Previous Section Home Page

Column 963

Business of the House

12.38 am

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Sir Geoffrey Howe) : With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shouldlike to make a short business statement about the rearranged business for tomorrow. It will be as follows :

Wednesday 8 November----Timetable motion on the Local Government and Housing Bill and the Employment Bill, followed by completion of consideration of Lords amendments to the Local Government and Housing Bill and consideration of Lords amendments to the Employment Bill. The rest of the week's business will be as already announced.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland) : Is the Leader of the House aware that his statement is totally unacceptable to the Opposition? I do not believe that the Leader of the House, who left his previous high office in a shambles after the Government reorganisation-- [Interruption.] I do not mean that the right hon. and learned Gentleman left the Foreign Office in a shambles. I mean that the reorganisation of the Government was a shambles and that his removal from his previous office was a shambles, not his conduct of foreign affairs. Could he, however, have envisaged the business shambles for which he was about to become responsible?

The Bill has been before the House for 10 months--since February of this year. We are still considering it because the Government have tabled more than 600 amendments at this late stage in the proceedings. There has been no Opposition filibuster--neither in Committee nor in another place, where Opposition amendments were accepted by the Government. This state of affairs exists solely because Ministers have tabled more than 600 amendments and in effect are trying to enact a replay of the Committee stage on the Floor of the House.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman has already created a record during his short tenure of office as Leader of the House. In a few short weeks he has already had to move four guillotine motions. It is an unenviable record for him to have to defend. Not only is the Prime Minister's conduct of government demeaning government in Britain, but the conduct of the Government's business in this House is demeaning the reputation of Parliament.

Sir Geoffrey Howe : Seldom can anyone have heard a more war-weary and less convincing presentation of a case than the one that the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) has just given. The Bill has been considered for a total of 210 hours. The amendments that were under consideration both yesterday and today were, as to 90 per cent. or more of them, technical and capable of very expeditious consideration. The crucial point is that yesterday 317 amendments were disposed of entirely as foreseen through the usual channels, whereas today, for some unexplained and unacceptable reason, there has been no comparable progress. In the face of that, it was absolutely right that the Government should take this step.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland) : I thank the Leader of the House for giving notice that he proposed to make a business statement. As a distinguished lawyer, I am sure that the right hon. and learned Gentleman must have


Column 964

considerable reservations about the fact that many of the amendments were introduced at a very late stage in the other place and were not sufficiently scrutinised through lack of time. They are now being scrutinised here without adequate time for debate. Does not the Leader of the House hanker after the days when the Conservative party believed in lightening the legislative load?

Sir Geoffrey Howe : The central point is that well over 300 amendments were dealt with yesterday in perfectly good order. Had there been comparable progress today, there would have been no problem ; but there has not been comparable progress today.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) : Has the Leader of the House considered the implications of his business statement on the discussion of Scottish business? There are important amendments to the Bill that affect Scotland and will receive inadequate consideration because of the guillotine motion. A further guillotine motion is poised over the Scottish education legislation next Monday. We are entitled to ask whether the Government are prepared to allow any discussion of Scottish business in this Chamber.

Has not the Leader of the House something of a brass neck to come to the House and announce the curtailment of the discussion of Scottish business when there is not one Scottish Conservative Member in the Chamber to hear him-- [Interruption.] --with the sole exception of the Under- Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)--and occasionally we are not quite sure whether he is with us?

Sir Geoffrey Howe : I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has some difficulty in espying my hon. Friend at this time of night, but he is here, alert and watchful as ever. The Government will ensure that the interests of Scotland are well and effectively looked after.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Instead of introducing the guillotine motion tomorrow, would it not be a better idea for the Leader of the House to call upon the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement about the ambulance crews and the introduction of the Army--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker) : Order. I do not see how this relates to the statement by the Leader of the House.

Mr. Skinner : Whenever a business statement is made, it is right and proper for hon. Members on either side to call for other statements instead of the statement that he has made. That is the practice in the House.

The Leader of the House should call upon the Secretary of State for Health to make a further statement about the ambulance crews and the Army being brought in, in view of the continuing controversy. It has now been revealed that the negotiations on the trade union side--

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. These matters do not arise out of the statement.

Mr. Skinner rose --

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I call Mr. Cryer.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Does the Leader of the House accept that since he has been Leader of the House he has made more business statements after


Column 965

midnight than before midnight? Does he further accept that we condemn such trampling on parliamentary rights? Will he ensure that tomorrow the Secretary of State for Education and Science makes a statement to the House on capital expenditure on schools which is--

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. The hon. Gentleman just heard me say that questions must be related to the statement and not to other matters.

Mr. Cryer : It is related. Before this change of business is implemented tomorrow, I want a statement from the Secretary of State for Education and Science. Children in my constituency of Bradford, South are being sent home because of the lousy Tory council in Bradford not spending enough money on schools. The children in my constituency deserve better than that from this rotten Government.

Sir Geoffrey Howe : Even the hon. Gentleman is surely subject to the rule of courtesy that I want does not get.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North) : Is the Leader of the House aware that if there are to be restrictions on debate when there is no question of filibustering-- [Interruption.] The Conservative Members who are shouting were not present during the debate. Is the Leader of the House aware that if such restriction of parliamentary rights and privileges continues Back Benchers will fight it with every conceivable parliamentary device to ensure that our voices are heard? After the Leader of the House announced the procedural motion tonight was one illustration of that.

Sir Geoffrey Howe : If the hon. Gentleman reflects upon the swift progress that was made yesterday and the non-progress that was made tonight, he will see that there is no foundation for his threat.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West) : Before I ask a question of the Leader of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will you say whether Conservative Members' claim that there has been a filibuster--if that is their accusation--is a criticism of whoever was in the Chair at the time?

Mr. Deputy Speaker : The Chair will judge whether any speeches or statements in the House are in or out of order.

Mr. Banks : I remind the Leader of the House that, when I congratulated him on becoming Leader of the House, I said that in his new position he would find life far more convivial than he did when travelling around the world with the Prime Minister, being feted and drinking gin and tonics. He sees exactly how interesting the times in which he lives are when he proposes guillotine motions.

I advise the Leader of the House that 650 amendments are far too many for hon. Members seriously to consider in the constricted timespan that he is now to give us. Why could not hon. Members be allowed to continue discussing the amendments in a measured way through the night and into the next day? We are quite prepared to do so. What is the right hon. and learned Gentleman afraid of? Can he not muster his troops to put forward a reasonable argument on the Government's amendments?


Column 966

Sir Geoffrey Howe : The hon. Gentleman knows that our troops are mustered and ready to uphold the Government in all these matters. There is no realistic prospect of measured consideration of the kind that the hon. Gentleman talks about. There was measured, sensible consideration on the previous day. There has not been any this evening.

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield) : Is the Leader of the House aware that I have now completely lost faith in him? Last Thursday, I suggested that he should watch the Government Chief Whip. He has now joined in the right hon. Gentleman's activities. Is it any wonder that the opinion polls are in our favour? People can see the mess that the Government are in. I suggest that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should go to No. 10 tomorrow and resign. Sir Geoffrey Howe : The whole House will want to reflect upon the hon. Gentleman's gentle ruminations, but the Government will continue to prevail upon the support of the people of this country.

Mr. Bob Clay (Sunderland, North) : Will the Leader of the House explain how on earth the House will be able to give adequate attention to Lords amendment No. 277 to the Local Government and Housing Bill, which deals with housing action trusts?

The Minister for Housing and Planning, the hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), went to Sunderland on Monday to discuss housing action trusts, and then issued a press release which appears to claim that he has caved in to a Labour council on that matter. Other local authorities threatened with housing action trusts will want to know what the amendment is about, what its implications are for them, and exactly what deal the Minister has struck with my local authority. How are hon. Members to debate that matter in the pathetic amount of time that the Government have allocated, if that amendment is ever reached?

Sir Geoffrey Howe : A great deal of time could have been devoted to it tonight had there not been so much time spent on dilatory matters. As it is, we shall have to see how much time is available tomorrow.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley) : As the Leader of the House is not prepared to go along with any other suggestions, and as he referred more than once to Monday's proceedings, saying that he was happy with the progress that was made, will he guarantee that he will provide similar time tomorrow as was available on Monday so that all the issues may be debated?

Sir Geoffrey Howe : The House will have to recognise that it is a question to which a large amount of time has been devoted today, including the extended discussions that we are having at this late hour. One must take full account of that.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : Why is the Employment Bill being caught up in this procedural mess? It is a hideous Bill, but in terms of procedure, it went readily through Committee, readily through the Lords and readily through the rest of its proceedings in this House. There have been no previous problems with it, but it is now being curtailed because of the procedures affecting other measures. We are not being given a proper chance to look at the Lords amendments to the Employment Bill.


Column 967

Sir Geoffrey Howe : It has not been caught up in any kind of procedural mess whatsoever. It is important--and recognised by hon. Members of all parties to be important--that we should try to preserve the rest of this week's business, including the debate fixed for Thursday on parliamentary pensions. I am anxious to achieve that, as well as this.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian) : The Leader of the House has started 8 November with an unscheduled statement to the House. He has announced that the House is to have a substantial additional workload during the coming day, or tomorrow, or whatever it is. Does he anticipate that either he or any other Minister will want to make any other statements on any other difficulties that the Government may stumble into during the next 12 hours or so in tomorrow's business, or today's business, or whatever it is?

Sir Geoffrey Howe : Let us see how we get on with tomorrow's business when it comes.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone) : The Leader of the House has made several suggestions about a filibuster tonight and has referred to yesterday's business and to today's business. I suggest two things. First, the right hon. and learned Gentleman has not looked at what yesterday's business was and why it went through. The contentious items were, in fact, on today's business. Secondly, I refer to the fact that yesterday, through the usual channels, the voting pattern was decided, yet there have not been any consultations through the usual channels today on that. If there had been, we could have told the Leader of the House when we would vote.

Sir Geoffrey Howe : The hon. Gentleman should know that there has been consultation through the usual channels and that the original layout of business in the two days provided was in accordance with matters discussed through the usual channels, and it is that which has not been fulfilled.


Column 968

PETITION

TUITION FEES AND LOANS 12.57 am

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill) : I beg to ask leave to present a petition on behalf of Mr. Robert Bertram, the president of the University of Liverpool Guild of Undergraduates, other officers of the union and 1,562 petitioners who are students in Liverpool. I share the concern and determined opposition of my constituents to the introduction of the student loan system. The petitioners believe that such a system would deter many young people from seeking higher education and believe that loans would be a millstone round their necks. They further believe that it would be a regressive measure, and educationally and socially damaging.

The petition

sheweth that any proposals to introduce the payment by students of tuition fees and student loans, whether partially or fully, will further limit access to higher education.

Wherefor your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House do reject any proposals to introduce the payment by students of tuition fees or student loans.

To lie upon the Table.


Column 969

Beef

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Chapman.]

12.58 am

Mr. Colin Shepherd (Hereford) : I am grateful to the Minister for coming to the House at this hour to help me, I hope, with a vexed problem that has been giving me great cause for concern since I established the nature of the practice some time ago.

I refer to the question of the pre-slaughter tenderising of beef. My hon. Friend will be aware of the process, involving the use of chemically modified papains for the pre-slaughter tenderising of beef. He will also be aware of the decision by his predecessor in office not to accept the recommendation of the Farm Animal Welfare Council that the practice should be banned on ethical and welfare grounds. He may also be aware of the defence of that decision by his fellow Parliamentary Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), in the BBC's "The Food Programme" recently. In a letter to me, my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon referred to research carried out in the light of a Farm Animal Welfare Council report designed to find out whether animals suffered pain after injection, especially if there was to be a delay before stunning and slaughter. I presume that he was referring to a paper published in Meat Science in 1987 entitled "Clinical biochemistry and pathology of mature beef cattle following ante-mortem intravenous administration of a commercial papain preparation." Since neither I nor the House of Commons Library could find any other work that has been done, I presume that that was the work to which reference was made.

For a number of reasons, I am far from happy with that paper. One of the authors who participated in the work was an employee of the firm promoting the practice involved, so he would have a distinct interest in the result. The maximum duration of observation--it related to just one beast out of the 10 involved--was 315 seconds between the administration of the papain and the time of slaughter, when the manufacturer's recommendation is for slaughter to take place at between two and 20 minutes. What then, I thought, of the period of between five and 20 minutes, or even longer? In the discussion section of that paper, the observation was made :

"However, for this study we are unable to predict the outcome if a period longer than 315 seconds elapsed between treatment and slaughter."

The fact that that aspect has not been addressed is a travesty in the light of the Farm Animal Welfare Council's statement : "We were also told that if, for any reason, a treated animal could not be put through the slaughter line, it would be placed back in the lairage under observation and slaughtered the following day without being reinjected."

Lines break down, and slaughter in six minutes cannot be guaranteed even in the best run establishments.

My next objection is that the work on rats and sheep to which reference was made in the paper is surely relevant in the light of the potential delay problem to which I have referred. It is clear that there is an effect on the metabolism of animals, even though the enzyme may be rapidly excreted through the kidneys. I am advised by Professor Webster of the animal husbandry unit at Bristol that the effect on the liver would be akin to having a bad hangover


Column 970

and would leave any animal, as it does a human being, feeling very depressed. It seems that the beef animal that has been injected and is feeling thoroughly depressed is shoved out into the lairage with a heavy hangover, only to be knocked off the next day. I cannot see any humanitarian or welfare considerations in that. In fact, it could be positively cruel.

The handling of the animals prior to injection is given only peremptory attention in the paper to which I have referred. My veterinary friends tell me that one of the big pluses to flow from the EEC licensing of abattoirs is that the vets are able to exercise supervision over the welfare interests of the animals. They point out that knuckles must be rapped from time to time and that slaughtermen must be brought up short and told the errors of their ways if they get sloppy or take short cuts with procedure. In such an exercise, with a formal demonstration, as we had when the Farm Animal Welfare Council witnessed the procedure in this case, the demonstration of the techniques involved would be carefully managed. I imagine that great care would be taken to ensure that everything was right. After all, the promoters had a lot at stake.

The paper talks about "a well organised abattoir," but I have not been able to find any reference to any criterion in the use of papains which says that it must be done in a well organised abattoir. When the pressure is on for throughput, will the animals be so carefully handled? I have strong reservations, especially in the light of the observations of those vets who have had to witness that process. They are of one mind--they do not like what they have to witness.

The size of the sample was also extremely small. A mere 10 beef animals with nine as controls is not a firm foundation for the conclusions drawn from that particular research, or alleged research, paper. Given that it represents the only research around, it may comprise the best scientific advice, but I was frankly surprised to find such a superficial paper being taken so seriously against the advice of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, which stated clearly that the practice should be banned on ethical and welfare grounds. A constituent farmer arrived at a slaughterhouse to find that the gates which were normally open were locked. Shortly after his arrival he described how he heard the dreadful sounds of cattle "screaming". It was the abnormal noise of acute pain. While he was listening to that, another visitor to the abattoir--also a farmer--appeared from within the complex. My constituent asked what on earth was going on and the other farmer told him that the cattle were being injected with a tenderising substance, adding that he had been told to keep quiet or the slaughter men would not accept his stock. I find that particularly bothering. What kind of practice is this which leads to furtiveness, operations behind closed doors and blackmail? It cannot be healthy.

On "The Food Programme" my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary compared the experience of the cattle to that of humans giving blood at a donor session. From time to time I have given blood and I must confess that I do not find it a particularly comfortable experience. However, I am not in an unknown and hostile environment, nor am I physically restrained in a crush. My head is not yanked to one side to expose my jugular for the best part of a pint of fluid to be pumped in. Above all I know what is happening. The poor beast in the abattoir does not know what is happening. In welfare terms the


Column 971

slaughter process, to have any dignity, must be quiet, orderly and stress free. I cannot see how those requirements can be complied with under the present practice. I cannot see how the welfare of the animal is enhanced in any way as the whole process is palpably not to its benefit. There is nothing therapeutic about it--the practice is purely for the benefit of the trade.

I hope that my hon. Friend will carefully review the welfare aspect of this unnatural practice and that he will take wider advice. I am sure that that action would lead to his wishing to withdraw Ministry approval. When my hon. Friend reconsiders the matter he should also take into account the future dimension--the single European market. We are approaching 1992 and from what I have been able to find out it is clear that, for a variety of reasons, other member states are not all of an easy mind about the practice. By 1992 commonality must exist in the meat trade if there is to be free trade in carcase meat. It would be most helpful to know the Government's thinking in that respect. In the meantime, what should we do? I believe that consumers show a considerable interest in the food processes involved in the provision of staples and I consider beef to be a staple. The consumer should be able to make an informed choice. In his capacity as Minister responsible for food, I am sure that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food would go along with that.

The 1980 food labelling regulations call for such meat to be labelled as tenderised, but that description does not differentiate between post-mortem tenderising such as pounding, partial chopping or electrical techniques and ante-mortem tenderising such as the method of which I am complaining. As fas as the consumer is concerned, cooking times and storage techniques are different. Get those wrong and the meat might disintegrate in cooking, and if the meat is not stored properly there may be problems with food poisoning. It is essential that the product be properly identified at all times. Such meat should be described for trading purposes as

"Pre-slaughter enzymic treatment tenderised meat."

I know that that is a mouthful, but it must be clear that the treatment is pre-slaughter and involves a chemical. I trust that my hon. Friend the Minister will give an undertaking tonight to amend the food regulations accordingly. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give strong advice to trading standards officers so that traders offering the product for sale over the counter in the high streets know what it is all about. When I asked someone what the expression "tenderised meat" meant, I was told, "Oh yes, sir, it is more natural like--been kept in the open and fed lots of barley." What greater travesty of the truth could there be?

The claim is that the proportion of joints that can be grilled or roasted increases from 35 per cent. in an untreated carcase to 75 per cent. after treatment. The economic advantage moves to the meat trade as the market demand is for the hind-quarter cuts. The logic of the argument is that fewer beef animals would be required for the prime beef market if the practice became more widespread. My hon. Friend the Minister knows that my part of the world rears darned fine beef. A practice might grow up of trying to upgrade cow beef and passing it off as prime beef. At the time when the beef industry--both the suckler cow herds and dairy herds--is under pressure,


Column 972

it seems crazy to espouse a practice which is highly dubious in welfare terms and has no economic benefits for primary producers. I hope that I have said enough for my hon. Friend the Minister to reconsider the Government's position, to commission more searching research from independent sources and to amend the food labelling regulations and give that vital advice to trading standards officers to make certain that proper standards are maintained in this respect. I am revolted by what is happening in the trade now, and I believe that I am not alone in my revulsion.

1.12 am

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Maclean) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford (Mr. Shepherd) on securing the debate and on choosing this subject. I know of my hon. Friend's long attachment to animal welfare. I believe that he is still an honorary associate of the British Veterinary Association. That is a great honour and privilege which I was able to share for a short while. Like my hon. Friend, the Government attach great importance to securing the proper welfare of animals at slaughter and at all other stages of their lives. If we are to have meat to eat, animals must be slaughtered, and in large numbers, but we are determined to ensure that that is performed as humanely as possible. There is already extensive legislation governing the welfare of animals at slaughter. This provides substantial safeguards. Nevertheless, procedures and techniques have changed since detailed rules were introduced in the 1950s, and we propose shortly to introduce new regulations on the welfare of animals at slaughter which, in giving effect to recommendations of the Farm Animal Welfare Council, will strengthen and improve the protection now afforded by the law.

I understand why anyone who has the welfare of animals at heart should view with concern a process for administering before slaughter an enzyme solution to tenderise the meat from the animal. Indeed, the Farm Animal Welfare Council recommended that such treatments before slaughter should be banned. The Government do not reject lightly any recommendation by the council, which they appointed as an independent body to advise them on matters relating to the welfare of farm animals. The decision to do so in this case was not an easy one, but those who wish to use this process have a right to expect that it should not be condemned on suspicion alone but that it should be evaluated objectively and scientifically. That is what the Government have done, and very carefully. I therefore welcome this opportunity to explain to the House and to my hon. Friend the detailed consideration which the Government have given to this process. In doing so, I hope to reassure the House that some of the concerns which have been expressed about it by my hon. Friend are unnecessary and also, perhaps, to clear up some of the misconceptions which are held about the treatment.

The foremost consideration for the Government when considering any process or treatment relating to the food we eat must be the safety of the consumer. That is paramount. The enzyme administered to the animals is papain, a natural vegetable enzyme derived from the paw paw fruit, which is commonly consumed by humans. It has


Column 973

a long history of medicinal use for the treatment of chronic dyspepsia and gastritis among other things, and it is used in the production of beer. It has been carefully evaluated for safety in use by the Department of Health's committee on toxicity, as well as by international scientific bodies, which have approved it for use in food. When used as in the tenderising treatment, papain is present in the meat before it is cooked at a level of less than five parts per million. Cooking first activates the enzyme so that it tenderises the meat and, as the temperature rises, it then largely destroys the enzyme. I can assure the House that its use in this process for tenderising meat presents no risk whatever to public health. Before I deal with the welfare concerns surrounding this treatment, it may be helpful if I explain the process. It involves the intravenous administration of a solution containing oxidised papain into prime beef animals immediately before stunning and slaughter. The amount administered is generally about 250 to 300 ml, but this is varied according to the size and weight of the animal. The solution is introduced into the vascular system in accordance with accepted veterinary practice and it is circulated throughout the animal's body by the blood stream. The solution remains inactive and has no effect upon the live animal. It remains in the meat until it is cooked, when it is activated by the heat and acts to accelerate the breakdown of the protein molecules in the meat, making it tender.

The process was developed in the United States and has been used in this country since the early 1960s. The company holding the patent rights to the process in the United Kingdom uses it in its own plants and also licenses other operators. Unlike in the United States, however, use of the process in this country is not widespread and I understand that only about 2 per cent. of the total number of cattle slaughtered each year are thus treated.

One common misunderstanding is the belief that the treatment is used to improve what would otherwise be tough or poor quality meat. That is not so. In fact, its application is confined to prime young animals--to steers less than three years old and heifers up to two years old. The treatment is said to increase the recovery of meat which can be grilled or roasted from 35 per cent. in an untreated carcase to 75 per cent. in a treated one. Although other methods of tenderising meat are available, this process is particularly effective and achieves a uniform distribution throughout the meat of a relatively small quantity of the enzyme.

I shall now turn to the welfare aspects which were the main concern of my hon. Friend. I understand well the concerns that the process raises. The Farm Animal Welfare Council and other welfare interests expressed concern that the enzyme might begin to operate on the tissues of the animal while it is still alive. The council was concerned that there was a real risk that this might cause suffering, especially if slaughter is delayed for any reason. In practice, the time between administration and slaughter is generally no more than about five minutes. Nevertheless, the concern that the animal's tissues and organs might be affected by the enzyme is easy to understand. In order to test this, the Ministry carried out research which established that there is no evidence that deterioration of


Column 974

tissue occurs during the few minutes before animals are usually slaughtered. If slaughter should be delayed for any reason the fluid is excreted.

Officers of the state veterinary service who participated in the study concluded--and I accept their evidence and judgment--that there was no evidence that animals suffer any pain as a result of the presence of the enzyme in their bodies, and that if the recommended procedures are followed no welfare problems should arise. The results were published in Meat Science in 1987 and, as my hon. Friend said, a copy has been placed in the Library in case any hon. Member should wish to examine it as closely as my hon. Friend has done. My hon. Friend spoke about some of the bad practice that he has encountered or has evidence of in abattoirs. I am aware that there have been a number of reports and articles in the press criticising welfare standards in slaughterhouses. Obviously, the treatment of an animal is open to abuse at any stage of its life. As I have already explained, there is extensive legislation designed to safeguard the welfare of farm animals at slaughter. That gives local authorities responsible for enforcing the legislation sufficient powers to ensure that standards are maintained and enables them to take any action if they consider that an animal has been mistreated.

The press articles made various claims about poor welfare which we took very seriously. However, in spite of extensive inquiries none of the claims has been substantiated. Perhaps I could assure the House that it is the view of my veterinary advisers who visit slaughterhouses that conditions are generally satisfactory and they do not witness the conditions that I have seen described rather vividly in press articles.

Another welfare concern has been that some animals suffer adverse reactions to the enzyme. I am aware, for example, of reports, about this, such as one in the Veterinary Record of 5 January 1985. Although we know that such reactions have occurred, confirmed cases are known to be extremely rare. The risk has now been reduced virtually to zero by refinements to the process. The company holding the patent rights maintains a record of such cases and I am pleased to be able to say that none has been reported in recent years. Perhaps the main welfare concern, however, is the view expressed by the Farm Animal Welfare Council and by other welfare interests that, while it may not cause pain, the process represents an additional interference with or indignity to the animal at what is already a stressful time, and that this interference is not in the interests of the animal. I respect that view and, as I said earlier, I take very seriously the concerns of the Farm Animal Welfare Council. That is why ministerial colleagues in the past and my veterinary officers have seen the process being carried out. It is performed by trained operatives who handle the animals carefully. The administration of the solution causes little discomfort and there is no evidence that the animals suffer undue stress. There is, of course, some added interference with the animal immediately before it is slaughtered which welfare interests find objectionable. However, the Government do not believe that the treatment can be considered inhumane and on balance we do not feel that we would be justified in banning the use of a process that is otherwise perfectly safe.

I hope that what I have said will show that we have given very careful attention to the concerns that have been expressed about this treatment. We have not found it to be


Column 975

inhumane and, on the evidence available, we still believe that we would not be justified in prohibiting it on welfare grounds. So long as the process is employed, I shall continue to keep the welfare aspects under review and will look carefully at any relevant new information which may become available.

There is, however, another dimension to this matter, which my hon. Friend touched on, and which is very important. It concerns the rules of the European Community for trade in meat between member states. The present Community legislation does not apply to the production of enzyme-treated meat within member states for supply to their own domestic markets, but it does not generally permit trade in such meat between member states. At present, however, they may enter into bilateral agreements for trade in treated meat and the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have such an arrangement. Other member states do not employ the papain process and have never favoured its use, although for reasons which have never been really clear to us. I understand that Commission officials are even now preparing draft proposals for the production and marketing of meat under single market conditions, and are proposing that the marketing of enzyme treated meat should not be permitted. The Commission has not yet made a formal proposal to this effect but we expect it to do so and that it will have the support of the majority of our European partners. The adoption of such a rule would prevent the use of the pre-slaughter enzyme treatment. The question arises, therefore, as to whether the Government should seek in negotiations to obtain special arrangements


Column 976

which would permit the treatment to continue. We are anxious that the common rules for meat should be agreed and applied as soon as possible as this will be in the best interests of our consumers and of our industry at large.

I do not expect that it will be easy to reach agreement in Brussels speedily, but it would not be to our advantage to delay matters by making an issue of a process of which only limited use is being made and which may also be open to some criticism on animal welfare grounds. Indeed, as my hon. Friend knows, the United Kingdom is at the forefront in pressing for higher welfare standards throughout the Community. We are seeking to improve welfare standards for pigs kept in intensive farming systems and to get the veal crate ban, which will apply here from 1 January next year, adopted on a Community basis. For battery hens, we shall be urging improvements in welfare when the Community provisions are reviewed. It will not assist our case in pressing other member states to improve animal welfare standards if we leave open any possibility, however remote, of being accused of not practising what we preach.

I have to say now, therefore, that for these reasons we have decided not to seek provision for the continuation of the pre-slaughter enzyme treatment under the single market rules. In these circumstances, those now using the process--

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker-- adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order. Adjourned at twenty- eight minutes past One o'clock.


Written Answers Section

  Home Page