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Non-stun Slaughter of Animals

Volume 657: debated on Wednesday 3 April 2019

[Sir Henry Bellingham in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered non-stun slaughter of animals.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this issue, which is of concern to me personally, as well as many of my constituents and the wider public. I thank the British Veterinary Association for campaigning on this issue and its guidance ahead of this debate. I declare that I am an honorary member of the BVA, for which there is no reward other than regular contact, which is available to all hon. Members. Many constituents have contacted me on this subject, including quite a few from the farming community.

Like many other people I am a consumer of meat and an animal lover, and I do not believe those two positions are mutually exclusive. A discussion of the non-stun slaughter of animals must be based not on strength of feeling, but on evidence. Having considered some of the evidence, I feel that there is a strong case to be made for the banning of non-stun slaughter. The BVA believes

“that slaughter without pre-stunning unnecessarily compromises animal welfare and that animals should be stunned before slaughter.”

Does my hon. Friend agree that the situation could be vastly improved in the short term by changing our labelling laws and requiring products to be labelled to show whether stunning has taken place? Does he further agree that one benefit of leaving the EU is regaining control of our food-labelling laws?

I agree with my right hon. Friend on both of those points. I will come on to say more about the former point; I suspect that I will be called out of order if I go too far down the latter.

Like the hon. Gentleman, I eat red meat regularly and I am also an animal lover. However, I do believe we can accommodate people. If we had the labelling to indicate whether stunning was used, people would have the opportunity to choose whether to buy that meat.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s comments.

Pre-stunning renders animals immediately unconscious and insensible to pain before they are slaughtered. In the absence of stunning, animals can feel the pain of the neck cut, experience a delay to loss of consciousness and experience the pain and distress of aspirating blood into the respiratory tract. While there is no nice way to end an animal’s life, many would agree that that is a particularly distressing account of the last moments of an animal’s life.

I understand what my hon. Friend is saying about stunning, but unfortunately, it does not always work. Something like 26,000 cattle, 100,000 pigs and 9.5 million chickens are mis-stunned each year. How do we solve that problem?

My hon. Friend raises a good and important point. I do not pretend for one moment that the practice is absolutely perfect. It does need to be improved, but the objective should be to go down that road, rather than have animals slaughtered without stunning. He raises a perfectly good point.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that on many occasions stunning involves sending a very strong electric shock to the animal, which can suffer for about 20 or 25 minutes while it is being made unconscious, causing excruciating pain?

I will give way as often as I am requested to do so. However, I am not yet on my second page. I am sure you will agree, Sir Henry, that time is limited as this is a half-hour debate and we have already used five minutes. I will give way to the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), then the hon. Member for Ilford South (Mike Gapes) and then my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Scott Mann).

I will be brief. Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that one way to deal with this issue is to look at labelling from the potential of blockchain technology, which could provide complete traceability within the system and help to identify those abattoirs that are identified as having those issues, thus putting consumer power at the heart of the process?

Many of my constituents have contacted me about this issue. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the traditional methods of slaughter, which are used in the Muslim and Jewish religions, are in fact more humane than some of the modern practices, which either do not work properly or do not give due consideration to the welfare of the animal?

That point has been raised with me. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman has seen appendix one to the briefing from the BVA, which gives quite a bit of distressing evidence about the non-stun slaughter of animals. Let us try to move on.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing this debate and taking my intervention. Does he agree that many residents in my constituency want proper labelling—as has been mentioned—so that they can make a conscious choice about how their animals are killed? I am a great believer in labelling, and I hope that the Minister is listening. We should push for better labelling for slaughtered animals.

I agree entirely. That may be the compromise we settle on for now.

I do accept and understand that this is an emotive and sensitive issue, because it can overlap with religious belief. However, this debate is not about preventing people from practicing their faith. I do not want to incorrectly conflate non-stun slaughter with religious slaughter.

There are some misconceptions. For example, many people think that halal meat is all non-stunned. It is difficult to get exact figures, but I am advised that less than half of halal meat falls under that practice. However, shechita, the Jewish religious method of slaughter is solely non-stun. I am not concerned about expressions of religious belief, though I do think that our beliefs sometimes have to be tempered by the fact that we should not cause another living thing harm when that can be mitigated.

Are we not aiming for a civilised society in which we honour the meat that feeds us by giving it a good a life and as painless an end as possible?

I agree entirely. My concerns are therefore completely grounded in animal welfare. This topic is just one element of a wider debate we should be having on animal welfare at slaughter, including ensuring that the existing animal welfare standards that we have in place are met. I hope that we can encourage a sensible debate on this issue.

As a nation, we are increasingly concerned with animal welfare on a broad range of issues, and rightly so. The Government have an excellent record on animal welfare, responding to demands for mandatory CCTV in slaughter houses, addressing plastics in the oceans and tackling the illegal ivory trade. Today, we had a ten-minute rule Bill on animal sentience that will impose a duty on public bodies to have due regard to the welfare needs of animals as sentient beings when formulating or implementing policy. The Government are committed to doing that, so I ask them to consider some of the things that I am suggesting.

Consumers are rightly concerned about the quality of life of animals before slaughter, as my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) said. That also extends to concerns about the ending of animals’ lives, which is a concern for farmers across my constituency, who feel strongly that the animals they have carefully bred should not suffer unnecessarily in their final minutes. I therefore suggest that the Government look at banning non-stun slaughter, if they feel that the evidence points that way and that it would be appropriate. That is a position based on scientific evidence and supported by the BVA, the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe, the Farm Animal Welfare Committee and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman is saying this, but does he agree that the truth is that the debate about banning slaughter has an impact on, and is correlated with, the rise in Islamophobia and antisemitism? It is used as a tool by Tommy Robinson et al. and by newspapers to propagate headlines such as “Halal secret of Pizza Express” and “Brit kids forced to eat Halal school dinners”. It goes into that area.

I am glad the hon. Lady excludes me from any suggestion of that. If anybody takes up the issue on that basis, they are completely wrong and ignorant of the debate—including the reasonable debate we are having in this Chamber.

Action has been taken by several countries, whether through a ban, clearer labelling or ensuring that production is based on demand. Slaughter without pre-stunning has been banned in Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and Denmark. Other countries such as Austria, Estonia, Finland and Slovakia require post-cut stunning immediately after the incision if the animal has not already been stunned.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. I have been a vegetarian for 20-odd years, which is why I support banning this method because of the animal rights issue. Does he agree that we must ensure that there are strict customs checks on animal products imported from third countries into the UK and that those products have the same high standards as we require from our farmers?

I agree with my hon. Friend’s important point.

As I was saying, a range of approaches are being taken and a ban would not be unprecedented. As we have already heard, there is considerable support for clearer labelling and for preventing the production of non-stunned meat beyond the needs of our domestic market. I ask the Government to consider the full range of approaches that has been taken across the world and, if they are not prepared to consider a ban, to investigate those other options.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that while we are having the debate, we must ensure—I cannot speak for the other countries that he named—the religious freedom that our democracy is so proud of? In this instance, we are talking about two religious communities, the Jewish community and the Muslim community, which are directly affected by the debate and what he is proposing.

I made it clear at the beginning that the debate is about animal welfare, and I certainly do not want to suggest what is right and wrong with regard to religion; the debate should not be seen as that in any way. I have given way an awful lot, so I will have to move on a bit. I was going to go through the EU law on slaughter, which is contained in a Council regulation, but I will have to speed up, otherwise the Minister will not have a chance to respond.

In response to the hon. Lady’s point, as I have mentioned, while some slaughter practices do not allow pre-stunning, in accordance with religious rites, some halal authorities consider that pre-stunning is permissible, provided that the stun does not kill the animal and that the animal could have theoretically regained consciousness. That is an important point, because many consumers of meat may not buy it if it is signified as halal because they believe it is from an animal that was not stunned. That represents an unnecessary loss to the market.

I ask the Government to address the evidence being put forward by organisations such as the BVA and RSPCA. There have been a number of stark illustrations, which I referred to earlier. I will not go through them all again, but I am happy to send hon. Members copies of the BVA submission if they would like.

In the absence of a ban, we could move forward in other ways. The first way forward is to look at over-production. If non-stun slaughter is to continue, I ask that we ensure that supply only meets demand and does not exceed it. For example, in Germany, abattoirs are permitted to slaughter animals without stunning only if they show that they have local religious customers for the request. To obtain that permission, applicants need to fulfil several requirements, including on slaughter procedure, species and the number of animals. I ask that the Government take steps to require abattoirs to illustrate levels of demand and issue licences on that basis.

A second way forward is to ensure that the supply of non-stunned meat is for domestic demand. I ask the Government to examine export patterns and consider whether the export of non-stunned meat from the UK reflects the intentions of the derogation from EU law. Again, I could give figures on how the export of non-stunned animals has increased considerably over the past few years, but time does not permit it.

A third way forward relates to the important issue of labelling, which several hon. Members have raised. It is essential for a number of reasons, including the misconceptions that people may have about certain products such as halal, and on the basis that consumers have a right to know where their meat comes from, how it was reared and how it was slaughtered. There is a wider issue about food labelling, and many people want the country of origin of food to be labelled more precisely and accurately. That can form part of the discussions about labelling.

I thank my hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way. If we introduce labelling on stun and non-stun meat in this country, will that not also send a message to countries where the actual torture of animals is a regular part of the slaughtering process? I speak of some of those places where dog meat is regularly consumed.

I agree with my hon. Friend that it could make a difference. I have cut short my speech considerably to allow other hon. Members to join in, which I certainly do not object to doing, but I could have provided more evidence for my points if I had had time—never mind.

There is a divergence of opinion on the issue, so I ask the Minister to consider holding a number of roundtable meetings with stakeholders, such as religious groups, farmers, vets and anybody else who has something useful to contribute, including perhaps hon. Members. I ask him to engage in the discussions about the process —I am sure he is already taking it seriously—to see whether we can find a way forward. No matter what people’s backgrounds, religions, or anything else, they do not want to see the unnecessary suffering of animals. I am sure he will engage with the subject, and I hope he will get people round a table to talk about it in great detail and see what progress we can make.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Henry. It is good to be involved in another well-attended animal welfare debate. I am mindful that I am spending more time with hon. Members—if not on Brexit, then on animal welfare—than with members of my family, but I would like to put it on the record that it is my daughter Jenny’s 13th birthday. I had to do it somehow; I called her this morning as well.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) on securing the debate and on the tone with which he discussed the topic. It is an emotive issue, as we know, and I am grateful for the way in which hon. Members have sought to talk about it in an evidence-based way, whether raising opinions from a welfare or a religious perspective. That is to be welcomed.

I thank the Minister for giving way and I also thank the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), who secured the debate, especially for his explicit and helpful statement at the outset that he did not intend in any way to impact on religious freedom or expression. Will the Minister confirm that, regardless of the outcome of the ongoing Brexit negotiations, the rights of the Jewish and Muslim faiths to have meat prepared in accordance with their beliefs will always be protected?

Yes, I can confirm that, but it is important that we have a discussion about these issues and I will come on to say how we can do that. However, since the 1930s we have had a tradition of respecting the religious rights of both the Jewish community and the Muslim community, and we will honour that tradition.

Let me try to make some progress, because I have heard a lot of people’s points and I want to respond. Of course, if there are interventions I will take them, but there is quite a lot to come back on from the interventions that have already been made. Perhaps I can try to rattle through and answer as many questions as possible.

Of course, the focus here is animal welfare concerns. My hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Giles Watling) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) contributed, and although I do not think that the hon. Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Dr Cameron) said anything, I know that she is here with the hat on of concern about animal welfare. I am very proud that we have so many MPs who are interested in this issue, but the fact is that we have some of the highest standards of animal welfare in the world, and as we leave the EU we will improve them further.

The Government are taking action in a number of areas to further protect and ensure the welfare of animals, for example by increasing maximum sentences for animal cruelty tenfold, from six months’ imprisonment to five years’ imprisonment. We are also banning the use of electronic shock collars and third-party puppy and kitten sales, and we have already banned the online sale of puppies.

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and I will be very brief. I just want to commend the Government for what they have done regarding animal rights over the last few years. The Minister himself came to the Dogs Trust event that I organised last year. I am proud to be a Conservative because of the way the Government champion animal rights, and I thank them for that.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am really pleased that the Conservative party is interested in this issue, and I am really pleased that the Labour party and the Scottish National party are taking an active interest too. This is a cross-party issue. We are trying to push through so much legislation and I know that there is frustration about just when we will be able to make it happen. I share that frustration, but hopefully hon. Members know, after all the debates that we have had in recent days, that we are working very hard to try to make these things happen.

Let me come back to the point about religious slaughter. On non-stun slaughter in particular, I restate that it is the Government’s preference that all animals are stunned before slaughter. However, as I said in answer to the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain)—this relates to the comments made by the hon. Member for Bradford West (Naz Shah)—the Government respect the rights of Jews and Muslims to eat meat prepared in accordance with their beliefs. Therefore, we allow religious slaughter of animals by Muslims and Jews intended for consumption by Muslim and Jewish communities, in keeping with their traditions.

The Government believe that this is an important religious freedom. There is a long history of upholding it in legislation, dating back to the Slaughter of Animals Act 1933. We remember from our history books what was going on at that time in the ’30s. Important decisions were made in relation to that Act, which contained an exception from stunning for religious slaughter for Jews and Muslims. Since then, the rules governing religious slaughter have developed to provide additional protections to animals that are slaughtered in accordance with religious rites, while still permitting non-stun slaughter for Jews and Muslims.

When we discuss religious slaughter, it is worth bearing in mind that often in the case of halal meat the relevant Muslim authorities are content that the animal is stunned. Although we produce a significant amount of halal sheepmeat in this country, two thirds of it is from sheep that are stunned before slaughter.

Today there are both EU and domestic regulations that protect the welfare of animals at the time of killing. Within that legislation, there are additional rules for those animals slaughtered in accordance with religious rites, specifically for the production of halal or kosher meat. The primary aim of the welfare at slaughter regulations, which are based on a body of scientific evidence and advice from the European Food Safety Authority, is to ensure that animals are spared avoidable pain, distress or suffering at the time of killing, which was one of the key points that my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury made in his very important speech.

The Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (England) Regulations 2015— WATOK—imposed stricter national rules for religious slaughter and provided greater protections than those contained in the EU regulation, which sets baseline Europe-wide standards. For instance, we prohibit the inversion of cattle for religious slaughter, which some member states, such as France, still allow. This ban followed the 1985 report of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which recommended that inversion be banned.

The hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) raised concerns about mis-stunning. The official veterinarians of the Food Standards Agency will take enforcement action against mis-stunning.

I thank the Minister for mentioning mis-stunning. Will he ensure that if there is going to be labelling, we are told on the label exactly the methodology adopted in the stunning?

That is an important point. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury, there are so many things that I would like to talk about to try to reassure people here. I will skim through them and then come back to that point about labelling. If I may, I will make that the last intervention, then I think I will be able to answer the other points that have been made.

My brother is a meat inspector; I will just make that clear. There is CCTV in all slaughterhouses now. Is that eliminating cruelty? Are the Government monitoring the footage?

That is spooky, because the next point in my speech was to say that one of the key things we have done in recent years—adding to the list of things that we have talked about already—is to add CCTV in slaughterhouses. That is a major step forward and it helps to deal with all the welfare issues that we have talked about today. It was introduced in May last year and I think that it is now effective in all slaughterhouses.

Let me just try to get to the most important part of my response to the debate. The hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Andrea Jenkyns) talked about animals being imported into the UK and asked whether they should be slaughtered to UK standards. Yes, they should; it is a legal requirement.

The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) talked about blockchain technology and whether we could use it to improve traceability. Yes, I think the industry should consider that; indeed, it probably will consider it, as it considers how to move things forward.

The heart of the discussion today has been about labelling. [Interruption.] I know, but I am just trying to answer the question, so I do not lose track of that point. We know that concerns have been voiced about meat from animal slaughter without stunning being sold to consumers who do not require their meat to be prepared in that way. The Government are clear that we want people to have the information they need to make informed choices about the food that they buy. The Government believe that consumers should have the necessary information available to them to make an informed choice about their food, and the issue of revised labelling is something that the Government are considering in the context of the UK’s exit from the EU, as I set out in a speech at the annual dinner for the BVA back in February.

It is important to note that there are other groups that want to know not only whether the meat is from a stunned or non-stunned animal, but what method of slaughter has been used. That will need to be considered in the wider review of labelling.

As I begin to wind up, it is important to recognise that the labelling of meat is something that we want to take a closer look at. I set out earlier that that will be part of a much wider review of labelling, which will include consideration of welfare standards, sustainability and, of course, safety for consumers. I also highlight that we want to go on respecting the rights of Jews and Muslims to eat meat that is prepared in accordance with their beliefs. However, in seeking to address the welfare standards and issues that have been discussed today, we will continue to explore ways to further improve the welfare standards for all animals, including when they are slaughtered.

Our next step—this relates to an important point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Tewkesbury—will be further discussion with a range of interested parties across the debate at a forthcoming roundtable meeting to talk through many of the issues that have been raised today. I think that that is the way we need to do things: talk about the issues and see what we can do to improve welfare, but at the same time respect religious rights. Labelling will be key, but we will continue to encourage an active dialogue with all interested parties as part of our wider objective to enhance our already world-leading animal welfare standards.

I will leave it at that, but I thank hon. Members for their important contributions to this vital debate.

Question put and agreed to.