Yesterday I took charge of a Commons debate in Westminster Hall spawned from an E-petition signed by over 100,000 people which called on the government to end their cruel and unscientific culling of badgers. The Minister George Eustice's response and my closing remarks are below.
“Since 2013, thousands of badgers have been killed in a Government cull attempting to control bovine TB. Against scientific advice & before a 4 year trial has completed, the government is now expanding the cull to new counties—tens of thousands of healthy badgers could be killed.
Experts in disease control and animal welfare agree that pilot badger culls have proven both ineffective and inhumane. Shooting badgers is also expensive, costing tax-payers some £5,000 per animal. Bovine TB is a serious problem but killing badgers is not the solution, and could actually make the situation worse. It is a costly distraction from an effective solution incorporating vaccination, increased cattle movement control measures and improved testing.”
I have no special expertise in this area, but I am grateful to the Petitions Committee for asking me to move the motion. However, I have one claim to authenticity, which I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden): a predecessor of ours, Roy Hughes, who represented the areas we now represent, sponsored a private Member’s Bill in 1991 that was intended to control the abuse of badgers taking place at that time by protecting their setts and making activity against them illegal. We therefore have a good tradition in Newport.
I share with most people a great affection for these beautiful creatures. As the superior species, we have a responsibility towards them; as the intelligent and thinking species, we have a duty to ensure that all sentient, living creatures are protected from gratuitous violence or cruelty. I believe that the Government’s policy on badger culling is evidence-free and prejudice-rich. The present Government have a long record of appeasing farmers—everything farmers want, normally farmers get from this Government, however unreasonable the demands might be.
The case has been made powerfully in other parts of the world for the futility of culling, which appears to be a simple solution only to those who believe in shooting first and thinking later. We heard similar nonsense in the debate about hunting; some people thought that it was a reasonable method of pest control to take 100 riders and horses across the countryside to deal with one fox. Sadly, that rural attitude is not as respectful as it should be of all animal life.
George Eustice (Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs)
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Paisley. I congratulate all the petitioners. I understand that more than 108,000 individuals signed the petition, led, as has been said, by Mr King. That shows that this is an emotive, but incredibly important, issue, and it is right that we spend this time debating it. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stockbridge (Angela Smith) declared an interest, in that she is a member of the Wildlife Trusts. If that is considered an interest, I should probably join her by declaring that I am a member of the Wildlife Trusts in Cornwall. They do some fantastic work, but it has to be said that this is one area on which I and my local Wildlife Trust have to agree to disagree. The truth is that TB is an incredibly difficult disease to fight. It is slow growing and not easy to detect. We are constantly trying to improve diagnostics, and I will come on to that. No vaccine is fully effective. The best we have is the BCG vaccine, which we know is only about 70% effective. The disease has a huge impact on our livestock industry. Last year, we slaughtered about 29,000 heads of cattle. This is a disease that costs us £100 million a year to manage and fight. There are no easy solutions and there is no single measure that provides the answer to a disease of this sort, which is why the Government have set out a comprehensive 25-year strategy that involves us using all the tools at our disposal to bear down on the disease. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stockbridge pointed out that the previous Labour Government decided not to proceed with a badger cull. I have to say that had they acted as one should with any animal disease—swiftly and assertively to get it under control—it might have been easier to turn the situation around. The reality is that we had 15 years that can be best described as a period of dither, when clear action was not taken on all the available fronts to tackle the disease.
An interesting claim was made about possums in New Zealand. In 2009, the New Zealand Government reported that the incidence of bovine TB in possums was 0.004%, which is vanishingly small, and pointed out that the virtual elimination of the disease from the possum population was to do with cattle control—reducing movements of cattle around the country—and nothing to do with culling. It is entirely false to pretend that it was. Some Government Members put forward a sort of Enid Blyton view of wildlife—that wild animals should abide by the ten commandments and not go out and eat other animals, or follow their natural life. That view is put forward sentimentally by some to defend what are barbaric acts against these dumb animals.
Some other points made in this debate were entirely false. The figures about Wales that one Government Member gave were just untrue. We know that the system in Wales is working, but the system in England is not. Between November 2015 and 2016, there were 36 new herd incidents in which official TB-free status was withdrawn—we are going backwards with those—and the number of cattle destroyed was up 8% in some areas. We know, too, that the number of herds that are identified as infected with bovine TB at slaughterhouses is in the hundreds. The crude, unscientific system that we have for detecting TB is not working. The Minister gave some pie in the sky hope for the future about things that are unlikely to come to fruition for many years, but the Government have shown a lack of conviction in this policy by setting a 25-year target for its delivery. I do not think many of us will be around to see that, and the Government will constantly use the excuse, “You must give us time to deal with this.”
I accused the Government of being crowd-pleasing. I was talking about the farming crowd, not the general crowd. The Government have outraged the majority of the public. It is not reasonable to mock those who sacrifice their time and safety to protest vigorously against unnecessary acts of cruelty that have no basis in science or what happens throughout the rest of the world. The worst mistake that politicians make is to say, “Something must be done. We can’t think of anything intelligent to do, we can’t think of any practical to do that will work, but we must do something.” I am afraid it is one of the great sins of this House and the way that we legislate that the worst mistakes we make are often in the pursuit of “something must be done”. Badger culling is a very bad idea. It is cruel, and the country will rightly show its contempt for a Government who continue with it.