RSPCA should be stripped of prosecution powers, say MPs

The RSPCA should be stripped of its powers to routinely prosecute animal welfare cases, according to MPs.

The Commons environment committee said there was a “conflict of interest” between the charity’s power to prosecute and its role in investigating cases, campaigning and fundraising.

But the RSPCA defended its work and said the move was not supported by the government or animal welfare groups.

The government says it will consider the committee’s recommendations.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs committee called on ministers to change the law concerning the RSPCA’s powers.

Everyone in England and Wales has the right to bring a private prosecution against someone who they believe has committed an offence.

The Committee recommends the RSPCA should continue its work investigating animal welfare cases, but “withdraw from acting as a prosecutor of first resort” and let the Crown Prosecution Service or other statutory bodies carry out this role.

If there were no statutory alternatives – and where a private prosecution would further its charitable aims – the RSPCA could still be allowed to bring a case, said the committee.

But the cross-party committee was not unanimous; the call to transfer powers was opposed by three Labour MPs and one SDLP MP, and carried by the five Conservatives and one SNP MP.

Opposing committee members stressed that anyone had a right to bring forward a private prosecution and “to single out the RSPCA as not being able to do this would be invidious, as it has the experience and skills and it furthers its charitable objectives”.

But Conservative MP and chairman Neil Parish said the committee was not convinced the charity was in any better position to prosecute than the CPS.

“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,” he said.

Evidence heard included testimony from the Self-Help Group (SHG) for farmers, pet owners and others experiencing difficulties with the RSPCA which said some pet owners felt alienated by the charity’s “targeting of vulnerable, ill or elderly people” and the removal of their animals.

RSPCA chief executive Jeremy Cooper rejected the MPs’ criticism.

“We are extremely proud of our near 200 years of experience investigating and prosecuting animal cruelty and our 92% success rate – which is currently a higher percentage than the CPS,” he said.

“For us the key test will be if the recommendation improves animal welfare and we suspect the answer in this case would probably be no.”

But Tim Bonner, Chief Executive of the Countryside Alliance, who have been critical of the RSPCA, told the Today Programme: “The RSPCA is in a position that no other private organisation is.

“They retain this prosecution role which all other charities and private individuals gave up in the 80s when the CPS was formed.”

Speaking to BBC Breakfast the RSPCA’s head of public affairs, David Bowles, said most of the charity’s work was “about educating people to take care of their animals much better”.

Last year the RSPCA spent £4.9 million on legal fees and cases. Mr Bowles said that represented about 3% of the charity’s budget.

He added: “Investigations was the number one reason people gave us money for and prosecutions was the number two issue.”

In a joint statement, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, Blue Cross, Cats Protection, the Dogs Trust and the PDSA said they feared that without the RSPCA, “many cases of unacceptable animal abuse would go unprosecuted”.

The committee also recommended the maximum penalty for animal welfare crimes should be increased from 51 weeks to five years.

And it called for a ban on the third party sale of dogs, so they would only be available from licensed, regulated breeders or approved rehoming organisations.

Neither the SSPCA (the Scottish equivalent of the RSPCA) nor the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (USPCA) bring prosecutions, as the RSPCA does in England and Wales.