The RSPCA defiantly vowed to continue to prosecute hunts – and anyone it thinks has broken animal cruelty laws – after a day of sustained pressure from MPs and the Charities Commission.
Pro-hunt MPs held a fiery debate in Parliament yesterday calling for an end to the society’s “politically-motivated” prosecutions, in the wake of the row over its decision to spend £330,000 on legal fees to prosecute a hunt for breaking the hunting ban in Gloucestershire last year.
Yesterday, the Charities Commission confirmed it had written to the RSPCA asking for its trustees to review its policy on prosecutions, but dismissed a complaint about the Heythrop Hunt prosecution, just as a Westminster Hall debate on the issue began.
The debate was called for by Simon Hart, the former chief executive of the Countryside Alliance who is now a Tory MP in west Wales. In opening the debate into the RSPCA’s prosecutions, Mr Hart pointedly did not mention prosecuting hunts, but instead focused on cases where the society has taken court action against elderly or apparently vulnerable pet owners who could not cope with their animals.
Despite the criticism from pro-hunt MPs, after the debate the society focused on support it had received from anti-hunt MPs, and said it would “continue” to take its role as a prosecutor of animal cruelty cases “extremely seriously”.
Mr Hart said there was a conflict of interest between the RSPCA acting as a political campaigner and mounting prosecutions. He told MPs: “This is about whether a prosecuting body which is a vigorous and prolific prosecuting body can also pursue a very, very high-profile political campaign and also whether it can at the same time obviously feed its hungry mouth to the tune of £100 million a year.”
Former solicitor-general, Sir Edward Garnier, also claimed the RSPCA’s decision to spend so much to ensure the successful prosecution of the Heythrop for four breaches of the hunt ban – three of which were in Gloucestershire – left it open to criticism.
“If they continue to prosecute at such huge expense in such a disproportionate way, they will be open to public criticism,” he said. “They cannot do something in public of that nature – that is to say prosecute suspected criminals – and not be expected either to be criticised by the judge, as they were, or by MPs, or by ordinary members of the public.
“Were a prosecution of that nature brought by the CPS – and perhaps on the evidence, perhaps on the public interest test, it could well have been – there would have been a far greater grip on the management of that case.
“This is not to say the RSPCA should not investigate, but like the police they should then hand the evidence over to the CPS for it to make a dispassionate judgement,” he added.
But other MPs claimed the society was right to prosecute anyone guilty of animal cruelty – be they a pet owner or a fox hunt.
Newport MP Paul Flynn challenged Mr Hart, saying that if he didn’t want the RSPCA to prosecute hunts, he should tell “his friends” to stop illegally hunting. Green MP Caroline Lucas added: “Mr Hart has been very coy about not mentioning the H word. I would suggest that is because you realise you have lost your case on that. You’re now hitting out wildly with accusations not based on evidence about prosecutions more generally.”
After the debate, an RSPCA spokesman said: “Today’s debate in Westminster Hall, which challenged our role in bringing forward private prosecutions, only served to show how much cross-party support there is for the RSPCA from politicians. We take our responsibilities as a prosecuting body extremely seriously and will continue to do so. We are as committed to our mission, to promoting compassion to all creatures and prevent cruelty, as ever.”