9th May 2014

The Easter break did little to stem written questions about bovine TB. Exports and bee populations were also raised, Catherine Paice reports.

Maria Eagle (Lab, Garston & Halewood and the Shadow Secretary of State) has been bombarding Under Secretary of State George Eustice (Con, Cambourne & Redruth) on bovine TB. Having insisted he had no plans to ask the Independent Expert Panel to report on the second year of culling, Mr Eustice was sounding more like a trapped badger himself.

Why, Ms Eagle wanted to know, was cage trapping and shooting of badgers used in the cull areas in 2013 alongside the original plans to test only for free shooting, and at what point did he know?

Mr Eustice insisted that both methods were always available to the cull companies, and it was their decision to take. However, as the culls progressed, they decided to use more cage trapping, as “this technique was found to work well under certain circumstances”. Ministers were aware that it had been implemented alongside the free shooting of badgers within three days of beginning of the culls, he said, stressing that no further authorisation was required.

Ms Eagle returned to the monitoring of the ongoing trials in Somerset and Gloucestershire to ask were they being “independently and scientifically evaluated”? DEFRA worked “closely” with Natural England and AHVLA in monitoring, auditing and evaluation of the culls, Mr Eustice insisted, adding that this information would be made available to the public after completion of the trials.

Huw Iranca-Davies (Lab, Ogmore) asked for the “evidential basis” for DEFRA’s statement that a third of badgers in TB hotspot areas were infected with TB. The prevalence of M bovis in badgers, Mr Eustice replied, was based on post-mortems, which had showed prevalence of “around 33%”. Similarly, at the study of badgers at Woodchester Park, TB prevalence had increased to over 30%, while in Gloucester between 35% and 53% of badgers had tested positive in a separate study.

Food exports, in a week when China banned UK cheese imports, were another focus of attention. In response to a written question from Tim Farron (Lib Dem, Westmorland & Lonsdale) about DEFRA’s role in the the export-led recovery, Mr Eustice stressed that DEFRA, UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) and the industry were working together to increase exports. UKTI had put together a “dedicated team…to improve the value and volume of inward investment and exports in agricultural technology.”

Critics who cite mangled bureaucracy and mixed degrees of help from local UKTI offices will only be partially convinced by a “refreshed” Exports Action plan, although it commits the Government to delivering £500 million of value to the UK economy by supporting 1,000 companies by October 2015. On a slightly positive note, food and drink exports in 2013 reached £18.9 billion, up from £18.2bn in 2012, and 50% higher than 10 years ago. A significant food trade deficit, however, remains.

Under-Secretary Dan Rogerson (Lib Dem, North Cornwall) fielded questions from Jim Cunningham (Lab, Coventry South), Jim Shannon (Un, Strangford) and Simon Reevel (Con, Dewsbury) on bees. DEFRA had launched the National Pollinator Strategy, he said, and was conducting a 12-month policy review on pests and diseases affecting honeybees.

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