Andrew Rosindell is the Member of Parliament for Romford.

Last week, the debate over the religious slaughter of animals in the UK was reignited when John Blackwell, the President-elect of the British Veterinary Association (BVA), expressed his concerns over the welfare of those animals subjected to the Halal and Shechita methods of slaughter.  He argued that the considerable pain and stress animals were placed under during slaughter was obvious, and that religious groups should do more to protect the welfare of those animals at the time of death.

As a former Shadow Minister for Animal Welfare and current Secretary to the Animal Welfare All Party Parliamentary Group, I have long felt that the refusal of certain religious groups to stun animals prior to slaughter is a cold, brutal and inhumane practice and I have recently expressed my support for Mr Blackwell’s statement.

My reason for this is quite simple:  Reports from several different organisations have demonstrated that animals which are not stunned prior to slaughter feel considerable pain before death.  The European Dialrel Project, for instance, which sought to encourage dialogue on religious slaughter, found that “pain, suffering and distress” during the throat cut was disturbingly commonplace in the 200 references it considered, while a report from the U.K. Farm Animal Welfare Council and another published in the New Zealand Veterinary Journal have reached similar conclusions.

To permit the suffering of animals in this way is unfair, unnecessary and, frankly, un-British.

I say this, not as an attack on the freedom of religious groups to practice as they please, but purely from the perspective of animal welfare.  It is simply not acceptable for exceptions to be made in British law for religious – or indeed any other – practices if the welfare of animals is ignored or trampled upon as a result.

To its credit, existing legislation on the slaughter of animals in the U.K. evidently has animal welfare at its heart.  Both the Slaughter of Animals Act 1933 and the EU Welfare of Animals (Slaughter or Killing) Regulations 1995 are clear that the best, kindest and most humane way to slaughter animals is after stunning, during which the animal is rendered instantly unconscious before being killed.  In this way, the animal suffers as little as possible during the slaughtering process.

The Halal and Shechita methods, however, are exempt from this and animals can be slaughtered without any kind of stunning or anaesthesia at all, undoubtedly in many cases causing considerable agony and suffering.  These exemption clauses completely contradict and undermine the rest of the legislation which seeks to protect animal welfare and instead promote outdated and brutal traditions ahead of the humane and decent treatment of animals.

I do not, for a moment, believe that Halal and Kosher meat in general should be banned, but I do feel that methods of animal slaughter should be updated to make use of more modern technology and should reflect a twenty-first Century view of appropriate treatment of animals.

Proponents of religious slaughter often argue that Halal and Shechita methods have historically been the most humane methods of slaughter available and this was undoubtedly true for hundreds of years.  However, modern methods of slaughter (particularly the use of stunning) have advanced considerably over the last century, especially in the U.K. and it is time for religious groups to embrace this altogether more humane and decent approach to slaughtering animals.

The reconciliation between religious slaughter and the humane treatment of animals is by no means impossible to achieve.  As an example, research undertaken by the Food Standards Agency published in 2012 clearly demonstrated that most Halal slaughterhouses had already adopted pre-stunning of animals as an appropriate means of slaughter that was compatible with religious tradition.  Some 84 per cent of cattle killed by the Halal method in 2011 were in fact stunned prior to slaughter, along with 88 per cent of poultry.  Other countries have also experienced success in aligning religious tradition and animal welfare.

Most obviously, Denmark has recently passed legislation that requires the use of stunning in all animal slaughter, whilst pre-stunning remains a legal requirement in New Zealand in Halal slaughter, with the consent of the Muslim population.

The U.K. must look at making stunning prior to slaughter a legal requirement in all cases if it takes animal welfare issues seriously.  Whilst the number of animals killed by these methods is undoubtedly small, they certainly appear to be growing; and growing out of proportion with the populations who consume the meat produced.  For instance, whilst the Muslim population in the U.K. makes up around four per cent of the population, the Halal Food Authority has estimated that about 25 per cent of all meat in the U.K. is Halal, whilst about 70 per cent of all kosher meat produced is consumed outside the Jewish community.

Furthermore, an increasing number of restaurants and takeaways provide Halal and Kosher meat as standard so as not to exclude any customers, increasing demand for it.

There is a suggestion, therefore, that more slaughterhouses are using Halal and Shechita methods as standard because it widens the available markets in which the meat can be sold.  If the trend continues, this could have profound consequences for the welfare of a small but increasing number of animals going to slaughter in the U.K.

In any case, any attempted change in the law would undoubtedly lead to significant opposition from religious organisations.  Regrettably, it is often argued that any change in the law with regards to religious slaughter spawns from bigotry and religious intolerance not from concerns over animal welfare.  When in 2011 the Dutch Parliament voted to ban religious slaughter without stunning, the country’s Chief Rabbi described the move as anti-Semitic, comparing it with Nazi laws enacted during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands.  Indeed, since I made a statement last week in support of John Blackwell’s comments, I have sadly received e-mails of a similar vein.

It is vital to stress again that this is a debate about animal welfare, not religious tolerance.  It is an immensely important debate and, from the significant amount of correspondence I have received from all over the country in support of ending slaughter without stunning, it is clear that it matters to a large number of people in this country too.

The Government must look seriously into this issue without delay and ensure that the principles of animal welfare are upheld consistently and humanely.