Government MPs who support culling badgers to combat bovine TB staged a mass abstention of a Commons backbench vote calling for an end to the policy.
On Thursday (13 March), cross-party MPs took part in a debate and vote on a motion relating to the badger cull, tabled by Conservative MP for St Albans, Anne Main .
Mrs Main, who moved from neutral to opposed to the cull, said the government’s policy had “decisively failed” and called ministers to consider alternative policies to eradicate bovine TB.
The motion was tabled after parts of the Independent Expert Panel’s (IEP) report on last autumn’s pilot culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire were leaked to the BBC , suggesting they were ineffective and inhumane.
MPs voted by 219 to one in support of the motion to end culling. Tory MP for Kettering Philip Hollobone, who frequently defies his party’s whip, was the only MP to vote for the badger cull.
The mass abstention was pre-planned by pro-cull MPs as a signal to the House that they did not believe the backbench vote – which is not binding – was worthwhile.
However, 18 Conservative MPs and seven Liberal Democrats were among those that called for an end to badger culling.
The vote took place ahead of the publication of the crucial IEP report, which the government will use to inform its decision over whether culling should be rolled out further to up to 10 zones this year.
Farm minister George Eustice, who attended the debate, confirmed that a draft of the expert panel’s report had just arrived at DEFRA’s offices.
DEFRA secretary Owen Paterson will review the document before its findings are made public. He was not in parliament on Thursday and was visiting a chocolate factory instead.
Labour MPs accused the government of showing complete contempt for parliament by abstaining from the vote. They called for a full debate and vote before culling is rolled out further.
Shadow DEFRA minister Huw Irranca-Davies called on Mr Eustice to confirm a full debate and vote, but he refused to do so.
Instead, Mr Eustice, Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth in Cornwall, stressed that no country had successfully eradicated TB without tackling the reservoir of disease in wildlife.
He said people were sentimental about culling badgers, yet shooting was used as a means of controlling foxes, deer and other wildlife.
The minister defended the culls as part of a broader strategy to tackle TB and said cattle vaccines were eight to nine years away and only 60% effective.
However, he admitted “lessons could be learned” from year one of the four-year culls, including how to improve the proficiency of marksmen.
Conservative MP Anne McIntosh, chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, said bovine TB was costing taxpayers £500m a year and warned this is expected to rise to £1bn over the next decade.
She said the implications for the spread of bovine TB were “very serious indeed”, adding that those who oppose the culling of badgers lived “metropolitan lifestyles”.
But Green MP for Brighton Pavilion Caroline Lucas said she believed the government had got the science wrong and culling badgers was not an effective measure to tackle TB.
“As the leaked IEP report makes clear, the pilot failed two of the tests the government set,” she added.
“It failed on humaneness, as more than 5% of badgers took longer than five minutes to die. And it failed on effectiveness, as less than 50% of badgers were killed in either pilot area.”