HL Deb 11 April 1967 vol 281 cc1271-8

8.18 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time. Agriculture is an unusual field of operation for me, and therefore I hope the House will forgive me if I cling more closely to the brief than is the case when I am dealing with more familiar subjects. The Bill which is now before your Lordships has the object of providing the same safeguards for the slaughter of poultry as at present exist for the larger animals. Your Lordships may be aware of the unease felt in recent years among those concerned with animal welfare at the absence of legislation to ensure the humane slaughter of poultry. I should like to mention in particular the work done by the Council of Justice for Animals—of which the noble Lord, Lord Somers, is President—in bringing forward the need for legislation, but the Bill before your Lordships is of course supported by all the animal welfare societies.

The Protection of Animals Act 1911 makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any domestic animal, and this includes poultry. But that Act was drawn up long before the advent of the present day poultry-packing and slaughtering stations with their conveyor belt methods. The procedure in these poultry slaughtering and packing stations is to hang the live birds by their feet on a moving line. Their throats are cut as the line passes the slaughterman, and they then bleed for a short time before going into scalding tanks to prepare them for plucking. This procedure may well involve unnecessary suffering unless the birds have been stunned before their throats are cut. First, because otherwise they are still conscious when this is done and, secondly, because some may still be capable of feeling pain when immersed in the scalding water. It is true to say that some of the larger poultry slaughterhouses already use stunners, but many do not. The main purpose of this Bill is therefore to ensure that, with the customary exemptions for Jewish and Muslim slaughter, poultry killed by throat cutting are first stunned. The Bill also gives Ministers powers to control other practices in poultry slaughterhouses which they consider may cause unnecessary suffering.

It may help your Lordships if I give a brief explanation of the main clauses of the Bill. Clause 1 requires the stunning of domestic fowls and turkeys before slaughter, except where they are to be slaughtered by neck wringing or decapitation, both of which I understand are considered to be humane. This clause also provides power for Ministers to approve any new and humane methods of slaughter which may be developed in the future. It is also the clause which gives the exemption to which I have referred of ritual slaughter, subject to the same control by the Rabbinical Commission over Jewish slaughter as applies to larger animals under the Slaughter of Animals Act 1958.

Clause 2 requires those premises where stunners are to be used to be registered with the local authority. This system of registration, together with the power of inspection contained in Clause 4 of the Bill, will enable Ministers to ensure that the main purpose of the legislation is achieved. In this way authorised officers will know in which premises stunners are being used, and can see that they are properly maintained and operated. Clause 3 enables Ministers to make regulations to ensure humane conditions and practices for poultry awaiting, and during, slaughter. Regulations made under this clause could, for example, stipulate that the birds must be provided with food and water and be protected from extremes of weather. They could also prescribe the length of time the birds may be hung before being stunned, and the shortest time which may elapse between throat-cutting, and immersion into scalding water.

I have already referred to the need for the powers of entry given by Clause 4, and I think your Lordships will find the remainder of the Bill is self-explanatory, apart perhaps from Clauses 7 and 9. Clause 7 empowers the Ministers to extend the provisions of the Bill to cover other poultry besides domestic fowls and turkeys, after consultation with the interests concerned. The Bill is restricted to these species at the moment because of the absence of a stunner suitable for use on ducks and geese. Clause 9 enables Ministers to bring the Act into operation by stages. This is necessary because there will have to be an interval between the passing of the Bill and the date when it becomes law, so as to give time for Ministers to approve stunning devices, and for poultry slaughterers to install the devices and to register their premises. While all this is being done it may be desirable to make regulations under Clause 3 of the Bill, and the provisions of Clause 9 will enable Clause 3 to be brought into operation on its own. I trust that your Lordships will agree that this is a very necessary animal welfare measure. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—[Lord Lindgren.]

8.25 p.m.


My Lords, may I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, on moving the Second Reading of this Bill and explaining its contents so lucidly. I am very pleased to welcome the Bill. All slaughtering arrangements are extremely unpleasant, but we are a nation of meat eaters and we have, therefore, to accept the unpleasantness which inevitably goes with the process of killing animals and preparing them for human consumption. As the noble Lord rightly says, the modern poultry industry has completely changed since pre-war days, when the normal practice was that a chicken would have its neck broken by what was called wringing—it was just a knack of breaking the neck—and the bird died instantaneously. With modern plant some 400,000 tons of poultry per annum reaches our tables and is not a luxury any more but a commodity. There are the large modern plants, and the process which the noble Lord described is broadly the process which is used.

The noble Lord is quite right that in the Bill there should be a requirement that birds should be stunned before their throats are cut, and of course it should be ensured that a bird has lost consciousness before the whole process of defeathering starts. I should like to congratulate those who have promoted the Bill. The practice which will be adopted when the Bill is on the Statute Book will be no more than is already observed at the best plants, and all should observe these standards. It seems to me that to register premises and require their inspection by local authorities is the right way to proceed, and the provisions for Jewish Kosher slaughter seem to be quite adequate to meet their religious needs. I understand that the Federation of Poultry Industries which, broadly speaking, represents the industry, welcomes the Bill as being the right and proper approach, and it certainly has my support.

8.28 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, very much for having mentioned the Council of Justice for Animals of which I have the honour to be President. This is indeed a very happy occasion for me, to see the introduction of this Bill. There is no doubt that the Secretary of that Council has done enormous work in examining various types of stunners and in keeping in constant touch with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. We managed to find a stunner, although it was not easy because the first types were on a rather high voltage and proved unsatisfactory because they damaged the birds before death. We managed to find a low voltage type which penetrates the plumage and works extremely satisfactorily. I am sorry that so far it has not been possible to find an equally suitable stunner for ducks and geese. The down of these birds is very much thicker and it has not been possible to find a stunner which will penetrate it. I have no doubt that in time one will be found.

The noble Lord, Lord Lindgren spoke of some of the methods used previously in broiler houses, but there were some even cruder than that. In some houses birds were slung by one leg on a rail and passed along so that their heads passed through an aperture, through which a steel point was pushed in such a way as presumably to prick them through the brain. Unfortunately this process proceeded at such a speed that it was not found easy to do this accurately, and many birds were wounded instead of being killed. I know that many people will say "What does this matter?", but I feel that the prevention of unnecessary suffering does matter. So I welcome the Bill and very much congratulate the Government.


My Lords, may I intervene in this debate, though I have not put my name down? I welcome the Bill very much and hope that there will be no delay in bringing it into action. In the fact that this Bill has to be brought forward we should recognise this difficulty in modern food production. The farmer is being more and more pressed to cut his costs of production. He is also being pressed to adopt methods which will leave him a lower margin of profit, and if he is to make a living he is almost forced, because his competitors adopt these methods, to adopt methods which are doubtful. This Bill will put a level below which, in cutting costs, the producer cannot go. What applies in this case to poultry will apply to other forms of farm livestock in future, where competition between these mass producers is getting more and more acute.

I come from the County of Midlothian, which has perhaps more intensive poultry production than most counties in the United Kingdom. Much of the original work on intensive poultry production has been done there. As a member of the County Council, I had experience of the difficulties of controlling the conduct of some of these establishments in their early days. It is good, therefore, that we should have this Bill now.

There are two points about which I should like to ask questions. The first is whether gassing by CO2, as is done in other forms of livestock, would be approved by the Ministry in future, if it proved to be a satisfactory and economic method of treating birds prior to slaughter. I have seen it work very well with other animals. The other point is a purely Scottish one and I assure the noble Lord, Lord Lindgren, that I do not expect a reply at the present time. It puzzles me why it is only in England and Wales that the local authorities are given power to institute proceedings. Is it because under the natural constitution of Scottish law the local authorities have the power without its being given to them? There seems to me to be an anomaly. I am sure that I ought to know the answer to this interesting question. I wish this Bill every success and a speedy passage on to the Statute Book.

8.35 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to add my congratulations to those of noble Lords opposite to my noble friend Lord Lindgren for introducing this Bill and for the way he made it so plain to each one of us. I need not take up much of your Lordships' time, because my noble friend outlined the developments leading up to the Bill and I am sure that your Lordships now appreciate the need to give poultry the same sort of protection as is afforded to the larger animals. With the great increase in poultry production in this country in recent years, and the consequent increase in their slaughter, it is right and proper that greater attention should be given to ensuring that all unnecessary suffering is eliminated when poultry are being slaughtered. I believe that the Bill before us now will achieve such a result.

The Bill has been given a welcome by all noble Lords opposite who have spoken. The noble Lord, Lord Nugent of Guildford, who has unfortunately had to leave, and who is an expert on poultry, has given it an unqualified welcome on behalf of the Opposition. So has the noble Lord, Lord Somers, who we know takes an interest in this matter in another capacity, and the noble Lord, Lord Balerno. So this is one of those happy occasions in this House when we are unanimous on a Bill.

Perhaps I can answer the second of the two questions which the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, raised. In regard to penalties in Scotland, the situation is simply that the promoters of the Bill thought it better not to complicate the Bill by imposing different sets of penalties. English Members may be interested to know the reason for higher maximum penalties in some Scottish legislation. It is the practice in Scotland for offenders to be charged in one summons with several offences, so that only one penalty is imposed. A different system operates in England. There is a separate charge in respect of each offence and a separate penalty. I think that answers the noble Lord's second question and I will get the answer to the first question, relating to gassing, and send it to the noble Lord. The Government have no doubt that this is a necessary addition to the existing legislation to protect our food-producing animals, and the measure has the Government's full support. I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will agree to give the Bill a Second Reading.

8.39 p.m.


My Lords, I am most grateful to all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and for the general welcome that has been given to the Bill. So far as the use of CO2 for poultry is concerned, that is covered by Clause 1. The second question put by the noble Lord, Lord Balerno, has been partly answered by my noble friend on the Front Bench. I understand that the local authorities in Scotland have to report to somebody called the procurator-fiscal, and he decides whether to prosecute. That is as far as I dare go into Scottish law and local government. It has taken me a long time to get English local government under my skin.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord. He has unlocked the door.

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