Ireland, where I was yesterday, and where many people were talking about it. That is very worrying, because when it gets into those herds—herds that have been established for many years—I know from experience that it takes a long time to get rid of the problem. Let us get at the source. I hope that we see action sooner rather than later.
§ 8.11 p.m.
§ Lord Williamson of Horton
My Lords, young men are often very impressed by their very first day at work. I was, many years ago, when I joined the public service and was sent to the milk and dairies division to work on fat files—very fat they were—on health and hygiene in dairy farms under the milk and dairies regulations. Perhaps more drains were trapped, more walls were capable of being cleansed effectively, and I even made a small contribution to the reduction of potential risks to human and animal health.
One of our signposts was that, by a huge programme of testing and removal of infected animals, we made very good progress in eradicating TB from our dairy herd. We were proud of that. We practically achieved what we set out to do in the 1960s, and in 1979 there were only 72 cases in the whole country. I believe that the official definition of TB-free is less than 0.1 per cent in reactor herds for a period of six years, as is the case today in several European countries. Broadly speaking, we won our battle.
That is why I do not hesitate to intervene in the debate, to join with farmers, the veterinary services and Defra in an effort to check a situation with regard to TB in cattle that is clearly deteriorating. In addition to our many other veterinary tasks—the preparation of a combined vaccination and slaughter policy against any further outbreak of foot and mouth disease and measures to eradicate BSE once and for all from our herds—we simply must check the spread of bovine TB. Consumers of milk are fully protected by pasteurisation, but there are many reasons why we must not lose the ground that we gained in the 1960s and 1970s, as it is an infectious disease, transmitted from animal to animal and from animal to human being.
It is only recently that I realised how much the situation had deteriorated. It is sad to record that that is in part another side effect of the foot and mouth disaster, since TB testing was suspended and animals had longer to contract and, perhaps, transmit the disease. It is also at least possible that restocking after foot and mouth may have introduced bovine TB into hitherto TB-free areas such as Cumbria.
I base my arguments on the figures given by government Ministers in response to recent parliamentary Questions in another place and in this 499 House. In the first six months of the year, there were just over 2,100 bovine TB cases in Great Britain, which is an increase of about 2 per cent over the same period of 2002. I realise that some incidents remain to be confirmed and some are unclassified, pending further tissue culture tests. I also realise that a comparison year to year is not always very meaningful in view of the foot and mouth disruption. However, comparability for me is not the main point—it is the absolute number. We know that there were more than 1,000 incidents. That has been confirmed, although each time we look at the figures they go up a bit more. The absolute number is too high and must, be reduced. I note that the NFU figures for the eight months show that 4,559 farms are now under movement restrictions. We are talking about a substantial imposition on the countryside.
In addition, we have to bear in mind the costs. I do not say that that is always the number one issue when we are trying to check a disease but it is important. Mr Bradshaw, in answer to a Parliamentary Question in another place this month, stated that the cost of bovine TB to the Government in 2002-03 was just under £74 million. I know that that includes the additional cost of the backlog of TB testing—which was £12.4 million, quite a lot—and the badger culling trial. It is none the less a significant drain on the taxpayer and does not include, as was indicated by earlier speakers, the significant cost to individual farmers of bovine TB infection itself, although compensation is paid for slaughtered animals. In particular, there is the disruption caused by the movement restrictions, the stopping of trade in live animals, the disruption of breeding plans and, most of all perhaps, the insecurity caused when results are not available but remain uncertain or unclassified for quite considerable periods of time. It is not a situation that is conducive to good farming. Farmers cannot do what they would want to do.
What can we do in Parliament to help the Government to reverse the bad situation? First, I think that we have to maximise the information on the sources of bovine TB and on means of cutting off the passage of infection. I make both points because the Krebs report of 1997 concluded, as the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, stated, that there was compelling evidence that the presence of the disease in badgers did contribute to TB in cattle. The current Krebs trials are directed mainly to a different point; namely, whether culling badgers is a cost-effective way of controlling TB in cattle. It seems to me that there are three potential sources of the spread of the disease that we need to tackle. We need to tackle them now, but there is not one formula.
There is, first of all, transmission by cattle, and in particular the spread of the disease from the hotspots. That is of course partly met by movement restrictions when a reactor is suspected or identified. However, I seriously suggest that dairy farmers should be invited, in their own interests, rigorously to limit cattle movements in and—more particularly—out of the hotspot areas. On 3rd June, a Parliamentary Question in another place gave an analysis by county of the incidence of confirmed bovine TB in England—it did not cover Wales or Scotland—from 1998 to 2002. Of 500 course the spread is dangerous, but it remains true that there is a very heavy concentration in six counties while other areas are totally free. So it is the case that the maximum amount of restriction on cattle movements, even on a voluntary basis, can play a big role.
Secondly, there is the existence of the infected badgers. Like the National Farmers Union and earlier speakers, I think that there is a serious risk in waiting until 2006 or 2007 for the results of the Krebs trials before we take any action on badgers outside the trial areas. After 2007 we should be in a better position to judge whether we can achieve a fully effective means of greatly reducing or eliminating the disease from the badger population. Meanwhile, however, I think that we should take action to trap reactive badgers and thus reduce the pool of infection. Standing still is not a good idea while the disease continues to spread. Of course, we are not seeking to eliminate British badgers, which despite the dry summer probably still number at least 300,000, but to remove TB infected animals in the limited number of areas where bovine TB has welled up again in the cattle herd.
At least in my part of England the badger is a very common animal. I can say without exaggeration that I seldom drive across the county of Somerset without seeing a dead badger. It is highly likely that before I return to the House next week I shall have seen yet another dead badger beside the road, either a road casualty or possibly dumped beside the road because it is a convenient way of getting the council to take the corpse away. It is extremely common to see badgers in Somerset at present. They are probably more visible than foxes in my area of Somerset.
Thirdly, do we have any better information about potential infection from other wildlife, for example, deer? The deer population is about as high as it has ever been since kings went hunting some centuries ago. What is the assessment of risk from that source? I do not know and I should like to hear from the noble Baroness on that point.
As is the case with other diseases, we come back to the importance of finding a suitable vaccine. The difficulties are extremely great; I do not underrate them. However, some elements of progress have been made. For example, as a result of the success of sequencing, we can now identify the components of M.bovis rapidly and effectively. Perhaps the noble Baroness will tell us what the perspectives are and in particular what efforts are being made in this respect.
§ 8.21 p.m.
§ Lord Livsey of Talgarth
My Lords, it is a great privilege to speak in this debate, particularly as it comprises such knowledgeable contributors. I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, on obtaining the debate. I pay tribute to the knowledge of the noble Lords, Lord Plumb and Lord Williamson, who are very well informed on these subjects, as, indeed, is the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, who covered a tremendous amount of ground in her speech.
501 I do not intend to repeat all the statistics that have been mentioned already, but I wish to make four statistical points in looking at the extent of this problem. First, new herd incidences of TB have doubled since 2000. Secondly, twice as many farms have been infected with TB than in the whole of the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak. Thirdly, 3,000 farms in England, Wales and Scotland are overdue on TB tests. Finally, the number of cattle slaughtered because of TB has seen a fourfold increase since 1998. Those figures speak for themselves.
I want to address the extent of the problem—I have just done so—in the historical context, which was well covered by the noble Lords, Lord Plumb and Lord Williamson, although I wish to make a few more points; the need for a thorough scientific eradication of the disease; the obvious reasons in human health terms for eradicating this disease, whether it is in cattle or wild mammals, and the importance of animal health factors in all of that.
The human cost of this has been enormous. I am sure that if he could have, the noble Lord, Lord Moran, would have been present tonight. He farms in the constituency that I used to represent, Brecon and Radnor, as does his wife. Lady Moran owned a herd of Welsh Blacks. They lost at least half of that herd about 18 months ago. The impact of that on Lord and Lady Moran was very considerable indeed. The animals were pedigree and I believe that they had 25 years of breeding behind them. That situation has been repeated up and down the country. It is a very bad situation affecting farmers and their families.
In a historical context, I remember the 1950s in particular, when huge efforts were made to obtain tuberculin-tested dairy herds. As a student at that time, I saw maps of the United Kingdom, divided county by county where TB was being eradicated. There were TB-free areas where the farmers were very proud indeed, because they had eradicated TB from their herds. I well remember going to south-west Scotland with a farmer when I was a student to purchase Ayrshire cattle that were TB-free and TT-tested, because the herds at home were not at the time fully eradicated. An enormous amount of work went on. More than double—probably three times—the number of state vets worked on that eradication scheme at that time. We have done it before, and we can do it again.
In the longer term, we need to develop a vaccine, and a good and effective one at that. The MAFF strategy originally said that that would take at least between 10 and 15 years. That is a long time, and we are well into that period. If we want to stop what is going on, we need much more effective methods of control than are there at the moment.
We have heard of the Krebs review, and that it said that badgers were a significant source of TB infection in cattle. We know of the research going on in developing a vaccine and on why the disease spreads from cattle to cattle and, indeed, from cattle to wild mammals and back again. All that is well charted 502 territory. Clearly, the objectives must be in testing and controlling to reduce the risk, control infection and prevent the disease spreading. We have to protect public health. That is extremely important. As I said, we have to introduce new and more effective vaccines.
The vexed problem at the centre of the issue is the badger trial going on at the moment, which has been severely inhibited by the 2001 outbreak of foot and mouth. We have to ask ourselves whether the killing of badgers is an effective way of controlling TB, and what contribution badgers and other wildlife make to the infection of TB among cattle. I understand that an independent scientific review of randomised badger culling has been set up by Defra. It must not only analyse the results of the trial, but propose alternatives that are much more effective than those presently in place. As we have heard, the situation is extremely urgent.
We face a number of problems in the human population in the United Kingdom as a whole. I can understand why some say, "Badgers are innocent— OK". I am afraid to say that, in a dyslexic sense, badgers are innocent—KO. That is the knockout blow to effective TB control.
The problem is political. Ministers have to grasp the nettle, but it is very difficult. When I farmed, I had a badger sett. I would not tell anyone of its existence. In those days, the terrible business of persecuting badgers occurred. I certainly would not let anyone know where the sett was, and I believe that many farmers felt the same way.
Now, badgers are protected. I state openly that my name was on the face of the badger protection Bill in the House of Commons as I considered it very important that they should be protected. However, as we all know, there has been an explosion in the badger population. In fact, I would say that some badger setts are vastly overcrowded—much the same as in the 19th century when there was a big slum problem and the spread of disease among the human population was enormous.
I believe that this problem cannot be tackled without a proper scientific approach. It is all very well to test cattle, to slaughter reactors and those affected and to take all the measures that we have heard about in this debate to restrict movements. However, I am afraid that, ultimately, it will have to come down to testing all badgers, sett by sett. Indeed, we may have to immobilise badgers, but not destroy or cull them unless it is proved that they have TB. That is particularly important in the TB hotspots throughout the United Kingdom.
We all love badgers. When we see them in the countryside, it is a delight. But no one really has the courage to address the important problem of an effective cull of the badger population based on reactors. I believe that that is far too hot a political potato for Ministers due to what I would describe as the Beatrix Potter factor. As children, everyone read about the delightful life of badgers and all kinds of 503 animals. Indeed, particularly in urban areas, face-to-face experience of animals is coloured in a rather rose-tinted way and there is a somewhat skewed view of what goes on in the countryside.
It is very important to have a healthy badger population in the same way as it is important to have a healthy cattle population. Some would say that the latter is more important because our cattle supply milk for the human population. None the less, I am afraid that both types of animal, and indeed others which have TB, need to be weeded out. The presence of sick animals should not be allowed, and it is better to weed out the sick rather than the healthy ones. But, according to the Krebs research, both types are being culled at present because information is not available to find out which ones are sick before culling occurs.
It is my belief that there is a solution to this problem. In the absence of an effective vaccine, we must take action now. There must be a more focused and targeted approach to wild animals which are diagnosed positive as a result of TB testing. I believe that that would improve animal welfare for the badgers and other wildlife and provide a far more acceptable solution. The aim must surely be for badgers and cattle to be treated equally in this respect to ensure that we have a healthy cattle population and a healthy wildlife presence in the countryside. That should not be impossible. It is a challenge, but one that we can achieve.
§ 8.34 p.m.
§ The Duke of Montrose
My Lords, once again, in this Chamber we are lifting the lid on a cauldron of worries that seem to dog the farming and livestock industry. First, I thank my noble friend Lady Byford for bringing this matter before your Lordships' House—it is so important. I declare my interest as a member of the National Fanners Union in Scotland and a livestock farmer. I would not like to count the days that I have spent—sometimes in sleet and rain— assisting the vet in TB and other tests on cattle.
In spite of the experience that the world has had with HIV and AIDS, when the public perceive a problem they expect science to have the answer. That gives rise to an unfortunate perception regarding animal diseases, because in spite of immense strides made in the past 50 years there are areas where science is still struggling to catch up. Historically in those cases farming and farmers were left to come up with their own pragmatic solutions. Now that all levels of production and activity are being brought under regulation, wherever a problem arises farming operations are more or less asked to stand on hold in the hope that science will catch up with the problem.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the veterinary profession That was well illustrated by the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton. However, nothing is ever on hold with livestock. Each day when a farmer steps out of his door he faces a new combination of issues. When an outbreak of TB is identified, all movement of livestock other than for slaughter is banned. That the present outbreak of TB has mostly been found in cattle 504 in the main dairy areas is only a moderate comfort. At least while the difficulty is being sorted out the farmer has something to sell, even though in the current climate that might not be sufficient to offer a profit. For a farm where the only product is store livestock there is no income for the duration. My noble friend Lord Plumb illustrated well the figures that are involved in farms that are found to be infected.
Everyone who has spoken has emphasised the rapid deterioration that has occurred. In the statistics that I have seen the cost of the outbreak last year is three times the cost in 1999, which my noble friend Lady Byford pointed out was a vast increase on the previous situation. We all know how the restrictions during the foot and mouth outbreak caused disruption to animal health work. That has been referred to. In addition, when farmers have had to move into the restocking phase, the fact that such a large number of stock were slaughtered has meant that they have often had to look beyond their normal trading circles, so have left themselves open to the danger that they may be bringing in diseases to which they are not accustomed. There is now the possibility of TB. My noble friend Lady Byford has issued quite a challenge to the farming industry with the thought that all cattle would have to be tested when they are brought on to the holding.
My noble friend Lord Plumb talked about the proposed gamma interferon test. Will the Minister indicate whether there has been an increase in the accuracy of the current tests? Are the Government satisfied with them? In Scotland we have been extremely fortunate. Until last week we had not had an outbreak of this disease since 1996. The report that I received last week was that there has just been an outbreak in which 296 cattle have been taken for slaughter in Lanarkshire. The actual number of cases of infection would be useful to know, but I cannot supply that information. Given that in some areas such as that it has not been felt necessary to test any more frequently than every four years, it is easy to see how a large concentration could build up before any action was taken. Are the Government considering stepping up the frequency of testing across the country? What is their view of the resources within the veterinary profession to consider such an increase, when it is having difficulty in completing the tests that are required under their present policy?
That leads to another issue that has been covered in detail tonight—the danger to wildlife, particularly deer and badgers, in unaffected areas of the country if there is a build up of disease in domestic animals. This type of disease in wildlife is bound to cause them to suffer, but presents an even greater conundrum of how a cure for them can be found. I scratch my head with the thought of testing badgers, because as far as I am aware when one skin tests an animal one needs four days before one returns to assess the reaction to the skin test. That might mean that badgers would need to be electronically chipped in order to know which ones had a reading the first time round. The only other thing that could be done is for the badgers to be caught and killed immediately.
505 My noble friend Lady Byford, and the noble Lord, Lord Williamson of Horton, spoke of how deer can be infected with bovine TB and so, presumably, act as carriers. As was asked earlier, one would like to know what is the danger of cross-infection to cattle. It may not be as great as with badgers, which have been found to circulate quite readily in livestock buildings. My noble friend asked the Minister to tell the House whether a watch is being kept in this area. Presumably a monitoring system similar to that for cattle has been followed for farmed deer. Can the Minister say whether there is any monitoring of wild deer? In all these issues the message has to be that a sense of urgency must be maintained and fanners would like to be reassured that that is the case.
§ 8.40 p.m.
§ Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton
My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, for raising this issue. As all noble Lords who have spoken have said, this is an extremely important, serious issue, and it is good to have the opportunity to debate it. Noble Lords are extremely knowledgeable. The questions have been wide ranging. If I fail to answer any question raised, I shall write to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate.
As a Government, we have a wide-ranging programme in place to tackle the complex problem of bovine TB in cattle. The five point plan, established in 1997, led to us spending last year nearly £74 million and extends far beyond the TB testing programme.
The current five point plan consists of protecting public health; research into how the disease is spread; testing and controls; vaccine-related research; and the randomised badger culling trial. A review of the TB strategy for Great Britain was announced on 18th February. Pre-consultation with stakeholders took place over the summer and public consultation is expected later this year. The outline animal health and welfare strategy launched on 15th July will form a sub-strategy of the animal health and welfare strategy.
Officials are currently working on a range of short-term cattle-based policy options and the intention is that the proposals will be subject to full consultation later this year. The consultation will benefit from the wide range of knowledge that has been expressed here tonight.
The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, among others, raised the issue of human health. Pasteurisation of milk, alongside the ongoing cattle testing programme, inspection at slaughterhouses and informing local health authorities of TB outbreaks have succeeded in minimising the public health risk. But we are not becoming complacent. We hold regular meetings with both the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency in order to keep the threat to public health under review.
506 With regard to the progress made towards the eradication of disease in cattle, an issue raised by several noble Lords in their contributions tonight, provisional figures for 2002 suggest that of the 99,000 cattle herds registered in Great Britain, fewer than 5 per cent were subject to movement restrictions during last year. As noble Lords indicated, the percentage of herds affected is much higher than the national average in areas of high prevalence such as South West England and Wales. In Cornwall, some 15 per cent of cattle herds were affected; in Gloucestershire it was 25 per cent.
Noble Lords raised the issue of data and comparison. Unfortunately, data for both 2002 and 2001 cannot be easily compared to earlier years. In 2001, TB testing was largely suspended, as recognised by the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, during the foot and mouth disease outbreak; and in 2002 much of the testing was aimed at high-risk herds and those with overdue tests. Early indications suggest that the reduced levels of testing in 2001 have not substantially altered the underlying historical trend of confirmed TB incidents, which, as noble Lords recognise, is serious and the trend is towards a yearly average rate of about 20 per cent.
In line with European law, cattle are tested regularly using the tuberculin test. Those animals that react to the test are removed from the herd and slaughtered. Frequency of testing depends upon local circumstances. It will be obvious to noble Lords that herds in areas such as the south west of England, where the infection rate is high, are subject to yearly testing. Herds that disclose reactors to the test are subject to movement restrictions, to reduce the risk of spreading the disease to other herds.
The noble Lords, Lord Williamson and Lord Livsey, and the noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, raised the issue of the backlog. The suspension of the testing during the foot and mouth disease outbreak led to a backlog of more than 27,000 overdue tests by the end of 2001. I am pleased to say that, thanks to a major effort by farmers, local veterinary surgeons and the State Veterinary Service, the backlog has now been reduced below the level that existed prior to the foot and mouth outbreak. Last year, nearly 44,000 herd tests were carried out involving more than 4 million animals.
Any overdue test represents a disease risk. For that reason, from 1st October all herds with a TB test overdue by more than three months have been and will be placed under movement restrictions by the State Veterinary Service. Currently, all cattle removed and compulsorily slaughtered by the State Veterinary Service under TB control measures are compensated at full market value. Last year more than 22,000 animals were slaughtered. Compensation paid to farmers in the last financial year was more than £31 million. The Government have come under criticism, as noble Lords have recognised, regarding the level of individual valuations. It is our duty to find a balance between the responsibility of farmers to ensure high standards of animal health and welfare and the burden to the taxpayer.
507 With that in mind, consultation began last Monday on proposals to rationalise existing compensation arrangements by creating a single approach for all notifiable animal diseases. I am sure that noble Lords will wish to encourage people to respond to that consultation.
In autumn 2002, in response to urgent requests from the farming industry, we announced a package of measures to alleviate the hardship caused by the imposition of movement restrictions on cattle herds. This allowed for the movement of cattle on and off restricted premises under certain circumstances, subject to local veterinary disease risk assessment. Our overriding priority must remain the control of the disease.
As part of the same autumn package, we announced the field evaluation of the gamma-interferon test, which was officially recognised by the EU in July 2002 as a supplement to the tuberculin test in affected herds. The test offers the potential to detect disease earlier, and thus reduce the time that an infected, herd remains under TB movement restrictions. However, the test is less specific, meaning that it results in a higher possibility of false positives. Results from the field trial will inform future decisions about the use of the gamma interferon test as part of the cattle testing programme.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, in particular, an important part of our control and research programme is the development of an effective vaccine against the disease. However, there are still many obstacles to be overcome, including the administrative and legal approval processes involved.
Last year, Defra announced the sequencing of the Mycobacterium bovis genome, and it is hoped that that work will pave the way for the development of a vaccine. The Vaccine Scoping Study Sub-Committee set up by the Independent Scientific Group for Cattle TB has recently reported to Ministers on the feasibility of pursuing a vaccination strategy for either cattle or wildlife, and advice on future research requirements. I must caution that the identification and delivery of an effective vaccine against bovine TB for either cattle or wildlife remains a long-term goal.
Noble Lords, including the noble Lords., Lord Plumb and Lord Livsey, mentioned the badger-culling trial. It was designed and is overseen by the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB. It is intended to establish whether culling badgers is an effective or sustainable bovine TB control mechanism by comparing two culling treatments with control areas. It will also provide a wide range of epidemiological data on the disease. The group anticipates that a full set of trial data should have been gathered by the end of 2006. It will be possible to report after that. 1 shall return to that point in a moment.
Outside the trial areas, all badger culling is suspended. I understand the frustration of farmers and all noble Lords, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, who have spoken today, calling for culling to take place in certain hotspot areas. Some farmers have suffered 508 repeated TB breakdowns on their farms. However, I think noble Lords recognise the importance of proceeding on the basis of sound evidence and science.
Vaccine-related research and the badger culling trial are only part of our research programme. Based on advice from the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, we are committed to spend over £ 15 million this financial year on a wide-ranging research programme. We are funding projects that look at, among other factors, the pathogenesis of the disease, risk factors in cattle herd breakdowns and the risks to cattle from wildlife.
Alongside our own research programme, research is ongoing in other countries, such as New Zealand, the Republic of Ireland and France. Officials remain in regular contact with their counterparts abroad. We will use the results that become available, from whatever source, to inform our future policy.
In response to the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, and the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, it is normal practice within Defra to review policies about every five years. Ministers of all three rural affairs departments in Great Britain have agreed the need for a TB strategy review. In February, therefore, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced a review of the TB strategy for Great Britain. That will take into account the recommendations of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee report into badgers and bovine TB, as well as applying the principles set out in the outline Animal Health and Welfare Strategy. A series of pre-consultation meetings with stakeholders took place over the summer and public consultation is expected around the end of the year.
Noble Lords also raised the issue of short-term cattle-based policy options, such as pre-movement testing, improvements to the delivery of the TB control programme and a review of testing frequencies. Those proposals are intended to restrict the geographic spread of the disease and will also be subject to full consultation later this year.
Our best hope of achieving control and eventual eradication of this complex disease lies in the results of the research programme. The debate is extremely timely; those who read it will find it very informative. I urge everyone who has taken part, and those who read the debate, to take the opportunity to respond to the consultation on the TB strategy and the short-term policy measures.
I thank again everyone who has spoken. There are many points that I have been able to cover; in the last 30 seconds I shall try to cover some more and then I will write. The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, raised the issue of whole-herd slaughter in Scotland. If a herd in England or Wales is severely affected whole-herd slaughter will be considered. The unusual point about the Scottish case is that it occurred north of the Border, where incidence is low.
509 Questions were raised by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, about the timing of vaccine work. Research is on target. In the first five years, we found some new candidate vaccines, which were tested experimentally in laboratory animals and host species. The ISG's sub-group is looking at the feasibility of vaccination. The report will be published. TB vaccination is complex. Research on different vaccines is being considered.
The noble Baroness, Lady Byford, raised the issue of lay testers. They are approved to carry out the skin test and would permit additional flexibility in testing, but it is not intended that veterinary practices will be compelled to employ lay testers.
510 I am conscious that noble Lords—because of their knowledge—have raised a great many issues. As regards the Hansard writers, I am conscious that I have had to speed read, which is not fair to them. Perhaps I may thank the noble Baroness for raising this issue. I promise to try to cover all the points in correspondence.