HL Deb 02 May 1889 vol 335 cc961-7

My Lords, I have to ask your Lordships to give a Second Reading to this Bill, which has come up from the other House. The title is not a very ornamental one, but the subject is one which seriously affects a large number of people. The object of the Bill is to provide that no person shall buy horseflesh under any misconception as to the nature of what he is purchasing. It is drawn on the lines of the Act which passed your Lordship's House some years ago and became law—the Act known as the Margarine Act. So far as it is possible to legislate upon matters so dissimilar as horseflesh and margarine, the Bill follows on the lines of the Margarine Act. Another portion of this Bill is taken from the unsound meat clauses of the Public Health Act, which have been found a great protection to the purchaser, and have been a very useful means of preserving the health of the community. I believe it is now rather more than forty years ago since the question was first mooted of the consumption of horseflesh as an article of human food. In 1847 the first steps were taken in Berlin to bring horseflesh as an article of food for the community. I am told that horseflesh is by no means unpalatable, and that it possesses certain qualities which are agreeable to the taste of many persons. Whether that is so or not, I think your Lordships will agree that those who intend to buy what is ordinarily known as butcher's meat, ought not to have palmed off upon them, at the price of butcher's meat, meat which is really horseflesh. I need not go into the chemical question as to the component parts of horseflesh; but I may simply say this, that whatever the peculiarities of taste may be which makes horseflesh differ from ordinary butcher's meat, a very simple test will show whether it is horseflesh or not, for the specific gravity of the chemical constituents of the fat of horseflesh is such that it is very easy indeed to place beyond all doubt whether the meat in question is horseflesh or not. I am told that in certain cases the vendors of horseflesh remove the fat from horseflesh, and substitute the fat of beef or mutton for the fat that properly belongs to horseflesh. We know that various trades have their various tricks, and we need not go into that closely. But what I want to point out to your Lordships is that it is a very serious grievance that one class of meat should be foisted upon the unsuspecting purchaser for another. The feeling on this subject is very great in those places where the attention of the public has been called to it. In Lancashire, in Manchester and in Salford, I am told, there is a great consumption of horseflesh. A few years ago, the price paid by the Manchester Zoological Gardens for the carcase of a horse was only 25s. I am told now that from some mysterious cause or another the price of horseflesh has risen, and the directors of the Manchester Zoological Gardens, instead of buying their carcases for 25s., have to pay no less a sum than £3. I think that shows a considerable alteration of the conditions under which horseflesh is sold. No one can wish that this traffic should be carried on surreptitiously, and that innocent purchasers should be induced to purchase horseflesh thinking it good, sound. wholesome beef. The Bill will not in any way interfere with proper traffic. There is no desire whatever to interfere with the sale of horseflesh. All the desire is, that horseflesh when sold shall be sold as horseflesh, and not sold as anything else. Power is, therefore, given to the medical officer to apply to the Justices of the Peace for a search warrant where he has reason to believe horseflesh is being sold as beef. I understand that it was stated at a banquet held in London in 1868, that there were 75,000 horses which were annually wasted through not being consumed as human food. I think it is quite possible that under proper restrictions the sale of horseflesh may be developed, and it may become a proper article of consumption for the public; but it must be done in a manner open and without fraud, and not so as to delude the innocent purchaser into the belief that he is buying that which he is not supplied with. Moreover, I have been looking up to this time to the question merely from the consumer's point of view, but I think something should be said from the tradesman's point of view. It is very hard that an honest butcher who is selling butcher's meat should be undersold by those who sell horseflesh, who are able, of course, to undersell him, and interfere very seriously with his sale of beef. It is desirable to put the trade under such proper restrictions as, without interfering with the convenience of the public, will secure the genuineness of the article sold, and also take care that the honest trader is not placed at a disadvantage. I am informed that in a very few days a petition has been got up, not to your Lordships, but to the other House of Parliament, signed by 23,000 people, who are aggrieved at the conditions under which the trade is carried on. I need not mention the localities, but I understand that in a very few days this petition, signed by 23,000 people, was got up and presented to the House of Commons in support of this Bill. The restrictions contained in this Bill are, as I have said, copied from the Margarine Act so far as they are capable of application. The first clause provides that no one is to sell or to offer for sale any horseflesh except in a place which is to be registered for that purpose, and he shall have in a conspicuous position over his shop or stall words indicating that horseflesh is sold there. The second clause, borrowed in the main from the Margarine Act, provides that any purchaser purchasing horseflesh unless he asks for horseflesh shall be supplied with a label of a certain size and so forth, so that he may know exactly what he has bought. Clause 3 provides that the Medical Officer or Inspector of Nuisances, or any other officer of the Local Authority acting under proper instructions, may at all reasonable times examine any meat that he has reason to believe is horseflesh. That is taken from the Unsound Meat Clauses of the Public Health Act which have worked exceedingly well. Then follows Clause 4, which enables Justices of the Peace to grant a warrant on the application of the Medical Officer of Health. Clause 5 provides for the disposal of the horseflesh which has been seized under the foregoing clauses, and the remaining clauses are really unimportant. My Lords, I think I have shown that legislation is required for the protection not merely of the consumer, but also of the honest tradesman; and I also think I have shown that the Clauses are copied from similar Clauses, which have been found by experience reasonable and suitable, and therefore I hope your Lordships will now give a Second Reading to this Bill.


My Lords, I do not rise for the purpose of making any objection to the second reading of this Bill, which is practically similar to one which I introduced last year called the Foreign Meat Bill. That Bill, consisting of one clause only, insisted upon any butcher who sold foreign or colonial meat putting distinctly on a board that the meat sold was foreign. I withdrew that Bill last year because the noble Lord at the head of the Government promised that a similar Bill should be introduced this Session by the Government. [The Marquess of SALISBURY expressed dissent.] I certainly understood that such a promise was made, and I am sorry to hear that I am mistaken and that no Bill of the kind will be introduced by the Government. However, the principle of this Bill (and it was also the principle of the Margarine Act) is that people ought not to be deluded into purchasing something other than that which they think they are purchasing.


On behalf of Her Majesty's Government it is not my intention to oppose the second reading of this Bill. As I understand its principle, it is, shortly, that a purchaser who buys meat as butcher's meat should be protected against having horseflesh palmed off upon him.


I do not intend to vote against the second reading, but I would like to point out to your Lordships that in some respects the Bill will need revision. For instance, by Clause 6 it is provided that— In any proceedings against any person for offending against the provisions of this Act, it shall not be necessary to prove that any horseflesh which may have been sold, offered, exposed, or kept for sale, was intended for human food; but the onus of proving that any such horseflesh was not intended for human food shall rest with such person. Now, if I rightly understand that Sec- tion, a cats'-meat man who sells horseflesh would be bound to prove that he sells it not for human consumption.


I think that in some clauses the measure is too stringent. For instance, one of the provisions is that anyone selling horseflesh for human food must supply the purchaser with a label on which shall be printed in legible letters, not less than an inch in length, "horseflesh;" and by Clause 6 a trader who does not comply with that provision is liable to a penalty "not exceeding £20." The Bill will require examination on this and other points in Committee.

Bill read 2a according to order.


I beg to move that the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House.


After what has been said upon the Second Reading, it seems to me that this is a Bill which should go to one of the Standing Committees. Perhaps the noble Earl will agree to its going to the Standing Committee for General Bills.


The only reason for my wishing to refer it to a Committee of the whole House is that we have no knowledge whatever when the Standing Committees are going to meet. The question is a pressing one, and, unless it is clear that the Bill would be considered by a Standing Committee within a reasonable time, I would prefer that your Lordships should bring your collective wisdom to bear upon it in Committee of the whole House, so that the Bill may become law before Whitsuntide.


I understand that the Chairmen of the Standing Committees will meet shortly to make provision for the despatch of the business before them. There is no such hurry as the noble Earl seems to suppose for passing the Bill, because, judging from the state of affairs in the House of Commons, they are not likely to be waiting for the noble Earl to send them business.


I really think that, although it is very undesirable that horseflesh should be sold fraudulently as butcher's meat, and although it may be very wise to legislate upon the subject, there cannot be any extraordinary urgency about the matter; and I therefore beg to move that the Bill be referred to the Standing Committee for General Bills.


I will not trouble your Lordships to divide.

Bill committed to the Standing Committee for General Bills.