HL Deb 03 December 1962 vol 245 cc14-22

3.7 p.m.

Debate continued.


My Lords, I oppose the Second Reading of this Bill because if lit were to become law it would make Shechita, which is the ritual method of slaughtering animals, illegal. Not that that would matter to me; but it would matter to upwards of 200,000 people in this country who are perfectly normal citizens and who, as a result, would be unable to eat meat or chickens. Therefore I think we must be absolutely sure before we do this that we are justified in doing it and that Shechita is, in fact, a cruel method of slaughtering. If this were to be proved beyond all possible doubt I should support my noble friend's Bill, and I think the English people as a whale, who are normally much kinder to animals than to children, would say, "Let the orthodox Jews eat cake." But has my noble friend Lord Somers proved his case beyond any possible doubt? There is a tremendous weight of authority against him.

The distinguished scientist, Sir Leonard Hill, and the equally famous physician, Lord Horder, have both stated that Shechita was the most painless method of slaughtering animals. Admittedly, that was a few years ago, but in 1960 Harold Burrow, Professor of Clinical Medicine at the Royal Veterinary College, London (I do not know in what year the electro-encephalogram referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Somers came into being, but I doubt whether this Statement was made before that), said something to the effect that: Having witnessed the Jewish method of slaughter carried out on many thousands of animals I am unable to persuade myself there is any cruelty attached to it. As a lover of animals and owner of cattle and a veterinary surgeon, I would raise no objection to any animal, bred, reared or owned by me, being subjected to this method of slaughter. I am glad to see that the noble Lord, Lord Cohen of Birkenhead, is going to speak later in this debate. He is a distinguished physician and I hope that he will deal with some of the technical aspects of this problem.

I must point out that the essential requirements in Shechita are that the animal must be sound and conscious before it is killed, so electrical stunning, of the animal before the act of Shechita is ruled out. This does not apply to the Moslems' religion and that is why they raise no objection to the noble Lord's Bill. But it is very doubtful whether electrical stunning is more humane or more reliable than the Jewish method. It is arguable whether Shechita, where the animals are put into a casting pen in the period prior to and leading up to the actual moment of slaughter, is more humane than casting by rope, which is commonly practised in this country. I do not think for one moment, as the noble Lord, Lord Somers, has said, that there is any anti-Semitic motive behind this Bill, but I think that it is misguided, sloppy and founded on ignorant prejudice. Therefore, I hope that it will not get a Second Reading.

3.21 p.m.


My Lords. I should like to support the mover of this Bill. We are discussing a distressing and difficult subject, an unpleasant one in many ways; but, as has been said already this afternoon, we pride ourselves, I think rightly, on being one of the leading countries of the world in our concern for animals and in our feelings of the necessity for humane care for them. We have not got to the point of becoming vegetarians, but at least we insist upon the proper treatment of beasts which will produce our food, and particularly upon their humane slaughter and the avoidance of any unnecessary suffering and cruelty.

It has always seemed to me that one of the greatest inventions towards this end was the humane killer, which is now electric but which in the early days was a captive bolt fired at the animal, which rendered him completely and immediately unconscious, after which he could be despatched in any way thought fit. The humane killer was a revolution in our slaughtering methods, so much so that Parliament passed Acts to make its use compulsory in the slaughter of animals, with the exception, in the early days, of Jewish and Mohammedan slaughtering. We have heard from both noble Lords, Lord Somers and Lord Jessel, that on this question of slaughtering the orthodox Jew believes that an animal must be drained of blood and this can be done only by allowing the animal to live long enough for the heart to pump blood out. According to the Jewish belief, electric stunning of the animal cannot be accepted as it prevents this. From what we have heard from the noble Lord who introduced this Bill, there is no doubt that there must be terror and pain in the Jewish method.

Much has been said about the casting pen, but what has not been said—and I believe this to be the case—is that in practically all slaughterhouses, though the pen is used for big animals, it is not used for calves and sheep. A calf is strung up by one leg and kept there until the man comes along and cuts its throat; a sheep is put on a stand and turned upside down to have its throat cut. That alone, long before even the throat cutting happens, must cause suffering and terror, because animals smell blood very quickly and have a strange instinct about a threatening atmosphere. They become terrified in a way human beings do not: we have possibly lost this kind of intuition.

The noble Lord, Lord Somers, has said that experiments have shown that when an animal's throat is cut it is conscious for up to 25 seconds. I have heard from other veterinary surgeons that it can be a good deal longer than that. I remember being on a sheep station in Australia many years ago, where many sheep had to be killed. The usual method was to cut their throats but then animals would sometimes stagger about after it was done, until we devised a method whereby we cut the throat and broke the animal's neck at the same time, but this is not practicable with big animals like cattle. But, of course, the humane killer can do the job much more efficiently.

I would not dare to argue on the religious side of a question about which I do not know, but it seems to me as an outsider that the Jewish method of slaughter does not get rid of all the blood, which destroys their whole case. If there were actually no blood at all left in the carcase, we might say that this makes logical the Jewish religious tenet; but, as the noble Lord, Lord Somers, has shown, there is always a certain amount of blood left. In other words, we want to perpetuate what has been condemned by Parliament as a cruel way of slaughter in order that orthodox Jews should consume a slightly less percentage of blood than if the animal had been killed the Gentile way. That seems to me to cut the ground from under the feet of those who oppose this Bill. It reminds me of what we used to call the Irish teetotaller who thought that so long as alcohol was in wine and not in spirits, it was all right.

I should like to add that, certainly in my case, and in the case of many people who support this measure, there is no anti-Semitism at all. I would not support for a moment anything that had anti-Semitism in it and there is nothing fundamentally against the Jewish religion in this Bill. I have always believed that minorities should be allowed to believe and practice their beliefs as they like, so long as they do not cause harm to other people and so long as they do not offend the cherished beliefs of the majority among whom they live. That is very important. Great religious truths go on eternally, but religious customs do not necessarily do so. We have seen how our own customs have altered. We have only to read the histories of the Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches in the Middles Ages to see how these Churches approved the burning alive of witches, heretics and those who did not agree with them. Such action would be considered intolerable these days.

We have a good example of how customs Which have not been altered lead to terrible damage in India, where we see cows, which are not allowed to be killed, starving and diseased and suffering, experiencing infinite pain—and, what is as bad, causing an economic crisis. One of the great difficulties of India is the presence of millions of cattle roaming about which cannot be used for food or put out of the way. One unfortunate thing about it is that many well-educated Indians now blame the British for not having done away with this. They say that we had the power to do it and never did anything about it and now, when they have a democratically elected Government which depends on a balance of votes, fit is much more difficult to resist an opposition, especially if it is powerful enough, to such a change. I think that is a little unfair, but there it is.

To give your Lordships an example on the other side, these is the Mormon Church Which started out on the plains of America surrounded by Indians, animals and other enemies. They had to multiply in numbers as quickly as they could and under the sacred law of the Book of Mormon they were allowed and encouraged, in fact commanded, to practise polygamy and to have as many wives as they could and to breed as many children as they were able. It was very sensible in those days. And then, through no fault of their own, circumstances changed. They found themselves in the middle of a community Which thought it intolerable, wrong and immoral to have many wives, and very wisely the Mormons gave up that part of their creed. As a result, they are now one of the most virtuous, rich and powerful states in the United States.

We have heard that the Moslems have also yielded up their methods to bow to the feelings of the community. For these reasons, I Should like to appeal to the noble Lord, Lord Jessel, and to those Who support him and oppose the Bill, to reconsider their position in view of these facts and. even if they cannot support this Bill, at least they might not oppose it; and, through them, I appeal to the Jewish community to reconsider whether they would not be wiser to alter their stand and their attitude on this subject. It is one which offends a great mass of the English people, and if I appeal in vain, which may well be the case, I appeal to your Lordships for three reasons. In the first place, I think as a principle it is a very bad one to allow a minority to have a privileged position and to exempt themselves from the law. If it is the law and we believe in it, all people of this country should obey it. I cannot see how Her Majesty's Government, or the Minister who is to reply to this debate, can possibly logically defend their attitude. Secondly, I think that, in the interests of the Jewish community, it would be a good thing if this were done. It is not happy to live among a big majority—200,000 people against 52 million—practising something which is so unpopular. Thirdly, I would recommend to your Lordships that if we think this custom is definitely wrong we must support the Bill.

3.33 p.m.


My Lords, I wonder whether there is any special significance in the fact that the noble Lord who moved the Second Reading of Bill chose the first day of the Smithfield Show for the purpose.

I must ask, with all the sincerity that I can, that your Lordships refuse a Second Reading to this Bill. I should be the last to accuse the noble Lord, Lord Somers, of anti-Semitism, but it appears that the sole reason for the Bill is that the Jewish method of slaughter causes pain and suffering to the animals concerned. I speak for the Jewish method of slaughter only as I do not know the details of the Mohammedan method. The Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the British Commonwealth bas stated that Shechita, which is the Jewish method of slaughtering animals for food, is prescribed by the Divine Law. It has been universally observed by the Jews throughout the ages; and is to this day religiously observed by all the orthodox Jews of the world. The rules and rites governing this sacred ordinance have come down to us from time immemorial, and amongst other purposes they assure a swift and painless death to the animal. Any other method than the prescribed Shechita (such as stunning previous to the act of slaughter) renders the meat ritually unfit for Jewish consumption. Civil regulations that would interfere with this hallowed practice would, therefore, inflict severe hardship upon the law-abiding citizens who would be prevented from partaking of meat except under conditions which would violate their religious consciences. Shechita is a religious rite deriving authority from the Bible. Prescribed by the Divine Law, as interpreted by Jewish tradition, it is binding upon the conscience of the Jew.

Kindness to animals is a basic Jewish teaching, and it is perfectly certain that this method of slaughter would not have been approved or carried on for all these years if there had been any cruelty inherent in it. On these grounds alone, highly important as they are, I would not oppose this Bill if I thought that any cruelty was incurred by the Jewish method of slaughter, but I hope I shall show to your Lordships' satisfaction that there is no cruelty, and that this method is at least painless and humane.

I hope your Lordships will permit me to mention the essential requirements of Shechita. The animal must be conscious and sound, as the noble Lord, Lord Jessel, said, and prior to the act of Shechita must not have suffered any injury; nor must there be a suspicion of injury. The method of slaughter is by a single cut of the neck. The knife is set to exquisite sharpness—more acute than any surgical knife—with a perfect edge free from the slightest flaw, and minutely examined for any unevenness immediately before the slaughter of each animal. The one swift movement of the knife, which causes no pain, severs the trachea, æsophagus, carotid arteries and the jugular veins. This produces an immediate and substantial fall in the blood pressure to the brain which ensures immediate unconsciousness. The person entrusted with the duty of slaying the animal, called the Shochet, must be of recognised high moral character, consistent religious practice, especially trained for the office, possessing a thorough knowledge of the precise rules and regulations of Shechita as well as of the condition of the animal's organs, normal and pathological. He must be steady of hand and qualified by examination, certified and officially appointed, and subject to re-examination at frequent intervals by the ecclesiastical authorities, who alone have jurisdiction to license a person to exercise the functions of a Shochet.

From time to time the Jewish method of slaughter has been most carefully inquired into. At one time more than 450 of the most eminent physiologists, pathologists, heads of veterinary colleges, and health officers of world-wide fame in the various countries of Europe, not one of whom was a Jew, have declared the Jewish method to be absolutely humane. There are innumerable reports of experts who have specially considered the Jewish method of slaughter and I hope your Lordships wil permit me to quote one to you. In the court of a report Mr. Harold Burrow, Professor of Clinical Medicine, Royal Veterinary College, stated: In forming a rational opinion of the Jewish method of slaughter, one has to disregard completely the religious basis for this type of slaughter and the spectacle it presents to the onlooker, and consider solely its effect on the animal itself. No form of slaughter, involving as it does the shedding of blood, presents a pretty sight to the onlooker and one is afraid that this aspect of the question is bound to prejudice the judgment of the man in the street to the extent that he becomes almost incapable of divorcing his own feelings from those of the animal. The severence of the large vessels which supply practically the whole of the blood to the brain obviously leads to immediate loss of awareness on the part of the animal, both of its surroundings and of any painful stimuli. This precludes any possibility of cruelty entering into Jewish ritual slaughter. The actual process of severing these blood vessels occupies only a fraction of a second and is much too rapid to involve any measurable degree of pain. He goes on to say: Having witnessed the Jewish method of slaughter carried out on many thousands of animals, I am unable to persuade myself that there is any cruelty attached to it. I would also mention that in a report made by the late Lord Horder, when he was asked to go into these matters, he stated that it was difficult to conceive a more painless and more rapid mode of death.

There may be abuses in parts of the country, but I would suggest to your Lordships that where such abuses are proved they fall within the scope of the Slaughter of Animals Regulations, and might well be the subject of prosecution in the courts. I can assure your Lord-ships that the Jewish religious authorities would not seek to condone such offences. They are proud of the humane traditions of their religion and will be jealous to see that offenders against these cherished traditions are brought to justice. If the Jewish method is prohibited it will not only do violence to the religious conscience of observant Jews but prevent them from obtaining normal supplies of meat. I hope I have persuaded your Lordships that the Jewish case for continuing the exemption of the Jewish method of slaughter rests fundamentally on religious belief. The humaneness of the method, as I have stated, is abundantly supported by scientific evidence of outstanding medical and veterinary experts.

Liberty of religious observance is anchored in the life, traditions and fundamental freedoms of this country, and I am convinced that this House, as a time-honoured guardian of these freedoms, will not allow a restriction, involving great hardship, on the liberty of religious observance of the Jewish community.