Westminster Hall debate Badger Vaccines 16 October 2013
David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): I am delighted to have secured a debate on the important subject of badger vaccinations to prevent bovine TB. I am also delighted that so many hon. Members are here today. I hope that the debate will be measured and grown up, because the subject is truly apolitical and everybody in the room will have an opinion on how best to proceed. Everybody wants to see TB being reduced while the badger population is preserved.
Before I start my speech, may I welcome the Minister to his new role? I have known him for some time and I am elated about his new position. I have always had the utmost respect for his abilities and he will do a huge amount for rural communities such as the Lune valley, which I represent.
We are all acutely aware of the controversy around the ongoing cull and the desire on both sides of the debate to control bovine TB with the minimum disturbance to wildlife. Both sides have offered compelling arguments and I voted in favour of the cull as an interim measure ahead of work on a viable, deliverable and safe vaccine. I hope that the Minister will update us on the progress of the research and development of the oral vaccine. I also want to ask him what steps are being taken with groups such as the Badger Trust towards bringing in volunteers to help with any future vaccination programme.
Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Does he agree that any vaccination proposals should be accompanied by improved measures relating to biosecurity on farms and more adequate controls on cattle movement?
David Morris: I totally agree. Later in my speech, I will explain some of the technicalities behind what the hon. Lady has just articulated.
I pay tribute at this point to the work of Team Badger in highlighting the need for vaccinations. The group is led by Dr Brian May, CBE, and I know how much time, effort and money he puts into humanitarian and wildlife issues.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I spoke to him beforehand, Sir Alan, and asked his permission to speak.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman not only on securing the debate, but on supporting the cull. I support the cull, as do many others in the House, but many others do not. Does he recognise that bovine TB costs dairy and beef farmers millions of pounds? Should that not be the first reason for trying to continue the cull and for ensuring that badgers are eradicated?
David Morris: There is a cost to the issue, as there is with anything of this nature, but as I will explain later in my speech, there is a funding situation that can be annexed to involve Team Badger and various other badger projects.
Today’s debate comes during the badger cull and following the Opposition day debate on 5 June, in which a wide range of hon. Members participated. I believe that 5 June was the start of the process of bringing both sides together, to which I hope today’s debate also contributes. It is pretty easy for all of us to understand
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the opposition to the cull, but we must not characterise those in favour of it as being cruel. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and farmers have the best interests of the countryside and the agricultural community at heart and want to help in the best way possible and protect badgers at the same time, but they believe, rightly or wrongly, that the spread of bovine TB will be significantly reduced if we cull 70% of badgers in the cull zones. That said, the last major cull from 1997 to 2007 was not deemed to have dealt with the problem to the extent that was hoped and cost £50 million.
Tracey Crouch (Chatham and Aylesford) (Con): Does my hon. Friend recognise that one of the benefits of vaccination versus a cull is that vaccinations have no perturbation effect?
David Morris: I agree totally. Vaccination increases herd immunity, while culling increases the spread of disease.
Ian Paisley (North Antrim) (DUP): For the record, I am a member of the British Veterinary Association. May I ask the hon. Gentleman two questions? Does he agree that a vaccine does not cure an infected beast and that, if a beast is infected, it must be culled?
David Morris: Despite a massive cull in southern Ireland, of 97,000 badgers, the rates of TB in the north, where there were no culls, are still the same. If a badger with TB is vaccinated, it will not be cured, but if it reproduces, its young will be immune.
Ian Paisley: It is important that people understand what the vaccine does. The beast is trapped and tested: if it has the disease, it is culled; but if the test is not positive and it is free of the disease, it is injected. However, it has to be injected for the next five years—caught every year and injected—and that costs about £3,000 per beast.
David Morris: I hear what the hon. Gentleman is saying and I understand his argument. In the culling at the moment, however, badgers are being trapped and shot—there is only one sentence for them, if caught, and that is to be killed.
Mike Weatherley (Hove) (Con): On the points made by the previous two Members who intervened, the whole debate needs to be centred on the evidence base. Perturbation is of concern—the evidence is that perturbation exists when culling takes place.
David Morris: I totally agree with my hon. Friend.
Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): On the potential for the Government’s policy to make the situation worse, that is likely to happen if the cull levels are as low as they are reported to be. I have to congratulate the Government, however, on their support for a proposed community-led badger vaccination programme on 200 sq km in my constituency, in the Land’s End peninsula, Penwith. The first year of vaccination on
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contiguous farms is going ahead with the support of Professor Rosie Woodroffe of the Zoological Society of London.
David Morris: I would like to see similar programmes rolled out nationally.
I must make some progress. The latest parliamentary report was published by the all-party group on dairy farmers, which was established by my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). The group had 250 members, of whom 70 were Labour MPs, and the report recommended a badger cull. Research done under the previous Government suggested that the cull will reduce bovine TB by 16%. Obviously, that is a good thing, but we must work towards eradicating TB completely. From what I can see, a vaccination programme for both cattle and badgers is the only was to ensure that. I do not want to dwell on the need to vaccinate cattle and the problems that that would raise, but it is worth flagging up that, if we can do that in a cost-effective manner, we should.
A BCG is available for badgers, which is not unlike the injection most of us had at school. The concern about it is that the need to trap and tag badgers in order to deliver it effectively can make it expensive, as we have discussed. There seems to be widespread agreement, therefore, that we need an effective oral vaccination, and I again invite the Minister to comment on research and development and the progress in that field. It is worth pointing out that, this week, a National Farmers Union briefing was fully in favour of work on vaccines, while DEFRA is undertaking a survey of the number of badgers in the UK, which shows that there is common ground between both sides, even if that is not obvious at first.
Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab) rose—
Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con) rose—
David Morris: I shall give way to the hon. Lady and then to my hon. Friend.
Nia Griffith: Will the hon. Gentleman join me in congratulating the Welsh Government on the work that they have done to date on introducing badger vaccines? Will he urge his colleagues in the Government to work closely with the Welsh Government in order to make such progress?
David Morris: That is a helpful intervention, and I shall do so at all opportunities given to me.
Caroline Dinenage: My hon. Friend has been incredibly generous with all the interventions, so I shall be brief. He mentioned that cost is often cited as the a reason for vaccinations not taking place, but does he agree that, if the cost of policing a badger cull is included, the cost difference is almost negligible? Furthermore, if the good will of all the volunteers who have been campaigning on behalf of badgers were harnessed, and they were turned into vaccinators or those aiding vaccinators, much of the cost difference could be mitigated overnight.
David Morris: That is the spirit of the debate—how we proceed and eradicate a problem that has blighted our countryside.
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As I said, the DEFRA survey of badger numbers shows that there is some common ground. On the subject of badger numbers, I have heard huge variations in the estimates, which range from 150,000 to 350,000. It is vital to understand how many badgers there are, and I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for their work on solving the problem. We cannot understand bovine TB and badgers’ effect on it until we can say for certain how many badgers there are.
The problem will not be solved by Government alone. We must have dialogue between DEFRA, the farmer and Team Badger and its affiliates. Together, they can work to ensure that we never need to consider a badger cull again. Vaccines are expensive, but most of the cost of the vaccination programme is in manpower. I dream of a world in which DEFRA trains volunteers from Team Badger to administer vaccines, while farmers play their part by facilitating the volunteers.
Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. Most people in the Chamber fully support the principle of vaccination, but when talking about funding, do we not have to be realistic? An oral vaccine is the only long-term solution to the problem, so is that not where all the money and funding need to be targeted by the Minister and his team, rather than on the injectable vaccine, which is not really a long-term solution?
David Morris: I am all for whichever means of administering a vaccine is found. Yes, its development will cost a lot of money, but, as I shall explain, the way ahead might be a measure that empowers members of the pro-badger community to go into match funding with DEFRA. I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention.
Funding streams for working on better vaccines for animals are available in DEFRA, and Team Badger has indicated that it would be willing to raise money to match what DEFRA puts in. In fact, ahead of any proposed scheme, Team Badger has already set up a website to raise funds and opened applications for volunteers. That represents real progress, but the stumbling block is the cull—it is hard to get people around the table as long as it is going on.
My plea to all sides today, across the political divides—we are all sensible and human—is for us to open genuine dialogue on bringing forward a viable and deliverable vaccination scheme. We are all agreed on our desire to create a viable vaccination programme in order to avoid future culls, so let us concentrate on doing that. People will still disagree about the rights or wrongs of the present cull, but for the purposes of this discussion I hope that we can put our differences aside. That is not to say that people will not vigorously argue and debate it, but ensuring that we are in a position to avoid culls in the future is the bigger issue and what must be fixed.
We are in an age of the big society, with Government determined to bring more volunteers and charities together with Departments. In the case of badgers, we have some amazingly well organised and professional charities and lobby groups. It is vital that DEFRA makes full use of those groups, which could be the magic wand that enables us to deliver a vaccination programme cost-effectively. Furthermore, if the lion’s share of research and development, and of delivery of the programme, is undertaken by groups such as the Royal Society for the
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Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Team Badger, the taxpayer will be in a much better position. When the Government do not have the budgets that they once had, this must be welcome.
To recap, here are the questions that I hope the Minister will answer. How far are we from a deliverable oral vaccine? Can we work on a cattle vaccine without falling foul of European Union rules? Will he commit to creating a dialogue around those things that we agree on? Will he support fundraising efforts by groups such as Team Badger and others? Is DEFRA open to the idea of a big society badger vaccination programme undertaken by volunteers?
I appreciate that the issues are easy to flag up, but much harder to address. I firmly believe, however, that with the right work, public will, dialogue and effort on all sides, we can do this. We must remember that the prize at stake is that none of us would have to go through the heartache and division of further badger culls again.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice): I welcome this debate, which my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) called for. The number of people here today suggests that we could do with more than half an hour to debate some of the issues. I welcome the tone with which my hon. Friend approached the debate. He is right that some people take different views about whether we should pursue a cull strategy, but we all agree that there is a role for vaccination of both cattle and badgers.
I was pleased to have the opportunity to consider the matter in detail in my recent role as a member of the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. The Government’s response to its report was published earlier today and shows that we share a significant amount of common ground on the issue.
Bovine TB is the biggest threat to the livestock industry in England—I was going to say Cornwall, where it is also a threat, as the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) knows. Having lived and worked in the farming industry in Cornwall, I know how difficult the problem is. My family run a herd of pedigree south Devon cattle and in the late 1960s, before my time, they had an incident of TB that wiped out more than half the herd and had a devastating impact on the family farm. My father still talks about it.
By the 1980s, we had almost eradicated the disease, but in the last 10 years there has been a severe deterioration. It has cost the country more than £5 million so far to fight the disease. Last year, we had to slaughter some 28,000 animals. Bovine control is not under control. In Lancashire, the county of my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale, we have seen an increase in the number of herds under restriction and the number of cattle slaughtered in the last year.
Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab): The Minister says that bovine TB is spreading more, and that is exactly why people are saying that culling is not the answer. Scientists involved in a randomised badger culling trial between 1998 and 2005 have shown that culling has not contributed meaningfully to a reduction in the
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disease and, if anything, has increased it because as the animals are shot, they run away and carry the disease with them.
George Eustice: It is generally accepted that, after the initial conclusions of the randomised badger culling trials, there was a significant reduction of some 16% in the cull area in the following years. On perturbation, which other hon. Members have also raised, there was an increase in TB in a ring immediately around the trial areas as a result of perturbation, but the incidence then dropped. Overall, there was a reduction. I point the hon. Lady to evidence in other countries, such as the Republic of Ireland, which has had a cull policy since 2000 with a reduction of around 45% in the incidence of the disease, and the number of cattle having to be slaughtered has halved.
There is no magic bullet and no single policy that can change the situation dramatically. Vaccination of badgers and cattle has a role; wildlife control has a role; dealing with the reservoir of TB in wildlife has a role; and routine testing, movement controls and better biosecurity all have a role. But none of them alone is the entire solution.
Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): Part of the trial is taking place in my constituency. My first ministerial meeting when I was elected 16 years ago was with Jeff Rooker on this very subject, and only now is any meaningful action taking place. The Minister is absolutely right to say that a whole range of measures is needed to counter the disease, but it has been increasing and farmers have been suffering. We must get a grip on it.
George Eustice: I agree with my hon. Friend. I have painted a picture of how bleak the matter is. The disease is spreading and we cannot ignore it any more; we must take action.
Returning to vaccination, which is the subject of the debate, I think it is worth noting that successive Governments have invested more than £43 million on vaccine research and development since 1994. The coalition Government will have spent at least a further £15 million. I say “at least” because the figure excludes what is likely to be sizeable expenditure on the necessary work on cattle vaccine field trials.
Tracey Crouch: Is my hon. Friend aware that the response to a recent freedom of information request on 22 September shows a significant reduction in the amount of departmental investment in the oral vaccine particularly, but also in all other research into injectable vaccine and cattle vaccines? Spending on the oral vaccine will fall from around £2.5 million to £312,000 in 2015. Should that not be dealt with “drekly”, as the Cornish might say?
George Eustice: It seems that the word “drekly” is catching on in the House. I will deal with oral vaccination later. Right now, only the injectable BCG is available to tackle bovine TB and it does not fully guarantee protection. Some animals will be fully protected, some will benefit from a reduction in the disease, but some will get
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no protection. That is a shortcoming of a vaccination policy, but it would be a useful addition to the toolkit and we will use it to tackle the disease when we can perfect it.
Angela Smith: I welcome the Minister to his new role. He has mentioned the words “toolkit” and “all the tools in the box” more than once. Will he rule out one tool that most hon. Members believe is unacceptable—the gassing of badgers in any future cull?
George Eustice: We have made it clear that we would never use gassing as a means of controlling the badger population if we thought it was inhumane, but it is in the consultation for research. That does not mean that we will use it, but we will consider further research in this area.
The research is not on animals. It involves laboratory situations and simulated setts to work out how to get gas to go through a sett. The concern is not the gas itself, but the ability to deploy it throughout a sett. I assure the hon. Lady that that is the sort of research that was alluded to in the strategy. There is nothing new about it; it was in our published strategy in July.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?
George Eustice: I want to make some progress or I will not get to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale.
Laboratory studies have demonstrated that vaccinating badgers with BCG can reduce the risk of infection and transmission of the disease. A four-year safety field study of wild badgers showed a statistically significant indirect protective effect in unvaccinated cubs born into vaccinated social groups, but vaccinating a large enough proportion of badgers to reduce transmission of disease and bring about a reduction of TB in cattle would take time to achieve and be costly to deliver, at between £2,000 and £4,000 per sq km per year.
In practice, it is inevitable that not all badgers in an area will be trapped and vaccinated. There is no evidence that vaccination protects already-infected badgers, and there is a risk that badgers from neighbouring unvaccinated areas may act as a constant source of infection. Nevertheless, computer modelling indicates that sustained badger vaccination campaigns could be beneficial in lowering TB incidence in cattle, but quantifying that contribution is likely to need a large-scale field trial, and it would take some years to collect the results.
David Morris: I would like to put it on the record that should what I am proposing come together, I would like my constituency to be its first trial area.
George Eustice: That has been noted, and we will take it on board—[Interruption.] I do not want all hon. Members asking for their constituencies to be a trial area. Vaccination is a potential additional tool to reduce geographical spread of the disease, particularly on the edge of areas. My hon. Friend’s constituency is in not an edge area, but a low-risk area.
Vaccination could complement badger culling by providing a buffer to limit the impact of perturbation. It may also form part of an exit strategy from culling—for
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example, by vaccinating remaining badgers with the aim of establishing herd immunity in previously culled areas.
Albert Owen: I welcome the Minister to his place on the Front Bench. Will he assure the Chamber that his Department is working with the Welsh Government so that we can have some data on their trials, share information and eradicate the problem in the whole United Kingdom? His responsibility covers only England, but such co-operation would help both England and Wales.
George Eustice: We are keen to learn lessons from around the country and around the world, so we are looking at the work going on in Wales. I have to say that it is not that encouraging at the moment; a vaccination-only strategy is not seen to be working particularly well, but we will study the results closely. I am also interested in following what is going on in Northern Ireland, where they are trapping and then vaccinating badgers that they believe are not infected and culling those that are. We are also keen to learn lessons from countries such as Australia, which has pursued policies similar to ours.
Ian Paisley: I welcome the Minister to his new role. With regards to the vaccine for cattle and cows, which he touched on at the beginning—the hon. Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale also asked about this issue—will the Minister take the opportunity to make it abundantly clear that if a vaccine is given to a cow, it makes the cow test positive? That makes it indistinguishable from an affected beast when it is tested, which leads to one conclusion: the cow is slaughtered. We have to get away from pursuing the idea that there is some sort of magic bullet, or magic pill, that can be used to vaccinate a cow and not lead to its being slaughtered.
George Eustice: I do not want to get drawn too far into cattle vaccination, but the hon. Gentleman is right that we need to perfect the so-called DIVA test that differentiates between the two. It is clear that it will take some time. The European Commission has put a time frame of 10 years on getting to that stage. I would like that to be quicker, but we have to be realistic—there is a lot to be done.
I come back to supporting badger vaccination. DEFRA operates a badger vaccination fund; in the current year, that has prioritised support for vaccination in the “edge area”. The fund offers start-up grants of 50% to fund the first year of vaccinations. Having said that, it is true to say that applications this year have been a bit disappointing. We are now looking to understand precisely why that is, so that we can get it right next year. Coming back to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member
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for Morecambe and Lunesdale, we are keen to work with all those groups, including voluntary groups, who would like to participate, and to work out how we can get them engaged in that.
I also intend to discuss a plan that the hon. Member for St Ives (Andrew George) has on the issue—I have promised to meet him and Rosie Woodroffe. The Department has made a modest commitment to support some vaccination in that regard and he has some ideas; we are keen to pursue that option and look at it.
Andrew George: I put on the record my gratitude to DEFRA for the initial funding of the pilot, which is proceeding this week. The intention is to cover the whole 200 square miles of the Land’s End peninsula, and we are increasingly gathering the co-operation of farmers in the area.
George Eustice: I know that, and I look forward to discussing the matter further when I meet the hon. Gentleman. The training scheme has become more popular since, as part of the DEFRA-funded badger vaccination fund, we have offered grants of 50% to voluntary and community sector volunteers to train as lay vaccinators. That is another area that we would like to look at.
Finally, I want to say a few words about our work on developing an oral badger vaccine. A badger vaccine could be administered orally through baits. It would be more practical and potentially cheaper, which is why DEFRA continues to fund that. It is not true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) said, that we have cut expenditure on that. We are, as I say, still spending about £4 million a year in total on developing cattle and badger vaccines.
There are things that we would need to resolve when it comes to the development of an oral vaccine. We would need to work on the safety and effectiveness of the vaccine formulation and make sure that we can deploy the bait to attract the maximum number of badgers. One of the problems is that badgers will not take the bait that is used, so it is important to have the right bait.
Another problem can be that one badger might eat all the bait and another badger might not get any, so there are challenges. We also have to deal with the potential impact and safety for other wildlife. There is still further work to do, but we are committed to taking it forward, and we are clear that that ongoing work will play a role in our strategy.
Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No.10(11)).