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Tim Bonner: Would the RSPCA have changed without the Alliance?

Just before Christmas the Charity Commission issued a press release saying that it had secured "significant changes to the way the RSPCA is led and governed". This came almost eight years to the day since a case in Oxford Magistrates' court which was the catalyst for the most turbulent period in the RSPCA's 197-year history. That was the day the RSPCA's then Chief Executive declared war on the countryside, and the Countryside Alliance took a stand that has been entirely vindicated and resulted in fundamental changes to the RSPCA. Those changes will benefit the RSPCA and help secure its future, but more importantly they will mean that the Society's focus will return to improving the welfare of animals.

That was certainly not the case in 2012 when it had become a vehicle for advocates of 'animal rights' who were pursuing a campaign to give political rights to non-human species. They had won control of the RSPCA from those who wanted the Society to focus on its founding function of addressing practical issues of animal welfare amongst pets and other domestic animals.

This had been allowed to happen by a governance structure which was utterly dysfunctional. The RSPCA had a large and unwieldy board of trustees elected by a small and shrinking membership. Trustees routinely interfered in the day to day running of the Society, they proposed each other for re-election and were constantly recycled. Ex-Chairman and, by his own description 'inventor of the modern animal rights movement' Richard Ryder, served on the council continuously from 1972 to 2019.

This resulted in the appointment of a Chief Executive, Gavin Grant, with a political agenda who announced that he was going to "finish" hunting and that fox hunters were no different to badger baiters "apart from their accents". Hunting, however, was only the start. As The Sunday Times put it, "he had enough targets to fill Noah's Ark" including the Grand National, farmers involved in the badger cull who he threatened to "name and shame", halal slaughter and live animal transport. In fact, anyone or anything that he deemed remotely newsworthy.

His agenda led directly to that Magistrates' court in Oxford where two members of the Heythrop Hunt had been the subject of a massive RSPCA prosecution. Grant thought this was a victory and ranted on the steps of the court about the end of hunting, but the real story was that the RSPCA had spent an extraordinary amount of its supporters' money - £330,000 - prosecuting the hunt. The case also started a stand-off between the RSPCA and the Countryside Alliance which led to revelation after revelation about the RSPCA's appalling prosecution process, its bizarre internal machinations and increasingly extreme political agenda.

Within 18 months of his 'victory' over the Heythrop Hunt, Gavin Grant resigned in the wake of the news that the new Archbishop of Canterbury had turned down the role of RSPCA patron which his predecessors had held for decades. This was by no means the end of the saga, however, and Chief Executives continued to come and go. One was even 'moved on' after daring to admit that the Society's agenda had become "too political".

In 2018, as chaos continued to engulf the RSPCA, the Charity Commission finally issued it with an official warning about its governance and leadership. After intensive regulatory action the RSPCA finally brought forward changes to "truly transform the Society" in 2019 which allowed the Charity Commission to announce before Christmas that the RSPCA was no longer in special measures and that the relationship between the regulator and charity was back on an "ordinary footing".

I am quite certain that had the Alliance not taken the stand it did to challenge the agenda of the RSPCA, these changes would not have happened, and I am proud that we did. It was the Alliance and its members who stood up to the bullying and exposed the agenda of those who sought to use the RSPCA as a political tool. And I am pleased that whilst we may still disagree on some issues, not least the RSPCA's continuing obsession with private prosecutions, that we can now work together on campaigns that actually improve the welfare of animals.

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