HC Deb 24 February 1947 vol 433 cc1849-58

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

11.28 p.m.

Brigadier Rayner (Totnes)

In raising the question of the slaughter of livestock at so late an hour I do not propose to take very long. Nor do I want to sail under false colours, so I will say straight away to the hon. Lady who is to reply, that I am no sentimentalist. I have shot big game in various countries, and I shall hunt the fox so long as I am able to afford a horse. But to my way of thinking there is a great difference between death, which comes suddenly from the bush or the heat of the chase and the cruel, casual process of domestic slaughter. In the first case, death comes unexpectedly in the way of nature, or in short, savage encounter. But in the second case, the animal suffers all the pain and terror of a slow, heartless routine. I claim that our slaughtering arrangements are inefficient and cruel, and that, although we profess to be a nation of animal lovers, we turn a blind eye to the bitter end of so many of our livestock. That, although we profess to cherish all young things we take no interest at all in the last days of our lambs and calves. Although I believe cattle to be almost as intelligent as horses, how differently we treat them. There would be a public outcry if horses had to suffer one half of the cruelty that so many of our cattle have to suffer between the market and the abattoir. Whether they are store beasts full of red meat, or old screws that have given their best in milk and cream to humanity for many a long day, their progress from the market to the slaughter-house in a bad area is inclined to become a cavalcade of misery. In the market there are exposure, overcrowding, irregular feeding, and watering, tail-twisting, goading, and the terror of the unknown. They may suffer some or all of these at the market, and, at the slaughter-house, some or all again, probably with the terror of the known added. Hon. Members may have seen that fine play "Hassan", and will remember the scene called "The Procession of Protracted Death." I think that description might well apply to the progress of some of our livestock to the slaughter-houses of this country. Charles Dickens, writing nearly 100 years ago, in 1851, compared the abattoirs of England with those of France, to the great disadvantage of this country. He wrote: The beasts have to he worried, and goaded, and pronged, and tail-twisted for a long time before they can be got in. What they see and scent makes them still more reluctant to enter. I should like to compare that with an extract from a report published in 1946 by the Council of Justice to Animals. That says: Owing to the lack of accommodation and equipment the animals suffer extensively from fright, overcrowding, and rough handling. Lack of space causes congestion, and it is an everyday sight to see a beast with a rope over its head being pulled from the waiting pen into the slaughter-house. This is often accomplished only after severe struggles on the animal's part, accomplished by blows and tail-twisting. In some of the smaller establishments, cattle waiting their turn can sec their fellow creatures slaughtered in front of them. There does not seem to have been a great deal of improvement in the last zoo years. In fact, owing to the reduction in slaughter-houses from something like 17,000 to 500, the overcrowding is sometimes so bad that conditions are probably a good deal worse. Our abattoirs still compare very unfavourably with those of other countries. I can assure hon. Members of that from my own experience, because I have always felt very strongly about this matter, and have studied the slaughter arrangements in several countries before the war. In Germany and Austria, they had some of the best abattoirs in the world. So interested was electrically before the customer's eyes, public opinion in humane slaughter, that in restaurants where a feature was made of live trout, they used to kill the trout when taken from the tank. Probably the best abattoir I ever saw was in Chicago. There the beasts were collected according to their kind in large covered pens, amply supplied with fresh air, water, and food. Each of these pens tapered off at the end to a narrow one-way passage which finished up in a lift. When the slaughtering hour arrived, the herd was gently moved forward, and, one by one, taken in the lift to the slaughtering chamber, where they were mercifully and quickly despatched. I ask hon. Members to compare that with a recent extract, one of many, from a report by a R.S.P.C.A. inspector: In all the slaughter-houses animals are killed within sight of one another, and it is a common thing to see animals brought in for slaughter, standing directly over a recently killed animal which is still bleeding. There are a few good slaughter-houses in this country, notably at Nottingham, Coventry, Newton Abbott and Penrith, but for every reasonable one there are 25 bad ones. If Members representing those areas were here tonight I would give a list of them. It is indeed a sorry tale. The best we can say is that when it comes to the actual end, most of these cattle are killed by the humane killer. By the Slaughter of Animals Act, 1933, this was made obligatory in licensed abattoirs and bacon factories. Even this mercy is denied to sheep and lambs, and pigs that are killed outside bacon factories. Local authorities can legislate specially to protect these animals in their own areas but to their abiding shame, there are 250 local authorities in this country which have not taken that action.

The humble sheep, which not only feeds but clothes us, surely deserves well of us. So gentle a creature is he that our Lord Himself, used to refer to the sheep as a fit object for love and pity. But precious little love and pity we give him when his time comes. I do not want to harrow the feelings of hon. Members, but I have seen a sheep stuck, and it is not a pretty sight. First, the slaughterman cuts his throat, then he breaks his neck by jerking his head backwards. All the time the sheep is perfectly conscious. It is only when the slaughterman puts his hand in the hole and severs the spinal cord, that the sheep passes away, and for a longer or shorter time up to then, according to the skill of the slaughterman, the poor animal is in the most fearful agony. The same thing happens to lambs, and then the pig. In my opinion, the pig is almost as intelligent an animal as is the dog. To those of us who have chased him with a spear, he is a most noble, clever and courageous foe, and the tiger himself gives him a wide berth in the jungle. Hon. Members who have seen the domestic pig in circus acts will remember that in many of them, he compares very favourably in intelligence with the acts performed by dogs. But we put him to death as if he had no more feeling than a grass snake. I finally read to the House an extract from the report of a sanitary inspector: In agricultural areas, I can assure you, I have seen some terrible things happen to pigs. I have seen them pulled out of their sties, a rope thrown over a tree branch, and pulled up until their four feet could not touch the ground, and then stuck. But worse still, I have seen the rope slip off the nose, or break, and the poor animal run round, to be recaptured and restuck. On one occasion, I actually saw a pig get out of the scalding tub, and have to be stuck again. This is England, and these things are done by quite decent chaps, because it has become a matter of custom, and they have become a bit hard' and unthinking in the course of their duties. In this twelve months 1,500,000 pigs will be killed in backyards and on smallholdings. Yet the Pig-Keepers' Council in all the literature they have issued, have not called attention, on one single page, to this question of humane slaughter.

All this thoughtless, horrible cruelty is completely unnecessary, for the humane killer can be borrowed with a little trouble, and with the necessary weight of cart-fridges. Some butchers hold that animals killed by the humane killer are not drained properly, but that is quite untrue.

In Scotland, the country about which we have been talking earlier tonight, all animals, pigs, sheep, cattle, and the rest have been killed humanely since 1929, and Scottish mutton and lamb are as good as anyone can get. There is a school of thought, which started with Professor Owen, the great physiologist of the early nineteenth century, which holds that meat from animals killed in pain and terror is not really fit for human consumption and encourages serious disorders in the human body. I have no idea whether or not that is true. I would be inclined to say that if it were true, then it serves us jolly well right.

Of course, I am not attempting to lay the blame for this state of affairs on the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food or her Department. We must share it with many Governments of the past. I suggest to her four things that might be done. Although one realises that the provision of up-to-date abattoirs is a very long-term policy, I suggest that the Minister should take steps to apply the Act of 1933 to all animals, and that, if this is not possible, he, should address local authorities in no uncertain terms asking them to take the necessary protective action within their own areas. I suggest that the Minister should open more central abattoirs and so get rid of the grave overcrowding which is prevalent. The Minister should also get together with the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture and try, by propaganda and direc- tion, to see that the conduct of markets is improved with a view to eradicating some of the quite unnecessary cruelty which takes place. Finally, I suggest that the Minister should try to waken public opinion through food offices and other ways which are available to the Ministry and not to any private body. It would take an army of officials to prevent the major and minor cruelties which take place, and, heaven knows, we do not want any more officials.

British public opinion when roused can do anything. We must rouse it. He that burns with indignation when he sees an emaciated horse being beaten up a hill, must realise that probably something worse is going on in the abattoir across the way. She who admonishes a small boy for ill-treating a dog, must give some thought to how the pig which provided her bacon ration was killed. They who delight in little lambs frolicking in the sun on a Sunday morning walk, must give some thought to what may happen to these lambs after Wednesday's market. It is only if we get people thinking on these lines that this fearful blot on our national copy book, in regard to which we compare so frightfully badly with other countries, will be rubbed out.

11.45 p.m.

Mr. Royle (Salford, West)

I hope the hon. and gallant Gentleman will forgive me for intervening, but there are two sides to this question he has raised, and I want to put the other side. The Ministry of Food have to preserve a balance between two points of view on this issue, and I think it is necessary that the other point of view should be stated. Frankly, I am astonished at the exaggerated terms which the hon. and gallant Gentleman used when he spoke of "heartless cruelty," "cruel arrangements" and "a cavalcade of misery" and quoted what happened in the time of Charles Dickens. I would remind him that very many things have happened in this regard since the days of Charles Dickens, and also since 1926; and I would suggest to him that he is being illogical and inconsistent when he stands in this House and talks about cruelty in slaughterhouses, and, at the same time, talks about the joys of the chase of the hare and the fox. I humbly suggest to him that he would serve this House and the country very much better if he would concentrate his attention, not so much upon what is happening for the provision of human food, as on the horrible experiences which animals have as the result of the sport which he, apparently, so greatly enjoys.

I would also remind him that, in 1933, a very important Act of Parliament was placed on the Statute Book in reference to the humane slaughter of animals. This House, in the past, has given quite a lot of attention to this subject, and animals are universally slaughtered in this country by the mechanical killer, and usually by the captive bolt pistol. Pigs are all slaughtered by mechanical methods, except where electrical energy is not available, and the hon. and gallant Gentleman, in his speech tonight, has failed to refer to the types of slaughter which still goes on in Jewish and some other slaughter-houses. I think he might concentrate more of his attention upon that matter.

Animals are only slaughtered by mechanical means if the local authority has so approved, and the Act of 1933 provided very adequate safeguards. Slaughtermen today are all licensed, and nobody receives such a licence unless over 18 years of age. The medical officers and sanitary inspectors have full access to the slaughterhouses, and, in addition, in these days, the slaughter-house manager and the meat agents are also there to see that the Act is complied with. Except for electrical appliances, no particular instrument is stipulated in the Act. The men engaged in this occupation are not a set of rogues. They are carrying out a very undesirable occupation, and, in so doing, they are performing an essential public service in the provision of food for their fellows. I would remind the hon. and gallant Gentleman that there are very few prosecutions in this country against slaughtermen, in spite of the fact that such access to the slaughterhouse is available to these officials.

I agree with him, in some degree, that the present system of control, under which many animals are slaughtered in few slaughter-houses rather than few animals in many slaughter-houses, does make a little difference. But that is only in the peak period in the slaughter of cattle, particularly in the autumn. The arrival of large numbers of cattle, on Wednesday and Thursday every week, that have to be killed for that week's ration, does make it necessary to kill a large number in a short time. I do not want to stand between the House and the Parliamentary Secretary, but I would say that the safeguards are adequate. These people are doing an essential job of work. They are doing it with all the humanity that they can in somewhat difficult circumstances. In no circumstances would I like the impression to go out from this House, tonight, that cruelty is rife in our British slaughterhouses. That suggestion is certainly not true.

11.51 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Dr. Edith Summerskill)

I agree with the Member for West Salford (Mr. Royle) who finds himself unable to reconcile the remarks of the hon. and gallant Member for Totnes (Brigadier Rayner) about the death throes of animals, with the fact that he prefaced those remarks by expressing a love of fox-hunting. I myself can think of no death, if one has to choose a death for an animal, which is more horrible and brutal than that of a fox which is chased by dogs, and men on horseback. I hope that when the hon. and gallant Member next joins in the chase, he will dwell on the feelings of the fox, as he has dwelt tonight on the feelings of the pig and other animals of the farmyard. The hon. and gallant Member has made what I consider to be sweeping allegations. Such allegations have been made before, though they may have been a little more modified than his. But at no time has a specific case been quoted. At no time has he sent me a case in which he could allege that there had been cruelty, in order that proceedings could be instituted. He knows, as well as I do, that during the autumn there is a peak period of killing. Generally, during that period, and for a few months afterwards, we have many complaints from all over the country, because people have seen animals crowded along the roads to the slaughter-houses. They may have seen someone prodding an animal unnecessarily, and they feel that the way to obtain relief for these animals is to communicate with the Ministry of Food or some other Ministry.

Brigadier Rayner


Dr. Summerskill

The hon. and gallant Member will perhaps allow me to continue. I have only a few minutes. Of course, the treatment of animals on the road has nothing to do with the Ministry of Food, and it is for an individual who observes a case of cruelty to inform a local constable. Action will then be taken against the driver, or whoever it was who ill-treated the animal. In view of these complaints, I recently invited a number of hon. Members to the Ministry—because the Minister of Food is always accessible to hon. Members—so that they might meet some of the men who are in charge of our slaughtering arrangements, and question them to find out whether these men have a humane approach to their job. I think that meeting at the Ministry served a very useful purpose, and that hon. Members who were there, felt satisfied that everything was being done that the Ministry could do, within its powers, to protect the animals.

The hon. and gallant Member is quite right when he says that we have now about 600 slaughter-houses. and it was necessary, as I think he will agree, to concentrate slaughtering when the Ministry decided to control the meat supplies of the country. I, personally, would like to see many of these slaughter-houses improved; but I would remind the hon. Gentleman of the difficulties which face us. In the first place, 401 of these slaughter-houses are privately owned, and 205 are owned by local authorities. Now, if a privately owned establishment needed any alteration, the alterations would have to be done at the public expense, and it is well known that at the moment houses are given priority. But within the limits we have, I think, done everything possible to improve these slaughter-houses, as far as that could be done without redesign and without rebuilding. So far as local authority slaughter-houses are concerned, I agree that many of them have approached us and asked whether the time is ripe for them to make certain alterations to their slaughter-houses. We decided that this could not be done until we had planned our long-term meat policy. I am very glad to say that recently we have felt that we could approach other Departments with a view to implementing some of these plans, and I hope that that will go forward very quickly. But in spite of these difficulties, the fact remains that the number of specific complaints about cruelty is very, very small. I think the last conviction was in 1942. If these incidents are so widespread, why is it that nobody has come to the Ministry of Food and made a complaint?

Finally, I want to say that the Slaughter of Animals Act, 1933, covers completely all the objections the hon. and gallant Member makes to the slaughtering of animals. The animals are protected within that Act. But they cannot be protected unless citizens, who are aware of certain cruelties being inflicted, inform the police and are prepared to institute proceedings—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Order made upon 13th November.

Adjourned at Two Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.