HL Deb 21 October 2004 vol 665 cc924-6

11.15 a.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the current measures to control the incidence of tuberculosis in cattle are effective; and, if not, whether they have any alternative proposals.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, bovine TB is on the increase. The current strategy of human health protection measures, cattle testing and controls, and a wide-ranging programme of research is under review.

Following consultation earlier this year, we have announced our intention to implement new measures this autumn and have set up a stakeholder group to help us to develop, in partnership with farmers, wildlife interests and others, a long-term strategy for TB by early 2005.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. I declare an interest as the wife of a farmer. We have two cattle. We sold our herd because we are surrounded by herds with TB.

Does the Minister agree that there will always be a wildlife reservoir of TB? Research by Warwick University demonstrates that TB can remain viable for up to four months in the soil. Does he agree that farmers therefore have an awful uphill job in trying to restore their farms to a TB-free status? What exactly is Defra doing this autumn to contain TB until a viable vaccine is found?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, Defra has invested substantially in research on a vaccine, but it has to be recognised that neither vaccine of cattle nor vaccine of badgers is an instantly implementable solution, even once that research is successfully completed.

As far as concerns this autumn, following the consultation I referred to there will be a recalculation of testing intervals, livestock movement restrictions will be more instantaneous, there will be a more rigorous approach to identifying and dealing with potential new TB hot spots, and rigorous testing schedules for new and re-formed herds will be introduced. That will feed in to the consideration of a further strategy for implementation in 2005.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that by 1986 the incidence of TB in the national herd had been brought down from 40 per cent to 0.01 per cent? So what is it that this Government are unable to do that previous governments have successfully done to bring the incidence of the disease down to that low level?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, there was a successful near eradication of TB in this country. However, the hot spots in the south-west have developed an increase in TB over the past decade. The delay in some of the testing during the foot and mouth outbreak did not help the situation, but the fact that it has spread from those hot spots to other areas is also due to long-scale cattle movements, which probably did not exist to the same extent in the 1970s.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, if badgers are found dead, are they tested for tuberculosis and how are they disposed of?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as we have discussed before, if they are found by the roadside they are not routinely tested; they are disposed of. There are some parts of the country where we are conducting tests on dead badgers of all sorts, but not nationwide.

Lord Grantchester

My Lords, I declare an interest as a dairy farmer in Cheshire, an area where, thankfully, TB is in retreat. It is crucial to prevent further geographical spread to new areas. What are the Government doing on that point?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, more instantaneous imposition of movement restrictions when we have missed the testing date and when a farm herd is identified as having TB will help to restrict the movement of TB from one area to another. In a sense, that has been the new feature of the past few years. In addition, the Government's ability to carry out the testing system more rapidly, recovering from the foot and mouth period, when little or no testing was carried out, is helping to identify potential and actual disease.

Lord Geddes

My Lords, following on from the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, can the Minister bring the House up to date on progress on the project to restrict the number of badgers in various parts of the country?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, an ongoing series of tests under the so-called Krebs trials will be completed in 2006. Until that point, we will not have the full picture of how the different methods of control or non-control of badgers impact on the spread of the disease. Those trials are ongoing.

Lord Plumb

My Lords, the Minister has told us on so many occasions that this whole question is under review. The Krebs trials go on and on. Does he not accept that this whole business is now completely out of hand? We were told by vets only yesterday that 30 per cent of badgers are believed to be carrying TB. That is spreading far and wide right through the country, especially the south-west. There are herds of 1,000 cattle, because people cannot move them. When bull cows are born, they are immediately shot because they cannot be moved. That is a disastrous situation and I appeal to the Minister through this House that action be taken and that we do not hear again that the Krebs trials are going on and on without being given any result or information about what is happening.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right: it is the most serious animal health problem that faces this country. For many dairy cattle farmers, it is a disastrous situation. But it is also true that fewer herds are under restriction now than last year; that the testing system has caught up and overtaken the backlog; and that therefore the situation is not out of control, as he puts it. It has already spread far too far, but we do like to make our policy on a scientific basis. The Krebs trials will show the scientific basis for any further action. As for badgers, badgers do not move from Somerset to Cumbria; it is cattle or personnel movements that have spread the disease long distances.