The proposal to ban the practice was brought by Geoff Driver, the Conservative leader of Lancashire county council, who argues it is “abhorrent” and “really, really cruel” to slaughter animals without stunning them first.
Lancashire currently supplies 27 schools with “unstunned” halal meat, catering for up to 12,000 children who are served 1.2m meals a year.
Councillors voted 41 to 24 to ban the meat from county-run schools. Fifteen councillors abstained. During a heated debate on Thursday night, Labour councillor Lorraine Beavers said 12,000 children in Lancashire were being used as a “political football”. She said the motion sent a message to children of a particular faith that they were not being respected by the Conservative-led council.
Conservative councillor Andrew Snowden said the issue was about “the minimum treatment we expect animals to receive”. He said he would support a ban on the “inhumane” practice of not stunning animals before slaughter “because my moral compass obliges me to”.
Concluding the debate, Driver denied that the vote was antisemitic or islamophobic, and insisted it was instead about animal welfare. He accused Beavers of hypocrisy, saying she had a sticker promoting a ban on the fur trade on her car.
Lancashire Council of Mosques (LCM) has accused Driver of leading a “crusade” on the issue. Abdul Qureshi, the LCM’s chair, said any decision to ban unstunned halal meat would create a huge difficulty.
“People will pull out of school meals and people who should eat properly will be deprived of that. For us it’s a matter of faith. For Geoff Driver it is his feelings,” he told the BBC last month.
There is no demand for stunned halal meat from any school within the authority’s catering service, the council admitted in a report produced before Thursday’s full council meeting.
The report’s unnamed author(s) conceded they had not contacted LCM directly “to avoid any unnecessary upset”, but said the LCM was likely to boycott school meals if the council implemented the ban on non-stunned meat. The council estimates it could lose about £285,000 if the current school catering contracts are lost after any policy change.
The debate around the provision of stunned and unstunned halal meat to schools has already “resulted in community tensions and fed the agenda of the far right”, the report said. Paul Golding, head of the far-right group Britain First, has tweeted about the Lancashire council vote.
Schools may seek alternative suppliers of halal meat who may not be accredited suppliers and therefore less accountable, the report warned.
“We currently offer meat accredited by the Halal Monitoring Committee, which is a trusted quality brand amongst Lancashire’s Muslim communities,” the report said.
UK law requires farm animals to be stunned before slaughter, but provides a religious exemption for Jews and Muslims. There is no single defined standard for halal in the UK. Instead, there are a range of halal accreditation agencies which inspect and accredit firms involved in the production and handling of meat in order for that meat to be described as halal.
Some significant meat-producing countries such as Denmark and New Zealand legally mandate pre-stunning even for halal slaughter. English councils have the powers to ban non-stunned halal meat, though any decision may be subject to challenge under equality laws.
The ability of the animal to feel pain after being stunned is hotly contested. The exemptions to stunning are opposed by animal rights organisations such as the RSPCA, which is opposed to the slaughter of any animal without first ensuring it is rendered insensible to pain and distress.
The Lancashire council report warned that a move away from the current policy to supply both stunned and unstunned halal meat may have adverse effects such as: “fewer young people accessing their free entitlement of free school meals; risk of quality assurance within the supply chain; high uptake of packed lunches that don’t meet the school food regulations; and longer-term effects on attainment and achievement of young people, from high-risk social economic backgrounds”.
The halal battle between Driver and Lancashire’s Muslim community is long running. In 2013 the LCM urged parents to boycott school meals in Lancashire in a row over food preparation, when Driver first tried to ban non-stunned meat. According to the council report, the effect was particularly damaging in the east of the county and the central Preston area, where school meal uptake fell by more than 7%.
The LCM said at the time it found a non-Muslim man slaughtering birds, which were then termed as being halal during an inspection. The Qur’an does not expressly forbid stunning, saying only that the animal must be alive at the point of slaughter. But it does stipulate that only a Muslim using a sharp knife of adequate size can slaughter.
The Food Standards Agency carried out an animal welfare survey in abattoirs across Britain during one week in September 2013 which found about 84% of animals slaughtered by the halal method were stunned before being killed.
Driver was arrested earlier this year on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice and witness intimidation. He and three others are being investigated amid claims of impropriety concerning a deal between the council and BT. He has denied all claims of illegality and is scheduled to answer bail on 22 November.