Theresa Villiers pledges to ‘protect freedom’ to practice kosher slaughter
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Theresa Villiers pledges to ‘protect freedom’ to practice kosher slaughter

Environment secretary 'wouldn’t accept labelling changes' on meat if it put up costs for the community, as she recognises 'importance' of eating food prepared with religious rules

Jenni Frazer is a freelance journalist

Theresa Villiers in La Boucherie kosher butcher in her constituency
Theresa Villiers in La Boucherie kosher butcher in her constituency

The new Secretary of State for Defra — the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs — has pledged “to protect freedom of religious faiths at home and overseas” to continue slaughtering both kosher and halal meat.

Theresa Villiers, who succeeded Michael Gove in July this year, told Jewish News this week she “recognised the importance” to both the Jewish and Muslim communities of eating food prepared according to the laws of kashrut and halal.

Speaking on behalf of the government, Ms Villiers, who is a close ally of the Jewish community and has served as vice-chair of the Conservative Friends of Israel, said she supported the current rules governing shechita and halal.

She said: “Slaughter across the board is heavily regulated and religious communities have been subject to extra regulations. But I believe, as the new Secretary of State, that it is very important for people to be able to follow their faith.”

Slaughter across the board is heavily regulated and religious communities have been subject to extra regulations

Ms Villiers acknowledged that there had been amendments tabled to the Agriculture Bill in Parliament’s last session which could have affected the Jewish community. But she said: “I would not have supported those amendments and in any case the Bill has fallen with the proroguing of Parliament”. This does not prevent the Bill being brought back in the Queen’s Speech when Parliament resumes next month, but Ms Villiers was making it clear that she is keen to support the status quo.

Theresa Villiers

As far as any impact Brexit might have, the Secretary of State was careful in her choice of words. She said much depended on whether there was a Withdrawal Agreement and if clauses in such an agreement gave the EU power to regulate slaughter or food labelling, or whether that might become a domestic issue. “Some form of WA might commit us to EU rules”, she said. Potentially, however, it was up to the UK to make decisions regarding labelling.

Labelling has been a controversial issue for a long time, with some animal welfare campaigners clamouring for a label to state whether supermarket products were from animals which had been slaughtered according to religious rules. Jewish organisations have said that if labelling were to be extended, it should be applied universally to include all methods of slaughter.

But Ms Villiers said: “I don’t envisage changes.” In any case, she said, “I wouldn’t accept labelling changes which could put up the costs of food for the community”.

I wouldn’t accept labelling changes which could put up the costs of food for the community”.

The MP George Eustice has returned to Defra as a junior minister, having resigned as Food and Farming minister in February over the slow progress on Brexit. When out of government, Mr Eustice spoke in a Westminster Hall debate on religious slaughter, calling for a free vote for MPs and questioning whether the derogation (exemption) for Jewish and Muslim communities were “strictly religious or do they represent an accommodation of a cultural interpretation of religious need?”

But in a crisp response, the Secretary of State noted: “Colleagues on the backbenches can have strong views on a variety of issues. Once people are in government, we have an internal agreement that there is collective responsibility”. Mr Eustice’s previous brief has now been filled by the MP Zac Goldsmith.

Ms Villiers pledged to continue her engagement with faith communities and declared: “We have more to do to provide reassurance, but people should know that we support the right of faith communities to eat according to their own religious beliefs”.

…we support the right of faith communities to eat according to their own religious beliefs

Shimon Cohen, campaign director of Shechita UK, told Jewish News: “We are grateful that the Secretary of State has again confirmed the government’s long standing policy in support of shechita”.

He added: “Brexit has brought a huge amount of uncertainty, particularly regarding food and agriculture legislation which currently sits with the EU. We are delighted that we have the government’s support at this time; confidant that the Secretary of State will continue to work with us as we navigate the impact of Brexit on shechita.”

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