HL Deb 29 November 2004 vol 667 cc259-62

2.50 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many cattle have been found to have tuberculosis lesions at the time of slaughter in abattoirs between March and September 2004.

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

My Lords, we aim to confirm bovine TB on a herd basis through identification of visible lesions at post-mortem examination and/or laboratory culture of Mycobacterium bovis. The number of individual cattle with visible lesions at slaughter is therefore not available. Provisional data run from the State Veterinary Service database show that there were 857 new confirmed TB herd incidents between 1 March and 30 September 2004.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does he agree that it is ridiculous that taxpayers should pay millions of pounds for cattle to be slaughtered when TB is obviously not being controlled? Is it not time that Her Majesty's Government grasped the nettle and allowed farmers to cull—not eradicate—badgers so that healthy badgers can live in healthy setts rather than distribute the TB bacterium? I understand that badgers excrete the bacterium with their urine and faeces and that one millilitre of infected urine is enough to kill a cow.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Countess and the House will be aware that badger culling trials are still continuing. While the pressure on farmers is recognised, it is by no means established that a culling strategy will control the spread of TB. Indeed, much of the spread of TB is clearly due to cattle movements rather than to movements of badgers. The trials are due to end in 2006. In the mean time, it would be irresponsible to lift the restrictions on badger culling as that would distort the outcome of those trials.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, is the Minister aware how ridiculous he and everyone else sound when such trials go on and on? Surely, a conclusion must have been reached by now. Arising out of the Question posed by my noble friend—she is my noble friend wherever she sits—has the Ministry put the herd disposition into counties? Is there a preponderance of herd infection in the south-west that would tally with the badger preponderance in that area as well?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Baroness is correct. The preponderance of TB cases has occurred in the south-west and to a limited extent in south Wales. It is also true that the spread of TB has been much wider than that. It has moved distances that mean that it is unlikely to have been conveyed by the badger population. While we await the results of the trials on the various forms of badger culling, it is also true that much of the spread has been due to causes other than badgers. As a result of the trials, which will end in 2006, we shall need to work out how best to control the badger population.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House whether he has had meetings in the past 12 months with the British Veterinary Association and the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons about their views on TB and badgers and the connection with bovine TB in cattle? He has made an assertion about cattle movements. Does he have any factual, objective information, comparing the British Veterinary Association information with figures for cattle movements?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I have not discussed the matter with the British Veterinary Association, but my colleague, Ben Bradshaw, who deals with such matters, has, as had his predecessor, Elliot Morley. Clearly, there is a potential transmission—an actual transmission—from badgers to the cattle population. No one denies that. The issue is how far that has caused the spread of TB and, if one culled the badgers in one way or another, whether one would be able to prevent the spread and not simply allow more unhealthy badgers to move into the area.

Lord Dixon-Smith

My Lords, can the Minister explain the ethical distinction between slaughtering cattle that suffer from or have been exposed to tuberculosis and slaughtering badgers that suffer from or have been exposed to tuberculosis? The Government appear to be remarkably complacent about the first situation but very wary about becoming involved in the second.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is not a matter of ethical distinction, but what is most effective. Clearly, if a herd has been infected by TB, it is necessary, in effect, to cull that herd. If a farmer sees a badger, he has no way of distinguishing whether that badger is suffering from TB or not. At the moment, subject to the outcome of the tests, badgers are a protected species as is the case with other wildlife. The issue is not the ethics or the classification, but the effectiveness of the control.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, is the Minister aware that if he continues to kill badgers indefinitely, soon there will be no badgers left to kill and that we all love badgers?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for putting a slightly different view from other noble Lords. Clearly, there is an issue about the protection of badgers as well as the protection of cattle. One has to work on evidence to see where the balance arises. That is why we await the completion of the trials.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

My Lords, in reply to an earlier Question, the noble Lord, Lord Warner, suggested that there may be a link between tuberculosis and AIDS in human beings. Have the Government continued to follow up the research on the link between cattle AIDS and cattle tuberculosis?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, historically there was a link between cattle disease and human tuberculosis, but there have been very few cases in recent decades of such a transfer. Clearly, there is continuing research on bovine TB, TB in badgers and TB in humans. The ultimate aim of that is to produce an effective vaccine for cattle and for badgers.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior

My Lords, can the Minister bring the House up to date on the development of a vaccine against bovine tuberculosis and, if one assumes that badgers are important in the transmission of the disease, on the status of the vaccine to be used in badgers?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as I am sure the noble Lord is aware, there is a substantial programme of research into bovine TB, including the provision of a vaccine and a means of delivery of that vaccine for cattle and badgers. We are still some way off the effective deployment of such a vaccine.