Former Defra minister, George Eustice MP writes on his Westminster Hall debate on the religious slaughter of farm animals: “Non-stun slaughter is only supposed to be allowed on the basis of religious need but this requirement is not enforceable in practice.”
Free votes in parliament are a wonderful thing. When political parties step back from taking a position and allow their own members to form their own opinion on an issue of conscience, it can be liberating for both the party and their representatives. Party whips no longer have to try to reconcile deep seated yet opposing views within their own ranks. MPs must then engage in the issue themselves and put in the work needed to understand what is at stake. There will be no helpful whips pointing which direction they are expected to vote. The quality of debate is at its best under free vote conditions. Cross party alliances form and a sensible consensus is usually established.
Of course, the party whip system developed because, if everything were down to free votes, then no one would ever get anything done. However, on issues of conscience and religious conviction in particular it is now universally accepted that free votes make most sense. We have free votes on everything from gay marriage to abortion precisely because they overlap with religious conviction. In my view it is time for every political party to agree that the issue of religious slaughter should also become a free vote issue.
We are being left behind by other developed nations when it comes to our legislation on religious slaughter. In Australia and New Zealand, non-stun slaughter is not permitted. In many European countries there is either a requirement that there should be an immediate post cut stun where a derogation is used or in some cases a prohibition on non-stun slaughter. In Germany, there is a strict quota system in place to ensure that abattoirs are only allowed to use the religious derogation where they are able to prove the actual need for the final market of the animals being slaughtered.
As for the UK, guidelines were first introduced as long ago as 1875 and the first formal slaughter legislation came into being in 1933. Our laws have evolved over the years but have not changed substantively since 1995. We have always allowed a conditional derogation for Jewish and Muslim communities. For non-stun slaughter based on religious need, we have a requirement for a minimum “stand still” time of 20 seconds on sheep and 30 seconds on cattle. This means that animals cannot be moved until at least that time has elapsed or, if it takes longer, until the animal is unconscious. On chickens, there is no stand still time but birds cannot move to the next stage of production for at least 30 seconds or until the bird is unconscious.
Non-stun slaughter is only supposed to be allowed on the basis of religious need but this requirement is not enforceable in practice. The FSA have published alarming statistics showing that 25% of all sheep are now slaughtered without prior stunning which represents a shocking backward step. There has been a drift back towards more conservative cultural interpretations of religious faith. We cannot continue to ignore this issue. If MPs were free to vote as they thought and engage in this debate as individuals, there are many aspects of this debate that they would want to explore.
Firstly, are the derogations we currently allow strictly religious or do they represent an accommodation of a cultural interpretation of religious need? This is obviously sensitive but warrants consideration. Both the Muslim and Jewish faiths have a clear religious conviction against the consumption of pork, which should obviously be respected. However, when it comes to the issue of stunning, the religious need is less clear. Schecita UK who represent the kosher industry, explicitly make clear that their system of slaughter is not a “religious ritual” in the way that Halal is. There is no blessing nor prayer said for animals. It is simply their view that a method of slaughter used since ancient times could not have been superseded by more humane modern methods.
In the case of Halal production, the important feature is that there is a Muslim blessing at the point of slaughter. Many communities in the UK are content with the use of stunning and until a few years ago, we had got to a position where around 75% of Halal meat was stunned. Most Muslim countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are more concerned about the contamination of porcine DNA through shared use of machinery than they are about the method of slaughter. For most Muslim countries, the main requirements to be Halal are that there is no species contamination and that a Muslim blessing has been given at the time of death. Muslim countries are generally more relaxed about the issue of whether or not stunning was used during the slaughter process since they do not regard it as central to the definition of Halal. Indeed, the largest suppliers of lamb to the Middle East are Australia and New Zealand where non stun slaughter is banned. On a visit to Kuwait while Minister, I discussed this issue with an importer. He said that the emphasis on whether animals were stunned or not is more of a Western cultural interpretation of religious need rather than an issue that mattered particularly to Muslim countries. So, there is no uniform view about whether it is essential for an animal to be presented for slaughter un-stunned and different jurisdictions take differing approaches.
If we wanted to improve and modernise the regulations we currently have, there are a number of things we could consider. In my view we should incrementally strengthen our current laws through the contours that already exist. Firstly, the area of greatest concern is around bovine animals. Cattle have a third artery that supplies blood to the back of the head which means that, even after the throat is cut, they can remain conscious for a long period of time. It typically takes between 1 minute 20 and two minutes for an adult bovine animal to lose consciousness. So, we could require an immediate post cut stun on bovine animals recognising their unique physiology. Post cut stunning is already used by some kosher and halal slaughtermen so does not violate religious need.
Secondly, we should consider increasing the minimum stand still time on sheep to, say, 45 seconds to remove the incentive to mainstream the non-stun slaughter of sheep since if you require a slower process for this derogation, it would become less attractive. We could also do more to strengthen the requirements on chickens by requiring the shackle line to stopped and birds purposefully checked for signs of consciousness before any move to the next stage of production. Finally, we could learn from Germany by introducing strict quotas setting out the number of animals permitted to be slaughtered without stunning so that we give effect to this longstanding requirement in UK law that has been previously unenforceable.
Not everyone will agree with the ideas that I have set out, but I would love to have the debate in Parliament under refreshing, free vote conditions. One thing I learned in my time as Minister is that there are some strongly held views on this topic and governments of all shades have found it a difficult issue to address. So, Whitehall always persuades itself that “now is not the time” to make an improvement. However, with MPs considering this difficult moral dilemma under a free vote, government would be liberated of the task and Parliament could chart a course forward.
George Eustice is the Conservative MP for Camborne and Redruth