EXPERT DEBATE ON TB WAS 'STIFLED' BY OFFICIALSMinisters have been accused of stifling debate on bovine TB by railroading independent experts into "rubber-stamping" government policy on the issue.
Ben Messer-Bennetts, a livestock auctioneer in Cornwall, said he was dismayed by his experience of sitting on an independent stakeholder group set up by the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to report on aspects of TB control policy.
In a controversial report earlier this month the group recommended introducing pre-movement testing for all cattle in TB hotspot areas, a policy favoured by ministers but opposed by many Westcountry farmers.
Mr Messer-Bennetts, a member of the nine-strong team that drew up the report, said the group had enjoyed very little independence. He said the group had been presented with a "template" for the report at the start of its work and that the Defra "observers" who attended all but two of the group's meetings had had "far too much influence" on the debate.
He was also deeply unhappy that his own views on the issue had been cut completely from the report.
"I went into this process with an open mind," he said. "I thought the idea of a stakeholder group was a good idea and I have tried to be constructive throughout. But I have come out of it feeling that we were just being used to rubber-stamp what the Government was going to do anyway. The whole thing was very much stifled by Defra observers.
"I was not able to express my views in the final report, even in an appendix, despite the fact I contributed throughout. I think that's out of order. A minority view should be there for people to see even if it's one the Government doesn't want to hear."
The Animal Health Minister Ben Bradshaw insisted that the group was independent, pointing out that its chairman was a Staffordshire dairy farmer, Bill Madders: "The independent TB implementation group is chaired by a livestock farmer and is doing very important work in driving policy on this issue. It is a pity that one member of the group could not sign up to their report."
Mr Bradshaw said the decision to exclude Mr Messer-Bennetts' views from the report was "a matter for the independent group". Mr Madders said the criticisms of the group made by Mr Messer-Bennetts were "unfair".
He said: "It is true that the group was held under the auspices of Defra, they did present us with their plan, but we modified it considerably. Defra people were there giving advice, but not making decisions.
"Everyone, including Ben, worked hard on this report, but in the end he took a different view to everyone else. We would all like to have put in minority reports on certain issues, but what sort of report would that have been?"
But Mr Madders said he shared the view of many farmers that the Government's TB strategy should include measures to control the disease in wildlife.
He added: "Our remit was specifically to look at pre-movement testing. That is one way to control the spread of the disease, but it is not the only one. It has to be part of a package that includes control of the reservoir of the disease in wildlife. That is an area that has been subject to a lot of trial work, but not a lot of concrete action. It has to be part and parcel of the total package."
Mr Bradshaw said that pre-movement testing, which the group eventually recommended, was "vital" to the future control of bovine TB.
In a detailed open letter Mr Messer-Bennetts has laid out a detailed critique of the policy, which he said would have a "devastating" impact on the Westcountry's livestock industry.
He said the policy, which would only apply in TB hotspot areas, would place a "stigma" on the Westcountry, leading to lower prices for farmers and the "certain closure" of livestock markets.
He told the WMN: "Pre-movement testing on its own will do absolutely nothing in my view to reduce or control TB in cattle. If we are going to have it then it must be introduced with a more rigorous testing regime in parts of the country outside the hotspots and we have to deal with the issue of the badgers, all diseased badgers have got to be controlled.
"If it's introduced on its own pre-movement testing will have a devastating effect on the livestock industry in the Westcountry, it will kill it off."
Many Westcountry farmers fear that the pre-movement testing proposal is designed merely to slow the spread of the disease to other parts of the country without offering anything to those farmers already suffering in bovine TB hotspot areas