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Food Labelling (Halal and Kosher Meat)

Volume 543: debated on Tuesday 24 April 2012

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to introduce compulsory labelling of halal and kosher meat and products containing halal and kosher meat by retailers at the point of sale; and for connected purposes.

I thank the large number of colleagues from both sides of the House who have contacted me to support the Bill. I am grateful also to organisations such as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals which have also given the Bill their support. As I hope hon. Members will see, my Bill is supported by colleagues not only in the Conservative party, but in the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the Democratic Unionist party.

As many hon. Members will know, I am a firm believer in individual freedom of choice, and with my background in customer service and marketing at Asda, I believe in particular in consumers’ freedom of choice. That is why today I am introducing a Bill to make labelling of halal and kosher meat and products containing halal and kosher meat by retailers at the point of sale compulsory. My sole reason for introducing the Bill is to give consumers more information, so that they can exercise their freedom of choice.

Current British legislation requires the stunning of animals before slaughter, with religious exemptions for halal and kosher meat for communities whose religious traditions sometimes require slaughter without stunning. The religious exemption dates back to the Slaughter of Animals Act 1928, which applied to Scotland, and the Slaughter of Animals Act 1933, which applied to England and Wales. The EU also granted derogation from stunning to those religious communities in Council regulation (EC) No. 1099/2009 of 24 September 2009.

In recent years, animals rights groups, notably the Farm Animal Welfare Council, have advocated the labelling of meat from non-stunned animals to reduce the amount of such meat purchased, and therefore the amount produced. Neither the British nor the European Parliament has passed a law requiring slaughtered meat to be labelled, but implementation of such laws has been much discussed in recent years. In 2003, the Labour party announced a consultation on a voluntary labelling scheme for slaughtered meat, but a parliamentary question in April 2007 revealed that there had been no real progress on labelling. The matter was raised in November 2009 in a report in the European Parliament, which passed a proposal to have a category labelled, “Meat from slaughter without stunning”, but that proposal was not contained in the final EU food information regulations. In the past two years, Members of this Parliament and of the European Parliament have expressed interest in continuance of a labelling law, but no such law has been set in place. In November 2010, the Government’s position on labelling was summarised by Lord Henley, who stated:

“I can say that we have no plans whatever to make the practice of halal or kosher killing illegal. However, we think that it is worth considering the appropriate labelling of all meat so that people know exactly what it is that they are eating and how the meat has been killed.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 November 2010; Vol. 722, c. 1006.]

It is not often that I parrot statements from Ministers, but on this occasion I could not agree more.

I propose to make labelling of halal and kosher meat compulsory, because as a strong believer in freedom of choice, I think one of the consumer’s fundamental rights is to know what they are purchasing. At present, consumers cannot satisfy their preferences because not all meat products are labelled, so legislation to require retailers of meat to label their products is essential to enable consumers to practise their right to make an informed decision.

According to the EU Dialrel project, the exemption for religious slaughter in schedule 12 of the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995 clearly states that it applies to people of that religion, not to everybody. This implies that halal and kosher meat should be consumed by those of Muslim and Jewish faiths, respectively, because this type of slaughter is specified for their religious needs. This is obviously not the case at present because Muslims make up around 3% of the UK population, yet the Halal Food Authority estimates that halal meat makes up about 25% of the meat market. Similarly, it has been estimated that 70% of the kosher meat was not consumed by the Jewish community.

There have been cases of state schools, hospitals, pubs, sports arenas, cafes, markets and hotels serving halal meat to customers without their knowledge. In fact, many of my hon. Friends may be interested to know that, according to The Scotsman in November 2010, halal meat has even been served without labelling in House of Commons canteen. To my dismay as a former retailer, I recently learned that Britain’s largest supermarket chains, including Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, are selling halal meat without notifying unsuspecting shoppers. Some of the large food chains, including Pizza Hut, Dominos and KFC, are doing the same. I am ashamed to say that even my former employer, Asda, has been guilty of this.

If consumers knew what kind of meat was being sold to them, many might decide to make different purchases. For example, in August 2010 there were protests when Harrow council announced its plan to serve halal-only menus in the borough’s state primary schools. Parents complained that it was unfair that meat slaughtered according to sharia law was being forced upon non-Muslim children.

There are some people who wish to ban halal and kosher meat on animal welfare grounds. I want to make it clear that I am not one of those people. I am very happy for people to make the decision for themselves, but they should be able to make an informed decision. My Bill would benefit those people who want to make sure that their meat is kosher or halal before purchasing it, just as much as those who want to make sure that it is not kosher or halal before purchasing it. My Bill does not favour one or the other; it seeks to help everybody.

I had a supportive letter from an individual who wrote that

“as a Sikh and someone who doesn’t eat or believe in halal and kosher meat, I think this is a great idea as it does not feel like there is choice anymore for those who do not wish to eat halal meat.”

Some may argue that this can be left to the market and that we do not need any legislation—an argument with which I would generally have a great deal of sympathy. However, I believe that for practical reasons we need some legislation to help consumers. When people go to an Indian restaurant they are entitled to expect to eat halal meat, but when they go to Subway or KFC, they do not expect to do so and should be told.

Interestingly, Masood Khawaja, president of the Halal Food Authority, in September 2010, said:

“As Muslims have a choice of eating halal meat, non-Muslims should also have the choice of not eating it. Customers should know it is halal meat.”

In an article in the Daily Mail in September 2010, my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), secretary of the all-party group on animal welfare, said:

“I don’t object to people of different religious groups being catered for but it’s not something that should be imposed on everybody else . . . The outlets have a duty to let their customers know because some will object very strongly, not least because of the animal welfare implications of halal.”

These two gentlemen agree with me, and I hope many other hon. Members in the House will do so too.

I oppose the Bill. I declare an interest. I am an orthodox Jew and I was brought up in a household where only kosher meat was eaten. None of these issues was raised throughout my childhood, adolescence and early adulthood.

I do not believe for a moment that the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has the tiniest anti-Semitic feeling in him and I am sure that he is not proposing the Bill for that reason. However, large numbers of Jews would be very greatly distressed if what he proposes were to become law. I speak not only about Jews, but Muslims. I represent many thousands of Muslims in my constituency—good, decent, law-abiding people who, because of their religious allegiance, will eat only halal meat. I do not see why Jews and Muslims alone should be compelled by law to have the meat they eat labelled in a way that no other meat is labelled.

If the hon. Gentleman’s proposed Bill had a wider remit—for example, if it said that all chickens had to be labelled in a certain way if the birds had been battery hens—or if he had proposed that meat had to be labelled in a certain way if the animals had been kept in dreadful conditions before being killed, and killed in an extremely brutal way, as shown in the documentary narrated by Sir Paul McCartney, which revealed the astonishing, abominable and utterly dreadful conditions in which large numbers of animals, whether cows, pigs or whatever, are kept, I would at least regard him as consistent. But he is not being consistent. He has picked on two small minorities who share the way in which the meat they eat is killed. Indeed, when Muslims first came to Manchester and Leeds and wanted their animals killed in a halal way, they went to Jewish slaughter houses in order to do so.

During my whole upbringing, I ate only kosher meat. I am afraid that I did not keep to that in later years, but I still will not eat pigmeat of any kind because my mother and father brought me up in such a way that that meat is what we call “trayf” in Yiddish, and I will not eat trayf food. I think that the hon. Gentleman is picking out two small minority religions that have a special way in which the meat they eat is killed and asking that they, and they alone, have their meat labelled.

I say this as someone who has spoken on animal welfare in this House for many years. I was the leading person who got the hunting ban passed, because of my understanding of the procedures of this House—I say that with some vanity, but it is a fact. I have been involved in the campaign to ban the keeping of wild animals in circuses, something on which I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman as having been hyperactive.

The proposed Bill would have profound implications for religious feelings, and I would be letting my faith and my family down, alongside many good, decent, fine and religious Muslims in my constituency, if I did not state my total opposition to it. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman withdraw the motion so that the House does not even have to vote on it.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his observations on faith, family, eating habits and the legislative record; the House is indebted to him.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport assured the House that in respect of the News Corporation bid for BSkyB, he was acting as Secretary of State in a quasi-judicial capacity, and above all in a way that was impartial and fair. In view of the evidence that has been adduced before the Leveson inquiry today, it appears that the Secretary of State has fallen woefully short of the standards expected from him in his office and in the public interest. I believe that the right thing for the Secretary of State to do would be to come to the House to offer an apology and tender his resignation.

I will take a very brief further point from the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw), a former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and then respond to the point of order.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. Given that on 20 July last year, the Culture Secretary himself said that any conversations that the Prime Minister had had with James Murdoch were irrelevant, specifically because he, the Culture Secretary, was taking the decision in a quasi-judicial way, is it not paramount that the Prime Minister also come to the House to correct the record at the earliest opportunity?

If a matter of privilege is being raised, hon. or right hon. Members should write to me about it. I feel, on the strength of what I have heard, that I am quite able to respond. I say to the shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport and to the right hon. Member for Exeter that I have received no indication from the Secretary of State that he intends to come to the House. The point that the right hon. and learned Lady and the right hon. Gentleman have made is clear, on the record and will have been widely heard.

I do not intend to allow this matter to run for any length of time, but I am prepared to hear the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and then we will see how it goes.

I am very grateful. Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker, there may be an issue of privilege, and you are absolutely right that if any Opposition Member wants to allege that the Secretary of State has lied to the House, that is a matter of privilege and we should write to you, notwithstanding the fact that the Committee of Privileges is in the slightly complicated position of being reconstituted. However, surely the matter may also be one for the House in a different way, because the code of conduct for Ministers is a not only a matter for the Prime Minister but written into a resolution of the House. Surely it is appropriate that the Secretary of State should come here to explain himself in relation to the code of conduct.

I note what the hon. Gentleman has said. He will also have noted, I hope, what I said, which was that what the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) and the right hon. Member for Exeter said will have been heard on the Treasury Bench. I think it is a safe prediction that it will have been heard by the Secretary of State at whom it is directed, and I do not think there is anything that I now need to add or can usefully add. The observations have been made, and they are on the record. I thank right hon. and hon. Members for their comments.

I would not want the hon. Lady to feel that she has been unjustly excluded or discriminated against in any way, for that is not my practice, as she knows, so we must hear her.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. There is another dimension of the evidence heard today and the revelations at the Leveson inquiry. May I ask that the Secretary of State for Scotland be called to the House because of the implications of those revelations for the people of Scotland and the allegations against Alex Salmond and his involvement in those matters? They are of great concern to the people of Scotland and I believe they bear further examination.

I would say to the hon. Lady that those on the Treasury Bench will have heard what she has to say. The person to whom she has just referred will also have heard, or will hear very soon. It is not a matter for the Chair today. I have heard the points of order, and have responded in such a way as I think is proper at this time. I think we will have to leave it there for the present.