HC Deb 18 June 1952 vol 502 cc1517-26

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

7.23 a.m.

Mr. Donald Chapman (Birmingham, Northfield)

It has been very rightly suggested that we should get animals together to sign a petition against cruelty to Members of Parliament. It would be a good thing after what we have just been through.

This is a very serious subject. First, I should like to thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department for sitting through the night to reply. I shall be raising, I am afraid, many subjects which do not come under his Department at all, but I hope that he will be able to pass on some of the things I have to say to other Departments.

My difficulty is to deal with the enormous wealth of material at my disposal. I propose to restrict myself to dealing with personal cases of cruelty, because I think there is now nothing less than a minor crime wave in respect of cruelty to animals in this country. I do not wish to deal with gin traps and many other things, but personal cases of cruelty which seem to be on the increase.

Our interest and our awareness of this has been heightened by Press articles, Questions in the House, recent legislation, and, particularly—and I want to deal with this before I come to the substance of what I have to say—by some articles last week in the "Manchester Guardian." That newspaper should be congratulated upon the service it did in bringing certain facts to the notice of the public. The articles which concerned the transportation of horses, mainly from Eire, to abattoirs in Paris, exposed a set of circumstances which must make us feel that the question of cruelty to animals and their protection is an international one as well as just one into which we are looking in this country.

The facts which these articles revealed are appalling. Horses were 96 hours in transit without any sleep; and the horse happens to be a very sensitive animal that needs sleep and cannot stand sea sickness on the voyage between Eire and Dieppe. The, appalling conditions in Paris slaughterhouses and the difficulties en route for the animals are facts which should cause any internationally-minded citizen, or even just an ordinary citizen, to be ashamed that his fellow creatures should permit such cruelties. I hope that the facts revealed here will go out beyond this Chamber, even to other Governments, to show that we, at least, feel that these things are not right and that something should be done about them.

The articles from the "Manchester Guardian" have been reprinted in pamphlet form. The killing of horses in front of the bodies of other horses which are being skinned and have their entrails lying about is something which we are trying to prevent in this country. I trust that it is not too much to hope that we can persuade the French Government to do something about it, too.

A Question was asked in the House some days ago about the illegal killing of horses in this country by stunning them and extracting their blood to make white meat which, as I understand, is sold in more than one Soho restaurant as beef. The "Manchester Guardian" investigation is continuing, and I hope it will bring out more facts which we can take up and upon which we can press the Government to take action.

There is not only that cruelty but the cruelty of the sea crossing imposed upon horses exported from Ireland to England. They are exported in some considerable numbers still. Because of the kind of stomach horses have they are unable to be seasick and that results in blinding headaches. Furthermore, when they arrive in this country, unlike the practice in the case of cattle, there is no regulation that they should have food and 24 hours' rest before they are moved on to other parts of the country.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

The whole tenor of my hon. Friend's remarks seems to me to be imputing to the Irish people, more than to any other people, undue cruelty. I hope that he does not intend that.

Mr. Chapman

No, I did not intend that. I have been criticising the French more than anybody so far, and at the moment I am emphasising that the English have no checking facilities at our ports.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

In the last Parliament we secured very valuable concessions from the United Kingdom Government in respect of horses. The difficulty rested with the Government of Eire.

Mr. Chapman

I am fully aware of that, but there is still a great deal to be checked up. It is true that horses are not as well treated as other animals during importation into this country. I want, however, to come to the substance of what I have to say and to speak of the present crime wave and the evidence that there is a growing number of acts of personal cruelty. I want to suggest to the Government what can be done.

What is the evidence? It is contained in many figures, of which I want to choose a few. If we take the figures known to the R.S.P.C.A., which, incidentally, is doing such good work, as always, the number of complaints received by this Society, and acted upon, was 17,000 in 1945. By 1951, that figure had gone up to 31,000. It had nearly doubled in the last seven years. If we take the figure for actual convictions in the courts, it was 638 in 1945. In 1951, the figure was 939, a 50 per cent. increase. If the figures rise throughout the rest of 1952 as they did in the first four months of this year they will reach 11,000.

In other words, in 1952, the number of convictions for actual cruelty will, more or less, have doubled compared with 1945. That is the evidence. It goes on day after day, and we can read it for ourselves in the newspapers. I want to come to some examples of the shocking cases, which are reported and to the inadequate penalties meted out by magistrates.

In the City of Derby, on 15th June, 1952, a man was fined the "magnificent" sum of 10s. 0d. as the result of cruelty to an animal. The R.S.P.C.A. report runs as follows: When the Society's inspector visited the accused's house, he found the animal, a fawn and white mongrel bitch, to be in a very emaciated bodily condition. The bitch was unable to rise and could only just move her head and appeared to be on the point of dying. A veterinary surgeon, who examined the carcase, stated that the bitch was very emaciated and he observed that there were no signs of a debilitating disease. In the veterinary surgeon's opinion, the animal's condition was due to starvation over a considerable period of time. Let me take a second example. An 18-year old youth was fined £20, and ordered to pay £5 costs, for what was one of the most appalling cases the magistrates in New Tredegar had ever known. The defendant took a dog he wanted to get rid of to a pit shaft, 25 feet deep, and made it jump in. After that, he threw heavy stones and metal sheets down the shaft. The dog crept into a narrow passage and defendant left it there. Three days later, he returned and heard the dog whimpering. He did nothing about it, but some days later two men heard the dog whimpering and, with the help of a policeman, got it out of the shaft. The R.S.P.C.A. inspector told the court that the dog was now in a good home, that it was a good dog, about four or five years old, and that except for its emaciated condition was quite healthy.

Last, let me come to one case, which has been in the newspapers recently, where four boys were accused of shooting squirrels up a tree or knocking them down, stabbing them on the ground with a sheath-knife, cutting off their tails, and thinking the whole thing was a funny game. The boys were conditionally discharged and their parents ordered to pay 21s. costs. Anything more ludicrous as a penalty it is hard to imagine. These cases are going on every day, and there are inadequate penalties.

I have brought here some evidence of the kind of thing that the R.S.P.C.A. is finding throughout the country. It is further evidence of this crime wave. This article which I hold in my hand was taken from children in Beverley market. It is a very good instrument for torturing animals. It consists of the middle stay of an umbrella; Members will observe that the handle is still on it. At one end the metal has been squashed and a pen knife blade inserted. The children were caught going round the market digging this into defenceless animals, and they seemed to go particularly for the animals' eyes.

I have another weapon here, consisting of a heavy dart on a piece of string which children were caught throwing at the eyes of calves and such animals. They stick it in, and then pull it out. They think it is an enormous joke. This is the sort of evidence which we can collect as well as the details of cases. There are weapons of torture as well as simply evidence of cruelty.

What can be done about all this? I have not stressed the figures any more than necessary, because I think it is generally well known that this kind of sadism is on the increase in British life. What can be done? I want to make some suggestions. If we break down the figures of cruelty we find that every year quite consistently the number of convictions boils down to one-quarter or one-third of them being concerned with dogs. Every year the figure runs steadily at that rate; from 25 per cent. to 33⅓ per cent. of the convictions are for cruelty to dogs.

What is really needed is some enforcement of the 1933 Protection of Dogs Act, and I think we are entitled to ask the Home Secretary to draw the attention of magistrates to their powers under this Act. The Act allows magistrates to forbid a person convicted of cruelty to a dog from owning a dog either for a period of years or for life. That is certainly needed, because it is not unknown for some of these worst offenders to commit these offences time and time again. We must prevent them owning animals if the animals' trust in them is misplaced.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

I am not certain whether the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that to his knowledge a number of these cases involve second offences. I have no information on that score, and I should like to know whether the hon. Gentleman is making that suggestion.

Mr. Chapman

I am about to explain that that does sometimes happen, particularly because, as far as I can gather, some of the reports of these cases are not adequately circulated when a convicted person moves about the country. I have no direct evidence. I only gather from people who know more about it than I do that there is no real check on people who are second offenders.

From the point of view of the Protection of Dogs Act, there is some need to compile a register of people who are put on the black list and prohibited from owning dogs. As far as I can make out, if I am prohibited from owning a dog for 10 years by the local magistrate, there is apparently nothing to prevent me moving to another part of England and purchasing a dog. It is nobody's job to check up whether, in fact, I do own a dog within the period for which I have been prohibited. Something is badly needed to make sure that this Act is not partly a dead letter. Offenders should be checked by some machinery to make sure that they do not escape the law.

There must be some pressure on magistrates to increase the penalties. It is very often cheaper to be cruel now than it was pre-war.' Fines of 10s. are still being imposed for offences for which 10s. fines were imposed before the war. Moreover, there is very great variation in the use of imprisonment as a punishment. If we could have six months' imprisonment for a few of these offenders we should begin to see the crime wave brought under control. Magistrates are failing in their power if they do not imprison some of these offenders.

Let me give examples of how the penalties vary. I take them at random from a list submitted to me by the R.S.P.C.A. There was a case in Don-caster of a cat which was kicked to death, and the man who did it was fined £7, and ordered to pay £8 costs. At Dewsbury a cat was thrown on the fire, and the man was sent to prison for a month. Clearly, both men should have been sent to prison for a month. I am suggesting that the Under-Secretary should circularise magistrates again, pressing them to bring the crime wave under control, and drawing their attention to the fact that imprisonment is possible and that fines should be heavier.

I come to the question of children. I think that here we have to ask the Home Secretary to have an increased watch kept on markets, and to draw local authorities' attention to their power in this respect. If children are caught being cruel to animals in the markets they should be sent out of the markets, and the aid of the police should be enlisted. This is a matter on which we have the right as a community to ask the school teachers to help us. The R.S.P.C.A. provides a lecture service, but that is not enough. We shall have to have more sense of the care of animals inculcated into the children at school, so that this kind of sadism does not become a prac- tice for exhibition purposes out of school hours.

There is one final point, and that is corporal punishment. I know that the Home Secretary thinks that corporal punishment is not justified for children because the figures of convictions have not gone up in their case, but there is some ground for considering it. It has been a melancholy and a sad task to compile this account of sadism in British life. I hope I have left enough time to enable the Under-Secretary of State to speak of some of the things that can be done about it.

7.43 a.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Sir Hugh Lucas-Tooth)

In the short time available to me it is difficult to give the hon. Gentleman much of an answer. Let me say, first of all, about the questions raised by the recent articles in the "Manchester Guardian," to which the hon. Gentleman referred, that they were, of course, mainly concerned with the traffic in horses between Eire and certain Continental countries. I think that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that there can be no possible responsibility in any Minister in this House for that traffic. No doubt those concerned will note what the hon. Gentleman has said, but there is nothing which I can say in that connection.

So far as the export of horses from England is concerned, the matter was dealt with by an amending Order in 1951. I think that 736 horses altogether were exported from this country; and of those no fewer than 613 were thoroughbred racehorses and similar stock. In fact, only five horses did not come under some clear definition. So I think it can be said that there is no longer any exportation of horses from this country for purposes of slaughter.

There is the question of what has been referred to as a devilish device; the electrical pump to convert horse flesh into what appears to be veal. That was the gist of what has been suggested, both here tonight, and in a leading article in "The Times" yesterday. Here, I should state the law on the subject. Part 5 of the Food and Drugs Act, 1938, rules that all horses must be slaughtered in slaughterhouses or knackers' yards, which must be licensed by the local authority; and, under the Slaughter of Animals Act, 1933, it is required that animals, including horses, shall be stunned so as to be insensible until death intervenes, or be instantaneously killed. Slaughtermen have to be licensed, and they must use methods and appliances that will cause the least suffering.

The statutory provisions therefore appear to be adequate. But, as has been said tonight, the responsibility for these provisions does not fall on the Home Office; it lies with the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. The problem is not one of the inadequacy of the law, but the practical difficulty of enforcing it. That entails detection of offences, and proof of them.

As regards the broad allegation made concerning this electrical device, the fullest inquiries in the Home Office, and in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the Ministry of Food, have failed to disclose any information of this offence at all. So far as the Government is concerned, we have no information that any such offence has been committed; and we have no reason to suppose that any such method of slaughtering horses is being used in the country. Perhaps I might say that the Minister of Food's recent answer to a Question in the House was referring to the "Manchester Guardian" article, and was not intended to be anything more than that.

It is necessary, I think, to refer specifically to a passage in that article because it quotes a statement made by an Irish dealer who was referring to what was being done by another dealer. That, I think, is what the lawyers would term "hearsay evidence." The inquiries which I have made—and I understand that the "Manchester Guardian" has no other evidence about this particular matter, and does not know the name of the dealer who is said to have used this machine—have not proved this charge. In these circumstances, I think that the Government must assume that if this is carried out it must be an isolated case, but, if anyone at all has further evidence, the Government will be only too pleased to have it.

On the more general question, I must say that there is really no indication of any substantial increase in this kind of crime; or, indeed, of any increase in the degree of cruelty involved. The Government have no evidence of that. I should like to give some very brief statistics. They show that in the 1920's, on an average, some 6,000 prosecutions for cruelty to animals took place annually. In the following decade the average had dropped to 3,000 a year. During the war there was a sharp drop; but I do not want to give the figures for that period, because they are completely vitiated by all sorts of other considerations. In 1945 the number was only 900, as compared with the average of 3,000 in the previous decade. By 1948 the figure had dropped to 846 and in 1951 it had risen again to 1,021.

It is true that there has been that rise, but it is not a very big rise, though I think it is not unfair to say that the recent reduction has not been very great and has been running at an average of just below 1,000. I am not for a moment saying that we should not deplore that fact; but it is quite certain that the amount of cruelty to animals, as shown by these statistics, has very materially dropped during the last 20 or 30 years.

The hon. Gentleman referred to complaints coming in to the R.S.P.C.A. I suggest that one reason for those complaints—or, possibly, for a large number of them—is the livelier interest on the part of the public, and if that is so it is a good thing that there should be an increase in complaints. I understand that 11,000 oral warnings were given by the R.S.P.C.A. I have no knowledge of the sort of offences in respect of which the warnings were given, but I think it may very well be that a large number of them were due to ignorance and carelessness——

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

Adjourned at Seven Minutes to Eight o'Clock a.m., Thursday, 19th June.