Bovine Tuberculosis — Statement

– in the House of Lords at 3:11 pm on 23rd October 2012.

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Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:11 pm, 23rd October 2012

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Statement is as follows.

"Bovine tuberculosis is the most pressing animal health problem in the United Kingdom. The importance of the epidemic for our cattle farmers, their families and their communities cannot be overemphasised. This was once a disease isolated to small pockets of the country. It has now spread extensively through the west of England and Wales. The number of new cases has doubled every nine years. Last year, TB led to the slaughter of 26,000 cattle in England at a cost of nearly £100 million. In the past 10 years bovine TB has cost the taxpayer £500 million. It is estimated that this will rise to £1 billion over the next decade if the disease is left unchecked.

The task of managing bovine TB and bringing it under control is difficult and complex. The Government are committed to using all the tools at their disposal and to continuing to develop new ones as a package of measures to tackle the disease. In high-risk areas, herds are tested annually and any cattle that test positive are slaughtered. Restrictions on cattle movements have been further strengthened to reduce the chance of disease spreading from cattle to cattle. Only last week we announced plans for a new surveillance testing regime and stricter cattle movement controls. We also continue to look at ways to improve the testing of cattle for TB.

Research in this country over the past 15 years has demonstrated that cattle and badgers can transmit the disease to each other. Culling badgers can lead to a reduction of the disease in cattle if it is carried out over a large enough area and for a sufficient length of time. That is why we believe that, based on the best available evidence, culling badgers to control TB can make a significant contribution. It is crucial that we get this right. The National Farmers' Union has taken the lead on behalf of the farming industry to plan and organise the pilot culls. It has been working tirelessly over the past few months, signing up farmers and landowners in the pilot areas and ensuring that contractors are properly trained. I have been immensely impressed by the effort, commitment and determination that have been demonstrated by farmers in the two pilot areas. I am also most grateful to the police in the two areas for their support.

The exceptionally bad weather this summer has put a number of pressures on our farmers and caused significant problems. Protracted legal proceedings and the request of the police to delay the start until after the Olympics and Paralympics have also meant that we have moved beyond the optimal time for delivering an effective cull. We should have begun in the summer. In addition to these problems, the most recent fieldwork has revealed that badger numbers in the two areas are significantly higher than previously thought. This only highlights the scale of the problem we are dealing with.

Evidence suggests that at least 70% of the badgers in the areas must be removed. This is based on the results of the randomised badger culling trial so that we can be confident that culling will reduce TB in cattle. Despite a greatly increased effort over the past few days and weeks, the farmers delivering this policy have concluded that they cannot be confident that it will be possible to remove enough badgers based on these higher numbers and considering the lateness of the season. It would be wrong to go ahead if those on the ground cannot be confident of removing at least 70% of the populations.

Today I have received a letter from the president of the NFU on behalf of the companies co-ordinating the culls, explaining why they do not feel they can go ahead this year and requesting that they be postponed until next summer. In these circumstances, it is the right thing to do and, as they are the people who have to deliver this policy on the ground and work within the science, I respect their decision. I have placed a copy of the letter in the Libraries of both Houses.

By starting the pilots next summer we can build on the work that has already been done and ensure that the cull will conform to the scientific criteria and evidence base. I know that this will be very disappointing for many, particularly those farmers in the two pilot areas, but I fully support the decision of the NFU to delay the start of culling operations.

I must emphasise that there is no change to the Government's policy. We remain absolutely committed to it, but we must ensure that we work with the NFU to get the delivery right. We also remain committed to our wider TB eradication programme and to continuing to strengthen it, so that we can move towards our goal of a TB-free England. Vaccination is another tool and one that we would all like to be able to deploy more widely. Unfortunately, we are not yet there in terms of its development or practicality. If we had a viable and legal cattle vaccine, we would be using it. It will, however, be some years before this is the case and neither we nor the industry can afford to wait that long. It is for this reason that we must look at all the options.

The Government are determined to tackle bovine TB by all the means available to us. Now, in the next few months, we will ensure that the pilot culls can be implemented effectively, in the best possible conditions, with the right resources. Having looked at all the evidence over many years, I am utterly convinced that badger control is the right thing to do, and indeed the higher than expected badger numbers only serve to underline the need for urgent action. I remain fully committed to working with the farming industry to ensure that the pilot culls can be delivered effectively, safely and humanely next summer".

Photo of Lord Knight of Weymouth Lord Knight of Weymouth Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:18 pm, 23rd October 2012

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for repeating the Statement and for advance sight of it this morning. We welcome this statement and it is right that it should start by setting out the scale of the animal health problem, and the cost to farmers and to taxpayers of slaughtering infected cattle. This is an acute problem for farmers and I know from talking to them in the West Country over many years what a toll it is taking on them personally and financially. It is therefore also right that the Statement concludes with the need to work with farmers. But as the president of the NFU says in his letter to the Secretary of State,

"all decisions must be based on the science".

Why then no mention of working with the scientists?

I am pleased to see the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, in his place. He is one of the leading scientific authorities on this issue. What meetings has the new Secretary of State had with the noble Lord and his colleagues? Did the Minister read the comments of the noble Lord in last week's debate on scientific advisors? He said,

"it is still the case that the Government, perhaps too often, prefer policy-based evidence rather than evidence-based policy ... The fact is that the overwhelming majority of scientific experts have concluded that the policy of killing badgers to control TB in cattle will have only a small beneficial effect, if any. It is essentially a waste of effort and money, and a distraction from the business of getting on top of a serious animal health problem that can have devastating effects on the livelihoods of farmers".-[Official Report, 17/10/12; col. GC514.]

The truth is that this is yet another humiliating moment for the Government and for Defra because they put prejudice and ideology before science and evidence. Can the Minister confirm that this is more of an NHS Bill type of pause, rather than another Government U-turn? It is certainly another in a chain of weekly incompetent humiliations: plebgate; the west coast main line fiasco, when they also got the numbers wrong; the energy policy on the hoof last week; the great train snobbery; and now this from Defra.

From Defra we have had the abandoned forestry sell off, chaos over circus animals, a U-turn on shooting buzzards to protect game birds and now a pause on shooting badgers. No wonder the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, said this weekend in the Observer that the Government,

"seems unable to manage its affairs competently".

He described it as a,

"dog of a coalition government".

I do not think the noble Lord likes dogs. I suspect he would like the country to put it out of its misery and have this "dog of a coalition" put down. However, beyond the endemic incompetence in Defra and the Government there are serious specific questions to answer. As my colleague Mary Creagh MP said in the other place today:

"Labour has warned the Government for two years that the badger cull was bad for farmers, bad for taxpayers and bad for wildlife".

The Secretary of State is right not to proceed because the cull this year could not deliver the 70% mortality rate needed for the possible positive effect on bovine TB-up to 16% over nine years. His decision is based on there not being enough time to cull that many badgers in the limited time available, particularly given the growing number of badgers in the pilot areas. However, the numbers and the limited time were predictable and demonstrate the incompetence in Defra that this announcement was inevitable. His statement blames the weather, the police and the Olympics for a limited time window.

Was it not the Home Secretary who ruled out policing the cull this summer not the police? Was not the limited window therefore predictable and decided by Ministers? Is it not the case that in July last year Natural England gave Defra badger population figures that projected from the randomised badger-culling trial that the numbers of badgers in pilot areas was 3,300 per 350 square kilometres. This is broadly the same as the current estimate of 3,000 per 300 square kilometres, so the larger number of badgers was predictable too.

Why did the Secretary of State in the other place today say that it was only in September this year that Natural England determined deficiencies in the numbers of badgers to be culled? Is it just to cover Defra's incompetence or is it that those projections last year were ignored because it was inconvenient evidence not policy-based evidence? Can the Minister tell us whether the estimates of badger numbers in the planned pilot cull areas were reviewed by the independent expert panel overseeing the pilots? I have heard not. If so, that is shameful.

What is the department going to do during this pause before doing the cull next year? Will it need to secure more money? The Secretary of State said today in the other place that the Government will compensate the police forces in Avon and Somerset and Gloucestershire for their costs in preparing for the abandoned cull. If it is a more intensive cull of the larger numbers of badgers, will he need more than the current projection of £500,000 per cull area per year? Will there be any compensation for the two companies engaged to do the shooting? I gather £850,000 was to be spent on surveying badgers; £248,000 on post mortems; and £713,000 on checking the humaneness of the cull. Will those contractors be compensated?

Beyond the finance questions there are other areas of work between now and when the cull starts next summer. Will Ministers meet representatives of the tourism industry in Somerset and Gloucestershire? The notion of marksmen across the countryside that I know well shooting badgers at night has clear risks. Those risks are heightened because the location of shoots will be kept secret to frustrate protesters, but if the location of shooting is secret how will visitors in the summer months be warned to keep away?

How will Ministers work with farmers to maximise the effectiveness of the welcome announcement last week on changes to the testing regime and cattle movement restrictions? These sorts of biosecurity measures are a key component in controlling this dreadful disease. Can more be done with government support to improve biosecurity?

Finally, there is the core question of vaccination. The possible benefits of a cull are marginal. Sir John Beddington, the Chief Scientific Adviser, has said that it will, at best, result in a 12% to 16% reduction in the disease after nine years. The Statement pays tribute to the tireless work of farmers and contractors in preparing for the cull and funding it. What is the Government's estimate of what can be done on vaccination over nine years with the same unity of purpose? The emerging DIVA test is an encouraging development to allow a diseased animal to be differentiated from a vaccinated animal. Surely this now makes it possible seriously to engage with the EU in lifting the ban on exports from vaccinated animals. The vaccine itself is 50% to 60% effective. We need more efficacy but it appears that good progress is being made in finding a scientific solution. Surely it is right to focus on this rather than on what the 30 eminent animal disease experts writing in the Observer 10 days ago described as a "costly distraction".

My party is clear that bovine TB is a blight on dairy farming and causes untold misery to dairy farmers. We take it very seriously and we all want a solution. We know that growing numbers of diseased badgers are passing the disease to cattle and costing the taxpayer a fortune, but, unfortunately, the logic of then culling them does not follow because the science tells us that that is most likely to spread the disease unless such a scale of geography and intensity is used that it is clearly nigh on impossible to then deliver the cull. We must be led by the science and the science leads us to vaccination with interim efforts on biosecurity. That is what we want. That is what the nation wants. I hope that, after reflecting on this shambles today, the Secretary of State will abandon his dogmatic view and get it right by listening to both farmers and scientists.

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 3:27 pm, 23rd October 2012

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his response to the Statement. I start by reiterating that bovine TB is the most pressing animal health problem facing our cattle farmers. No one wants to kill badgers but we absolutely have to bear down on this terrible disease.

What has been announced today is a postponement until next summer of the pilots that were due to start this autumn. There is no change of government policy. We and the farming industry remain committed to taking forward this evidence-based policy. We are totally committed to tackling bovine TB through a range of measures, including a controlled cull of badgers. The cull in the two pilot areas will go ahead next summer when we are completely satisfied that all the arrangements are in place.

The leading experts whom Defra brought together last year agreed that the evidence shows that culling done in the right way and carried out over a sufficient area and length of time in a co-ordinated and efficient way can reduce the spread of the disease to cattle with benefits remaining for many years. The policy is firmly based on evidence from the randomised badger culling trial. Using the results of this trial, culling over an area of 150 square kilometres could be expected to lead to an average 16% reduction in TB incidence in the local area. This figure was agreed by an independent panel of scientists at a meeting with Professor Bob Watson, Defra's Chief Scientific Adviser, on 4 April last year. We are clearly not saying that this is the whole answer but it is a very important part of the answer alongside testing and surveillance, movement restrictions and the removal and slaughter of affected animals. We wanted to be absolutely sure that we had the most robust data available to ensure that the right logistics were in place for an effective cull. The population estimates show the problem of badgers spreading bovine TB to be even worse than expected. The right decision has been taken, based on the available evidence.

Natural England's figures were estimated on RBCT data and, in validating the estimates provided by the applicants, some gaps were found that raised concerns. Due to the importance of this data for the effectiveness of the policy, it was responsible, in taking a science-based approach, to check these numbers through further fieldwork. This further fieldwork has led to updated estimates of the badger population that are higher than originally expected. The discovery that there are far more badgers than previously thought shows the problem could be much bigger than we feared. All of the preparations for the pilot culls were geared up for a smaller number of badgers, so it is absolutely right that the NFU looks again at what resources it needs to make sure we get it right.

The noble Lord, Lord Knight, asked about policing. It was agreed with the Home Office that the cull should not proceed before the Olympics. The noble Lord asked about the costs of the culling operations and whether they would be met by the participating farmers. The costs that fall to Government are those to do with ensuring that the pilots meet their purpose. It is right to pilot the policy and confirm our assumptions about the effectiveness, safety and humaneness of controlled shooting. As regards costs more generally, the Secretary of State has said that he will have a comprehensive breakdown of the money spent so far prepared and laid before Parliament. The noble Lord specifically asked about policing costs. These will depend on the extent of protester activity and it is right that the Government should recompense the police for additional costs.

The noble Lord asked about vaccination, which is an important issue. Work to develop an oral badger vaccine and a cattle vaccine is continuing and is a high priority. Defra has been investing significantly in developing bovine TB vaccines for both badgers and cattle for a long time. We have a licensed, injectable vaccine that can and is used on badgers. The problem with it is, however, two-fold. First, it is very expensive to catch all the badgers. Secondly, it has to be done every year. So it is a very expensive process and is not really practicable on a wide scale. Since 1994, Defra has invested more than £43 million in badger and cattle vaccination and associated diagnostics and expects to spend another £15.5 million over four years. Even if these vaccinations were available, they are not a magic bullet and additional measures would still be necessary.

The Government fully support the NFU's decision to postpone the culls as the responsible thing to do to ensure the pilots are carried out effectively. It would be irresponsible to rush ahead and risk making the problem worse if it is not carried out properly. This disease led to the slaughter of 26,000 cattle in England last year and cost nearly £100 million. Without further action it would cost the taxpayer an estimated £1 billion over the next decade.

Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), Lords Spokesperson (Department for International Development)

I remind noble Lords that ministerial Statements are made for the information of the House. Although brief comments and questions from all quarters are allowed, Statements should not be the occasion for an immediate debate. I am acutely aware that many noble Lords wish to get in. It would therefore be courteous if noble Lords could be as brief as possible, to enable their noble colleagues to get in as well.

Photo of Lord Krebs Lord Krebs Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Lords), Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Lords)

My Lords, as has been said, bovine TB is a serious problem, and it deserves serious science to underpin policy. I do not want to take up too much time, but I hope that your Lordships will forgive me as an individual who has been involved in this over the past 15 years and, as has been said, instigated the randomised badger culling trial and took part in the review of the evidence with Sir Bob Watson last year. It is worth briefly repeating the facts: the long-term, large-scale culling of badgers is estimated to reduce the incidence of TB in cattle by 16% after nine years. In other words, 84% of the problem is still there. To reflect on what that means, this is not a reduction in absolute terms but actually a 16% reduction from the trend increase. So after nine years there is still more TB around than there was at the beginning; it is just that there is 16% less than there would have been without a cull. The number is not the 30% that the NFU quoted; that is misleading-a dishonest filleting of the data. The other thing that the experts conclude is that culling makes the situation worse at the beginning so it will take a long time to emerge into this Nirvana of a 16% reduction, and 84% of the problem is still there.

That is just the background. I turn to questions that I hope the Minister will answer. Last Friday we were told by the Minister of State for Food and Farming that between 500 and 800 badgers would be culled in each of the two areas. The number, thanks to rapid badger reproduction over the weekend, is now 5,530 over the two areas-a fourfold increase. I am impressed. What this underlines is that if the policy is to cull at least 70% of the badgers, we have to know what the starting number is. This variation from just over 1,000 to more than 5,000 in the space of a few days underlines how difficult it is for us to have confidence that the Government will be able to instruct the farmers to cull 70% if they do not know the starting numbers. So my first question to the Minister is: how will he assure us that these numbers are accurate?

If we ask why the NFU has backed out, it is because it was due to pay those who were going to shoot the badgers on a per-badger basis. The NFU calculated it on the basis of shooting 1,300 badgers. Suddenly it is told, "It's 5,500 badgers". The farmers thought it was worth doing-but not that much. They have done their own cost-benefit calculation and say that it is not worth the candle. So my second question to the Minister is: in next year's cull, who is going to pay? Are the farmers going to stump up on a per-badger basis to shoot 5,500 badgers or are we, the taxpayer, going to pay?

Finally and briefly, we have a pause and time to rethink. I urge the Minister to gather together scientific experts and rethink the Government's strategy altogether, starting from square one.

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to the noble Lord, for whom I have a huge amount of respect. I am grateful to him in particular for confirming the 16% figure to which I referred in my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Knight. On the question of whether culling is not a huge part of the answer, it is a very significant part of the answer but I said earlier that it is not the whole answer. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, will at least accept that.

He asked about the numbers. I explained to the noble Lord, Lord Knight, that previous estimates of the number of badgers to be removed from the pilot areas were based on the RBCT. We have recently carried out field surveys to look at the badger populations in the areas where the pilots are taking place. However, what is important in answering the question of the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, is that we have commissioned a national badger survey in England and Wales to quantify any changes since the previous survey.

The noble Lord asked about the cost and, in particular, whether the farmers will continue to bear the cost. Yes indeed, they will; that is entirely the plan. The bearing of the cost will be done in exactly the way that has been planned.

I should say to noble Lords, on the issue of the evidence and the science, that, following the March 2012 visit to the UK of the European Commission's bovine tuberculosis sub-group of the task force for monitoring animal disease eradication, it stated:

"It is however of utmost importance that there is a political consensus and commitment to long-term strategies to combat TB in badgers as well as in cattle ... There is no scientific evidence to demonstrate that badger vaccination will reduce the incidence of TB in cattle. However there is considerable evidence to support the removal of badgers in order to improve the TB status of both badgers and cattle".

So the European Commission is pushing us and we have to deal with TB in badgers.

Photo of Baroness Parminter Baroness Parminter Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I will be brief. Our priority on these Benches was always that the pilots were safe and rigorous in testing how effective and indeed humane the culling of badgers could be. However, given that the NFU does not have the resources to deliver this, we welcome the fact that the cull is being postponed. Will the Minister confirm that the Government will use this pause, before any evidence-based pilots proceed, to seek approval to use in the field the cattle vaccine and the diagnostic test, which has recently been approved, and in particular seek to use the EU animal health directive, which is upcoming?

Secondly, the Secretary of State confirmed today in another place that all options will be looked at in order to curtail this disease. Will the Minister confirm that those alternatives will not include looking again at the issue of gassing, which was condemned in a review by Lord Zuckerman, a Member of this House, in the 1980s?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for her supportive words. We have had discussions with the EU that essentially involve persuading the EU to accept the DIVA test. They have told us to get international validation and we are determined to do so.

Photo of Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior Conservative

My Lords, in view of the great success in controlling rabies in foxes in western Europe with an oral vaccine, has much thought been given to the production of an oral vaccine for TB in badgers? I realise, of course, that the organisms are entirely different; one is a virus and one is a bacterium. However, surely the same process of trying to select an organism that is protected before it gets into the gut and immunises the badger is worthy of investigation. Can the Minister give some indication of some of the work that is going on, if any, on the production of an oral vaccine similar to the one developed for fox rabies?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I am grateful to my noble friend because this is an important subject into which considerable work is going on. The evidence that he has referred to will of course be taken into account. Progress on the development of an effective oral badger vaccine relies, of course, on scientific breakthroughs in this field, and it is uncertain in outcome and timing. Compared to an injectable vaccine, an oral vaccine is technically more difficult to formulate, as my noble friend alluded to, and it requires bait, which encourages the uptake of the vaccine by badgers and minimises the potential of other species to eat it. Developing an oral vaccine against TB in badgers is proving more difficult than originally hoped, which means that I cannot say with certainty when one might be available for use in the field.

Photo of Lord Winston Lord Winston Labour

My Lords, will the Minister inform us whether the Government intend to cull the seven or eight other common species which also affect tuberculosis and spread it among cattle?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

That is an interesting question. Although bovine TB is present in other wildlife, such as deer, badgers are the main species responsible for transmitting the disease to cattle because of their specific ecology. Evidence from the RBCT demonstrates conclusively that badgers contribute significantly to bovine TB in cattle. While deer in Britain are generally considered to be a sentinel or spillover host of infection in cattle, rather than a source of the disease in cattle, current evidence suggests that TB infection from deer is not a significant disease risk to cattle.

Photo of Lord Plumb Lord Plumb Conservative

My Lords, as a farmer, my question is based on some history. I will be very brief. In 1944 we eradicated TB on my farm. In 1964, as a junior officer in the NFU, I had the privilege of announcing that we had totally eradicated bovine TB from this country. Since then, of course, history has shown us a different picture. The noble Lord, Lord Knight, posed a large number of questions, and I noted all of them. Those questions were posed more than 10 years ago, and we have gone through that period of time with few decisions being taken. To say, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said, that farmers are dishonest is an insult to the farming community and I cannot accept it. That is not the reason. All the farmers concerned, particularly those who have been held up for 12 years, have been unable to sell one beast off their farms over that time. They do not see this problem as scientists see it; they see it as men who are concerned with the welfare of animals and they do not want to see their herds suffering, as they are doing and have done throughout this period.

My question is exactly the same as that raised by the noble Lord, Lord Soulsby. Surely we have to move towards vaccination. However, if the current vaccine is effective for only one year, that is a very expensive mechanism for doing the job. Surely to goodness we are in an age when an oral vaccine can be found to cope with this situation. It can be put in either the water or the food so that the affected animals are removed. Perhaps that would be a better way of dealing with the matter than the ways that have hitherto been thought of.

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I can only say to my noble friend that we are pursuing vaccine options as hard as we can and as a high priority. We have been investing significantly in developing TB vaccines for both badgers and cattle for a long time. I have mentioned a licensed injectable vaccine that can be and is being used on badgers but, as I have explained, it is extremely expensive and needs to be repeated annually. As my noble friend says, we need an oral vaccine, which we are still searching for. We will continue that search and expect to spend another £15.5 million over four years.

Photo of Lord Patel Lord Patel Crossbench

My Lords, the Minister referred to other species that are affected with a similar strain of tuberculosis and specifically mentioned wild deer. Are not mice, particularly field mice, and rats also affected by the same strain and do they not come into closer contact with cattle?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, the point about mice, rats and indeed deer is that there is no restriction on culling them.

Photo of Lord Clark of Windermere Lord Clark of Windermere Labour

My Lords, I agree entirely with the Minister, as indeed would most people in the country, when he says that this is the most pressing animal health issue facing the country. In the light of that, I welcome the announcement today because I think that it exposes how shambolic the Government's proposals have been in trying to tackle this real problem. As scientists said last week, the policy was little more than a costly diversion and we will end up with more cases of TB in four or nine years' time than we have at the moment. The four-year pilots have now, with the stroke of a pen today, become five-year pilots. I believe that we ought to follow the recommendations of the European Union representatives and, although it will not be easy, continue to seek political consensus so that we can move on to vaccination and increase the amount of money that we are spending on research in this field, especially in the form of cattle vaccination.

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, the area in which I disagree with the noble Lord is clearly that of pursuing the cull, which I have said we are planning to do. The area in which I agree with him is that of vaccination, which is another tool in the box that we must find, and I assure noble Lords that we are continuing to work on that.

Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative

My Lords, the Minister may be aware that my former constituency was one of the areas that were being considered for this cull. For very many years, including 13 years of a Labour Government, I prayed that positive progress would be made by the Government in tackling this problem. I join the noble Lord, Lord Plumb, in saying that I bitterly regret the very party-political way in which the noble Lord, Lord Knight, intervened in this matter. His Government did nothing effective and left it as a problem to be tackled now. Some have had to live with the personal challenges of the issue-as my noble friend knows, there are suicides, despair and family breakups, so it is not just the financial consequences but the destruction of people's whole lives that have followed from this. It is also not just dairy herds, which I think the noble Lord referred to, but anybody with cattle. Certainly in the West Country they have faced appalling problems. This should be pursued on an all-party, bipartisan basis, as my noble friend said, not by trying to score points and accusing people of dishonesty in filleting the statistics or anything else. We are trying to get a cohesive approach to this challenge because if we do not, in many parts of the country, it will destroy the whole cattle industry as we see it.

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I absolutely agree with my noble friend about the effect on farmers and their families. Perhaps I may do something unusual and come to the defence of the noble Lord, Lord Knight, who began by acknowledging how very horrible this disease is. If I may, I would like to pour a little soothing balm on the political argument.

Photo of Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Baroness Royall of Blaisdon Shadow Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, perhaps I may defend the previous Government, who undertook a long series of randomised trials and worked with scientists to try to find a scientific base for future action. Does the Minister accept that there is much relief in the Forest of Dean this afternoon as a consequence of this Statement? The majority of people in the forest, including many farmers, did not want a badger cull that was not based on scientific evidence, was not economic and would not provide the necessary solution to the devastating effect of bovine TB on herds and farmers but that would decimate the badger population. I should add that the police of Gloucestershire are also much relieved to have their leave restored. Can the Minister reassure me that the Government will now use the pause to pursue a firmly scientifically-based solution which will also have a sound economic basis? Will he also agree to update this House regularly so that we can try to find a solution on which there can be some political consensus? We all want to be involved in pursuing that.

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, I have said that we are pursuing all options and I do not think that I can say much more than that. However, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her offer of help.

Photo of Lord Willis of Knaresborough Lord Willis of Knaresborough Liberal Democrat

My Lords, the Minister has rightly referred to scientific evidence, as has the noble Lord, Lord Krebs. It is clear that the scientific evidence that the Minister and his colleagues are getting is different from that which a significant proportion of the scientific community is getting. What reassurance can he give us that an independent group of scientists will be brought together to examine this process transparently and that a regular report will be made to this House, as the noble Baroness said, rather than waiting for another crisis until such a report is made?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, my noble friend will know that a great number of professionals, scientists and experts are already involved in this process. There is also, indeed, an independent panel which will monitor the results of the cull, and we are extremely grateful for all the advice that we get.

Photo of Lord Christopher Lord Christopher Labour

My Lords, there have been probably inescapable pressures on farmers to manage cattle as they do. Will the Government also look, among the options, at any evidence suggesting that the resistance of our present herds has been lowered not least as a result of inbreeding? For example, how many bulls are responsible today for our white cattle herds of Holsteins and Friesians?

Photo of Lord de Mauley Lord de Mauley The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

My Lords, I have heard no evidence that inbreeding contributes to the incidence of TB.