In early August, the UK environment secretary Michael Gove announced plans for all slaughterhouses in England to be fitted with compulsory CCTV cameras to safeguard against negligence and abuse of animals.

The proposal was a pledge of the Conservative government as part of their 2017 election manifesto. Campaigners have been asking for mandatory CCTV in abattoirs for close to ten years ever since Animal Aid secretly placed cameras in several UK slaughterhouses between 2009 and 2017 and found evidence of severe abuse in almost all of them.

Animal Ais is one of the world’s longest-running animal rights charities and operates the ‘Say Yes to Slaughterhouse CCTV’ campaign. Director Isobel Hutchinson gives her thoughts on the government’s proposals, and whether they go far enough to protect animals in English abattoirs.

Elliot Gardner: Can you tell me a bit more about the history of the ‘Slaughterhouse CCTV’ campaign?

Isobel Hutchinson: We started our investigations into UK slaughterhouses in 2009, and it has been ongoing ever since. Unfortunately, we found that illegal cruelty has been very widespread. This May, we released a damning report that shows that illegal abuse had been found in 93% of slaughterhouses investigated by Animal Aid and Hillside Animal Sanctuary.

It really is a very widespread problem, and in terms of what we found, it’s not just technical breaches and incompetence, but really appalling deliberate violence. We filmed animals being punched, kicked, deliberately being given electric shocks, even cigarettes being stubbed out on them.

At the start, we actually just wanted to show the reality of what happens in slaughterhouses, to lift the lid on what is a very secretive industry, and show people the reality of how animals are slaughtered and how horrific it is. What we did not know is that there was all this widespread lawbreaking and deliberate cruelty. We knew that slaughter was a horrific process, but even we were shocked by what we found.

EG: Are you pleased with the government’s announcement?

IH: This is a real breakthrough with the government deciding to launch a consultation and actually put forward plans for making CCTV mandatory, but a really crucial element for us is the independent monitoring of the footage. If cameras are just there, that’s not enough to prevent illegal abuse.

We have actually filmed inside slaughterhouses that have cameras, but because the footage was not being properly monitored, or it was not being acted on, they failed to prevent abuse. We certainly encourage under these plans that the slaughterhouse veterinarian would have unrestricted access to the footage, but we’d also like a more rigorous system of independent monitoring, so we’d like independent experts to be spot-checking random sections of the footage.

And of course from our perspective, this is not the solution, this will not make slaughter cruelty free, and it will not make it humane. There really is no such thing as humane slaughter, it is still brutal and horrific, but we do feel that CCTV is a useful measure in the meantime while animals are still being slaughtered to help prevent the additional level of suffering that is induced by illegal cruelty and violence.

EG: How did you go about placing cameras in UK abattoirs?

IH: It was an undercover investigation. They were fly-on-the-wall cameras. The slaughterhouses did not know they were there, so they were really useful for showing how people behaved when they did not know they were being watched. And it has been established that the camera footage is admissible as evidence in court

The advantage with mandatory CCTV would be that people would know they were being watched and it would hopefully have a deterrent effect. If they knew that anything they did could be picked up, and potentially result in them being prosecuted, then they wouldn’t undertake that kind of deliberate violence in the first place.

EG: You have had cross-party support from over 200 MPs – Why then has it taken so long for this to become law?

IH: Well that is a really good question and one we do not know how to answer. We have been keeping the pressure on for such a long time, and support has been growing, but why the government has not acted sooner I really have no idea. Other countries where there have been undercover exposés of cruelty in slaughterhouses have acted a lot quicker to make CCTV mandatory. That happened in both Israel and France. It really is disgraceful that it’s taken so long, but obviously a positive that it is finally happening.

EG: Environment secretary Michael Gove has said that in our country we have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world – would you agree with that statement?

IH: No, absolutely not. We have filmed repeatedly not only in slaughterhouses but also on farms, factory farms and also so-called higher welfare farms, and we found appalling suffering. There is no reason to think that the UK is some kind of world-leader on animal welfare. Animals are suffering just as much on farms and in slaughterhouses in this country as anywhere else, and looking at the ways that other countries have reacted in comparison to the UK, there are some that are much more progressive than here.

EG: What has been the main opposition to the campaign so far?

IH: Well there has not so much been a lot of opposition rather than a lot of apathy from the government. For quite a while, the government has been saying that it is in favour of the idea of CCTV but it does not see the need to make it mandatory, that voluntary encouragement of CCTV uptake is enough. Now that they have seen that uptake has really plateaued they have seen that if they want to see it across the board it has to be mandatory.

Of course, there have been objections along the lines of why slaughterhouse workers should be filmed doing their work, but obviously that also applies to all sorts of other workers, such as those in shops and restaurants. Working in a slaughterhouse is quite a unique job with vulnerable animals. It is not like working in a factory with inanimate objects, there is a lot more potential for suffering to be inflicted.

Another issue that has been raised has been whether it would cost too much. The Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) minister George Eustice has said himself that the cost of installing cameras is relatively modest.

We commissioned an independent report into the cost of independent monitoring of the footage, which also showed that it was very cost-effective and feasible. It projected that it would cost between £150,000 and £370,000 a year for slaughterhouses in England, and the proposal was that that cost would be split between industry and the consumer rather than the government and taxpayer paying for it.

It predicted that just a penny per red meat carcass would cover the cost of monitoring. So actually the cost you would be looking at would be so small, but it would make a huge difference in terms of making sure that the law was more rigorously enforced.