Motion to Regret
That this House regrets that, since the Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (England) Regulations 2015 do not in all cases specify parameters for electrical water-bath stunning, poultry in England will be afforded a less rigorous level of welfare at slaughter than available in Wales and Northern Ireland (SI 2015/1782).
Relevant document: 11th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee
My Lords, before I turn to the background to the purpose of my regret Motion, because animal welfare generally and specifically the Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (England) Regulations 2015, or the WATOK regulations, give rise to such strongly held views and emotions, I need to make two things clear at the outset of the debate. First, nothing—and I repeat nothing—in my regret Motion is intended to restrict or impede the operation of the slaughter of animals according to religious rites. I am not going to go so far as to say that I personally support these practices but, that having been said, I remain 100% committed to freedom of religious belief. However, secondly and conversely, where that freedom on religious grounds has not been exercised, I argue that animal slaughter should then take place to standards laid down and agreed by national and supranational bodies, such as the European Food Safety Authority and the British Veterinary Association. This is where, at least as regards the slaughter of poultry, I argue that the Government are falling sadly short.
To explain my case, it is necessary to go into what I fear are rather gruesome details. Chickens that are to be slaughtered by the water-bath method are shackled by their legs, upside-down, on a moving line. This moving line descends so that their head drops into a water bath, through which an electric current is passing. This current should be of a sufficient frequency and voltage to stun them; shortly after emerging from the bath, the lines then pass through a series of revolving blades which decapitate the birds, the first of a series of steps that finally result in the appearance on the shelves of our supermarkets, familiar to all Members of your Lordships’ House, of shrink-wrapped chickens ready for the oven.
Noble Lords will understand from that brief description the importance of the water bath being properly operated; failure to do so can result in chickens which are completely unstunned or, alternatively, chickens which will have been given a severe electric shock, in both cases remaining conscious when arriving at the decapitation process. So what are the regulations which ensure that these water baths are operated properly?
The situation as regards poultry in Wales and Northern Ireland is straightforward. For example, Schedule 3, Part 1, to the Welsh regulations says:
“Nothing in this Schedule applies to the killing of animals in accordance with religious rites which are stunned before killing, but in such cases an animal must be restrained and stunned in accordance with the EU Regulation and Schedule 1”.
“in accordance with the EU Regulation and Schedule 1”,
are very important.
Schedule 1 says, at paragraph 28:
“No person may use a waterbath stunner to stun poultry unless—
(a) the level of the water in the waterbath has been adjusted in order to ensure that there is good contact with each bird’s head;
(b) the strength and duration of the current used is such that the poultry are immediately rendered unconscious and remain so until dead;
(c) where poultry are stunned in groups in a waterbath, a voltage sufficient to produce a current strong enough to ensure that every bird is stunned is maintained;
(d) appropriate measures are taken to ensure that the current passes efficiently, in particular that there are good electrical contacts;
(e) the waterbath stunner is adequate in size and depth for the type of poultry being stunned; and
(f) a person is available to ascertain whether the waterbath stunner has been effective in stunning the poultry and, if it has not been effective, will either stun or kill the poultry without delay”.
That is the current legal position in Wales and Norther Ireland, but the history of this issue as regards England is long, with Defra acting in an extraordinarily dilatory and indeed inexplicable way. The relevant EU regulations on the protection of animals at the time of killing were adopted in September 2009, over six years ago. It was only in September 2012, three years later, that Defra managed to get round to issuing a consultation paper. No matter that it was three years later—there were only six weeks for the consultation to take place. At that point Defra was intending to introduce the regulations in January 2013, four months later. In fact, the regulations were laid only in May 2014, 15 months later, and were due to come into force on 20 May of that year. Surprisingly, and unexpectedly, they were suddenly withdrawn on 19 May, the day before they were due to come into force, and so never came into force—and they have remained in limbo until today. That is hardly evidence of a department at the top of its game.
Now the WATOK regulations for England have been reintroduced, and I am afraid that there has been a significant omission from the draft withdrawn so precipitately in May 2014. The words,
“in accordance with the EU Regulation and Schedule 1”,
have now been omitted, and replaced with the words,
“in accordance with this Schedule”.
Yet the EU regulation and Schedule 1, as I have explained, as part of the Welsh and Northern Irish regulations lay down those specific performance parameters. Without these words in the regulations, all we are left with is a general statement of good intent. This surely is not good enough.
So why has Defra been so ingenuous? In essence, it is the result of the demands of food retailers generally, and in particular the supermarkets. The supermarkets are aware that their customers want to know that, after allowing for exceptions on grounds of religious belief, animals, including chickens, are being properly stunned at the time of slaughter so as to minimise suffering. While the regulations already in force as regards chickens in Wales and Northern Ireland ensure that, these regulations before us tonight for England are suboptimal, because the details of how the stunning process must work have been omitted.
There is a real danger of a Faustian pact. Defra says to the chicken slaughter-houses that they have to follow only the broad principles; the slaughter-houses are able to operate their “stunning” process in a suboptimal method—and if these regulations are passed as presently drafted, there will be no detailed enforcement procedures available. Meanwhile, supermarkets can truthfully claim that all their chickens are “stunned” at time of slaughter.
The losers here are, obviously, the chickens themselves, a substantial number of which will endure unnecessary suffering. No less importantly, the general public will be led to believe that they are buying chickens which have been, as far as possible, decently treated at time of slaughter when in many cases there has been only what one might describe as a “pretence stun”.
Clearly this is an entirely unsatisfactory situation from any point of view. Happily, there is an easy solution to hand for my noble friend. All his department has to do is to withdraw these regulations and then re-lay them with the schedules on the details of the operation of the stunning procedure reinserted, as they are in the regulations covering Wales and Northern Ireland. These regulations would then be in the same form as in the earlier WATOK regulations, so suddenly and inexplicably withdrawn on 19 May 2014, the day before they were to come into operation. I beg to move.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, for bringing forward this Motion to Regret. Most people would agree that these regulations improve the previous slaughter provisions but would share the strong concerns the noble Lord indicated about the potential impacts on the welfare of poultry of not including the stunning parameters when using electrical water-bath stunners for religious slaughter.
The aim must as far as possible be to deliver humane stunning of poultry, subject to the constraints, some of which the noble Lord outlined, of using electrical water-bath stunners, in a manner acceptable to the relevant religious authorities reliably and consistently to provide a recoverable stun. Using electrical water-bath stunners without stun parameters risks some birds being immobilised rather than stunned and being conscious when they move to the neck-cutting stage required by halal slaughter.
As the noble Lord made quite clear, stun parameters in these circumstances have been set in Wales and Northern Ireland, following work by the European Food Safety Authority. Indeed, that raises questions about how operators who have businesses in various parts of our nation will have a comparable standard. When these proposals were hastily withdrawn, some specific wording was outlined in the Explanatory Memorandum:
“After making the 2014 WATOK Regulations, the Government decided that the potential impact on some limited aspects of religious slaughter needed further consideration and that it was preferable to revoke the 2014 WATOK Regulations in order to give full consideration to the relevant issues”.
I have read the Explanatory Memorandum and the various impact assessments that the department has provided, but at no stage does the EM or the IA spell out clearly what those issues were or what was the process of consideration by the Government. I think this House would demand that Defra operates evidence-based decision-making. I have found nowhere in the EM or the IA any indication of what specifically were the relevant issues or what was the process of their consideration that led to the removal of those regulations. What evidence are the Government using for removing these stun parameters? It is difficult to see that we can effectively stun all poultry without having set parameters.
The second issue I shall raise is the need for lessons to be learnt from the Government’s handling of this process. In its 11th report, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee highlighted the,
“inadequacies in Defra’s handling of consultation”,
and, using what I believe is rather strong language, called the process of policy formulation,
“protracted, uncertain and still unresolved”.
It chided the Government for having regulations still not in force three years later than the date set for implementation.
If the Minister is not going to agree to the recommendation made by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, to re-lay the regulations including stunning parameters, will he say something about the internal review of the application of the regulations which is referred to in the Explanatory Memorandum? It makes clear that the Government intend to review this process within five years, but that it will be an internal review. I suggest that, given the concerns raised in this House and by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, any further review of these regulations should not be internal but should be public so that there can be full scrutiny of the impact of these regulations.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, for introducing this Motion to Regret. This is a complex and very technical issue, but at its heart is the importance our society and our Government attach to the welfare of animals at slaughter.
First, I must acknowledge that there are a number of measures in this regulation which are improvements to the previous regulations, and I commend the Government on that. Notably, these include the requirement for abattoirs above a certain size to have a designated animal welfare officer whose job is to ensure that welfare requirements at killing are observed and effective. They also include the requirement that the personnel working in the killing process in abattoirs are appropriately trained and have certificates of competence. These are positive and welcome measures.
However, as noble Lords have said, there are other features of the regulations pertaining to poultry that do not prioritise animal welfare. Of specific concern is the failure to specify particular parameters for the electrical stunning of poultry in water baths. Previous rules did not specify the electrical current and frequency to be used, and it has been recognised that under certain conditions—low current, for example—animals may not be properly rendered unconscious before the neck-cut to sever the blood vessels kills them.
As a result of a thorough review of these issues by an expert panel convened by the European Food Safety Authority, the EU formulated regulations to include recommended levels of current and frequency in order to achieve the unconsciousness of animals more reliably. Why have these specific conditions not been included in the adopted regulations? The Government’s own Explanatory Memorandum suggested that the original regulations for England that contained specific conditions for stunning were withdrawn in 2014 due to concerns over,
“the potential impact on some limited aspects of religious slaughter”.
The noble Baroness has asked this question already—I promise that we did not confer—but I shall ask it anyway: what is the “potential impact”? The original recommendations include a range of conditions referring to current and frequency that research has shown reliably induce unconsciousness but do not kill the anima1. This latter is crucial to enable the stunning to be done in compliance with the requirements of halal slaughter, which requires stunning, if it is used, to be reversible—that is, recoverable—so that the animals are technically alive, though insentient, at the point at which their throat is cut.
I welcome the fact that the majority of animals subject to halal slaughter are stunned before killing. The WATOK regulations as originally drafted would enable effective but reversible stunning, which is acceptable for halal so far as I can see, so I am perplexed as to why the current WATOK regulations for England exclude these greater safeguards to ensure that poultry are effectively electrically stunned. Moreover, the lack of defined electrical parameters applies to all poultry in England. This could mean that millions of birds stunned for the non-religious market may not be as effectively stunned as possible, based on current evidence. As the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, has pointed out, this is in contrast to the EU’s recommended requirements for all stunning, religious and otherwise; and, with respect to religious slaughter, is in contrast to the regulations adopted by Northern Ireland and Wales and de facto in Scotland. This is a gross anomaly within the UK and is difficult to understand. I would welcome an explanation from the Minister for this omission.
I stress at this point that the adopted regulations still allow religious communities the option not to stun. That is an option with which I personally do not agree, but it respects religious freedoms. As an aside, I find it of considerable concern that the number of sheep and goats killed without stunning in the UK has risen from an estimated 1.5 million in 2011 to an estimated 2 million-plus in 2013, based on the FSA’s survey of abattoirs in those two years. That is a regrettable trend that I argue is in the wrong direction for animal welfare.
In conclusion, I support the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, in regretting the WATOK regulations relating to the electrical stunning of poultry. I contend that they are anomalous and regressive and do not enhance our national reputation for upholding animal welfare.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for bringing forward this short debate. It is entirely right that we should be having it, and I am very pleased to be able to add one or two questions to the Minister. Before I start, I should tell noble Lords that I am a former poultry farmer so I have been at the sharp end of the rearing, the breeding—and at the end, obviously, the killing of poultry. The one thing that we tried to do throughout our lifetime still applies to good farmers today: they are very keen that welfare is of extreme importance, whether at birth, through life or in death. I declare that I am an associate member of the BVA. I thank it for its briefing, which I think several noble Lords have referred to.
Over the years I have also taken part in the many animal health and welfare Bills. I know that if the noble Countess, Lady Mar, was well enough, she would be taking part in this debate tonight, because she is another person who takes great interest in trying to improve the lot of animal welfare.
Throughout life we try to ensure best practice. I too respect religious beliefs. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Trees, in many ways I do not want to support this practice, but I recognise that the Government have given a commitment that those beliefs should be honoured in that way. However, we need to look at the way in which stunning is undertaken and ensure that it should be effective in the most sincere manner.
I understand, too, that some research is being undertaken at present with regard to stunning procedures; perhaps the Minister can tell me a little more about that. Can the Minister say why Northern Ireland and Wales have taken on the whole of the recommendation, yet within the framework we have before us at the moment we are not including the stunning parameters that were recommended? As other noble Lords have said, there was support for the EU regulation 1099/2009 from six years ago, which improved the welfare of animals at that time. For various reasons I am not quite clear on this, as I was before we started this debate. If the religious beliefs are being honoured in that way, I cannot quite see why there is any hesitation on the part of the UK Government about bringing things forward as have Northern Ireland and Wales.
We are all very anxious that the welfare of animals is the best it can possibly be. Nobody likes to see the killing of animals at all, and the most important thing is that it is done in a proper manner. Certainly the stunning parameters should be included here.
I will not go into the detail my noble friend Lord Hodgson did; he clearly laid out the very strong issues that are being expressed and the reasons why annexe 1 of the EU regulation has not been included. This is a difficult situation in which to find ourselves, but if the Government are not able to take this statutory instrument away, I hope that the monitoring review will take place—I am glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, referred to it, because it was one of the things I highlighted when I was looking through the memorandum. Whatever happens with this, it is crucial that it takes place and that we have a full report on it. I suggest that we need a review sooner than five years but that after that it would cycle every five years.
I thank my noble friend for giving us the opportunity to express our concerns about this statutory instrument. We all want to see best practice, and I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us with his comments in his response to this short debate.
My Lords, this country has always prided itself on being at the forefront of the preservation of animal welfare, especially at the point of slaughter. That was why the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995—the regulations which preceded WATOK—contained, in addition to rules to implement the then EU directive, national rules, including for religious slaughter, which gave greater protection for animals than was contained in the directive. Therefore my first question for my noble friend is: can he confirm that those national rules will all remain in place under WATOK?
I understand that the FSA’s most recent animal welfare survey, in 2013, showed that less than 21% of all poultry during the survey period was killed by a religious method and approximately 18% of birds were stunned prior to slaughter, so, to put this in context, less than 3% of the total poultry production in Great Britain is—or at least at that stage was—not stunned. I would prefer to see all animals stunned before they are slaughtered. Equally, like my noble friends, I respect the rights of the Jewish and Muslim communities to eat meat prepared in accordance with their religious beliefs. It is, I think, helpful that WATOK introduces welfare enforcement notices, which allow the official vet to slow down or stop a procedure or operation, or to require the business operator to take specified steps to remedy a breach of the welfare regulations.
In a nutshell, this debate is about the balancing act between animal welfare and religious freedom. So, returning to the concern of my noble friend Lord Hodgson, I ask my noble friend the Minister for his assurance that, despite WATOK not applying the stunning parameters in annexe 1 of the EU regulation to halal slaughter, welfare standards are not being weakened or compromised.
My Lords, the House last debated the regulations on welfare in animal slaughter in a QSD raised by the noble Lord, Lord Trees, in January 2014, and I am grateful for his contribution again tonight. The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, was a Minister at the Dispatch Box at that time, and his comments are welcome, as are his questions. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, raised his concerns at that time and I am grateful to him for bringing them back to us for examination. I declare my interest as a dairy farmer but I do not have any poultry.
As we have heard tonight, matters since that QSD have not continued smoothly. Later in 2014, the Government brought in regulations but revoked them before they came into force, citing that the potential impact of some limited aspects of religious slaughter needed further consideration. At that time, your Lordships’ Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee considered that the inadequacies of Defra’s handling of the consultation appeared to have reduced the quality of policy-making and to have contributed to a process that was protracted, uncertain and still unresolved more than 18 months after the key consultation took place.
A further 18 months have now gone by. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee remained concerned. In its 11th report in 2015 it said:
“The delay that has occurred since revocation of the 2014 WATOK Regulations may have allowed a better articulation of policy in the light of those views, but we remain concerned that the Department’s uncertain handling of the relevant secondary legislation will have caused confusion to those interested parties who have awaited decisions on implementation of the EU Regulation”.
Since 2014, there does not appear to have been any further consultation, yet Wales and Northern Ireland have already implemented a crucial variation that has been highlighted by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson. This omission has consequences for the welfare of chickens in that in England’s regulations no stunning parameters are prescribed that would help to ensure an effective stun during water-bath stunning. Other noble Lords have drawn attention to this.
I should also like clarification on why this has been designated by the Minister as a negative SI. I understand that, under the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act 2006, in making a decision that designates an SI as a negative instrument the Minister must satisfy a list of tests. Taking into consideration the negative procedure in relation to parliamentary scrutiny and the wide range of opinions on these regulations, can the Minister explain his ministerial thinking in making the decision to designate this as a negative SI?
The noble Baronesses, Lady Parminter and Lady Byford, asked the Minister to explain the issues behind the considerations that brought about the withdrawal of regulations last year and why the review came to the conclusion that it did, differing from the regulations in the devolved Administrations.
The use of electrical water bath stunners raises concerns that this in itself has a detrimental impact on bird welfare. The shackling and inversion of live birds is both stressful and painful. In addition, it is not currently possible to ensure that all birds receive an effective stun in this procedure. This leads to the situation where operators cannot distinguish between an unconscious bird and an immobilised bird, and so cannot assess stun efficacy. As the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, has described, the omission of parameters for electrical water-bath stunning can lead to an ineffective stunning of birds with resultant suffering.
It would appear that the Minister’s SI needs to address two crucial aspects. First, stunning parameters must be set at a level that are known to achieve a consistent effective stun. Secondly, these stunning parameters must be specific to and acceptable for use by the relevant religious authorities, ensuring that the parameters will reliably and consistently provide a recoverable stun.
Labour appreciates that organisations including the British Veterinary Association, the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association have all expressed concern about the animal welfare implications of religious slaughter. These views have been contested by Jewish and Islamic groups.
Under EU law, there is no requirement to label meat as “stunned” or “non-stunned”. The EU Commission is currently considering the practicalities of enforcing such regulations. That announcement is awaited. Labour believes that labelling should not be faith-specific so that the issue remains one of animal welfare and is not in any way religiously orientated. Consumer interests are best served through transparency in food production and processing. Consumers have the right to know exactly where their food comes from, how it has been raised, and how it has been slaughtered and processed. Labelling is important, as production supply according to religious procedures is in excess of that demand and the resulting excess becomes part of the national food chain.
The Explanatory Memorandum does not highlight any differences between the regulations that apply in England and those that have been introduced in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The RSPCA has provided an excellent briefing note that highlights the omission of one paragraph on the general prohibition. The noble Lord, Lord Hodgson, quoted this and underlined the differences resulting from this in the effects that pertain in the devolved Administrations.
It is important that the Government get these regulations right to be consistent with EU legislation and to balance welfare and the demands of the religious authorities.
My Lords, I entirely understand the concern of my noble friend Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts for animal welfare. Animal welfare at slaughter is an issue that is important to the British public, and the Government are committed to improving standards of animal welfare.
As my noble friend has pointed out, there are differences in the animal welfare at slaughter regulations in England as compared to those in Wales and Northern Ireland, reflecting the fact that animal welfare is a devolved issue. Notably, there is a difference in approach to religious slaughter, but this is the only substantive difference between the domestic legislation in England and that in Wales and Northern Ireland.
I hope that my reply tonight will help assure your Lordships that the recent regulations that the Government have introduced improve animal welfare at the time of killing. I am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, and the noble Lord, Lord Trees; although I understand that they are not entirely happy with the situation, they did acknowledge that the Government are seeking to improve animal welfare all the time. I would like to assure my noble friend Lord De Mauley—given his previous position, this is terribly important—that there is absolutely no wish or intention in anything that is being done to weaken anything that we have in place.
The public rightly expect the Government to ensure that appropriate measures are in place to protect the welfare of animals when they are killed. Indeed, there is a long history to our current national requirements on slaughter, including religious slaughter.
Government first set down powers to prevent cruelty in slaughterhouses through the Public Health Act 1875. The first national legislative requirement for stunning before slaughter was introduced in England and Wales in the form of the Slaughter of Animals Act 1933, which also contained an exemption from stunning animals for religious slaughter for Jews and Muslims.
Over the years, the national rules have developed to provide protection to animals that are slaughtered, including those slaughtered in accordance with religious rites. Perhaps I may explain briefly what the previous national rules required for water-bath stunning, which is the subject of this Motion, as I think it may help put the current regulations in context.
Before the Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing Regulations, which I shall refer to as WATOK, came into force last month, the relevant domestic legislation was the Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995, normally referred to as WASK. WASK implemented the relevant EU directive, but it also contained national rules which afforded greater protection for animals.
The general requirements for slaughter in WASK were that animals, following stunning, should be bled without delay and that only certain stunning methods should be used, one of which was water-bath stunning for poultry. Specific requirements for water baths were set out in Schedule 5 to WASK and included requirements, for instance, on the level of water in the water bath, the strength and duration of the current, sufficient voltage, and type and size of water bath.
Schedule 1 to WATOK, the new regulations, sets out the national rules for use of water baths for the stunning of poultry in slaughterhouses. I can assure your Lordships—the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, referred to this in asking about parameters—that WATOK accurately and comprehensively reflects the previous requirements in WASK on water-bath stunning. I hope that by putting the current WATOK regulations in context I am able to demonstrate that we have not omitted or weakened any of the existing national rules.
What has altered, and the reason that WATOK was needed, is that the EU regime changed with the introduction of a new slaughter regulation which came into effect on 1 January 2013 and, like all EU regulations, had direct effect on all member states. The EU regulation aims to ensure that animals, including poultry, are spared any avoidable pain, distress or suffering at the time of killing. To achieve that, the EU regulation requires that all animals be stunned before slaughter, using the methods and parameters listed in Annexe 1 to that regulation. The only exception in the regulation is for those animals slaughtered in accordance with religious rites.
However, this EU regulation is much more comprehensive than the previous directive. Annexe 1 to the regulation sets down the permitted methods to stun an animal, including, but not limited to, water-bath stunning and—I emphasise “and”—it sets down the conditions for the use of these methods. In the case of water-bath stunning, the EU regulation sets down key parameters such as the specific frequency and current to be used. These requirements are based on scientific research that has demonstrated which currents and frequencies effectively stun birds.
The term “religious slaughter” does not automatically mean that the animals are slaughtered without being stunned. While the Jewish method of religious slaughter requires that animals are not stunned before slaughter, some halal certifying bodies permit stunning provided the animal is not killed by the stun. As a result, the majority—in fact, more than 70%, as the noble Lord, Lord Trees, mentioned—of halal meat comes from animals that are stunned before slaughter, according to the last Food Standards Agency survey of slaughterhouses.
While this Government would prefer to see all animals stunned before they are slaughtered, we also respect the rights of Jewish and Muslim communities to eat meat prepared in accordance with their religious beliefs. Indeed, we had a manifesto commitment to protect religious slaughter.
In the context of the new EU regulation, the halal poultry industry raised concerns that the new stunning requirements for water baths were incompatible with halal slaughter because it believed that they did not result in a recoverable stun where an animal is capable of regaining consciousness once stunned. There was, therefore, a risk that more of the halal industry would be moved over to non-stun slaughter if it had to follow the parameters set out in Annexe 1 of the new EU regulation.
My noble friend Lady Byford mentioned research. As I said, it is important for the halal slaughter community that a stunning method does not kill the bird before it is cut and bled. Researchers at the University of Bristol tested a variety of electrical stunning currents and frequencies and recorded the effects on poultry. They found that certain combinations of current and frequency that comply with Annexe 1 of the EU regulation effectively stunned birds and allowed them to recover consciousness. This research was tested in field trials. There is work going on in this matter and I have no doubt it will continue.
The new EU regulation allows for member states to retain the national rules that were in place when it was negotiated. After careful consideration, the Government decided to retain all national rules protecting the welfare of animals and slaughter—an issued raised by my noble friend Lord De Mauley—where they provided greater protection than EU regulation, but not to introduce a new rule to insist that those carrying out stunning of animals as part of halal slaughter should follow the requirements in Annexe 1 to use the frequencies and currents specified in it for water-bath stunning. WATOK has two principal objectives: to provide for the administration and enforcement of the EU slaughter regulation, and to retain those stricter and long-standing national rules that provide greater protection than the EU regulation.
In the course of this debate, concerns have been raised that the Government, by allowing different stunning parameters for halal slaughter to those permitted under Annexe 1 has reduced animal welfare. As I have sought to explain, we have not weakened the protection of poultry during water bath stunning, but neither have we insisted that poultry stunned as part of halal slaughter should comply with Annexe 1, as we know that that might result in a shift towards non-stun slaughter.
None the less, where stunning is carried out, including for halal slaughter, the legislation requires that it must be effective in rendering the animal unconscious and insensible to pain and the animal must then remain unconscious until death. The business operator is required to monitor that stunning is effective and to take appropriate action when an animal is not properly stunned. If plants are found not to be complying with the legal requirements, there is a zero-tolerance approach to welfare breaches. At all approved slaughterhouses there is a requirement that there is an official veterinarian from the Food Standards Agency present. Swift enforcement action will be taken to address any breach of the legislation, including the possibility of immediately stopping the slaughter line until the official veterinarian is satisfied that the plant can fully comply with the legislation.
Some noble Lords have referred to the fact that the WATOK regulations were laid in 2014 but were revoked before they came into force. The coalition Government wished to consider the implications of this legislation further. I particularly want to reassure noble Lords, particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, that the current Government have considered these regulations in full and are confident that they strike the correct balance between protecting both animal welfare and the rights of Muslim and Jewish communities to eat meat prepared in accordance with their beliefs.
I know that my noble friend Lord Hodgson has expressed extreme concern about delay, and indeed although the EU regulations were agreed in 2009, as I have said, they did not come into force until 1 January 2013. The EU regulation allows member states to keep national rules that afford a greater protection than the EU regulations. This has, however, led to a complex piece of legislation, but it is important to get it right. I particularly would like to note that long-standing rules were already in place domestically to protect the welfare of animals at the time of killing under WASK.
Noble Lords have asked a number of questions that are outstanding on which I will need to take advice and come back. I should also say that I am always available if it would help to discuss these matters in further detail. I assure noble Lords that the Government remain committed both to improving the welfare of animals at slaughter and maintaining the freedoms of religious communities in England. As a result, the Government have retained all the existing rules protecting the welfare of animals at slaughter, including those relating to religious slaughter. The Government have not omitted any national rules by adopting the Welfare of Animals at the Time of Killing (England) Regulations. We believe that this action will allow for a sizeable proportion of meat slaughtered under halal methods to continue to be stunned, and we believe that this is a reasonable and proportionate response which enhances our objective of protecting animal welfare, which I know all noble Lords both here in this debate and more widely support very strongly.
Although I am conscious of the other questions that I will be addressing when I write to noble Lords, I hope my noble friend will understand that we have given this very careful consideration and that there are protections in place. There are differences between Wales and Northern Ireland, where I understand there are no non-stun slaughterhouses, whereas there are a considerable number in England. For these reasons, we think we have taken the right step and—although I am available for further discussions beyond the regulations —I hope my noble friend will withdraw his Motion.
My Lords, I begin by thanking all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, for her forensic examination of the difference between the regulations, the noble Lord, Lord Trees, as a distinguished veterinarian who is some way further up the learning curve than I am, my noble friend Lady Byford for her practical experience, my noble friend Lord De Mauley, who is a poacher turned gamekeeper or perhaps a gamekeeper turned poacher—I am not sure which way round it is—and the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, who I appreciate made some interesting comments, to one of which I should like to return in a moment.
As I expected, my noble friend on the Front Bench has given a full, courteous and comprehensive reply, and I would not want him to think that I underestimate the advantages that have come about in animal welfare as a result of some of these regulations. His lengthy remarks on this technical subject deserve a careful read in Hansard, but I have to say to him that I think there was a drawing on a mixture of the religious and non-religious—this way and that way—which I did not find entirely clear. However, I owe him a careful read. We did not get to the bottom of the issue about why there is this critical omission and change in the text of the English regulations compared to those in Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Times of 4 November states:
“If this was a clerical omission it would be merely regrettable, but it appears to be worse than that. When the new rules on stunning chickens were placed on hold last year the hesitation was explained by Defra on the ground that they might limit religious freedom. Concern was also voiced”—
as my noble friend said this evening—
“that if a minimum shock strength was imposed that was deemed too high, some halal slaughterers might stop shocking altogether. The first argument prioritised unscientific belief over animal welfare. The second allowed a minority of slaughterers to reset the legal parameters for their whole industry. Religious slaughtermen have a right to derogate from EU law (and thus most national regulations) governing non-religious slaughterhouses. This is as much latitude as any religion can reasonably demand”.
I am irrevocably or inevitably drawn to the conclusion that these regulations, as regards the position of poultry, are a fudge. Defra knows that they are a fudge and I suspect that my noble friend knows they are a fudge. This is not a happy evening for animal welfare as regards poultry. More importantly, as the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, pointed out, it is not a happy evening for candour in public policy. Whatever our religious beliefs, the Government owe the country to be open and honest about matters such as these. Otherwise, suspicion, misconstruction and mistrust flourish, which was the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Grantchester, about the need to have transparency in the way in which decisions are reached in these matters.
I end by repeating that, in the light of all that has been said this evening, I hope my noble friend will go away and talk to his officials about further consideration of putting in the particular words in the regulations, which would answer the questions that we have all raised this evening. But it is late and, in the mean time, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.