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Backbench Business — Badger Cull

Part of Royal Assent – in the House of Commons at 4:35 pm on 13th March 2014.

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Photo of Huw Irranca-Davies Huw Irranca-Davies Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:35 pm, 13th March 2014

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for choosing the debate and Mrs Main for introducing it—with great fortitude, I might add, and I commend her for that. I also thank the cross-party group of MPs who secured the debate, which is hugely significant and timely, because the Minister is considering wider roll-outs. We have seen cross-party support for a new way forward and a new consensus based on vaccination and cattle measures.

I thank all Members who have spoken, even those whose opinions I respect but disagree with. There were many good contributions, including by Miss McIntosh, who has great experience, and the hon. Members for North Herefordshire (Bill Wiggin), for The Cotswolds (Geoffrey Clifton-Brown), for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams)—we go back a long way—for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and for Tiverton and Honiton (Neil Parish). I may not agree with many of the points that they made, but they spoke with passion for their constituents.

Those who have spoken for the motion today and for a considered, cross-party and scientific consensus on the way forward include the hon. Member for St Albans, who made the point that this is not a case of one side against another; my hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown), for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), for Coventry North West (Mr Robinson), for Copeland (Mr Reed), for Newport West (Paul Flynn), for Derby North (Chris Williamson), for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), for Inverclyde (Mr McKenzie), for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) and for Llanelli (Nia Griffith); the hon. Members for St Ives (Andrew George), for Southend West (Mr Amess), for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch), for Torbay (Mr Sanders) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas); and the right hon. Members for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow) and, lately, for Hazel Grove (Sir Andrew Stunell). In every part of the Chamber, on every Bench, there have been calm, rational and methodical arguments on why we should have a different way forward.

A number of questions face Ministers today. Why continue to pursue a policy of eradicating bovine TB in cattle involving mass culling of badgers? It proved hugely costly to taxpayers and farmers and was critically flawed, from the first principles, through the methodology to the application in the field. It failed to meet the Government’s own limited tests of effectiveness and humaneness. In short, not enough badgers were culled, and too many were not killed cleanly, but suffered before dying. Culls have diverted stretched police resources from front-line duties to deal with protesters and to ensure public safety, prompting police and crime commissioners to speak out in opposition. Culls are deeply unpopular with the public throughout the country, in town and country alike. Culls are scientifically controversial to the point of flying in the face of mainstream, expert advice, from which, as we have seen today, increasing numbers of Government MPs are making the right and intelligent choice to seek alternative, workable strategies for TB eradication.

Why pursue such a policy when it is so clearly contested scientifically, so deeply flawed methodologically and so evidently failing, and when there are proven alternatives, which are more humane, more effective, cheaper and more publicly acceptable? Why do that when scientists, many farmers, MPs from all parties and Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition are willing to work with the Government on an alternative strategy that will be enduring and effective and garner widespread stakeholder and public support? In all sincerity, despite—in fact because of—those flawed and failed culls in Gloucester and Somerset, it is not too late for Ministers to think again and for us to work together on a better way forward.

Before addressing what has gone wrong with the culls and what can now be done, let me make it clear that Labour agrees entirely and unequivocally that the scourge of bovine TB must be eradicated. It must be eradicated because of the terrible waste of productive cattle, the destruction of pedigree herds, the cash-flow and wider economic impacts on family farms, the psychological trauma for farmers and their families, and the unsustainable cost of compensation payments. Some have pointed out that many more tens of thousands of cattle are slaughtered each year for many other reasons—mastitis, lameness, old age, inability to calve and so on. That is true, but 1% of the total cattle herd, dairy and non-dairy, in the UK is slaughtered because of bovine TB, and that is unacceptable. What also distinguishes that from other reasons for slaughter is that it is a notifiable disease. We have a public and legal duty to bear down on it, and pressing trade reasons to do so, too. On that, we are at one with the Government.

We support the UK and the Welsh Governments for their increasingly stringent efforts, working with farmers, to clamp down on the disease by use of cattle measures. As this is a disease in cattle, the primary resolution will be in cattle measures. Some Ministers give the impression that badgers are the main culprits, yet we know from exhaustive in-field studies that although there is some direct transmission of TB from infected badgers to cattle—it is about 6% of the total—and that that may indeed play a role in subsequent onward transmission, cattle-to-cattle transmission is the major element.

We know also that the most significant spike in TB was linked to the rapid spread of the disease in the immediate aftermath of foot and mouth disease, when the restocking of cattle took place northwards and westwards, often from areas further south where TB was present. In addition, there have been sporadic occurrences in parts of the country and farms where there has been no history of TB, and we must note the presence of TB-free farms in the midst of hotspot areas. All that reinforces the scientific conclusion that stringent cattle measures are key to a successful strategy of eradication. Movement restrictions, risk-based trading, rigorous biosecurity and other measures will play the most substantial part in eradicating the disease.

However, we also need fully to recognise the need to tackle reservoirs of the disease in wildlife, where appropriate. Our disagreement with the Government—it is a profound disagreement—is over the best means of addressing the wildlife reservoir. We believe, as do many farmers and leading scientific opinion, backed by mounting evidence of success, which has been set out before the Minister today, that there is another way to tackle badger TB which has greater certainty of success and avoids the significant risks of a mass-culling programme.

Before I expand on an alternative approach, we have to examine what went wrong with the Government’s culls last year. There was a sequence of dire policy miscalculations, each of which compounded the other and led to wholesale failure. The crucial baseline population of badgers was first overestimated, then underestimated; a risky and wholly untested “free-shoot” approach was adopted, which promptly but predictably failed; more costly cage-trap-shoot methods were rapidly then introduced, yet still too few badgers were culled in the time frame allowed, posing an increased risk of spreading TB; the six-week time-frame was then controversially extended and, again, still too few badgers were killed; and, meanwhile, police patrolled the country trying to maintain order for deeply unpopular culls, and running up bills for the taxpayer.

We now understand from a delayed but leaked Government report that too many badgers died inhumanely, enduring suffering before death. As an aside, I note that the British Veterinary Association, of which I am proud to be an honorary member, predicated its support on these culls being humane—watch this space.