HL Deb 22 June 1954 vol 188 cc3-15

2.38 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move the Second Reading of this Bill. Before dealing specifically with the contents of the Bill, I feel that it may be helpful to your Lordships if I refer briefly to the trade in horseflesh in this country and to more recent events which have led to the introduction of this Bill into your Lord-ships' House. Before the war, in England, Wales and Scotland, there were slaughtered annually some 18,000 horses, from which a large proportion of the carcase meat was exported to the Continent. During the war, for reasons which I need not elaborate, there was a rapid expansion in the business of slaughtering horses for human consumption, and the home supply was supplemented by imports from Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. By 1948, the peak year, at least 76,000 horses were slaughtered in England and Wales and, in addition, 10,000 in Scotland. Those figures are very conservative figures, and, I think, were greatly exceeded. There are probably still some 50,000 horses being slaughtered annually by some fifty persons or firms, as compared with sixteen old-established firms before the war.

Furthermore, immediately after the war there was some danger of the revival of the export trade in live horses to the Continent. As a result, a Committee was appointed to inquire into the export and slaughter of horses. The Committee was presided over by the noble Earl, Lord Rosebery, and reported in March, 1950. The adoption of certain valuable recommendations in that Report led to the extinction of the trade in live horses to the Continent, to improved conditions in the transport of horses, under the Transit of Horses Order, 1951; and finally, in 1952, to the centralisation of Government functions in relation to slaughterhouses in one Ministry, the Ministry of Food. At the same time, public anxiety was roused by statements in the Press, notably in the Manchester Guardian, regarding the conditions in horse slaughterhouses. In October of the same year, a Committee was appointed, over which I had the honour to preside, to consider the law and practice thereunder in relation to the slaughtering of horses and whether any further safeguards are necessary to ensure humane conditions in slaughtering. This Bill gives effect to the main recommendations of that Committee. Most of the amendments which the Bill makes in the existing law will apply to the law in regard to other animals as well as to horses. The Bill also enables Ministers to make regulations prescribing conditions and practices that must be complied with in slaughter premises. It was introduced as a Private Member's Bill in another place, and I hope that I may properly take this opportunity of paying tribute to its sponsor and to others who helped to speed its passage there.

When considering the question of improving conditions in slaughterhouses and knackers' yards, it is important to have a clear distinction in mind between the method of slaughter and the conditions under which horses are brought to slaughter. It is the latter which includes the lairages—that is, the places where animals are kept awaiting slaughter—the watering and feeding of horses, and the conditions in the slaughter hall itself, which at the present time are the main causes for distress. There are slaughterhouses with open pounds, where the horses and ponies are herded in together, where the hay is often musty, where the water is foul or stagnant, where bedding is damp or non-existent, and where there is totally inadequate provision for the swilling away of blood and the disposal of waste and offal. In most slaughterhouses horses are led into a slaughter hall around which are hanging the carcases of horses previously slaughtered. How much a horse associates the sight and smell of blood, or the presence of carcases of other horses, with its own impending death, or how great a degree of fear or apprehension is induced by these things, seems to me a purely academic argument, and one which we need not pursue. I submit that the sensible approach is to say that, even if the degree of apprehension is less than is commonly supposed, the general environment under which many horses at the present time in this country are being brought to slaughter certainly does cause very considerable distress. Such conditions are unnecessary; they can be avoided; they offend the public conscience, and they must be stopped.

Clause 1 of the Bill, therefore, deals with the licensing of premises used for, or in connection with, the slaughter of animals. It requires that slaughterhouses and knackers' yards used for the slaughter of horses must be specifically authorised for that purpose. It provides for the granting of separate licences, at the discretion of the licensing authority, for lairages which may be separate from the main premises, and it secures that a licence shall not be given unless the regulations in regard to construction, layout and equipment in force under the Act are complied with. The responsibility for licensing will remain with the local authorities. In England and Wales, an appeal against the decision of a local authority will continue to be made to a court of summary jurisdiction and in Scotland to the Secretary of State.

My Lords, in the past the chief hindrance to an improvement in the conditions of slaughterhouses has been that the law did not prescribe any minimum standards. Clause 2 of the Bill therefore empowers the Minister of Food, or, in Scotland, the Secretary of State for Scotland, to make regulations for securing humane conditions and practices in slaughterhouses and knackers' yards. The regulations may prescribe detailed requirements as to construction, layout and equipment, and as to the feeding and watering of animals awaiting slaughter, and they may deal differently with different kinds of animals. This will enable regulations to be made in respect of horses which might not be applicable to other animals. The clause also provides that any regulations dealing with horses shall make provision for the matters specified in the First Schedule to the Bill.

I have already referred to the method of slaughter—that is, the stunning of an animal, which, under the existing law, must be by a mechanically operated instrument. There are various types of instruments in use, and provided that they are used with requisite skill there is little danger of cruelty arising. But, as with all weapons, their effectiveness depends upon the skill of the operator. On the whole, slaughtermen are skilled operators who take a pride in doing their work humanely and efficiently, and who are imbued with the same care for, and kindness towards, animals as are your Lordships. But at the present time there is a risk that cruelty may arise from inexperience, because the law as it stands makes no provision for the person who wants to become a slaughterman; nor is any provision made for ensuring skill in the use of different types of weapons or in dealing with different kinds of animals. Clause 3, therefore, provides that licences shall specify the kinds of animals which the holder of a licence may slaughter or stun and the type of instruments he may use. It also provides for the grant of conditional licences to inexperienced persons who will be required to serve a term of apprenticeship under the supervision of an experienced slaughterman. The clause also amplifies the grounds for refusal by a local authority of an application for a licence or for the revocation or suspension of a licence.

Clause 4 gives to sheep and lambs, goats and kids and pigs, the same protection of humane slaughter as already applies to all other animals, and will make statutory in England and Wales what is common practice, and bring the law in those countries into line with that of Scotland. Clause 5 increases the penalties for an offence against the slaughtering and stunning provisions of the Slaughter of Animals Acts or regulations made under Clause 2 of the Bill, and provides that a court may enforce the additional penalty, in the case of slaughterhouse occupiers, of cancellation of licence. The execution and enforcement of the law will, I think rightly, remain with the local authorities, but it is a fact that medical officers of health and sanitary inspectors are, by the nature of their training, concerned mainly with post-mortem conditions. It is therefore extremely important to make provision for some measure of advice and supervision by a central department to keep a check on the ante-mortem conditions under which horses are brought to slaughter, and in order to ensure adequate standards throughout the country.

The Committee over which I presided felt very strongly that such supervision could best be provided by persons with veterinary qualifications. I have assurances from the Minister—and I hope that the noble Viscount, Lord Woolton, in his remarks may reinforce them—that he will provide persons with knowledge, understanding and experience of live animals. Clause 6, therefore, in addition to giving powers of entry to medical officers of health and sanitary inspectors, also gives powers of entry to veterinary officers appointed by local authorities and to officers of the Minister of Food and the Secretary of State for Scotland. I am also assured that this will enable the Minister to call upon staff in the Animal Health Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, if that becomes necessary. The remainder of the clauses of the Bill deal with technical matters to which I need not draw special attention.

Your Lordships' House has ever shown itself keenly concerned in matters of animal welfare. Many of your Lordships, I know, have spent, as I still do myself, some of the happiest days of your lives with horses—it may be in the Army, or in the hunting field, on the race course or on the farm. But I suppose that few of us ever pause to think, unless the matter is drawn specially to our attention, of their ultimate fate. There can be no question about the necessity for this Bill. I shall welcome your Lordships' views and advice, and I hope that I may count upon the full measure of your support.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Duke of Northumberland.)

2.52 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that I am expressing the views of all your Lordships when I congratulate the noble Duke on the clarity of the speech that he has just made, and I hope that he will acquit me of discourtesy if I say how very much we wish that we more frequently had the pleasure of his guidance. The Government recognise to the full the importance of the problem that he has put before us. I do not think we need encumber our minds by trying to understand the psychology of the horses in these conditions, because the truth is that the bad conditions under which the slaughter of horses has taken place, whatever effect they may have on the horses that are about to be slaughtered, certainly offend public taste and public conscience in this country.

The anxiety which the Government have on the question is shown by the fact that they asked the noble Duke to go into the matter; and on behalf of the Government, and I am sure on behalf of your Lordships, I would to-day express our gratitude to the noble Duke and to his Committee for the expedition with which they have produced their Report, and for the excellence of it. Her Majesty's Government accept the Committee's recommendations. They consider that the proposals in this Bill are reasonable, practical and humane. I can assure the noble Duke that the Minister of Food, or whoever ultimately becomes the responsible Minister, will give the full support of ministerial powers and of staff, and I join the noble Duke in commending this Bill to your Lordships' House.

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, I should like, first of all, to associate myself with what the noble Viscount, Lord Woolton, has said in reference to the speech of the noble Duke. The noble Viscount said he would like to hear the noble Duke more often, and I entirely agree with that. I first met the noble Duke when he was vice-chairman of the Hill Farming Committee of the Department in which I had the honour to serve, and I also had an opportunity of visiting his admirable farms in the north, and I know that he has many other calls on his time which are very largely matters of public work. I should also like to say how grateful we are to the noble Duke, and indeed to all the members of his Committee, for their Report, which forms the basis of this Bill and which I gather must have involved a great deal of travel up and down the country, as well as a great deal of ordinary committee work. I think the noble Duke will agree that the best tribute to the thoroughness of his Committee's Report is that its conclusions have been embodied so quickly in this uncontroversial Bill, which has been welcomed, both here and in another place, by spokesmen for the Government, as well as by members of all Parties.

As the noble Duke pointed out, the practices which his Committee was appointed to inquire into arose during the war, and resulted from its effect upon our diet and upon our system of agriculture. War-time meat shortage resulted in greatly increased consumption of horsemeat, and the need for more home-grown food meant that the tractor and the combined harvester were substituted for the horse on most of our fields. But, of course, those conditions have changed, and are rapidly changing. We are now hoping for, and experiencing, a steadily increasing supply of home-grown sheep and cattle, arid the mechanisation of British agriculture probably has reached about its economic limit. Nevertheless, I am convinced that the change from war to peace-time conditions does not lessen the value of the noble Duke's report or the urgency of this Bill.

We have recently passed another Act to facilitate a large increase in the number of slaughterhouses. They will be needed to deal with the reversion to private trading in livestock and, of course, to provide sufficient accommodation for our expanding livestock industry. It is absolutely essential that conditions in these new slaughterhouses should be at least as good as the conditions recommended for the slaughter of horses in the noble Duke's Report. The Bill sets out to do this by giving the Minister power to make regulations which will lay down a minimum standard of decency in the management of slaughterhouses. These regulations will apply to slaughter-houses generally, arid not only to premises where horses are slaughtered. Judging from the harrowing description given by the noble Duke (he did not go into great detail, I am glad to say, although the details that he gave were fairly shocking), and the fact that at some of the places visited by his Committee the preparations for the slaughter of horses were perhaps even more shock- ing than the actual method of slaughter, there is urgent need at the present time for a code having the force of law which will apply equally to all premises and persons engaged in the slaughter of animals. It is a code of this kind which the present Bill authorises the Minister to draw up.

The standard laid down will no doubt be a minimum standard, but it will be a great thing for such a standard to be established as a normal practice, though I rather fear that it will not be any too easy to enforce. I should like to say a word or two about enforcement later. It will be very difficult indeed to maintain the standard unless, in addition to the compulsion of law which this Bill will apply, those who manage slaughter houses show a personal sense of responsibility for the animals under their care: we must have their good will and co-operation. It is only in this way, I think, that we can hope to achieve the high standard of humanity and decency which, according to a most interesting Appendix to the noble Duke's Report, appears already to prevail in Sweden. May I just make these references to what the Report said with reference to conditions in Sweden? It concluded with observations upon such things as excellent lairage, separate stunning chambers, and veterinary supervision at every stage in the slaughterhouses. These conditions seem to be the general rule at all slaughterhouses in Sweden. Our humane feelings are certainly not inferior in any degree to those of the Swedes, and I do not altogether like to know that they are ahead of us in humane practices. But there is really no reason at all why we should not catch up with Sweden if all concerned in this work, both in an official capacity and in a business capacity, do their best to improve existing conditions.

There is one thing about the Swedish system that struck me as being particularly important in the maintenance of a proper standard hero. That is the employment of veterinary officers to superintend at every stage of this business. I am not quite happy—and this is the one query which I am raising in relation to the Bill; it is not a query in regard to any matter of principle, but it is important if the Bill is to become effective—about what the Bill provides in relation to this matter of supervision. Clause 6 will admit veterinary officers of local authorities—of local authorities, be it noted, not of a central department—and inspectors from the Ministry of Food, as well as health and sanitary officers at present employed for these purposes by local authorities. But will local authorities, who are already pretty short of qualified staff, have enough veterinary officers to be able to supervise all the slaughterhouses in every large area for which they are responsible? The Report recommended the admission of veterinary officers of the Ministry of Agriculture, but this recommendation, I understand has been turned down. There was a somewhat oblique reference to the matter in the noble Duke's speech. I should be happy if the noble Viscount. Lord Woolton, would enlighten us by making it clear what are the intentions of the Government in regard to the use of veterinary officers employed by the central authority. I do not know whether help is to be given by the Ministry of Food or the Ministry of Agriculture, but it seems to me essential to supplement what the local authorities can do in the way of employing veterinary officers if the working of this Bill when it becomes an Act is to be satisfactorily supervised, and if the conditions which we all desire are to be enforced.

There is just one further question—I do not wish to press the noble Viscount, Lord Woolton, to speak again at this stage, but perhaps a note will be made by some noble Lord opposite, in order that a reply can be given later. Both the Minister of Food and the Secretary of State for Scotland will have extremely important duties to carry out under the Bill. The office of Secretary of State for Scotland, we all hope, and expect, is a fairly permanent one, whatever the changes and chances of politics may be. But we all know that the Ministry of Food is going to disappear very soon—that, I think, is expected. I have no doubt that it is the intention of the Government, because it is the policy of the Government to wind up this particular Department. May I therefore ask the Government whether they can tell us now what are their intentions in relation to the administration of this Bill when the Ministry of Food is wound up and the Minister of Food disappears?

This is, I think, an extremely important matter, from the point of view of the effectiveness of the Bill. Personally, I hope that the administration of the Bill will pass to the Ministry of Agriculture, for I believe that the Ministry of Agriculture are better qualified than any other Government Department to assist local authorities in the performance of these duties. I see that the noble Duke nods: I am glad to think that he agrees with me on this point. So I ask, will it be the Ministry of Agriculture or the Home Office—which, of course, has duties in relation to the protection of animals—or is it going to be a combination of Departments or Ministers? I feel that at all costs we must avoid a division of responsibility. We ought to try to get this matter into the hands of one Department, with one Minister responsible for England and Wales and the other responsible for Scotland. With those few questions, I come practically to the end of my remarks, but perhaps I may say, in a final sentence, that I warmly commend this Bill and hope that your Lordships will support it. We on this side of the House will do everything we can to expedite its passage through this House.

3.8 p.m.


My Lords, would it be now convenient to the House if I reply to the questions which the noble Earl has put to me? One of his questions—if I understood him aright—was; Who will take over when the Ministry of Food ceases to exist? The real answer to that question is that it depends upon the wisdom of your Lordships' House and of another place, because, clearly, there will have to be a transfer of functions; and that will depend upon the Parliamentary decision. But I should not be surprised if this duty were given to the Ministry of Agriculture. The other question which the noble Earl put to me was whether there would be sufficient veterinary officers, apart from those in the service of the local authorities. I have made inquiry on this point and I am told that there are four such officers in the Ministry of Food who will be available for the purpose, and that the Animal Health Division of the Ministry of Agriculture has veterinary officers who, if necessary, will be available for helping out. I apologise to your Lordships for being completely out of order in speaking again in this way, but I thought it might be for the convenience of the House if I answered at once the questions addressed to the Government.

3.9 p.m.


My Lords, there are two questions which I should like to ask in connection with this Bill. The first one possibly arises because of my own ignorance and inexperience. It is this. Will there be any compulsion on the Minister to make the regulations referred to in Clause 2 of the Bill? Surely it has been in the power of the Minister to make such regulations for many years: indeed, I should have thought that it was a definite part of his responsibility. But that is my question. Would it be possible for the Minister to treat these recommendations purely as recommendations and do nothing about them? My second question refers to the powers of entry which have already been dealt with by the noble Earl, Lord Listowel. I think this is a very important matter, because slaughterhouses vary greatly in regard to the practices which are carried on therein.

It may be within the recollection of your Lordships that during the war the protection given to sheep and small animals of that sort was left to the discretion of the local authorities: that is to say, it was left to their discretion whether the animals should be stunned first or should be killed in full consciousness. At that time most local authorities took the humane view, but there were thirty-one local authorities which did not enforce previous stunning of animals. I think that under this new system horses will be very well looked after. I know that at present the preliminary conditions leave very much to be desired, but I am certain that with all the attention that has been focussed on this question, in two or three years' time probably there will be little criticism on the question of the slaughtering of horses and of cattle. Nobody would attempt to slaughter them without stunning them first. But smaller animals, particularly sheep, need constant protection, and it is about them that I am concerned. I have evidence to show that even now in some of the slaughterhouses in the North of England preliminary stunning of sheep is not carried out. Therefore, I think continuous inspection is required of slaughterhouses.

Of course, if it were possible to supply a large number of veterinary officers to keep a continuous eye on this matter, then all would be well, but one cannot help thinking that the veterinary officers who are found for this purpose will be few and far between, and so might be their visits. At the present time inspectors of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have the right of access to slaughterhouses. Perhaps "right" is not the correct word, but they have been given, as a concession, power to enter slaughterhouses and see what is going on, and the question I would ask is: will that permission be continued under the new system?


My Lords, first of all, I should like to thank the noble Viscount, Lord Woolton, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, for their kind references to the work of my Committee. Both Lord Listowel and Lord Dowding raised the question of supervision and inspectorate, and I entirely agree that the inspectorate which is set up, by whichever Minister who may become responsible, is extremely important. This is a matter that has been gone into most carefully and we have had assurances from the Minister. For my part, I am prepared to accept those assurances, but I agree that it will be vital to see that the slaughter house arrangements are as we wish them to be. The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Dowding, referred to sheep and lambs. Sheep and lambs, goals and kids, which are not under the law at the moment as other animals are, are being brought under the law by this Bill. This applies to pigs as well.


My Lords, I think that they are under the law by statutory instrument. I can give the noble Duke references and dates.


Thank you. I was under the impression that they were not, and that this was the first time in which these animals were brought in. I think it is a matter for the local authorities in the areas in which they are being slaughtered, but I shall be grateful to the noble Lord if he will give me the references. So far as I know, inspectors of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals do not have the right to enter slaughter houses, but arrangements are made for R.S.P.C.A. inspectors to go in. I am not aware that there will be any change under this Bill, nor do I think it would be the intention to make such a change.

On Question, Bill read 2a; and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.