Religious Slaughter of Farm Animals Debate

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Department: HM Treasury

Religious Slaughter of Farm Animals

David Rutley Excerpts
Tuesday 2nd July 2019

(1 year, 2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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HM Treasury
George Eustice Portrait George Eustice - Hansard
2 Jul 2019, 11:21 a.m.

So-called mis-stunning is also an issue. I am not pretending that religious slaughter is the only welfare issue. Another area of concern, about which I commissioned some work when I was Minister, is the make-up of the gas mixture used in the slaughter of pigs, which was also problematic. Clearly, because it relates to pigs, it has no religious dimension whatever. There are other issues, and mis-stunning is one of them. The point about mis-stunning is that even if they get it wrong, they are there immediately afterwards with a second stun, which can resolve the issue.

I will conclude at that point, because we have only half an hour and the Minister will want to come back on some of these points. I seek to liberate him, the Government and all his successors from having to wrestle with this difficult issue. Instead, they should make it a free-vote issue and give it back to Parliament to decide.

David Rutley Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Rutley) - Hansard
2 Jul 2019, 11:22 a.m.

It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. It is good to hear the thoughts of my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice), who secured this debate on such an important subject.

Mr Ivan Lewis (Bury South) (Ind) Hansard
2 Jul 2019, 11:22 a.m.

Does the Minister agree that there is no conclusive scientific evidence to suggest that shechita is any less acceptable than other forms of slaughter? Does he also agree that this country’s unwritten constitution has always made religious freedom a high priority? The changes that the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) suggests risk undermining the central tenet of our unwritten constitution, which is that religious freedom is important in our society.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley - Hansard
2 Jul 2019, 11:25 a.m.

I completely agree that religious freedom is essential. We had a fantastic prayer breakfast this morning, at which the principles of respect and tolerance were at the forefront of our minds.

On religious slaughter, I restate that the Government’s preference is that all animals should be stunned before slaughter. However, we respect the right of Jews and Muslims to eat meat prepared in accordance with their beliefs. We therefore allow the religious slaughter of animals by Muslims and Jews for intended consumption by them. The Government believe that that is an important religious freedom, and there is a long history of upholding it in legislation, dating back to the Slaughter of Animals Act 1933, which contained an exception from stunning for religious slaughter for Jews and Muslims.

When I spoke about religious slaughter in the debate in this Chamber just a couple of months ago, I said that the Secretary of State and I would be holding a roundtable with a number of interested parties, including religious groups, animal welfare organisations—some of which are here today—and industry representatives. That meeting took place in May, and was a positive and open discussion, with helpful contributions from all who attended. Key issues discussed during that roundtable were the welfare impacts of different slaughter methods, essential ways of improving consumer information, the scope of the labelling scheme and halal assurance.

I strongly believe that the way to make progress—notwithstanding the important contributions of hon. Members from across the political spectrum—is through a roundtable and ongoing constructive dialogue. It is important to remind ourselves that in EU and domestic regulations that protect the welfare of animals at the time of killing, there are additional rules for animals slaughtered in accordance with religious rites, specifically for the production of halal and kosher meat. The primary aim of the welfare at slaughter regulations, which are based on a body of scientific evidence and advice from the European Food Safety Authority, is to ensure that animals are spared any avoidable pain, distress or suffering at the time of killing. It would be wrong to assume that the legal requirements for religious slaughter have not changed in the past 25 years.

Neil Parish Portrait Neil Parish - Hansard
2 Jul 2019, 11:26 a.m.

I thank the Minister very much for giving way. He is dealing with this issue in a very reasoned way, as always. The European law says that all animals should be stunned, and there is a derogation to allow religious slaughter. We have to be careful not to wrap this up too much in the European situation. As we leave the EU, we must be much firmer on how we label and how we manage it, and we must ensure that more animals are not stunned than are needed for particular religions. We can do a lot more, so will the Minister speed up the operation? I fear that it is one of these slow operations that is not getting anywhere.

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley - Hansard
2 Jul 2019, 11:26 a.m.

I would be surprised if the Chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee did not want faster action, as he regularly does. I hope he sees that we are upping the pace on animal welfare, with his support, for which I am grateful.

There are sensitivities on both sides—from a welfare perspective and a respecting religious freedom perspective— which we have to navigate our way through. This is an important debate, and the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth made in his well-considered speech must be taken into account. He mentioned New Zealand. I recently met one of the New Zealand Ministers of Agriculture, and we discussed this subject. I am aware that New Zealand has a quality assurance programme for halal, which we can look into. Some people suggested that Australia has a similar programme, but there is some non-stunned religious slaughter there in eight abattoirs. The focus should be on what New Zealand has to offer.

Mention was made of whether immediate post-cut stunning should be introduced to improve the welfare of animals killed without prior stunning, but when we look at that we must respect religious views. We are committed to continuing this dialogue and debate. The area that we should focus on, because it brings most people together, is labelling.

Mr Ivan Lewis Hansard
2 Jul 2019, 11:28 a.m.

It is very kind of the Minister to give way. He will understand that there is a great deal of insecurity in the British Jewish community as a consequence of institutional antisemitism in the Opposition party. Will he reassure that community, which feels insecure and anxious, that the Government will under no circumstances ban shechita, which is a central tenet of the Jewish faith, in the United Kingdom?

David Rutley Portrait David Rutley - Hansard
2 Jul 2019, 11:29 a.m.

I assure Muslim and Jewish communities that we respect their freedoms. Through this debate and the roundtable process that we have put in place, we want to balance those religious freedoms with what more can be done to improve the welfare of animals. That is difficult, but not impossible, to juggle. Through dialogue, we can move forward and learn from what has taken place in other countries around the world. It must be done in the unique spirit of co-operation in this country. That should be respected by all parties in this House. I get the sense from this debate that people respect that requirement and the need to look more at animal welfare.

I think that the way forward is to look at these issues, consider the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth, look at the mechanisms we have got through the roundtable forum that we have created, and move that on. We can focus more on labelling. We must engage with the communities and the industry to see how we can take this further forward. Our exit from the EU will provide an opportunity to do that with more conviction and at greater pace. I am sure that will please the Chair of the EFRA Committee. Thank you for your support in this debate, Mr Rosindell.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.