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21 May 2002 : Column 22WH

Bovine TB

11 am

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Frank Cook): Order. Before calling the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) to initiate the debate, I should point out that the Chair has received a lot of written requests to make speeches. I see that many more right hon. and hon. Members are occupying seats in the Chamber, so I remind the House that the debate will last for only 90 minutes and that the longer hon. Members take for their speeches, the less time is left for the Minister to reply and for other Front-Bench Members to speak. I should add that the more interventions that are tolerated, the longer those interventions are and the longer the time taken to respond to them, the less time is left for the rest of the debate.

Mr. Bill Wiggin (Leominster): With those words in mind, I add that the subject of the debate is extremely complex and arouses various sensitivities. I intend to speak briefly, but hon. Members must forgive me if I seem to go on too long.

The Government's statistics reveal that TB is an increasing problem rather than a diminishing one. In my constituency, farmers have been struck by an enormous increase in positive testing. It has been suggested that as many as 17 farms in my constituency have been hit by TB in the past two months. The total number of new herd incidents has risen to 80 in the region since the beginning of the year, and 52 of those are considered to be new TB incidents. The figures given by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs state that the total number of confirmed new incidents in Herefordshire and Worcestershire in the whole of 2000 was 145; the results for 2001 are inconclusive.

If the increase of reactions continues at the same rate as at the start of the year to March, we shall see an enormous difference by the end of the year. Recent press reports focus on the increasing spread of the disease in Wales, which borders my constituency. North Wales' divisional veterinary manager, David Pugh, said that the situation could be as serious, if not more serious, than the foot and mouth epidemic.

In January 2001, the Agriculture Committee called for Government action in response to farmers' growing sense of despair and desperation over the continuing spread of the disease. Since then, farmers in my constituency, some of whom are here today, have had no assurance from the Government that they can expect support. Given that the industry is still shuddering from the foot and mouth epidemic, the lack of positive Government action is harsh, to say the least.

Immediate action is needed because at least three herds a day are succumbing to the disease. Areas previously free from the disease, such as West Sussex and parts of Wales, are now discovering new cases. The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), who is responsible for animal health, said that the comments were misleading but agreed that the disease remained a serious and growing animal health problem. Although bovine TB may not have an effect on the food chain, it has a serious and potentially fatal effect on farm businesses. I wonder why Ministers have

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done so little to calm the fear among the farming community that the disease could have the same effect as foot and mouth.

At Question Time last week, the Secretary of State denied a greater incidence of bovine TB. The testing programme was suspended throughout the foot and mouth crisis, and she suggested that therefore

That attitude is complacent.

In the meantime, farmers in my area are hit by the enormously crippling task of working with the subsequent restrictions that come with a confirmed case of TB. The Government have made few attempts to ease the pressures facing the farming community with the eradication of the disease. Farmers whose livestock have been given inconclusive or positive reactions to testing must wait 60 days before DEFRA officials come to undertake further testing. If those second tests are clear, another 60 days must pass before the final test is taken. Only when the third test proves negative can the farmer begin to sell and buy livestock.

The Government are showing as much complacency over the issue of animal welfare as they displayed in the initial stages of the foot and mouth crisis. That attitude is setting alarm bells ringing across the farming community in Herefordshire, and I can give farmers in my constituency no assurance that they will not be treated as badly as they were over foot and mouth disease. Farmers in my constituency have been faced with restrictions only recently, but still find them financially crippling. I can only imagine what farmers are going through in other rural areas, such as Gloucestershire, where some farms have been under TB restrictions for years.

Charlotte Atkins (Staffordshire, Moorlands): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that at least the Labour Government introduced 100 per cent. compensation for destroyed animals, something that the Conservative Government failed to do?

Mr. Wiggin : I am sure that the hon. Lady is absolutely right, but the 27,000 cases awaiting testing are more of a comment on the way in which the Government are handling the disease.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon): Given the question of animals in need of testing, is my hon. Friend convinced that sufficient resources have been given to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to deal with the crisis and cope with the backlog of cases?

Mr. Wiggin : My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. That is the kernel of where the Government are going wrong. It is not necessarily fair to blame the Government's allocation of resources for research into vaccination, for example. The kernel of the problem is our whole understanding of the disease and the way in which the veterinary service is reacting to the crisis.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford): Will the hon. Gentleman comment on the Krebs report? When I was elected

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Member of Parliament for Hereford in 1997, the Herefordshire National Farmers Union expressed concern that the Krebs report had not been published quickly enough, which had delayed the whole process of dealing with TB. Does the hon. Gentleman share that concern?

Mr. Wiggin : The hon. Gentleman was elected considerably earlier than me. Publication of the Krebs report was certainly a step in the right direction, but there is a serious problem in the hon. Gentleman's constituency—particularly in Aconbury—because the disease has passed not only between badgers and cattle, but is now appearing in cats and possibly even in deer.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): My hon. Friend might like to catch up on the history. The hon. Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Charlotte Atkins) claimed that what the Labour Government had done was right. However, the first thing they did when they came to power was to abandon the interim control strategy that was previously in place. In the first year of the Labour Government, the incidence of TB in cattle increased by 43 per cent. Farmers were less concerned about the level of compensation when there were fewer incidents of TB.

Mr. Wiggin : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for all that helpful factual information.

During questions last week, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs promised to keep the situation under review. Using my own constituency as an example, that seems to be a shallow promise. The last quarterly TB statistics showed that 920 tests were overdue in Herefordshire and Worcestershire alone. What resources are being allocated to facilitate the removal of the 27,000 cases awaiting a test? The backlog is enormous and there is a desperate need to sort it out.

In November 1996, Professor Krebs and the independent review team began a scientific review on behalf of the Government of the link between bovine TB and badgers. The Krebs review concluded that the evidence that badgers were a significant source of TB infection in cattle was compelling. However, there was insufficient evidence to demonstrate how much of the disease in cattle originates from badgers. The Krebs recommendations included a randomised badger culling trial to test the effectiveness of different strategies, to provide unambiguous evidence of the role of badgers in cattle TB and to aid the development of improved strategies to reduce outbreaks. The NFU claimed that the Government's delay over the badger culling trial proved disastrous to thousands of farmers.

In my discussions with Dr. Elaine King of the National Federation of Badger Groups, she said that she was not convinced that the disease could move back from badgers to cattle. Because of lack of evidence, thousands of farmers are convinced that badgers are responsible for the spread of the disease. The Under-Secretary, the Minister with responsibility for animal health, said in Westminster Hall earlier this year:

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Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman in his quote, but I must say that I entirely agree that we need evidence from which to derive any future strategy. That is what the Krebs trial represents. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, along with that essential research, there must be an increased emphasis on international research into diagnostic and vaccination techniques, both for cattle and feral species such as badgers?

Mr. Wiggin : I agree with the hon. Gentleman, and shall come to that subject later. I shall finish the quote:

The Under-Secretary, who also deals with animal welfare, has said that the Krebs trial is the proper scientific way of examining the epidemiology of bovine TB. I agree with him that there is need for in-depth research and analysis, but I point out the increased losses experienced by farmers due to the delay in Government action during the foot and mouth epidemic last year. Time is very much of the essence for farmers affected by this latest threat to their livelihoods.

I draw hon. Members' attention once more to the feelings of my constituent, Matthew Oliver. The closed herd at Ocle court in my constituency has recently suffered a bovine TB outbreak. The herd at Ocle court were all home grown and home fed, and had no contact with other cattle, yet my constituent was left to watch and weep as his suckler cows were shot as TB reactors. Mr. Oliver told Farmers' Weekly recently:

Past president of the British Veterinary Association, Francis Anthony, said:

In Aconbury, as I have mentioned, the same strain of TB bacteria is being found in cattle and badgers, and has spread to cats. It is also likely that the deer in Wye valley have it. Although we all dread another food scare, I sensitively point out that the disease can be passed to human beings.

Reactors are now being found in 70 per cent. of farms tested in Herefordshire. Waiting for results of the current trial tests on badgers is no longer an acceptable step. Testing must now take place on badgers in farms where there are known reactors. Farmers will continue to link TB with the badger population, but it is right that tests are carried out to ascertain whether or not that is

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true. The longer and more in-depth those tests are, the more the disease will spread, the greater the number of cattle that will have to be destroyed and the more farmers that will go out of business.

How many of those badgers killed on the side of the road—an increasingly common sight in the countryside—have tested positive for tuberculosis? A vet that I spoke to in my constituency recently asserted that those badgers killed on the roadside were hit by cars because they were too sick to move quickly enough, but that is refuted by the National Federation of Badger Groups. I suggest that a greater focus on dead animals—instead of the testing and, possibly, slaughtering of cows alone—may provide us with an increased understanding of the disease and how we should deal with it.

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): While my hon. Friend is on the subject of dead badgers at the side of the road, would he agree that, even in the seven counties where independent scientific work is going on, there is insufficient publicity? When people find a dead badger, they do not necessarily know what to do with it, or to whom they should report it.

Mr. Wiggin : My hon. Friend is right. People are always sad when they see dead badgers at the side of the road. This would provide a useful extra source of information, particularly in hot spots.

I know that the Under-Secretary responsible for animal health has a soft spot for badgers because he said:

The Under-Secretary said that in 1995, but there has been little improvement in the subsequent seven years. It appears that the disease is spreading faster. I hope that it will now be accepted that this matter must be given a higher priority.

The Minister should make it one of his first priorities to tackle the situation that is facing the state veterinary service. It is a crucial service and it has excellent vets, but they are being prevented from delivering on what they know to be good scientific practice. I am told that the Department's vets are bogged down with paperwork, and that they are struggling with inconclusive tests. They are also getting an increasingly hostile response from farmers, which is hardly surprising. Morale is falling, and although the vets are happy to do the tests, the process must be improved.

In Herefordshire, we are finding that the paperwork takes so long to do that cattle that are positive reactors are still on the farm by the time that the next test is due. If the Government are serious about bovine TB, they

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must back their vets, cut their paperwork and speed up the process. Money is always helpful, but these problems are not merely financial.

If this disease spreads only from cattle to cattle, it is crucial that the problem is sorted out faster. That will appeal to badger groups and farmers alike, and I know that the Minister is keen to appeal to those groups. In a reply that I received to a remark during the dairy debate, the Minister said that an announcement on bovine TB would be made in May. It is now 21 May, and I wish to know when the announcement will be made. I hope that it will be made today—if not, that he will make a statement to the House—and I hope that he will announce that the new gamma interferon tests will be piloted. If that is the case, I wish to know how effective the new tests will be, what will be the likelihood of false positive results and how many positive results they will miss; the tests will be different from the current skin tests, as they are blood tests. Will they be run in parallel, so that the new tests complement the current skin tests?

The Krebs report stated that it would take about 10 years to find the vaccine. For the past 20 years, everyone has been saying that. We now need to consider whether any of the existing vaccines can improve the situation. The Government have admitted that the cost of bovine TB research and control has risen from £16,100,000 in 1997 to £35,900,000 in 2000. The compensation paid for cattle has risen from £2.386 million to £7.074 million, and that is only in 2000. The cost of the disease to individual farm businesses—in particular, to the 27,000 farmers currently awaiting bovine TB tests who are trapped by movement restrictions—is rising by a similar proportion. However, only £1.4 million is spent on vaccination research. The rest of the vaccination research comes under the human medical TB research. What trials are the Government providing to see whether the current available vaccines might help to reduce the crisis? What lessons are we learning from abroad?

The Krebs report concluded that the best prospect for the control of TB in the British herd is to develop a cattle vaccine. I cannot believe that it would hurt the Government if they were to increase the £1.4 million that is spent annually on vaccine research, although I accept that money cannot buy everything.

It is essential adequately to resource the research, and to ensure that the backlog of overdue six and 12-month herd tests are dealt with. The disease itself must be focused on if we are to find a decent long-term solution to the problem. There is much debate about the spread of the disease; I have already covered the points that relate to the great badger debate. If the disease could be prevented from entering the cattle pool, we would need to worry far less about the disease carriers. It would be possible to introduce an extended and freely available biosecurity advisory service for farmers that could be operated by their own vets and targeted on high-risk TB areas.

TB breakdowns may affect entitlement to subsidy claims and the milk quota, and perhaps force majeure should be applied in such cases. TB breakdowns damage further the sensitive operation of marketing stock, and facilitating trading among businesses with the same disease status should be considered. The NFU believes

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that DEFRA could take several actions immediately to help to ease the immediate pressures that are imposed on producers who are under movement restrictions. That does not imply in any way that the NFU is prepared to live with the disease at its current levels.

In all probability, the long-term solution to controlling the disease may be vaccination. Cattle and badgers are the primary targets for that, and the Government must maintain full funding for research into effective vaccines. The Country Land and Business Association says that adequate resources must be provided to ensure that DEFRA's target to remove reactors from farms within two weeks is met.

Mr. Swire : Is my hon. Friend aware of the resources that have been given to collate information from other countries, especially Ireland, which has done much research? Does he think that the Government should make putting resources behind the scheme a priority?

Mr. Wiggin : That is essential. No one can afford to ignore lessons that are learned elsewhere. If we can take a step forward, I can think of no better time to do that than now. I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend.

Flexibility must be sought when interpreting the European Union ruling that farms with an inconclusive reactor that have had a confirmed case of TB during the previous three years should be put under a movement restriction. The NFU believes that that ruling is too severe given the poor sensitivity of the skin test that is used to identify TB. Producers under the TB2 restriction who wish to claim extensification payments may multiply the number of livestock units on their holding by a coefficient of 0.8 to allow leeway on stocking densities. As a consequence of tightening stocking density requirements under the extensification payment scheme, the coefficient should be reduced to allow producers who are under restriction a greater opportunity to meet the required stocking densities.

The comprehensive TB99 questionnaire is put into use after a TB herd breakdown to investigate all possible sources of infection. The exercise assists epidemiological investigation and must be properly resourced to ensure maximum benefits from the results. The questionnaire is time consuming for farmers and vets, and the NFU suggests that DEFRA should consider introducing a shorter and improved version to ensure that the exercise is carried out.

The spread of the disease since the publication of the Krebs report has resulted in hotspots that are not included in the trial areas. That emphasises the need for an interim strategy to contain the spread of the disease. Reactive trapping, which happened in the Krebs trials, should be started immediately in known TB hot spots, allowing a suitable cordon near trial areas. In new areas in which several farms have been put under movement restriction without obvious imported infection, a wildlife survey should be carried out and trapping should be undertaken if TB is found in the wildlife.

The short-term solution to the crisis will not be a magic bullet vaccine. Sadly, even if such a vaccine could cut the disease by more than 60 per cent., it would take time to reach the market. Better diagnosis will certainly help, as will better biosecurity whereby infected reactors are removed from the farm as quickly as possible. We

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need better research into husbandry factors such as cropping, and we must start pulling together the policy that will halt the spread of the disease now.

Finally, and most importantly, we should give a much-needed boost to the state vets who had trouble with foot and mouth and require massive support from the Government so that they can make the improvements happen and work.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Right hon. and hon. Members who were present at the start of the debate will recall the admonition that I gave at that time. I add to that advice that in this Chamber it is customary to start the first of the three wind-up speeches from the Front Benches 30 minutes before the conclusion of the debate. Therefore, we have about 36 minutes for debate before that point.

11.24 am

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin). Let me start with a confession. His area has real problems, and we in Nottinghamshire are fortunate that that scale of problem does not exist there. I note the increasing incidence of TB in cattle and draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to Cumbria, in particular, and Scotland, where new cases have developed out of the blue. That raises questions about the link that many farmers have made between badgers and TB.

Although the problem is enormous, we must put it in context. My impression is that about 9,000 cattle are infected in a national herd of about 8 million. The incidence rate is, therefore, less than one tenth of 1 per cent. Nevertheless, I agree that the incidence seems to be rising. We must examine the figures carefully. The veterinary service effectively faces a two-year backlog of work that must be carried out in just one year. No doubt it has targeted resources on the worst affected areas. It is not surprising that current figures show a peak that may not reflect the underlying trend.

I accept that it is hard to find consensus and common ground. In introducing the debate, the hon. Gentleman referred to the views of farmers and the NFU. Jan Rowe, vice-chairman of the NFU, recently said:

about that. I contrast that with the remarks of Dr. Elaine King, chief executive of the National Federation of Badger Groups, who said that this

Given such comments, it is hard to see a consensus on the way forward, as the hon. Gentleman recognised in his opening remarks.

The Krebs trial gives us a basis for going forward. I strongly believe that we must examine the science to try to find solutions. I caution against those who call for greater culling now. It is important that the Krebs trials are given a chance to deliver the goods.

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How long will the delay caused by foot and mouth disease delay Sir John Bourne's work? My impression is that the delay will not be great. I hope that we shall receive his report by 2005. In the meantime, there will be real problems. However, given the strength of argument and feeling, it is important to try to establish the science and not be taken in or taken down a false road by siren voices.

As the hon. Gentleman said, it is also important to build on the gamma interferon test. I regard it as an additional and supplementary test, but it seems to be a useful step forward. Does the Department intend to use it more widely in the Krebs trial?

The ultimate solution must be to move towards vaccination. I have followed the debate for 20 years, and, as the hon. Gentleman said, vaccination is always 10 years in the future. However, I feel that we may now be getting somewhere. I note the work of several partners in developing the M. bovis genome sequence. That may be the breakthrough—not an immediate one, but one that will take us forward. It is an important piece of work.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the need to invest in vaccine research—10 years is too long to wait. I question his figures on the amount spent on research. My own information is that approximately £9 million is being spent on vaccine research, however, I join him in pressing the Minister to increase that amount and to develop the tests.

We must find consensus on the way forward—to build on the science, develop and get the results of the Krebs test, use the new testing and, most importantly, to develop the vaccine. At the end of the day, we cannot be blown from the course that has been adopted. Everyone has welcomed Krebs, although it is hard. Farmers will not like me saying that the important thing is to see the research through in its entirety. It will give us a springboard for the future.

11.30 am

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I congratulate the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) on securing this important debate.

We should put the quote from the north Wales vet in its context. The hon. Gentleman quoted him as saying that the problem was as important or worse than foot and mouth for the individual farm. That is an important point to make in reply to the hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), who suggested that it was not such a great problem because few cattle had been affected. It is not a question of the cattle that are affected, but the herds and, therefore, the farms.

When the hon. Gentleman quoted the numbers affected, I had a quick look at DEFRA's website, which shows that 2 per cent. of herds in Wales were affected by TB last year. Unfortunately, that figure has increased considerably this year. We had 128 new incidents in Wales last year but, in the first three months of 2002, there have been 127. Not all have yet been confirmed, but it would suggest a two to three times increase in the incidence of TB in herds in Wales. Undoubtedly, an animal health problem is waiting to explode in Wales.

Considering Wales has approximately 20 per cent. as many herds as England, one wonders why 40 per cent have been slaughtered because they are reactors to TB.

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It suggests that the likelihood of TB in cattle in Wales is twice that in England. There is also the problem of hot spots within Wales. Of the 1,467 cattle slaughtered last year in Wales, 1,044 were in Dyfed. Unfortunately, the figures are not broken down between the new counties, but Dyfed is one of the milk-producing area of Wales and includes areas such as Caernarfonshire and Ceredigion—my own constituency—the south of which has recently experienced an alarming number of so far isolated TB outbreaks. I fear that a hot spot could develop in Ceredigion in the near future.

Dealing with the TB and brucellosis outbreaks is one of the few animal health matters devolved to the National Assembly for Wales. However, we cannot get the full picture because the Assembly can work only with the state veterinary service—a non-devolved service—and therefore works only with the concordat of DEFRA. The state veterinary service is under strain and stress in Wales. Nearly 5,400 TB tests are outstanding in Wales, which is having a huge impact on farmers and animal welfare. As the hon. Member for Leominster said, if one cannot move the cattle off the farm within a maximum of three days, there is potential for infection and a breakdown in hygiene. Perhaps that is one reason why hot spots are not being eliminated and TB is being recycled.

There are no Krebs trials in Wales. Although that is not significant in itself, it is important to know that those that are taking place—some 30 throughout England—are in areas that reflect the topography of Wales. In his winding-speech, will the Minister confirm that the Krebs trials will be applicable to Wales?

Mr. Swire : Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Thomas : I will not give way, because I must conclude my remarks.

We have a good area in Wales for trialling the new gamma interferon blood tests. Because most of Dyfed was not affected by foot and mouth, it has been put to me by the farming unions that if the Government are looking for an area to trial gamma interferon blood tests outside of the Krebs trial area, Dyfed would be ideal. I met both farming unions in my constituency yesterday and I want to put some of their questions to the Minister, one of which concerned the testing of road-kill badgers. It is unfortunate, but many badgers are killed on the roads. I apportion blame for that to the speed of cars, not the speed of badgers; nevertheless why are the badgers not tested for TB? That is outside the Krebs testing areas.

Will the Minister say more about vaccination? As the hon. Member for Sherwood said, we have always been told that such matters are for 10 or 15 years hence, but we must know that the Government are working properly on such a strategy. What about flexibility and trading between restricted farms, particularly pedigree stock? The current state veterinary service is under extreme pressure, and that is exacerbated because skin testing is inconclusive in so many cases. The testing and clear-up rates must be improved and we may need some additional farm hygiene measures. The key message from Wales is that there is an increasing prevalence of

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TB within the bovine population; that incidence rate is increasing and it must be urgently dealt with by the Minister and the National Assembly if we are not to see a serious outbreak of hot spots of TB in areas such as Ceredigion.

11.36 am

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): We would do well to remember that, according to the siren voices that sounded in the foot and mouth outbreak, science is crucial to the provision of advice during the development of our policy. Quantitative epidemiology provided a sound scientific basis for decision making. Operational research provided the means to assess the logistics of performing tasks. Regular meetings of scientists, the Departments and the foot and mouth science group kept the advice up to date throughout the epidemic. Some say the development of the science saved the Government's skin. There was a dramatic change in policy; they took the science by the scruff of the neck and asked, "What can it tell us and what can't it tell us?" The Government's action was a success.

Epidemiology looks at causation, transmission and control of disease within populations of horse species. That is a key discipline in the bovine TB studies that are being undertaken. People argue that the disease is getting out of control and reaching the same level as foot and mouth. I do not agree. I accept that there are problems and that multiple drug-resisting strains are developing, but that happens with any organism. It always tries to cheat humanity; there is always a battle, at which point science comes in and gets ahead of the game.

Many arguments are beset by dogma. The data is not good enough, which is why I welcome the Krebs development of badger experimentation. TB may be in other organisms in other countries and other wildlife developments—who knows? For example, in New Zealand, possums carry the TB bug. There is no doubt that there is a correlation between the development of TB in badgers and in cattle. Whether or not they are the same bug, much has to be done. Few tests have been carried out on live badgers; many have been carried out on dead badgers and there is no doubt that tuberculosis bacillus can be found in badgers in every county in the United Kingdom.

We cannot just say that vaccines are the answer, but there have been dramatic changes in vaccination and its development in this country. There has been a huge influx of money from the Government into vaccination right across the board, from humans to cattle. It is difficult to predict what kind of vaccine will emerge, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) said, there have been dramatic results in the last few months, which were announced at the end of March. The mycobacterium bovis found in cattle and the mycobacterium tuberculosis found in human beings are 99.9 per cent. similar in their DNA. That means that a whole body of research into human vaccine production, which has been successful in eliminating tuberculosis, will now be applicable to the bovine situation.

I do not think that the development of a vaccine is years away; we may yet get a shock and find that comes about within six to 18 months. People are working

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extremely hard to develop that vaccine and with the new developments in the production of vaccines—including peptide technologies—emanating from the molecular biology in which we are pre-eminent in this country, who knows what will happen? We should be much more positive about that area.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): Despite the undoubted potential of the vaccine, did not the Select Committee on Agriculture point to a flaw in the Krebs report, in that it did not spend sufficient time on the potential for improved husbandry? The Government responded to that by saying that they would initiate a report, but they have not done so. Does my hon. Friend hope that the Minister will say something about improved husbandry?

Dr. Gibson : I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and was moving on to that subject. Vaccines on their own will not be enough. We cannot sit back and wait for a vaccine to appear, whether tomorrow, next week or whenever. That has been confirmed by an independent scientific group.

There are many other kinds of research going on. A recent meeting in docklands, at which the Food Standards Agency considered the incidence of the bacteria in particular milk herds, brought Government activity into this arena on all fronts. Such a level of activity is bound to lead to a breakthrough in vaccine research.

There are major questions relating to factors influencing the prevalence and persistence of the disease in cattle and wildlife. On animal husbandry it is argued that, because of the way in which they treat animals, some farms are predisposed to tubercular infections. Some suspect husbandry goes on in this country and that is being investigated.

There are many other areas of research dealing with the transmission routes and the pathogenesis of the species, and others that deal with how the mycobacterium infects and how it moves among cattle. There is a huge arena of activity. I put my trust in science and I hope that other Members will.

Charlotte Atkins : In a research context, does my hon. Friend support the testing of badger roadside casualties, not just in Gloucestershire but nationwide?

Dr. Gibson : That is an amazing project. I hope that people are applying to do that through the grant-giving system. The technology is there, and we could examine the particular species of the tubercle bacillus that is present in badgers and correlate it with that found in humans. There is a huge argument about how humans got tuberculosis and whether they gave it to badgers or vice versa. That affects the debate about the origins of the different species. That may be a little academic in relation to the current situation and farmers' plight, but research into that would add to our knowledge and develop vaccination procedures that could eliminate the disease from our herds and our farming communities.

I am pleased to have had a chance to speak in this debate and to say that I believe and have confidence that science will provide the answers much sooner than many of us think.

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11.43 am

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): I want to be brief and simply to add a point that has not yet come out in the debate. I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) for having missed the first seven minutes of his speech.

The dairy farmers in my constituency are—I do not think that this is hyperbole—on the brink of extinction, as I have pointed out to the Minister and to his predecessors on several occasions. However, the situation has merely moved from bad to worse. The possibility of a serious national level of bovine TB is not merely or mainly a problem for farmers, as it will have ricochet effects on the customer. Under the present conditions of near hysteria about food and its quality, it is all too likely that the killer blow to the dairy industry in West Dorset and large parts of Britain could come from that source, even if the scale of the outbreak were much more limited than would justify such a disaster.

Everything that has been said today should be attended to in a different way from how DEFRA and its predecessor frequently acted in the past, which was with care and diligence, but a certain leisure. I hope that that is not unduly uncharitable. There should be a certain urgency, and I profoundly hope that there will be early vaccination. We all have much to be hopeful about.

In the meantime, our farms and farmers are showing reactors, as has been increasingly reflected in other contributions. Many of the dairy farmers who suffer from that and the restrictions that it entails are on the brink of going out of business, and will almost certainly be driven out of business if no interim action is taken. It is on that action that I want to press the Minister. I asked the local branch of the National Farmers Union to produce a wish list of actions, on which there are 16 items. I will not trouble hon. Members by referring to all 16, but shall pick five. I would be happy to send the Minister the full list, but am sure that he will have received representations directly from the NFU on the subject.

First, we could introduce a system to allow easier movement of stock between farms under restriction. Secondly, we could have a much better and quicker updating of the information available for my farmers. Many of their farms are relatively small, with many farmers who are not expert on the science, unlike the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). We would like the booklet entitled "Dealing with TB in your herd" to be updated more regularly. Thirdly, a specific TB helpline could be set up for those under restriction, so that they could get through to a specialist quickly. Fourthly, arrangements could be made for store cattle markets from farms under restriction, with sales only to finishers under restriction or who are guaranteed not to move the cattle on. Fifthly, priority could be given to the slaughter of reactive cattle, with removal from the farm within three days, my correspondent suggests. I do not insist on the three-day limit, but removal is clearly dilatory at the moment.

I give those as examples. I hope that the Minister will explain that DEFRA will attend urgently to the interim problem of farmers in West Dorset and elsewhere who are likely to go out of business, not because of the national scale of the outbreak, but because they have been affected and because no interim measure sufficient to relieve the pressure on them has yet been taken.

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11.48 am

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire): I shall be brief. I made a speech on the subject two years ago, so I have cut out a significant amount of what I was going to say so as not to repeat it.

My key message is for a commitment to the science. The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) was right that the prospects for fulfilling at least the promises of the 10-year success, if not his much more optimistic expectation, are better than for many years. Commitment to the Krebs trials is important, as they should provide a better scientific basis for understanding the relationship between TB in badgers and cattle.

Two years ago, I suggested a number of additional steps. The first was to increase the frequency and scope of testing for TB. That has a straightforward resource implication, and I support the hon. Gentleman in highlighting the need for additional veterinary resources. We must put more effort into identifying and, as several hon. Members have said, removing the source of TB as rapidly as possible. Those are reasonable proposals.

Secondly, as hon. Members have suggested, we should widen the scope of the road traffic accident tests on badgers. It should be possible to find out whether badgers that are knocked down on the side of the road are carrying TB, and that would provide useful intelligence. Restrictions have been placed on the number of counties covered by RTA tests, but we should broaden their scope.

Thirdly, I still believe that it would be wise to increase the level of compensation to farmers who face restrictions as a result of a TB outbreak. That is partly because the 100 per cent. value compensation is insufficient to meet the economic effects on farmers, and we should be concerned about that. There are, however, also straightforward practical reasons. We expect a high level of co-operation from farmers on other measures that will be required in their areas. It is reasonable to recognise that such co-operation will be necessary for the control measures that we seek to put in place. Discussions are under way on how to assist farmers affected by TB with their income flows, and I would be open to suggestions other than simply increasing compensation, although that is probably the simplest step.

Finally, we must support further the measures to improve husbandry and bio-security. The Department took quite a long time to produce its helpful leaflet on the subject, but simply producing a leaflet is not enough. It is reasonably clear that costly measures are sometimes necessary to improve bio-security in high-risk areas, and we should be prepared to fund an increase in our armoury of appropriate measures so that we can reduce the potential spread of the disease.

The implications of not taking action have been spelled out in personal terms, and are obvious. We shall, however, face a major national problem if we are affected by a further animal disease, and the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) rightly said that the impact on consumer perceptions is important. Much more significant, however, will be the impact on UK trade. We are resuming trading in the world, and a

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further animal health restriction would put off export customers and persuade them to place further restrictions on us. That can only be negative.

11.49 am

Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire): I draw hon. Members' attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests and to my interests in agriculture. I congratulate the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) on obtaining the debate. It is said in my constituency that all the good farmers in Herefordshire originated in Brecon and Radnorshire. That illustrates that this issue transcends local authority and even national borders, and huge commitment will be needed if we are to get to grips with it.

It is a tragedy that this country's terrific reputation for animal health has been afflicted by a series of problems, which have brought it almost to an all-time low. In previous years, Britain exported pedigree stock throughout the world, but now, because of our problems with BSE, foot and mouth, TB and sheep scab, those exports are non-existent and show little likelihood of being resumed.

However, Britain has proved that when it is committed to eliminating a disease, when it makes full use of all the scientific and technical information at its disposal, it is capable of eliminating such diseases. I am sure that we could eliminate TB if we committed ourselves to making the effort, but the farming community fears that such commitment and effort are lacking.

The hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said that certain differences in management could mitigate the problems faced by farmers under restriction, and I am sure that we would all support that. Mention has also been made of the gamma interferon test and improved diagnoses, but doubts have been expressed about that. However, if it was integrated with a skin test, we might be more certain about the status of infection of various animals.

I want to focus on the key to addressing the issue, which is the state of the veterinary service in Great Britain in both the private and the public sectors. It is a sad fact that the falling profitability of the livestock sector has led to a fall in the profitability of the large animal veterinary service. That has happened to such an extent that places in Wales are finding it very difficult to get a veterinary surgeon to attend farm animals in emergencies such as calvings or accidents, because large veterinary practices have gone out of business or do not attend outside office hours.

The Minister may wish to write to hon. Members if he cannot answer now, but it has been suggested that the Government might tender for the provision of routine testing for brucellosis and TB rather than allowing the farmers' veterinary surgeons to undertake it. If so, the service could be provided not only by people from outside the area but from other countries. That would be disastrous for our veterinary practices. If the Minister could assure us on that point, it would give some comfort to our veterinary practices.

The state veterinary service has been under enormous pressure for a considerable time, and under Governments of both parties. The number of veterinary surgeons employed by the state veterinary service has

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declined. It was once a local service provided by local vets, but it has now become centralised. Indeed, it could be called the central veterinary service. That has not added to its effectiveness or to its reputation among farming people.

Finally, we must commit ourselves to science, but we need a commitment from the Government as well. The feeling among the farming community is that the Government are denying the science because they will otherwise be faced with difficult decisions.

11.58 am

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth): I congratulate the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) on securing this debate. He represents a border constituency similar to mine, which was recently similarly affected by TB. It is what one might call a hot spot, but it was not included in the Krebs trials, as there are no Krebs trial areas in Wales.

There has been a serious outbreak of bovine TB in the Raglan and Llantrisant areas of my constituency and in the Usk valley. In the past, those areas had a thriving dairy industry, but it has sadly diminished during the past 20 years. Some farmers have had their stock culled as a result of TB, and others are either unable to trade or face serious movement restrictions on their livestock. One of my constituents, Mr. Colin Pritchard of Llantrisant, has had his herd destroyed; Mr. John Biggs of Raglan has been under movement restrictions for two years; and Ms Carol Jones of Hardwick farm in Abergavenny wrote to me to say that although her herd of pedigree Fresians had been clean for over thirty years, a third of the stock had been slaughtered as a result of TB.

I recently addressed the Raglan farmers association, where I was given a warm reception. The dominant issue in discussions was TB in cattle. I understand that the Minister for Rural Affairs in the Welsh Assembly, Carwyn Jones, also attended that meeting. Mr. Alastair Mitchell, a veterinary surgeon in my constituency, is clear that, whereas Monmouthshire was virtually TB free in the early 1990s, the problem has now become very serious. He says:

I have written to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the matter, enclosing Mr. Mitchell's letter, and I am grateful for the reply that I have received. I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister to continue to work with the National Assembly for Wales and the Ministry for Rural Affairs in Wales to do all that can possibly be done to overcome the problem—to support the farmers who have been affected by ensuring that they are compensated for the hardship that they have experienced; to speed up testing, especially the gamma interferon test; to continue research into live testing on badgers; to develop a vaccine for cattle and, if possible, for badgers as well, and to ensure that the Krebs trials are completed as soon as possible and that the results are made available.

12 noon

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I hope very much that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) is right that science has an answer

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just round the corner, but we have been being assured of that for a long time and I am not as optimistic as he is. We need to consider what can be done now. A number of hon. Members have put forward proposals to deal with testing. However, two matters have not been raised. The first is the frequency of testing. The hon. Member for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) referred to the debate two years ago in which I advocated moving to annual testing, certainly in the parts of the country that I term the frontier counties, into which the disease is spreading, in order to curtail its spread—that remains important.

The second relates to the developments since foot and mouth. In the last seven or eight months, we have seen a vast movement of breeding stock around the country while farmers have restocked. The hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) referred to outbreaks that occur for no apparent reason. I would lay a lot of money on there being a reason: the movement of stock around the country. There are no prizes in politics for saying "I told you so," but I did advocate two years ago that all stock should be tested within three months of movement. I hope that the Minister will, in today's conclusion and beyond, address the matter of the spread of disease through the country due to cattle movement. It has happened more often in the past few months and I am convinced that it is a major reason for further outbreaks.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Nicholas Winterton): I and fellow occupants of the Chair are very disappointed that other hon. Members who were keen to speak have not been able to participate in the debate.

12.3 pm

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): This has been a useful debate and there is broad agreement in all parties. We have sympathy for all farmers who have been afflicted by the misery and morale sapping that disease brings, let alone the financial cost. The issue is becoming topical in all farming groups. I have a Krebs trial triplet in my constituency, and there are others in the south-west. Confidence in the value of the Krebs trials is diminishing, not least since foot and mouth. If we are to have the sound science that will drive future policy, it is essential for the trials to be able to continue, for them to be monitored and for us to receive the right information. Unfortunately, there is a lot of worry in the areas where they are being conducted as to whether sabotage—on both sides—might have an inordinate effect on the results.

Clearly, current policies are failing to control the spread of the disease—we have heard that from many quarters—and, having heard about post-foot and mouth restocking incidents, we know that areas that have been free of TB for many years are now experiencing it, which is a huge shame.

Will the Minister comment on the current state of the Krebs trials? Is additional research being collated, or will we be entirely dependent on those trials and on the vaccine research when formulating policy in a couple of years' time?

We may need a meeting between those who conduct the Krebs trials and hon. Members who are interested in the issue. I attended two meetings that were held by the

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Minister's former colleague, Baroness Hayman. She brought along Professor Bourne, and we discussed what was happening. I hope that the Minister will consider holding such meetings so that hon. Members with TB problems in their constituencies can discuss the value of the Krebs trials and their current status.

As the hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) said, we must consider relaxing the movement restrictions, although without compromising disease control. The restrictions have huge financial implications for all farms, and I would not like dairy farmers who have got through foot and mouth to be torpedoed by TB.

Additional resources will clearly be necessary if we are to reduce the backlog of overdue six and 12-month herd tests. We must get on top of that issue, particularly given the problem of postponements during foot and mouth.

As with foot and mouth, we need regular reports and detailed statistics to be published. We had such reports throughout the period of the problem with foot and mouth, and bovine TB, too, is important. It may not be quite as significant as foot and mouth, as has been said, but it is a growing feature, and statistics should be published regularly so that we can see exactly what is happening.

We certainly need an interim strategy to contain the spread of the disease during the period of the Krebs trials, and the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) mentioned a buffer zone. We need a buffer zone so that we can detect, almost farm by farm, who is likely to be in the next round of TB. Plotting such things is not rocket science.

In the light of the problems with foot and mouth and low milk prices, I urge the Minister to consider consequential loss compensation. As has been said, compensation is not simply a matter of the value of the animals. Problems can have a huge effect on the financial operation of many farms, a lot of which are only now recovering from foot and mouth.

Mr. Heath : There are examples of huge personal problems that can derive from delays in the testing process. A constituent from Aller is trying to dispose of his farm and his herd for pressing personal reasons. As a result of two testers, however—one was okay, but the other must be repeated—disposal has been delayed, which could have a crucial impact on his future well-being and prosperity. The Ministry must deal with such issues.

Mr. Breed : That scenario could probably be repeated in several places. People are even prevented from undertaking diversification plans that have been approved and for which grants have been made available. Suddenly, because of a reactor, everything is held in abeyance, and people can do nothing.

Finally, only 8,000 animals out of about a million have been affected, but, as has been said, it is herds that are important in retaining this country's disease-free status. It has been suggested that the national herd is getting perilously close to losing its TB-free status. Will the Minister comment on these issues?

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12.8 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk): Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (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. The hon. Member for Sherwood (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:

Why is it growing? The Government do not know.

In the same exchange, Lord Whitty admitted:

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

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 the

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Member for West Dorset (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 the Member for Skipton and Ripon (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 the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (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.

12.15 pm

The Minister for Rural Affairs (Alun Michael) : In the short time available, I shall do my best to do justice to an excellent and wide-ranging debate on a topic that the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin) rightly described as difficult and complex.

I should say to the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) that it is difficult to come up with simple answers unless such simple answers exist. We need to be more politically mature in our approach to difficult issues than to seek to pluck answers from the air, especially as the complexity of the issue has been made evident in today's debate. As he and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) suggested, I shall write if, in view of the time available, I am not able to cover all the topics raised in the debate.

I appreciate that the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk may still be experiencing delays in some of his correspondence with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is difficult for anyone who has not been involved to understand just how bad the correspondence situation was in DEFRA, but I assure him that it is continuing to improve dramatically. I can offer him hope for the future.

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Mr. Simpson : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The Minister is not giving way.

Alun Michael : As my noble Friend Lord Whitty said yesterday in the House of Lords, tuberculosis in cattle is one of the most difficult animal health problems that we face. The increase in its incidence continues to give rise to considerable concerns. The Government are seeking to proceed on the basis of sound science drawn from independent scientific and veterinary experts. That is very much the approach argued for by my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), for South Derbyshire (Mr. Todd) and for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson).

The causes of the disease are complex, but there is evidence to suggest that the badger plays a role in bovine tuberculosis. The badger field trial is designed to identify and quantify any such role and, if it exists, to find out whether culling badgers has a part to play in controlling the disease. That was the focus of discussion in the other place yesterday, and I hope to have time to return to that subject.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North referred to badgers found dead on roadsides. They are being collected from seven counties, and the results of the post-mortem examination of those carcases is being validated against the more representative results obtained by examining badgers killed in the Krebs trial. Interim results of the trial are not yet available. My hon. Friend also referred to developing a vaccine and the importance of animal husbandry, and I echo his remarks.

I should also mention the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Mr. Edwards). A potentially promising candidate auxiliary test is that known as the gamma interferon test. Only last week, the UK voted in favour of that test being given recognition in the European Union. We hope to begin testing its applications more extensively in limited trial areas this year.

The hon. Member for Leominster quoted views put forward by the National Farmers Union and the Country Land and Business Association. It is worth mentioning that both organisations are fully involved in discussions with DEFRA to tackle the problem. Officials do meet industry representatives; I believe that a meeting to discuss proposals put forward by both organisations and the National Beef Association and other representatives is imminent. The hon. Gentleman suggested that restrictions are crippling. Farms that are under restriction may not move cattle from one farm to another. However, cattle may be moved direct for slaughter under licence. Additionally, the state veterinary service will consider other licensed movements, such as to summer grazing, on a case-by-case basis.

The hon. Gentleman also suggested that the 60-day period between tests is too long. That period is required to ensure that cattle respond properly to skin tests because shorter periods cause cattle to be desensitised to the tests. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares my concern that the test should be carried out in circumstances that give certainty to the outcome of the tests and ensure the quality of the results.

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The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) rightly set the remarks of a Welsh vet in context. It is right that attention should be focused on the tragedy of individual farmers and their families rather than on exaggerating industry-wide implications of the disease. I shall not stray on to issues on which the Welsh Assembly takes the lead, but DEFRA and the Assembly's officials are working closely, and I commend the co-operation that is taking place to deal with the matter.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned overdue tests in Wales and the role of the state veterinary service, as did the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire. The number of overdue tests in April this year was 4,300. A total of 1,204 tests were cleared in April, and 567 more overdue tests were added. Hon. Members can appreciate the way in which the backlog is reducing—I shall return to the figures for England in a moment. We should maintain the testing effort throughout the summer period, which will require farmers' co-operation while cattle are at summer pasture. I hope that such co-operation will be forthcoming.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) mentioned the need to avoid the spread of TB after foot and mouth disease and he rightly referred to the risks that are associated with cattle movement. Steps have been taken to prevent the spread of TB following FMD. Movement restrictions were imposed on several high-risk herds and additional TB testing of restocked herds after FMD is being undertaken. That testing has successfully identified 122 incidences, which has reduced the risk of spread. The hon. Gentleman rightly drew attention to that, and I hope that although I have illustrated the point that he graphically made, he is reassured.

The hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) queried statistics. Statistics are published monthly on the internet, and the April figures will be available there early next week, I hope.

Ministers certainly share worries about the rising incidence of bovine TB in the south and west of England and south Wales over the past 20 years or more. The high numbers of herds, and cattle within herds, that have tested positive to the tuberculin skin test since the resumption of testing in December 2001 especially worries DEFRA and Ministers in the Welsh Assembly.

There are two reasons why those high figures should be treated with caution. First, in many herds, the state veterinary service is effectively doing two seasons' testing in one. If testing had occurred a year ago, rather than being precluded by foot and mouth disease, infected animals might have been identified at that stage and removed. Therefore, the spread of infected animals might have been curtailed. In such circumstances, it would have been odd if current testing had not discovered higher numbers of infected animals.

Secondly, the restart of testing was specifically targeted at herds that were suspected of having a higher risk of infection. Both factors tend artificially to raise the number of incidents disclosed. Therefore, it is too early to say whether the suspension of TB testing under foot and mouth disease controls to reduce the risk of

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bringing the disease on to farms has caused a step-change in the annual increase in the incidence of bovine TB, or is simply a continuation of the previous trend.

Mr. Breed : Surely you are not trying to suggest, with regard to all the animals that have been slaughtered under the foot and mouth scheme—

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I am not trying to suggest anything.

Mr. Breed : I am sorry. Surely the Minister is not trying to suggest that animals that were slaughtered under the foot and mouth scheme were unlikely to have bovine TB. That is the corollary of what he is saying.

Alun Michael : No, I was not referring to animals slaughtered as a result of foot and mouth disease; nor was Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The trend was already running at 22 per cent. per year throughout the 1990s. Although the initial base was small, the size of those annual increases is worrying and unacceptable. The suspension of testing left a backlog of 27,000 overdue TB tests. That is being reduced; at the end of April, the backlog had fallen to 22,500. That is a tribute to the hard work and dedication of the state veterinary service and its local veterinary inspectors. I have indicated why it is unsurprising that those numbers are high at present.

It must be remembered that, if infection is detected more tests are triggered, because testing of the herd, and in the vicinity of the herd, is conducted more frequently. The reduction of the backlog will continue as quickly as is possible, and that will be helped if farmers co-operate with the proposals that have been agreed with industry representatives to continue testing throughout the summer, even though the cattle will have to be called in from pasture for the tests to take place. I appreciate that that will involve additional work, but I hope that the industry will accept that it is important to undertake the tests, for the reasons that have been raised in this debate.

There is little agreement between the various groups on the causes behind the increased incidence of bovine TB in cattle. The public debate on the role that badgers play in the spread of bovine TB in cattle is emotional and polarised. Many farmers and vets are convinced that wildlife—in particular, the badger—plays a significant role in the transmission of bovine TB to cattle. Many of them are also convinced that killing badgers represents the best method of limiting the spread of the disease.

However, badger ecologists and animal welfare and wildlife groups are equally convinced that the badger plays little or no role in the transmission of the disease. They believe that the badger has been unfairly targeted in the past, and that that continues to be the case today. They hold that cattle-to-cattle transmission plays a far larger role, and that that has not been given due recognition.

It has proved difficult to find common ground between those two groups, and to find scientific research that is acceptable to both of them. However, dialogue is being actively encouraged through the TB forum. DEFRA is putting a lot of effort into trying to find common ground between groups that have differing views on a variety of issues.

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After the badger culling policy of gassing was deemed to be inhumane, it became clear that the badger culling strategies of the 1980s and 1990s were failing to control the spread of bovine TB. That is why, in 1997, we declared a moratorium on the use of badger culling as a general bovine TB control tool.

Since then, the Government have not stood idly by. We have sought to put in place research that will deliver the sound scientific base that is so desperately needed to avoid the circular arguments on how TB is spread from continuing for another twenty or so years. This scientific research makes up three of the five points of the Government's five point plan for tackling bovine TB: the development of a TB vaccine; the carrying out of research into how TB is spread; and the carrying out of research involving limited badger culling in trial areas.

The independent scientific group on bovine tuberculosis, under the chairmanship of Professor John Bourne, has taken a leading role in overseeing the badger culling research trial, which is also known as the Krebs trial. The badger culling trial took longer than expected to set up, and it was affected by the foot and mouth outbreak, but it is important to note that Professor Bourne has stated that neither of those delays has compromised its statistical integrity. He has advised Ministers that it is likely that results from the trial will be put back by about four months, and that he expects to be able to put advice before them in 2004–05. In the meantime, we are actively pursuing the final two points of the Government's five-point strategy—protecting human health and strengthening controls.

Current hygiene controls on milk and meat have recently been reviewed by the Food Standards Agency, which accepted that current controls on milk—the most likely route of transmission of bovine TB to humans—are satisfactory, and that the risk of transmission from meat is very low. It is important to note that human cases of bovine TB do not mirror the geographical spread of bovine TB in cattle.

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I am sorry, but time is up.

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