The Countryside Alliance has welcomed plans to increase the maximum sentence for animal abuse, but has repeated calls to the RSPCA to end the continuing anomaly of privatised criminal prosecution of animal welfare legislation.

The Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, announced that the Government intends to bring forward legislation to increase the maximum sentence for serious acts of animal abuse from six months to five years. He argued that the number of cases that might attract such a sentence are small, but there are some where abuse is so sustained and appalling that a longer sentence would undoubtedly be justified.

Last year the EFRA Committee reported on animal welfare legislation and came up with clear recommendations on the prosecution of welfare offences. Its Chairman, Neil Parish, said: “The RSPCA does important work investigating animal welfare cases. And I would like to see its dedicated and professional staff continue that vital work. The Committee is not convinced, however, that the RSPCA is in a better position than the Crown Prosecution Service when it comes to prosecuting animal welfare cases. It should step back from making prosecutions itself, continuing instead to work closely with the police and prosecution service to protect the welfare of animals.”

The Government confirmed in its response to EFRA that, “Resources alone…are never a bar to prosecution. If a case passes the two stage test for prosecution used by the CPS (i.e. is there sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction and, if so, is a prosecution is needed in the public interest) a prosecution will take place.”

Tim Bonner, Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance, said: “It is regrettable that the RSPCA council has refused to accept the recommendation of the cross-party EFRA Committee. Instead its council indulged in another orgy of internal bloodletting and sacked its Chief Executive, Jeremy Cooper, for daring to apologise for the way it had carried out some prosecutions in the past.

“We fully support the extension of sentences to 5 years for the worst cases of animal abuse. With increased sentencing must, however, come the normalisation of prosecutions under the Animal Welfare Act and an end to privatised prosecutions by the RSPCA. Such cases are too serious to be dealt with by a private prosecutor which is also involved in investigating the offence.”