RSPCA prosecution powers 'to be examined by MPs'

Lurcher puppy Image copyright PA

The RSPCA's powers to prosecute people for animal abuse are to be investigated by MPs, the BBC has learned.

The inquiry will examine whether the charity should be allowed to both investigate and prosecute cases of animal cruelty.

Neil Parish, chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, said it was important the "right cases" were taken to court.

The RSPCA says the private prosecutions it brings saves government £50m a year.

Sara-Lise Howe, one of the UK's leading defence lawyers on animal abuse cases, told the BBC's Victoria Derbyshire programme there was a "danger" the RSPCA's campaigning interests would affect its decisions to prosecute.

In 2014, the charity brought charges relating to animal cruelty against 1,132 people in England and Wales.

Alternative model

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, animal welfare groups have the power to investigate cases, but the decision to prosecute lies with the state.

Image caption Neil Parish says the RSPCA needs to balance its role in animal welfare with its campaigning activities

Mr Parish, a Conservative MP, said this model must be considered as a potential alternative in England and Wales.

He said it was important to ensure the "right cases" are taken to court, at a time when the RSPCA does not have a chief executive.

"Sometimes there are cases which we feel they shouldn't have prosecuted on. Other times we would like to know why they didn't prosecute," he said.

The investigation is likely to take the form of a "mini-inquiry" and involve other animal welfare groups such as Battersea Dogs Home and Blue Cross.

Mr Parish explained it would look to assess the purpose of the RSPCA and the structure of the organisation.

"They need to balance what they do as an animal welfare organisation with campaigning activities," he said.

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Image caption The RSPCA has previously faced criticism for prosecuting fox hunters

Simon Hart, also a Conservative MP on the environment select committee, said the three roles of the RSPCA - prosecutor, campaigner and fundraiser - did not "sit comfortably together", and the inquiry would look at making them "more distinct".

He rejected any suggestion that the inquiry was politically motivated due to the RSPCA's opposition to government plans to relax the ban on fox hunting.

RSPCA 'mistreated me'

Image caption Richard Byrnes said he loved his cat, Claude, and never did anything cruel to him

Richard Byrnes, from Hertfordshire, said his family "has been mistreated in the most appalling fashion" by the RSPCA.

In 2013, an RSPCA inspector - concerned about the low weight and matted fur of Mr Byrne's 16-year-old cat Claude - ordered him to be taken to an RSPCA vet.

Mr Byrnes was told Claude needed to be put down and that if he did not give permission the cat could be seized by police and his decision overruled.

"We were given no options, and once you sign that authorisation [for the pet to be put down], in the RSPCA's view it becomes an admission that you have mistreated the animal," he says.

After Claude was put down, the RSPCA tried to bring a private prosecution against Mr Burns and his wife - with each charged on four counts of animal cruelty and neglect.

But, two years into the process, the CPS intervened in the case and the pair were acquitted.

"We loved Claude, and we never did anything anywhere near cruel to that cat," Mr Byrnes explains. The RSPCA has since apologised.

'Wrongful prosecutions'

Defence lawyer Ms Howe said: "The people making decisions are not solicitors or barristers," citing the 2014 Wooler Review into the charity's prosecution activity.

"In state prosecutions there are codes of practice which have to be followed, where prosecution is a last resort. But there is no way to check the RSPCA follow them," she added.

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Power to prosecute

  • Complaints of cruelty investigated by the RSPCA rose from 153,770 in 2013 to 159,831 in 2014 in England and Wales
  • In 2014, this led to 1,132 prosecutions
  • The charity's prosecution success rate is 98.9%, according to 2014 RSPCA figures
  • Co-founder of the RSPCA, Richard Martin MP, said in 1822: "If legislation to protect animals is to be effective, it must be adequately enforced."
  • The RSPCA, founded in 1824, is thought to have been the first animal charity in the world
  • It saved dogs during the Blitz and has campaigned against animal testing, dog fighting and fox hunting

Ms Howe said she has represented a "large number" of people who should never have been prosecuted, including the elderly and vulnerable.

In some cases, she explained, the RSPCA would be "far better off" offering support to pet owners rather than looking to prosecute them, and would avoid the costly process of taking cases to court.

'Difficult job'

RSPCA head of public affairs David Bowles said the charity was saving government £50m a year by taking the responsibility to prosecute away from the state.

"Police in England and Wales don't have the resources - animal welfare is not a high-priority area for them," he said.

He accepted prosecuting people was a "difficult job", saying "sometimes we don't get it right but we learn our lessons and are going forward and protecting animals".

He added that it was "total rubbish" to say the charity took prosecutions that were connected to their campaigns, and said there were safeguards in England and Wales which allowed the CPS to take over any prosecutions if they believed them to be malicious or connected to a campaign.

Watch Victoria Derbyshire on weekdays from 09:15-11:00 BST on BBC Two and the BBC News channel.

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