The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): In November 2008 representatives of the farming industry, the veterinary profession and DEFRA officials formed the TB eradication group for England to make recommendations to Ministers on bovine TB and its eradication. Last week the group published a progress report, including a number of recommendations. The UK has also submitted a TB eradication plan for 2010 to the European Commission. In addition Scotland has recently succeeded in achieving regional officially TB-free (OTF) status.
Bovine TB Eradication Group for England
I welcome the eradication group's report which shows the progress they have made since last November. I have had useful discussions with the group, and appreciate their hard work in starting to develop a long-term, risk-based eradication programme. They have made recommendations for changes that can be made now to tackle the disease through improved surveillance and control, which I have accepted and already started to implement. They have also considered and recommended measures to support farms subject to TB restrictions.
First, there is a change in our policy on inconclusive reactors conclusively to the TB skin test. To date we have allowed two re-tests of repeat inconclusive reactors. However this risks leaving infected animals on farm, so from 1 January 2010 only a single re-test of repeat inconclusive reactors will be allowed before they are removed and slaughtered. This change brings us in line with EU law, and follows a similar move earlier this year in Wales and Scotland.
Secondly, there is a change in the way that routine TB surveillance testing intervals are set. There are risks with the current approach of setting these on a reactive basis at parish level, in particular that it does not allow us to get ahead of the disease. The eradication group will be looking at more risk-based approaches. Since this will take some time to develop, an interim approach will be introduced for 2010. This is based on a more proactive assessment of TB incidence and risk. The resulting testing regime for 2010 will be more coherent
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and consistent than in previous years and increase the number of herds in the high-risk areas which are tested annually, as well as increasing surveillance in areas at risk of TB spread by testing them every two years.
Finally, I understand the significant impacts TB restrictions can have. Following recommendations from the eradication group, animal health has introduced changes to make it easier for TB-restricted farms to buy replacement stock and sell their own surplus cattle, without materially undermining disease controls. Further measures to reduce the burden on TB-affected farms will be introduced in the next few months. Farmers under TB restrictions should also have access to the best available advice. DEFRA officials are looking at how to support the provision of professional advice for TB-affected farmers, to be introduced early in the new year.
DEFRA is providing an additional £5 million of funding for increased testing, compensation of TB reactor animals that are removed and slaughtered, and for advisory services. This will be found from savings elsewhere across DEFRA. There will be additional costs for some farmers, in terms of pre-movement testing requirements and TB restrictions; but I agree with the group that these are needed if we are to stop further spread and effectively tackle the disease.
The group's progress report addresses wildlife controls and the culling of badgers. I have had frank discussions with it on these issues and have agreed that they should remain on the group's agenda. I made it clear that the policy is that licences will not be issued to cull badgers for bovine TB control in England, and I will only revisit this under exceptional circumstances, or if new scientific evidence becomes available. The group said in its report that it cannot, at this stage, make a clear case for change on this basis.
I will place copies of the group's report in the Libraries of both Houses.
The UK bovine TB eradication plan was submitted to the European Commission on 15 September. The Commission's decision on approval and funding for our eradication plan will be published by the end of November. The eradication group contributed to the England sections of the plan.
Scotland is not included in the plan since it was granted officially TB-free (OTF) status on 8 September. The Scottish Executive and industry are to be congratulated on this significant achievement.
While responsibility for bovine TB is devolved, Scotland's newly recognised status will affect the whole of the UK. Measures will be put in place to govern movements of cattle into Scotland from the rest of the UK. All UK Administrations have been working with stakeholders to develop these, with measures expected to come into force in February 2010. My priority has been to minimise the impact on the industry in England, ensuring that the measures introduced are appropriate and proportionate, recognising that many parts of England are low risk. I have agreed with Richard Lochhead (Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment) that if there are outstanding details in November implementation should be delayed until final mutual agreement is reached.