[John Cummings in the Chair] — Agriculture (South-West)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:29 am on 20th January 2009.

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Photo of James Paice James Paice Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 10:29 am, 20th January 2009

I, like Mr. Williams, remind the Chamber of my declaration in the Register of Members' Interests, and I congratulate Mr. Heath on achieving the debate. I, too, was going to refer to the fact that it is a very long time since we had had any debate in Government time about agriculture. A few Opposition day debates have taken place more recently than the debates to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but, of course, they were not in Government time, and that is a great shame. I draw a contrast with the subject of fisheries, which is dealt with by the same Department, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and on which we have an annual debate, around the time of the annual Fisheries Council just before Christmas. We should at least achieve something similar for agriculture. We had the health check decisions only six weeks ago and there was no debate about them, yet they have a much more profound impact on agriculture than any Fisheries Council meeting has on the fishing industry, important as it is.

The hon. Gentleman made a number of points about farming in the south-west, most of which I identify with. I shall not try to go through all of them, because there are one or two other points to make, but I shall start with the most important issue, bovine TB. I am sorry that Mr. Drew has left the Chamber, not because I agree with him, as, generally, I do not on this issue, but because I know that he takes a close interest in it. There is no logic in continuing, year after year, to slaughter increasing numbers of cattle without addressing some fundamental problems. We cannot go on the way we are; the cost to the taxpayer is increasing year on year, and every time it goes up, the Government look at ways of paring the costs, and they do. We have seen it happen with compensation payments, because the Government have had to cut back to save money owing to the increase in the total cost of compensation. The Government are appealing against the Partridge case, in which the court held that the Government were wrong not to pay more money for the high-value, pedigree animals that were the subject of the case. We await the outcome of the appeal, but it could have further cost implications for the Government.

Hon. Members described how the incidence of bovine TB is getting worse year on year. The animal health section of what DEFRA calls its west region—incorporating more than the south-west, because it includes Hereford, Worcester and Shropshire—states that in the first nine months of 2008, 17,300 cattle were slaughtered as reactors, compared with 15,500 during the whole preceding year. Projected to a full year, that shows an increase of about 30 per cent. in the west region, and we cannot go on like that. I, like hon. Members who have spoken, have never pretended or suggested that culling badgers is the only answer, because it is certainly not; however, I think that to pretend that it is not part of the necessary package of measures is akin to hiding one's head in the sand.

The Government should have accepted the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee's recommendation, and they should also have used the opportunity to try to find a selective cull process. It is interesting that Professor King's thesis was not to eradicate all the badgers in a particular area; simply reducing their population density would reduce the disease's ability to survive in the long term, and that is very important. Those who accept, as I do, the need to cull badgers must make it clear that they are talking about not eliminating every badger area, but simply reducing the population to a level at which the disease cannot survive.