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Booker's Notebook March 6 2005

Animal lobby condemns badgers to slow death

Every taxpayer in the land could eventually face an 80 bill to fund a Government policy which condemns hundreds of thousands of animals to a lingering and painful death. Furthermore it risks inflicting a devastating blow on an efficient industry, which could cost the UK economy billions of pounds.

These were the implications of the Government's dismissal last week of an urgent plea by 350 vets and scientists that it should act now to halt the epidemic of bovine TB that is sweeping through Britain's badger population. In an extraordinary step, the vets wrote an open letter to Margaret Beckett, the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, expressing their "despair" at her refusal to permit a targeted culling of TB-infected badgers. These are the chief cause of the soaring incidence of TB in Britain's cattle.

The vets, who include a number of professors and former heads of our leading veterinary organisations, emphasised that the epidemic is threatening the future of Britain's dairy industry, by putting at risk the "TB-free status" on which we depend for 600-million-worth of exports a year. It is also causing great suffering to the badgers themselves. Thousands die each week from the long-drawn-out effects of the disease (unless, as any West Country roadside bears witness, they are so weakened that they fall victim to a passing vehicle).

The tragedy of Britain's badgers is an instance of the road to hell being paved with good intentions. It is now more than 70 years since bovine TB first spread from cattle into badgers. Until the 1980s, the reinfection of cattle was kept under control by culling sick badgers. But in 1981, new legal protection resulted in a fourfold growth in the badger population, matched, as a natural control, by a massive increase in TB.

In 1997, when Labour returned to power, having received a 1 million donation from the "pro-badger" Political Animal Lobby, vets and farmers were refused any further licences to tackle the disease by targeted culling. Since then the incidence of cattle TB has risen to the point where taxpayers last year paid out 88 million compensation for their compulsory slaughter. Defra's figures show that, unless this disaster is halted, the bill by 2014 could total 2 billion.

Last year a large-scale Irish study confirmed that culling sick badgers can reduce the incidence of TB in cattle by up to 96 per cent. When the Tories' farming spokesman, Owen Paterson MP, toured the West Country, where in some parts as many as a quarter of the farms are affected, he found farmers and vets infuriated by the Government's refusal to act. He suggested that the vets should make a public statement but no one foresaw the eagerness with which hundreds more would flock to support this move.

Last week, as Ben Bradshaw, the junior farming minister, brushed aside the vets' proposals as "publicly unacceptable", Mrs Beckett unveiled her "Strategic Framework for the Sustainable Control of Bovine TB", which reads like a bureaucratic parody of a policy for doing nothing. Peppered with buzz-words such as "sustainable", "stakeholders" and "robust", the nearest it gets to the distasteful idea that sick badgers might be culled is an offer to devise "a transparent process for making policy decisions on whether badger culling may form part of future policy".

The Government will thus continue to pay for the slaughter of 25,000 infected cattle each year, while we edge perilously close to the point where Britain must lose its TB-free status, and millions of pounds in exports. Meanwhile vast numbers of badgers are condemned to a very nasty death, as the price of New Labour's sentimentality.

Hidden cost of Prescott's regional folly

Since last November's referendum in the North-East, which delivered a resounding four-to-one vote against a regional assembly, John Prescott's scheme to divide England under eight regional governments has crumbled further into chaos. The survival of the eight unelected assemblies that he hoped would be retrospectively legitimised by referendums, and which are part-funded by local authorities, is now looking increasingly shaky.

Last week, 70 per cent of the elected councillors on the South-East Regional Assembly voted for its abolition. In Cornwall, the county council is considering withdrawing its support from the South-West assembly. Lancashire county council has already withdrawn from the North-West assembly, with Cheshire set to follow.

One reason for this disintegration is the growing panic among council nominees on these assemblies that, because of the dubious status of most of these bodies as "unincorporated associations", councillors may be personally liable in law for their assembly's financial obligations, including the contractual and pension rights of hundreds of employees.

In Yorkshire and Humberside, it has emerged that all the assembly's financial obligations are being underwritten by Wakefield council. This startling fact may well alarm local ratepayers, who were never informed of this peculiar arrangement.

Meanwhile the sharp-eyed Neil Herron, who led the "No" campaign in the North-East, has just formally brought it to the attention of his local council, Sunderland, that the councillors who sit on the North-East Assembly seem to be in serious breach of various statutory provisions. For a start, since the councillors are personally liable for the Assembly's financial obligations, this gives them a personal and pecuniary interest in its decisions, which in law disqualifies them from participating in those decisions.

Furthermore, under the Local Government Acts, it is illegal for councils to give money to bodies which may be acting against their interests. Since the North-East assembly recently voted for a regional planning strategy which some participating councils strongly oppose, for them to fund a body against their ratepayers' interests appears to be breaking the law.

Prior to lodging a complaint with the district auditor, Mr Herron has fired off a set of searching questions to Sunderland's chief legal officer, to which he has been promised "a substantive reply". But at least Bob Gibson, the leader of the North-East assembly is no stranger to the problems of failing to declare a "pecuniary interest". In 1997, he was fined 800 and found guilty on four charges of failing to declare his interest when, as Mayor of Stockton, he had chaired meetings which voted on proposals affecting the future of the company he worked for.

BBC stays silent on Eurotrash

The BBC gave lengthy coverage last week to a new Government initiative intended to tackle what Elliott Morley, the environment minister, described as "a serious environmental crime": the widespread fly-tipping which is currently disfiguring fields, roadsides and open spaces with a deluge of old fridges, television sets, abandoned vehicles and builders' waste. Mr Morley and the Environment Agency promise a new "crackdown" on the fly-tippers, meanwhile insisting that the responsibility for removing the waste lies with the farmers and owners of the land on which it is tipped.

Any remotely professional reporter would have explained to listeners what has created this sudden ubiquity of fly-tipping, which is now running at "one incident every 35 seconds" and costs taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds a year. The cause lies in a rash of half-baked EC environmental directives, which have made it incredibly difficult, costly and complicated to dispose of such waste legally.

But from the BBC came not a word on this subject. It will happily allow Government spokesmen to prattle on about all the benefits of the EU's environmental legislation.

When it comes to the inevitable downside, the lips of the reporters of Farming Today and the Today programme remain firmly sealed. The prime cause of this "serious environmental crime" is the system Mr Morley himself so sanctimoniously represents. But at least, he can rest assured, the BBC will never tell on him.