HC Deb 16 May 1950 vol 475 cc1171-82

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

11.35 p.m.

Mr. Spearman (Scarborough and Whitby)

When the hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. S. N. Evans), who made such a formidable attack on British agriculture today, was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food, he was, I remember, on one occasion so harrowed by supplementary questions he was asked that, in despair, as it were, he said, "Show me a slaughterhouse and I will go straight into it."

I am not suggesting that I am going in such a way to attack the hon. Gentleman who—I think for the first occasion—is representing the Ministry tonight at this Adjournment Debate. I should make it plain to him straight away that I am not an expert on slaughterhouses, and that I am not going to attempt to make a general condemnation of all Ministry slaughterhouses. What I want to do is to produce some evidence to show that in Ministry slaughterhouses there is waste, deterioration in the quality of meat, and unnecessary suffering of animals. I cannot prove that this applies in a very large number of slaughterhouses, but I have some reason to fear that it is current in many more than I am going to mention tonight, and that is why I think this is a subject which should be brought to the attention of this House.

I will quote, first of all, conditions in Scarborough. Whatever hon. Members opposite may think of the way Scarborough chooses its Member of Parliament, I think they have shown, by their repeated visits to Scarborough, public and private, that they have a very proper regard for the queen of seaside resorts. I think, therefore, they will sympathise with me and with Scarborough in objecting to a Ministry slaughterhouse of a very poor quality being set up in the middle of a residential area near a hospital and a school in that very fine seaside resort. As regards the conditions in that slaughterhouse I am glad to say that, since I raised the matter with a predecessor of the Parliamentary Secretary, three or four months ago, there have been considerable improvements; but I should like to draw the Minister's attention to the fact that, apparently, in these matters the local butchers most concerned were not consulted about them.

I have a report here stating that the Ministry inspector of slaughterhouses from Stockton told the chairman and two members of the committee that the Ministry "decide themselves, and take no notice of anyone else." Obviously, the Minister would be in no position to deny that fact tonight, but I do ask him to look into the matter, and to see that instructions are given to Ministry officials that that is not the way for them to behave, and that they should thoroughly co-operate with the local people, who know the conditions and what is best.

I will quote from a letter from the Chairman of the Scarborough and District Butchers' Association Meat Control Committee. This letter was written to me before the present improvements, and I quote it as an indication of what were the conditions pertaining in the Scarborough slaughterhouse and may, I am afraid, be the conditions in other places. It says: Lairages are in a deplorable condition, and in the open yard, and the cattle awaiting slaughter are standing in slush and filth—a condition which is accentuated in wet weather. The arrangements for slaughtering are such that carcases have to be carried over the filth in the yard, and it is impossible to avoid some contact between the meat and the filth, resulting in definite contamination. There is very little provision for feeding cattle awaiting slaughter. This, and the fact that the cattle are in an open yard without any segregation, results in loss of weight and deterioration in the condition of the meat. Last week 40 live beasts arrived from Ireland and are all bruised. A Ministry official from Middlesbrough attended today, when he ordered that 16 quarters had to be cut for bruising, and approximately half of their weight had to go for manufacturing purposes. The chairman of the committee estimates that at that time the weekly loss of meat, of cattle and sheep—I have all the figures here if the Minister would like them—amounts to no less than £81, Some of that has been put right, but since then I have had this further report: The beasts are brought into the 'beast fasting shed' to await slaughter. When required for slaughter, they are driven out into the open yard to the 'roping room'—at least 20 at a time. The beasts, as a general rule, have been in the 'fasting shed' for two or three days, and when driven into the yard are usually excited, necessitating a certain amount of force having to be used to divert them into the 'roping room.' The slaughtermen then have to go into the 'roping room' among the excited cattle to rope them. The result is that there is both danger to the men, and deterioration in the quality of the meat, as a result of unnecessary and excessive bruising. The slaughtering and hanging of the beasts in the same room results in deterioration of the condition of the meat. As more carcases are hung and space becomes more limited, the carcases have to be put closer and closer together—necessitating constant moving—which, together with the heat in the room, prevents the carcases setting. To sum up those two reports, there was underfeeding and bad transport and, consequently, a serious waste of meat. With the slaughtering taking place in the same chamber as that in which the meat is cooled, the carcases are squashed together and do not have a chance of setting. Consequently, the butchers cannot provide the good quality meat they used to supply. Thirdly, and I want to lay great stress on this, because of the conditions in which the animals are herded, killed in sight of one another and, formerly, underfed, there is unnecessary suffering to those animals.

On the question of suffering I want to deal with an incident brought to my notice yesterday by the R.S.P.C.A. An inspector of the R.S.P.C.A., together with a police constable, visited the Ministry slaughterhouse at Creech St. Michael, near Taunton, and found that the humane killer was not being used. The actual words of the inspector were: We have found of the 164 calves that were killed in this slaughterhouse yesterday that 147 were not mechanically stunned before slaughter which is contrary to the Slaughter of Animals Act, 1933. I have here a copy of a letter from the local authority stating that they have decided not to take action in the courts, but they do not give any assurance that steps are being taken to see that there could not be a recurrence of that disgraceful state of affairs.

I want to turn to the question of ritual slaughter. I understand that in certain Ministry slaughterhouses, when meat is being killed for what is described as ritual purposes there is exemption from the use of the humane killer. It may well be that when animals are killed in that way by really experienced men there is no undue suffering, but I cannot help thinking—and the R.S.P.C.A. confirm this view—that if it is handled, as often it is, by learners or inexperienced men, there may be a very great deal of suffering to animals. I cannot believe that it is right and proper that, whatever the purpose for which the meat is wanted, such practices should be permitted in a Government slaughterhouse. I am very far from being a vegetarian—I thoroughly enjoy eating meat; but I believe it is a widely held view in the country that none of us is entitled to give himself pleasure from eating meat unless all reasonable precautions have been taken to see that there is no undue suffering for the animals involved.

I have tried to show that there are defects in the administration by the Ministry of the slaughtering of animals in Government slaughterhouses. I now want to turn to the question of policy. Here I can perhaps sympathise with the Minister, because I cannot help thinking that it must be a very discouraging position for him and his Department to find that they can get no policy at all from their Government. Slaughterhouse officials themselves say, "We do not know what will happen because we can-not get a policy from the Government." We have seen the same thing over and over again in a wider sphere—under this Government a particular Department may produce a policy, but it seems that there is no method by which there can be a coherent policy when more than one Department is involved.

Before the war there were about 16,000 slaughterhouses. Do the Government intend to revert to that or is the Minister going to set up 12 super-slaughterhouses or is there to be something in between the two? Are they going to be erected by the Government or be privately owned or owned by the public authorities? Or are they to be owned by the public authorities and let out to private enterprise as in New Zealand, which seems to be rather a sound plan? It is high time the Government produced a policy in this matter. I see that the Thirteenth Report of the Select Committee on Estimates, as recently as the beginning of this year, says this: Many of the slaughterhouses are now required to supply far larger areas than they were designed to do. Your Committee consider that a reduction in distributive costs as well as a better service would result from an increase in their numbers. Indeed, in my constituency, there is a slaughterhouse at Egton where, before the war, on an average, three cattle and 20 sheep were killed every week. Today, it is about 20 cattle and 100 sheep and there is indication that the killings may be much larger in times to come. It is clear that these places are not fit to carry that extent of slaughtering that is going on at the present time. It may well be this deterioration in the quality of meat may be caused by that. The "Manchester Guardian," only two days ago, quoted Mr. Morris, a member of the Executive of the National Federation of Meat Trades, as follows: The class and type of meat we have been selling has been of such low quality and undesirable that the taste for meat has gradually diminished. Indeed, we had the hon. Member for Coatbridge and Airdrie (Mrs. Mann) telling us in this House this afternoon that last Sunday's meat was of such a bad quality that she had to throw it to the dogs, and she implied that that was a very frequent occurrence. There is widespread dissatisfaction with the quality of meat at the present time. Is it not accounted for by the condition in the slaughterhouses? I thoroughly realise that the Government has great need to cut capital expenditure. If they cannot cut their current expenditure they will have to cut their capital expenditure more than they have yet done to meet that need, but that does not necessarily entail stagnation.

There surely should be some policy, and it may be, if the meat is being wasted and if meat is being produced in such condition that hon. Members opposite have to throw it to the dogs, an economy to spend some money in putting these slaughterhouses right. I suggest there are perhaps alternative things on which the Government could save. Vast sums were spent on the groundnuts scheme by the Ministry of Food. Might not that have been more effectively spent on building slaughterhouses? The Economic Survey states that better Government Offices are to take £24,500,000 this year compared with £21,500,000 last year. I do not know if this is all for Government offices, but it is for Government buildings and large Government offices. Surely a reduction in that might well be better spent on slaughterhouses to produce clean meat.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary for an assurance that the evidence I have given on which, I admit, one cannot make a general indictment, is exceptional and but a particular incident. If he is not quite sure of that, I ask him for an assurance that he will see that a thorough inquiry is made into the whole matter. Finally, I ask him that he should press all he can that at least the Government will formulate a policy of what they intend to do for slaughterhouses so it can be implemented at the earliest possible moment when men and materials are available.

11.50 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Mr. Frederick Willey)

I am much obliged to the hon. Gentleman for raising this matter for it gives me an opportunity of replying to some allegations which have been made about the slaughterhouse at Scarborough. I gather that the hon. Gentleman's case is that some of these complaints were raised by letter, that subsequently these complaints were largely dealt with, and that he received a letter to that effect from my right hon. Friend the Minister of National Insurance when she was Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food. That was the letter written on 2nd November, and he will not have forgotten that he spoke on this subject during the General Election, when he received a good deal of publicity. In commenting on the letter he had from my right hon. Friend he said that that was the kind of assurance received under nationalisation. I gather that is not the case now.

Mr. Spearman

I do not follow the hon. Gentleman. I freely admitted at the beginning of my speech that as a result of raising this matter with the Minister considerable improvements were made, but they were only partial, and were not as good as they should have been because the butchers were not consulted.

Mr. Willey

I am referring to the comment that that was the kind of assurance received under nationalisation. Later, the hon. Gentleman referred to some of the matters he raised this evening, and again his comment was that this was the sort of thing happening through control by an office hundreds of miles away.

The letter from my right hon. Friend was written to the hon. Gentleman on 9th December. In it she admitted that the premises which were privately owned, were not satisfactory. She said that considerable and extensive improvements had been made by the Ministry of Works during the period in which we had been using the premises, and some of those had only recently been completed, while a few items were still in hand. She went on to say that the local authority, through the medical officer of health and the chief sanitary inspector, had expressed satisfaction with the improvements which had been made in close consultation with its officers. She concluded by saying: I think it would be a good thing if you could have a talk with our Area Meat and Livestock Officer about the slaughterhouse. He would be pleased to meet you at your convenience. I gather that the statements of the hon. Gentleman were made during the General Election without the hon. Gentleman having taken the opportunity of seeing this officer and discussing the slaughterhouse with him. For that reason, as a good deal of publicity was given to this matter in the local Press, I should say that the hon. Gentleman visited the slaughterhouse after the General Election, on 31st March. He should face up to the position in his own constituency, that the municipality have made proposals for a municipal slaughterhouse at Seamer, which, of course, would be publicly owned. It is also an interesting fact that the chairman of the private company which owns the slaughterhouse, when asked his opinion about the letter, is reported in the local newspaper as having said that he favoured nationalisation of slaughterhouses because he was sure that centralisation would lead to economy.

I want to take the position as it was when we requisitioned this slaughterhouse which, of course, remains under private ownership. In 1940, when the premises were requisitioned, it was found that the slaughterhouse had neither feeding nor watering facilities; lairages were not sup- plied; smalls were hung on wall brackets in both sheep and cattle premises; arrangements for offal were very, very inadequate, and no catching pens were provided.

Mr. Spearman

But slaughtering was done in that time.

Mr. Willey

Everything possible was done by the Ministry to improve these premises. What we have done is this: We have provided caging pens, improved the lay-out of the cattle slaughterhouses, installed four hand winches, new overhead rail and runners, improved the layout of the sheep slaughterhouse, installed new hanging rails, new offal rails, installed electric lighting in the cattle and sheep slaughterhouse, provided the lairages with ample feeding arrangements and rails, and the buildings have been whitewashed. The Market Hall Company, the owners, the slaughtering contractor, and others have expressed satisfaction with our achievements and, as I think has been admitted tonight, with our rearrangement of these slaughterhouses. The improvements were not made as the result of representations made by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Spearman

Immediately after my representations.

Mr. Willey

Not at all. Some of them may have been made afterwards, but the major alterations were in train before. The last alterations, which included the overhead railing system, were in hand at the beginning of 1949. We admit that this slaughterhouse—and we are not responsible for this—is badly sited and is not altogether satisfactory, but we have been told by the local authority that we have made a remarkable improvement in cleanliness and conditions. In all, we have made improvements costing £870, and in this year we expect to spend £150 on relaying the floor.

Perhaps the best comment I have been able to find on the condition of this slaughterhouse is provided by the Wholesale Meat Supply Association. On 8th February—shortly before the speech of the hon. Gentleman—the Chairman of the North-Eastern Area of the Wholesale Meat Supply Association wrote to the Ministry in these words: May I be allowed to congratulate the Ministry on the wonderful result of the alterations at the Scarborough slaughterhouse? When one thinks of what it was a year or so ago and what it is today the result is simply out-outstanding. A third-class cruiser has been transformed into a first-class battleship.

Mr. Spearman

My real point is that what we want to do is get the slaughterhouse out of the town.

Mr. Willey

I wanted to deal with matter to which, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, publicity was given during the election.

On the point about the deterioration of meat, the figures of condemnations in the Scarborough slaughterhouse during the six months ended December, 1949, show that in the case of cattle, which, I am told, provide the best method of testing slaughtering arrangements, the percentage lost by condemnation is substantially below the national average. I will not deal with the details, because I will write to the hon. Gentleman about bruising—on which inquiries were made and experiments carried out. We have a check on the waste of meat because we can take animals graded in a single collecting station from which they were distributed to several slaughterhouses. In the light of experience Scarborough slaughterhouse comes out better than others.

Finally, on the question of unnecessary suffering of animals, I believe that the intervention made by the hon. Gentleman during the election was most unfortunate, because it has reflected on very good officials of the R.S.P.C.A. who have worked with the Ministry since it has been responsible for the slaughterhouse and with whom our relations have been excellent. In the case of the Scarborough slaughterhouse, I am told that the local inspector of the R.S.P.C.A. visits it at least twice a week, and to quote his own words has never been in a position to find any complaint. On the point of animals being slaughtered in sight of carcases, that is true, although as I have indicated when referring to the improvements, the position is rather better than it was before. The difficulty is, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, that these premises are not satisfactory. We have limited the allocation of livestock, so that the livestock will arrive in numbers compatible with their proper treatment.

I have only a few moments to deal with what seems to be the main concern, that is, the provision of a new slaughterhouse. Our difficulties are well known. We had to ban the building of slaughterhouses during the war. Subsequently, we had to treat building according to priorities—and I think the whole House is with us in this. We have given priority to schools, hospitals, houses, new factories. But in 1947, in consultation with the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture, it was decided that we should give some encouragement to local authorities where their proposals could be justified, and where they could fit in with a long-term plan. There have been discussions with the local authority in this case, as the hon. Gentleman knows. There must be further discussion with other authorities, because they are affected—and that is not an easy or speedy process—and then we have to decide where the priority lies. I do not want the hon. Gentleman to go away feeling too optimistic. There are parts of the country whose need is much greater than in this case.

It has now been decided that the Ministry of Works, on behalf of the Ministry of Food, shall proceed immediately to build two Government experimental slaughterhouses, at which we can test the experience we have gained from control since we took over the slaughterhouses. These are being built at Fareham and Guildford. This will not deal with the immediate problem, and what we are doing this year is to set up advisory slaughterhouse committees in the several areas of Britain, under the chairmanship of the area meat and livestock officers, to consider again whether there are any additional slaughterhouses which can effectively be brought into use, having regard to the problems which have been mentioned.

I should say a few words about Creech St. Michael, Taunton. The facts I have before me, as a result of inquiries made during the past day or two, do not agree at all with what the hon. Gentleman has said tonight. I just report briefly that our inquiries seem to indicate that this is a very well run slaughterhouse. We came across one case about which we have received an explanation, but perhaps if the hon. Gentleman will write to me we would look into this further. The inquiries we have made since he gave us notice do not substantiate what he said, but we will make more exhaustive inquiries in the light of what he has said, and write to him. It is difficult to deal with such a wide subject in such a short time, but, as I have said, I will take the opportunity of writing to the hon. Member about the various points which he has raised, and——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock on Tuesday evening and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Five Minutes past Twelve o'Clock.