Bovine Tuberculosis

– in the House of Lords at 2:53 pm on 29th March 2004.

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Photo of Lord Livsey of Talgarth Lord Livsey of Talgarth Shadow Minister (Agriculture), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 2:53 pm, 29th March 2004

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they will take to eradicate bovine tuberculosis in the United Kingdom, in place of the present policy of containment of the disease.

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, complete eradication of bovine TB is not likely to be achieved within the next 10 years using current control methods. The current public consultation on a revised TB strategy for Great Britain looks at what might be achieved in this timescale, potential control methods and the role of government and key stakeholders. Our priority in the shorter term is to prevent further spread of the disease.

Photo of Lord Livsey of Talgarth Lord Livsey of Talgarth Shadow Minister (Agriculture), Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, does the Minister agree that bovine TB has reached the stage where it has now become virtually impossible to contain? Is he aware that the estimated cost of compensation for infected animals is in excess of £50 million per year and that the disease is increasing by 19 per cent per annum? Does he agree with his right honourable friend Mr Nick Brown, the former Minister of Agriculture, who now believes that the disease must be eradicated? I speak as a sponsor of the original badger protection Bill. Does the Minister agree that badgers and cattle should now be treated equally and that diseased cattle and badgers should be eradicated, on an area by area basis, so that we have healthy badgers and healthy cattle and human health is not threatened?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct to say that this is a very difficult animal disease—it is the largest threat facing us at the moment. In fact, help in containment of the disease and compensation for it cost £74 million last year. It is possible to slow down and, it is to be hoped, reverse the spread of the disease. There were severe setbacks during the foot and mouth epidemic but the backlog has since been overcome and the measures are at least containing the spread somewhat. Nevertheless, it is a very difficult situation.

There are clearly a number of viewpoints in regard to badgers and we are currently still conducting scientific experiments to assess the effects of various forms of culling badgers in particular areas. We are about to receive the results of a review of that process which will inform future strategy.

Photo of Baroness Hayman Baroness Hayman Labour

My Lords, has there been any progress in the search for an effective vaccine against bovine TB? Has there been any improvement in the situation that, I fear, existed when I was responsible for these matters, where every new incoming Minister was told that a vaccine was a decade away?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, we have expended some considerable effort on research into a vaccine, both for cattle and for badgers. The position is that there are various vaccines which would be appropriate for cattle but which would have side effects. However, even though there are more promising possibilities within that area, it will be a number of years—probably less than 10, but nevertheless a number of years—before we will have a general cattle vaccine. However, even though we may have an effective badger vaccine, the means of distributing it are a little hit and miss at the moment.

Photo of Baroness Byford Baroness Byford Conservative

My Lords, is not the Minister slightly concerned about the vast increase in numbers? For example, the incidence of bovine TB in herds in the south-west of England has risen from more than 11,000 in 1994 to more than 19,000. The number of new herds infected has multiplied by three times and the total number of new incidents has multiplied by four times. I urge the Minister to push ahead because nothing is happening. What has been the response to the Central Science Laboratory's collection of badger carcasses? The project has been running since 1 June 2002: how many carcasses have been collected and how many were found to be infective?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, the noble Baroness is wrong to say that nothing is proving effective because the spread has slowed down; the backlog has been eliminated in terms of testing; and, at any given time over the past year, only 5.7 per cent of herds within the UK were affected by TB restrictions. Although there has been some spread of the disease, that indicates that one can exaggerate the problem. Nevertheless, although we wish to achieve the objective of eradicating the disease in the long term, it looks increasingly difficult to achieve within any given timescale. We are therefore concentrating on reducing the spread, restricting the amount of disease in the country and developing vaccines. To elaborate on my previous answer, we are spending £15 million a year at the moment in order to deliver an effective vaccine. As to the CSL trials, I do not have the exact numbers. I shall let the noble Baroness know. Clearly this is part of the scientific information that we are receiving in relation to our future strategy for badger culling.

Photo of Lord Hughes of Woodside Lord Hughes of Woodside Labour

My Lords, as an innocent in these matters, and in a spirit of honest inquiry, how do we know the numbers of infected badgers? Are badgers collected and tested for the disease every three months, every six months or what? If, as suggested by the noble Lord, the disease is to be eradicated, is he suggesting that the only way to get rid of it is to eliminate every badger in the country?

Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Food, Farming and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, although badgers are one means of transmitting the disease, cattle movements and, to some extent, human movements may also contribute to its spread. Indeed, the spread from the south-west up the country tended to coincide with restocking following foot and mouth. So badgers are by no means the only method of transmission and there are biosecurity measures which can limit the access of badgers to herds. As far as concerns testing, the noble Baroness has already referred to one type, which is on carcasses found at the roadside and elsewhere. Within the areas where the scientific cull is taking place, the culled badgers are being continuously tested. The effects on the herds in those areas are part of the so-called Krebs trials assessment in which we are engaged. We hope that it will inform how we will deal with this process once we have the full results from the trials.