Should the RSPCA be stripped of powers to prosecute cases of animal cruelty?
The RSPCA is “targeting vulnerable, ill and elderly” people and removing their pets, and should be stripped of its powers to prosecute cases of animal cruelty, an MPs report has found.
The MPs on an influential House of Commons select committee said that the RSPCA’s hounding of pet owners over animal cruelty had “damaged its reputation”.
However the charity said it would continue prosecuting cases of cruelty – putting it on a collision course with Parliament and ministers, if they agree with the committee’s findings.
Last night, senior a former Conservative government law officer threatened to back a law to strip the RSPCA of its right to prosecute cases of animal cruelty.
Sir Edward Garnier, a former Conservative Solicitor general, said: “It would be much safer if we have a clean break and put the prosecutions in the hands of the CPS, rather than in the RSPCA.
“If it requires legislation then the government should introduce the legislation as soon as possible.”
Simon Hart, a Tory member of the committee and former chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, added the RSPCA now believed it was “untouchable”.
The committee also recommended that the maximum penalty for animal welfare crimes should be increased to five years.
It also called for a ban on the third party sale of dogs, so that they are only available from licensed, regulated breeders or approved rehoming organisations.
The RSPCA, one of the world’s oldest animal welfare charities, has been heavily criticised for the way it has investigated and prosecuted cases of animal cruelty and fox hunting.
The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee said there was a “conflict of interest” in the charity’s role in bringing forward private prosecutions as well as investigating cases, campaigning and fundraising.
The committee called on ministers to change the law so that the RSPCA would continue to investigate animal welfare cases but then pass their findings to the Crown Prosecution Service or another body to carry out this role.
If there were no statutory alternatives and where a prosecution would further its charitable objectives, the RSPCA could still bring a prosecution in England and Wales, the committee said.
Tory MP and committee chairman Neil Parish admitted that “the RSPCA does important working investigating animal welfare cases.”
But he added: "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.
The committee highlighted evidence from the Self-Help Group for farmers, pet owners and others experiencing problems with the RSPCA, which said the animal-keeping public felt alienated by the charity’s “targeting of vulnerable, ill or elderly people” and the removal of their animals.
There had been occasions when RSPCA inspectors allowed vets to sign for the removal of animals without seeing the animal in question, although the charity recently issued guidance to stop this happening in future.
The RSPCA prosecuted the Heythrop Hunt, former prime minister David Cameron’s local hunt, at the end of 2012 with success only coming after huge sums were spent, and attracted negative publicity for its failed prosecution of a family for alleged cruelty to its cat.
Jeremy Cooper, the RSPCA’s chief executive, said nine out of 10 members of the public back the charity’s prosecutions’ policy.
Mr Cooper said: “This recommendation is not supported by the Government, vets, other major animal welfare charities, and local authorities, and flies in the face of the majority of evidence put before the committee.
“We will consider this report carefully while we will continue to prosecute those who starve, beat, stab, burn and abuse animals.
“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.”