A black and white issue

The culling of badgers is irrelevant, malicious and ineffective.

I'm not a fully-signed up fan of "evidence-based politics", which you might find odd, since I'm a statistician. It's because it's often used to mean "I've found a small sociological study which supports the belief I had anyway, and I'm now going to call that study proof that I am right, and label anyone irrational if they don't agree with me about the science." Applying the definite article in front of the word "science" is the fastest way to make me suspect you're trying to shut down a debate.

Sometimes, though, the evidence comes from a more reputable source: a properly designed scientific experiment. Such is the case with the evidence about the impact of culling badgers on the incidence of bovine TB. I'm a little shocked to find, via googling, that I first wrote about this in 2008, more than three years ago. After all that time to review the scientific literature, DEFRA is now suggesting that farmers should be allowed to shoot badgers more or less at random, if anything a worse proposal than a total cull. With apologies, this is a black-and-white issue.

The Independent Study Group on Cattle TB (ISG) presented its final report (to David Miliband: remember him?) in December 2007. To say that the statisticians who took part in the work of the ISG are eminent is like saying David Beckham is quite a well known footballer. Christl Donnelly, George Gettinby, and especially Sir David Cox FRS, are statistical royalty. They were core members of the ISG and assisted with the design, analysis and interpretation of the studies the group commissioned into whether or not badger culling would have a positive impact on bovine TB.

You can read the full report here. It's worth reading this paragraph from John Bourne, ISG Chairman, in his overview to the Environment Secretary:

'The ISG's work - most of which has already been published in peer-reviewed scientificjournals - has reached two key conclusions. First, while badgers are clearly a source of cattle TB, careful evaluation of our own and others' data indicates that badger culling can make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control in Britain. Indeed, some policies under consideration are likely to make matters worse rather than better. Second, weaknesses in cattle testing regimes mean that cattle themselves contribute significantly to the persistence and spread of disease in all areas where TB occurs, and in some parts of Britain are likely to be the main source of infection. Scientific findings indicate that the rising incidence of disease can be reversed, and geographical spread contained, by the rigid application of cattle-based control measures alone.'

I don't really think it's worth trying to rephrase that, as the statement and the evidence which supports it are as clear as day. But let me try: The culling of badgers is a psychological displacement activity, which will needlessly increase the amount of suffering on the planet. That's bad enough. But it won't keep cattle free from TB either.

I can't remember the last time a policy managed to be irrelevant, malicious and ineffective, all at the same time. Sometimes - I was going to write "politicians", but that's unfair, we all do this - sometimes we wish for something so much that we refuse to notice that the actions we're taking will actually prevent our desire from coming into effect. Something like that is happening here, I think.

Caroline Spelman - it was quite hard to convince people that selling off forests made sense (you did convince me). If you permit random culling of badgers to go ahead, you'll look back at the forest sell-off U-turn with fondness, I think. Please make use of the world-class, first-rate, independent scientific work that has been carefully done on this subject, and ask both DEFRA and the NFU to think again.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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