Labour has indicated it could back a cull of badgers if it won the next election, so long as it was part of “a proper scientific approach” to tackling tuberculosis in cows.
Shadow environment secretary Maria Eagle acknowledged bovine TB was a “hugely serious issue”, and that she was “not one of those people who says that no badgers should ever be culled”.
The comments by the MP for Garston and Halewood in Merseyside, who became the party’s environment spokesman last year, marks a shift in party policy after fiercely opposing the coalition's action on badger culling.
But Ms Eagle made clear she believed her counterpart, Environment Secretary Owen Paterson was “not taking notice of the science”, and that his “prejudices” were dictating the bovine TB policy.
Two “pilot” badger culls have taken place in Somerset and Gloucestershire, with an independent panel expected to pronounce shortly whether up to 40 more culls should be rolled out, probably in hotspots in the South West.
Ms Eagle, speaking to The House magazine, said of the badger cull: “This is another example where he’s not taking notice of the science. This isn’t about being sentimental, I’m not one of those people who says that no badgers should ever be culled.
“There’s a hugely serious issue with TB in cattle that does have to be tackled. Thousands of cattle are being destroyed at a great cost.
“When we were in office we ordered a science-based culling trial that formed the basis of the evidence that there is for policy-making in this area. It’s not that I have a problem with culling if that’s where the science leads you.
“But the evidence, and every bit of expert advice he received, said that culling alone, and mass culling in one area that failed to remove enough badgers in a short space of time, would make things worse. His disinterest in that science-based approach, because he thinks he knows better, was very clear. He moved the goalposts, rather than the badgers.”
She added: “I say we need a comprehensive strategy that’s based on the science that may well include where necessary removing sickly badgers, but based on the science that has a chance to work, that looks at vaccinating badgers, vaccinating cattle, more restrictions on livestock movements, a proper scientific approach to dealing with this very serious issue. We are just seeing his prejudices driving policy.”
The former minister renewed her party’s support for a ban on fox hunting amid Tory backbench calls for a vote on repeal – but appeared open to discussing amendments called for by farmers over pest control.
She said: “I think ministers are kidding themselves if they think there’s any cross-party consensus in Parliament for changing the Hunting Act.
“They don’t have the votes in Parliament, if they were to try they would discover that. I know that there are some arguments being made about some alleged unintended consequences about how it works and there are differences in jurisdictions about precisely what is allowed. My approach is led by evidence and science. So I’m perfectly happy to engage with people making these allegations but you have to have full scrutiny, a proper consultation, I don’t think that can happen in this Parliament.”
She added: “There’s no change in my position on the principle of a ban.”