Orders of the Day — Horses (Slaughter)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 28th October 1948.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Snow.]

10.0 p.m.

Photo of Sir Harold Sutcliffe Sir Harold Sutcliffe , Royton

The time has come to draw the attention of the Ministry of Food to the alarming position arising in this country at the present time owing to the ever-increasing slaughter for food of young horses. There has been an enormous growth in this traffic during the last 12 months, and if it is not stopped, there will be a very definite shortage of some of our best-known breeds of horses within a few years.

May I give some figures to illustrate the serious situation? Since 1st January, 1945, we have killed in this country 162,654 horses, and that is not the total figure; that is the number for only 24 cities, boroughs and urban districts from which I have been able to obtain figures. It does not tell the whole story by any means. I am indebted to the local authorities who have sent me their figures, and I propose to give a selection of half-a-dozen to illustrate what I mean.

At West Ham, in 1945, 14,300 horses were slaughtered, and in 1947, 19,200. For the first nine months of this year the figure is 14,239. At Acton, in 1945, the figure was 3,838; in 1947, 6,121; and, in the first nine months of 1948, 5,155. At Cambridge, in 1945, the total was 643; in 1947, 2,016; and, in the first nine months of this year, 2,728. In Rochdale, in 1945, the figure was 1,709; in 1947, 2,975; and, in the first nine months of this year, 3,412. Manchester only began the slaughter of horses in the latter half of 1947, when 1,171 were killed. In the first nine months of this year, however, 6,756 went to their deaths—an amazing increase. At a little place called Saddleworth in the West Riding, where they did not begin until 1947, the figure for that year was 45 and for this year is 420. At Bentley-with Arksey, in South Yorkshire, they began only this year, but they have already got down to the business in a big way, because 928 horses have been killed in that small district.

Photo of Mr Evelyn Walkden Mr Evelyn Walkden , Doncaster

Is it not also true, in the case which the hon. Gentleman has just quoted, and with which I am particularly concerned because I raised the question in 1943, that it is only because the slaughterers are now using another slaughterhouse rather than the one they formerly used in the town? They have gone to the villages because not so much can be seen there.

Photo of Sir Harold Sutcliffe Sir Harold Sutcliffe , Royton

That may be so, and that meat is not being consumed, as far as I know, in that district, but is destined for London. The public have no idea of the extent or ramifications of this trade; if they had, they would rise in their wrath and demand that action be taken to stop it. The vast majority of these horses are young ones in the prime of life, perfectly healthy and with many years of useful service before them. In fact, they represent some of the finest types of British horses of all kinds, including quite a number of prize winners at the shows, which go straight from the market to the slaughterhouse. In a number of cases they even include mares with their foals, yearlings, two-year-olds and, indeed, horses of all ages and all kinds.

In some of these towns it is a melancholy procession to the slaughterhouse, and there has been much hostility shown by those who live nearby, because the slaughtering even takes place on Sunday mornings. Resort has now been had to motor transport which is quicker and less obtrusive. However, this does not always enable what is happening to pass unobserved. Indeed, a young man, a constituent of mine, who was recently driving a lorry to a slaughterhouse, had a clog thrown at the vehicle and complained to his employers that he could not carry on under those circumstances.

Those who are operating this business still use the railway to some extent, but, since the disclosures were made about the overcrowded conditions of horses in certain railway yards, they have thought it safer to use road transport. I think that attention should be drawn to that fact. I am told that in one day recently no fewer than 140 horses were brought from Carlisle to London by road. One can imagine the conditions in which they travelled in the crowded lorries. I am especially concerned about the dwindling population of horses in this country. If this process goes on, in another three years there will be hardly any six-year-olds available for work, or any other purpose. It may be that horses will be wanted very badly in view of world conditions; it may not always be easy to obtain all the oil we need for our tractors. The two main breeds affected are the Shires and Clydesdales. If this practice is continued, the virtual extinction of two of our finest breeds of working horses will be brought about.

This question was really brought up by one or two farmers in my constituency who wrote to me saying that they were unable to buy horses for hay-making and their crops were being seriously prejudiced for that reason. It is an industrial district and the farms are more of the hilltop type where it is extremely hard, as many hon. Members know, to make ends meet. These farmers could not afford the prices asked at the auction sales. A horse of 12 cwt. live weight was fetching in the region of £50 whereas it should now be in the region of £20. It is obvious that farmers in those districts, and people requiring horses for drawing wagons, cannot afford to pay £50 for a horse when, as I say, the proper price should be in the region of £20.

A good many resolutions have recently been sent in by some branches of the National Farmers' Union urging that something should be done about this matter. It means that no horse is now safe in a sale. The agents go to every sale and literally buy up everything, judging only by what each horse will fetch for meat. They look at the horses from a butcher's angle, which is quite a new thing. The vast majority of this meat is, of course, sold in the black market—I should say 80 per cent.

Photo of Sir Harold Sutcliffe Sir Harold Sutcliffe , Royton

I would say that from 80 to 90 per cent. is sold in the black market—certainly more than 80 per cent. A great deal comes to London as meat from as far away as Scotland in open lorries, in some cases with just a tarpaulin over a light lorry.

Photo of Sir Harold Sutcliffe Sir Harold Sutcliffe , Royton

Some comes in meat containers, I agree, and it is perfectly healthy and safeguarded in that respect, but on the other hand there is some which comes from Scotland in open wagons with just a tarpaulin over it, and I think the health authorities might look into that aspect of the matter.

Photo of Sir Elwyn Jones Sir Elwyn Jones , West Ham Plaistow

Is this meat intended for human consumption? Is it used for human consumption when it comes to London?

Photo of Sir Harold Sutcliffe Sir Harold Sutcliffe , Royton

The majority of it is destined for human consumption, as I thought I had made quite clear. If the maximum retail price of 1s., which is laid down, were adhered to, it would be quite impossible to pay the prices which I have mentioned at the auction sales. The real basic value per live cwt. which would enable any business to pay its overheads and transport, and make a small reasonable profit, is 30s. a live cwt., whereas the average minimum purchase price is not less than 50s. a cwt. live weight. That shows a difference of exactly 20s. It is impossible at the prices which are being paid to fall into line with the Statutory Rule and Order which lays down the maximum prices.

The truth is that this trade is now in the hands of a small number of men who are making very large profits. Their names and a good many of their activities are well known to the Ministry of Food. They have their own slaughterhouses, or, if they have not, they have the horses killed at what is called a contractual slaughterhouse which two or three men share, and they pay 10s. for each horse which is slaughtered. Apparently anybody can obtain a licence, and instead of about 150, over 400 slaughtering licences have now been issued. Anybody seems to be able to get one as long as he can find a disused slaughterhouse.

This little hand of men has a complete organisation. It is highly organised and seems to have plenty of motor transport. All transactions, of course, are in cash, no questions are asked and no records are kept. People might begin to make inconvenient inquiries if any records were kept, and there is always the Inland Revenue in the background. I would commend the attention of the Inland Revenue to some of these men. In fact, there are one or two of them who would prefer to forget that until a very few years ago their trade was on normal lines, with cattle, but the law came down on them and they had a period of enforced absence. However, they started up afterwards in this business, and they have not looked back since then.

As the Parliamentary Secretary well knows, there is a Statutory Rule and Order, No. 1862, which was brought out on 20th November, 1941, and this fixes the maximum wholesale and retail prices for horesflesh and also insists on the keeping of records. Never has a Statutory Rule and Order been so openly flouted as this one has, and I would like to know what efforts, if any, the Ministry are making in the enforcement of this Statutory Rule and Order. Here is a real job of work for the enforcement officers.

The Ministry's officers, instead of watching the paltry things such as sales in shops above the maximum price, should give immediate attention to these auction sales. They should attend them and follow the horse-flesh from the hoof right to the retail shops, never letting it out of their sight. They will have to be determined men and they will have to have their wits about them, because these men are highly organised and they will take some beating, particularly when one recalls that three skilled men working as a team can kill a horse, skin it, cut it up, and have the whole thing out of the slaughterhouse, including all the offal and every other part, within 20 minutes of bringing in the horse alive. These enforcement officers will have to be quick on the job, and if the job is too big for them let us have the police on it, because something has simply got to be done. This order must be enforced, for this traffic is bringing the whole law of the land into utter contempt.

Finally, I should like to know what has happened to the S.R. & O. which for several months has been expected from the Ministry of Food. I understand that a committee sat some months ago, and it was agreed that there should be a definite S.R. & O. introduced to put an end to this whole business. Why has it not been issued? Are the Ministry content to let this business go on? It almost begins to look like it. The whole position suggests that they are not very anxious for action. Perhaps they take the view of the Socialist alderman in one part of the country, who said recently that people who objected to eating horse-meat must learn to like it. Undoubtedly, it helps to eke out our meagre meat ration, but I hope that the attitude of the Ministry is not as I suggest. If it is, the Ministry are wholly misjudging the views of the people. The country demands immediate action to put an end to this sordid traffic, which is entirely alien to the British people.

10.17 p.m.

Photo of Dr Hyacinth Morgan Dr Hyacinth Morgan , Rochdale

It is not often that I find myself in agreement with an hon. Member from the Benches opposite, but I am on this occasion because my constituency is deeply concerned in the matter which has been raised by the hon. Member for Royton (Mr. Sutcliffe). I have been approached by people of different political opinions in my constitu- ency advocating that something should be done to stop this cruel practice in my constituency. Some people believe that Rochdale depends on Royton but Rochdale can stand on its own feet.

I ask the Ministry of Food to put a strict inspection and supervision on to this traffic. It really is a deplorable traffic which causes great anguish amongst decent citizens in constituencies like Rochdale. They know it is done for excessive private profit. I could speak a lot on this subject, but I do not wish to encroach on the time of the Parliamentary Secretary who is to reply. I want to say that this deplorable traffic'is a traffic which everybody in my constituency deplores, and Rochdale strongly objects on humanitarian grounds to being a centre of such an unworthy traffic. Many people eat this flesh not knowing that it 'is horseflesh but believing that it is ordinary meat, and without knowing what is happening behind the iron curtain of the slaughter houses. Many people would like to know what goes on there, and there should be more inspection, more supervision and more restriction.

10.19 p.m.

Photo of Lieut-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore Lieut-Colonel Sir Thomas Moore , Ayr District of Burghs

I am much obliged to the hon. Member for Rochdale (Dr. Morgan) for curtailing his remarks to such an extent, and also to the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary for agreeing to take one minute less, which gives me two minutes. I approach this detestable traffic from a completely different angle from the hon. Members who have spoken, although I thank my hon. friend the Member for Royton (Mr. Sutcliffe) for introducing it. I speak on behalf of the great humanitarian societies, the R.S.P.C.A. and the International League for the Protection of Horses, on the councils of which I sit.

We are tremendously perturbed at the conditions under which these horses are brought to sale. They come from all over the country and from Ireland. They suffer unduly and unfairly in transport. We should like the old and worn-out horses, that have served man so very faithfully and loyally all their lives, to be slaughtered on the spot, so that they do not suffer the pain of travel by road, rail or sea. It would mean that the meat itself would be much better, because undoubtedly the meat deteriorates on the hoof in the course of days when the horses do not get adequate food or water.

As regards young horses, we ask that instead of their being watered and fed, as the present order lays down, once in 24 hours, they should be watered and fed once every 12 hours; and that there should be reception centres where there are adequate arrangements made for watering and feeding them before distribution; and that when they are put down, they are put down, without any shadow of doubt, humanely, without anticipation and undue suffering. I know that I am knocking at an open door. The Minister has the power and the means at her disposal, with her inspectors; and I am sure she has the will.

10.22 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food (Dr. Edith Summer-skill):

I am quite sure that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Royton (Mr. Sutcliffe) is aware that my Department is not responsible for all matters concerning the slaughter, the import, the export, and the general welfare of the horses in this country. That is divided between my Department and the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Health.

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

We, for the most part, are concerned with fixing the maximum wholesale and retail prices, and with the licensing of persons who sell horseflesh by wholesale. I recognise, of course, that because we have fixed maximum prices, indirectly we may be responsible for the illicit marketing of horseflesh. Our enforcement officers, in some cases, cannot prosecute, cannot detect, all those people who infringe the maximum price order. I think that should be quite clear to the hon. Gentleman, who mentioned the prices horses fetched in the market. It is quite clear to him and to the House, I am sure, that if the maximum price of horseflesh which is sold for human consumption is a shilling, then there must be some evasion of our order if those horses which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned fetch such very high prices.

It may not have occurred to hon. Members that the enforcement of the order in respect of this commodity is, perhaps, harder than the enforcement of orders in respect of any other commodity with which my Department has to deal; and for this reason: housewives who are unfortunate enough to have husbands who have big appetites for meat, go to the places where horse-meat is sold, and if they are overcharged they are a little reluctant to complain, because they are not anxious to have the details of their purchases, and the places where they make them, ventilated in the local papers. Therefore, while it may be quite easy to get a housewife to give evidence against a greengrocer who has charged more than the maximum price, it is with the utmost difficulty that we can persuade witnesses to come forward to give evidence against these particular people. That is why we find enforcement extremely difficult. Furthermore, the clientele in these shops is rather limited, and the seller of horsemeat knows his customers. We find that, in these cases, when we send an inspector, male or female, to make a purchase, for some curious reason the controlled price is always charged. The seller of the horsemeat suspects that particular customer.

I do not deny that there has been an increase in the slaughter of horses. We have discussed this matter with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and he, while he recognises that our orders are not fully enforced, believes that the present state of enforcement prevents a much more serious drain on horses throughout the country, and that is why he is anxious for the present regulations to remain. Although I admit that we suspect that there is an evasion, we have just recently given special attention to this matter, and we find that, although we have in sonic cases made certain approaches in the right quarters—I do not want to reveal to the House what methods my Department adopts in these matters—we have not found the widespread complaints which one would expect, after listening to the very sincere speech of the hon. Gentleman who raised this matter.

He asked me whether we had made the order which the Committee suggested should be made. I think that if he will inquire at the Vote Office he will find that an order has recently been tabled and will come into effect on 19th December. That is an order which gives us certain control over the knackers' yards. The hon. Gentleman did not distinguish between slaughterhouses and knackers' yards. This order, which will now come into effect, will mean that those who occupy knackers' yards will not only have to obtain licences from the local authorities but also licences from my Department, and, as a result, they will have to keep records as to the sources of their meat, the number of animals slaughtered, and so on.

Photo of Sir Harold Sutcliffe Sir Harold Sutcliffe , Royton

Are there two orders?

Photo of Dr Edith Summerskill Dr Edith Summerskill , Fulham West

We have already made one, and we will certainly consider another one. Although there has been a steady decline in the horse population of the country, I want the hon. Gentleman to recognise that the farming industry of this country is the most highly mechanised in the world, and young farmers are rather apt to despise horses. They have developed a love for tractors, and it is a most difficult thing to persuade these young farmers to use horses on their farms when they are now accustomed to use some kind of mechanical instrument. The Ministry of Agriculture have assured us that they are making efforts to persuade the farmers to continue the breeding of horses, but I want the hon. Gentleman to recognise that we cannot control the slaughter of horses by the farmer or his agents, and the only solution is for the young farmers to breed more horses. I can assure him that we are doing everything in our power to persuade them to do so.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Ten o'Clock.