Our Chief Executive Tim Bonner writes:
A report on animal welfare legislation from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs select committee published this week has recommended that the RSPCA “withdraws from acting as a prosecutor of first resort”.
This is a view that the Countryside Alliance has long held for the very simple reason that the model of a private charity acting as a quasi-statutory prosecutor is a historic anomaly.
On Wednesday morning, I debated David Bowles from the RSPCA on the BBC Today programme about the recommendations (I am on between 2:38 and 2:46). Our Chairman, Simon Hart, also debated John Cooper QC (RSPCA supporter) on BBC Radio 5 Live Breakfast (2:17 to 2:24).
We have long argued that the RSPCA’s roles as investigator, political campaigner and fundraiser are incompatible with that of an independent prosecutor. When the RSPCA had complete support across the community this anomaly could be ignored. As, however, it has developed its political campaigning role the conflict between that work and its prosecuting function has become unsustainable. Even if it is making objective prosecuting decisions there will always be questions about its motivation.
By voluntarily withdrawing from bringing cases against farmers and hunts, as it did earlier this year, the RSPCA has already accepted that it does not need to prosecute to protect animal welfare. In Scotland, where the RSPCA’s sister organisation the SSPCA does not prosecute, there is no evidence that animal welfare cases are dealt with less effectively than in England and Wales.
The RSPCA has a vital role in investigating animal cruelty and holding those agencies which have a statutory duty to prosecute welfare offences to account. The evidence put before MPs, however, made it quite clear that there is no justification for the RSPCA continuing with its historic and outdated private prosecution function.
Unsurprisingly the RSPCA is resisting what would be a significant change for an organisation which resisted the move away from private prosecutions which all other non-statutory organisations made when the Crown Prosecution Service was created in 1985. The tide, however, has turned and the future cannot be an unaccountable campaigning organisation making thousands of prosecuting decisions.
There is no question of ‘stripping powers’ from the RSPCA as some media, and even the Society itself, has suggested. The EFRA committee did not recommend that, partly because the RSPCA has no ‘powers’ to remove. Only the RSPCA can make the decision to withdraw from the private prosecutions that it has been pursuing.
We are very confident that the Crown Prosecution Service will step up and prosecute those cases that the RSPCA investigates, it has a statutory duty to do so and the total cost of current RSPCA prosecutions amounts to less than 1% of the total CPS budget. There is no excuse for the current situation to continue and we firmly believe that by withdrawing from prosecuting the RSPCA will be protecting itself, the sometimes vulnerable people it prosecutes and, of course, the welfare of animals for which we all have a duty of care.
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