Dairy Farming debate: Bovine TB

Geoffrey Cox tells MPs “it is time to deliver” on tackling Bovine TB and calls for a package of measures that does not rule out limited, targeted culling in densely infected hot-spot areas where the risk assessment concludes that it is a necessary part of the solution.

Mr Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) on his informed and interesting presentation of the problems affecting the dairy industry. I do not propose, as the Minister would almost certainly have predicted when I rose to my feet, to tackle the problems, serious though they are and requiring pressing and urgent attention as they do, of the unfairness of the contractual situation between dairy producers and the processing and retail industry. It is manifest that the situation is crying out for action and I hope that after the 13 months of careful reflection that the Minister, who has responsibility for agriculture, has given the problems, ably assisted by those who sit behind him, we will see a courageous and powerful response from the Government to the legitimate interests and concerns of the vital industry that those of us who are in Westminster Hall today represent.

In standing up to speak today, I do so, as I have done many times in the past six years, to raise the subject of bovine tuberculosis in the House. I represent Torridge and West Devon, a constituency in the south-west that is probably the area of the country most densely affected and infected by bovine TB; it is certainly one of the three worst affected areas. I do not propose that the solution that I have long advocated for my own constituency should apply across the board to each area of the country where bovine TB is found. Manifestly, a solution that is appropriate to a densely infected hot-spot area will not be appropriate to an area where bovine TB is only found in widely scattered parts.

However, the Minister will know that I rise to speak with a sense of real concern. He, probably more than anybody else in the Government and possibly more than anybody else in the House, knows well the corrosive, attritional, distressing and unhappy effects of bovine TB. They not only affect the infected animals—the cattle that are slaughtered and the badgers that die appalling deaths as their lungs literally liquefy as a result of being infected by TB—but the farming families and communities who daily have to endure the strain, stress, upset and sheer unhappiness of watching their herds being destroyed, their livelihoods threatened and their farms placed under the sterilising restrictions required by the bovine TB regulations.

I know that the Minister appreciates the situation because he has visited my constituency on many occasions. I have seen him sit down in farm kitchens and I have seen him address larger audiences of farmers, doing so with an empathy and instinctive understanding that does him credit and wins the trust of those who listen to him. For the six years that I have been in the House, I have been intensely grateful to him—first while he was in opposition and now that he is in government—for those visits to my constituency and for the words of reassurance and the empathy that he has offered to the farming community that I have the privilege to represent.

Nevertheless, the Minister knows what I am about to say next; it is time to deliver. For six years, we have told farming communities in the UK that if the Conservative party reached the corridors of Government we would take hold of the situation and tackle this dire emergency that, like a flame slow burning, is consuming farm upon farm throughout the south-west. We have told farmers that we would not fail to have the moral courage to bring the only solution that will deal with the problem for the areas I represent.

The Minister knows what I mean. We cannot rule out a policy of limited, targeted culling; indeed, we must urgently embrace such a policy. It is the only way to tackle the issue in Torridge and West Devon and it is vital that the Government now firmly embrace that policy, as it is the only one that will yield results.

As the Minister knows, I was a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in the last Parliament and consequently I do not propose for a moment that we apply a simplistic solution; nor do I suggest that culling alone is the only prescription that will bring success. As he also knows, I have long advocated, and I long criticised the last Government for not implementing, a full package of measures on the cattle side, biosecurity and all the areas of animal husbandry that need to be improved, including vaccination when we can see it. However, we cannot have a package of measures that does not include culling where it is necessary, such as those densely infected hot-spot areas where the risk assessment concludes that it is a necessary part of any prescription or solution. We cannot exclude a cull.

The Minister has sat with me and listened to farmers in Torridge and West Devon as they explained why they feel so strongly that a cull is necessary, how they have taken steps to prepare for it and how they feel it could be carried out. I know that he has been looking at the problem of bovine TB and that it has preoccupied him; it is probably one of the major priorities that he has been dealing with. Consequently, I hope that he will forgive me for expressing the real anxiety and apprehension of farming communities in the south-west that the Government may be losing their nerve.

I very much hope that that is not the case. I was at the Devon county show a couple of weeks ago, and, as ever, the exchange of views was frank and robust. The Minister had recently appeared on television and had apparently said that we may not even have a cull. I appreciate that at this stage he must be considering a policy that is based on evidence and that is carefully fashioned to the reflect the existing scientific knowledge of the subject, but there is growing concern among the farming community that the Government may not be living up to the height of expectations on this question.

I urge the Minister to take the opportunity this morning to deal with the subject by at least giving encouragement to the people I represent and those who are listening to this debate that he fully appreciates the importance of the problem, and that he understands the need to find a way to ensure that the policies that the Government implement to deal with this disease that is raging throughout the countryside of the south-west will include all necessary instruments.

Of course I understand that the Minister will have a judge looking over his shoulder and that any policy that is subsequently introduced will almost certainly be challenged in the courts by those who wish to suggest that it offends judicial review principles. The Welsh case, which is the only example that we have to go on at the moment, demonstrated that if one did not attach great importance to fashioning a policy that would pass the test of administrative and legal scrutiny, matters could be delayed even further. I have spent the past 13 months patiently explaining to farmers down farm lanes and at cattle markets that that is so. After 13 months, it is to be hoped that the Minister is close to a solution.

The Welsh case did not for a moment propose, nor did the judges ever say, that to make culling an instrument of policy was unlawful. As the Minister knows well, the Welsh case simply criticised a logical flaw in the way that the Welsh Assembly and its Executive had gone about consultation on that specific matter and that specific formation of policy. It would be relatively simply avoided with care and preparation by this Government.

I cannot be privy to the private discussions, the policy formations and the preparations that the Minister is involved in. Perhaps all the things I have said today are entirely redundant and superfluous—I very much hope that they are—because the Minister is about to cause a sigh of relief throughout the south-west by announcing a new policy on the control and eradication of bovine TB. When he does so, the feeling across the countryside—in Devonshire, in Cornwall and in all the parts so badly affected by this pernicious disease—will be of intense gratitude and admiration for the moral courage and consistency that the Minister will have shown. During my six years as an MP, the Minister has been a friend to the farming communities that I have the privilege of representing, and by announcing the policy that I urgently press upon him, he will prove himself, once and for all, to have been a friend who stood by them at a time of crisis and emergency.

I hope that the Minister will rise to his feet to deal, of course with the matters that my hon. Friends raise on the importance of fair contracts, but with bovine TB, which is probably even more important to the dairy farmers listening this morning in the places that I represent, waiting anxiously for what the Minister is to say. So deeply afflicted is the south-west—specifically the areas that I represent—that I urge him, when he rises this morning, to have in the front of his mind the families he has met, the farms he has visited, the herds he has seen and the pride in the eyes of those who look after them, and to reach out to them and give them the courage and encouragement that it is our duty to permit them—saying to them that the Government understand the problem and are coming forward with the solution that those families so fervently and expectantly await.

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