Bovine TB

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:08 pm on 21st May 2002.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 12:08 pm, 21st May 2002

Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Wiggin on raising this important issue. I also extend our sympathies to those farmers and their families who have been directly affected by it. Paddy Tipping said that there may not be a national crisis, but, as several hon. Members have said, particular families face a crisis. There is a danger that the phrase "Crisis? What Crisis?" may rebound on us all in a few months' time. I do not intend to rehearse all the points made by hon. Members. The debate has been an excellent one, attended by 20 hon. Members of whom some 11 or 12 have made speeches. Clearly, hon. Members recognise the seriousness of the problem.

I want briefly to tease out one aspect of the problem. Having read the reports of the old Agriculture Committee—now the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee—and answers to parliamentary questions, I cautiously suggest that the Government have a problem giving a definitive answer to many of our questions. That problem was epitomised yesterday, when Lord Whitty attempted to answer a number of questions put to him in the other place. He often failed to give any answer, or he gave answers that simply raised more questions. For example, Lord Whitty said:

"Approximately 10 per cent. of all cattle herds have been affected. The total number of individual cattle affected thus far is quite low—some 9,000 in a national herd of 8 million—but the incidence of the disease is growing in a worrying way."

Why is it growing? The Government do not know.

In the same exchange, Lord Whitty admitted:

"It appears that the growth in the incidence of TB in cattle has been greater here than in other European countries."

Why should that be so? Do we have any knowledge? He further stated that

"there is a correlation between the growth in the number of badgers and the growth in bovine TB, but not area by area. Correlation does not mean cause."—[Hansard, House of Lords, 20 May 2002; Vol. 635, c. 515-17.]

What does it mean, in that case?

Concern has been expressed in both Houses and by the farming community over delays in veterinary testing caused by the priority given to controlling foot and mouth disease. I urge the Minister to consider the resources available in his Department. The Secretary of State may have to press the Chancellor on the matter, because the problem seems to be one of resources as much as anything else. The position of the state veterinary service has been raised in the debate by several hon. Members. Given what has happened with animal health in the past five to 10 years, it may be wise to assume that we will face an outbreak of another animal health problem, which could mean that bovine TB testing must again go on the back burner. Therefore, I urge the Minister to consider the problem.

I shall not discuss the problems facing the farming community, as vividly described by hon. Members, but I shall address a crucial issue that was raised here and in the Select Committee. The Government have installed a long-term scientific strategy that may or may not produce the required results, but there is no plan B, in the words of the old Select Committee. There is no interim strategy, in the words of my hon. Friend Mr. Letwin, and there is no short-term strategy to deal with the immediate problems that appear to be escalating. I urge the Minister to state clearly and categorically what the short-term strategy might be.

My right hon. Friend Mr. Curry put it to the Secretary of State during last weeks parliamentary questions that although the long-term strategy is scientifically based and stately as a galleon, it may be overtaken by the increasing spread of bovine TB. That is not an easy question for the Department to handle, but if the Department does not develop a short-term strategy it will not only be overcome by events but lose the confidence of the farming community and the consumer.

Finally, I urge the Minister to answer our questions. I realise that he does not have enough time for that in the debate, but perhaps he will write to hon. Members. Will he and his hon. Friends consider making a statement on the current state of bovine TB? Many hon. Members feel that getting information out of the Department is like pulling teeth. I am waiting for a reply from the Secretary of State. I have given up telephoning her private office. A piece of statistical information was promised to me by this morning, but I have given up on it now. Such delays must be even more frustrating for members of the farming community.

I urge the Minister to issue an interim report in the next few weeks to establish the current facts and to admit, where possible, that there are problems. We all understand that this is not an easy issue. Perhaps we should do what has been suggested by Mr. Breed, who speaks on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, and update the statistical information. If the Minister did that, he would draw out the fire from the criticisms made not only by those outside Parliament, but by many of us present.