Last month’s EFRA Select Committee Report on Companion Animal Welfare came up with some excellent recommendations to improve the welfare of pets in the UK.

More controversially, the report also recommended that prosecution powers should be withdrawn from the RSPCA, and this is what made headlines in the newspapers. Yet when the composition of the committee is looked at in detail, perhaps this is no surprise.

Who were the MPs on the EFRA Committee?

The Committee of eleven MPs included Simon Hart, Chair of the Countryside Alliance, who currently being paid £30k / annum by the Countryside Alliance for 8 hours per week as a ‘high-value consultant’. Other member included Chris Davies – Countryside Alliance supporter and ex-hunt master, Rebecca Pow who has strong family livestock farming interests, and David Simpson, founding director of the Universal Meat Company. The Chair of the Committee is a farmer, Neil Parish.

Chris Davies and Simon Hart spoke at the recent Westminster Hall debate on grouse shooting, strongly supporting it. Neil Parish, Rebecca Pow and David Simpson have been outspoken supporters of badger culling. Chris Davies, Simon Hart and David Simpson were also on the smaller EFRA sub-committee (mostly attended by only six appointed to look at the detail of the report and its recommendations.).

From these names, you can see that there seems to be a disproportionate representation of Countryside Alliance, farming and country ‘sports’ supporters compared to the majority of the pet owning population, which seems odd for a report which focussed on pet welfare.

What was the political split on the vote to call for action on the RSPCA?

The committee voted 6 to 4 to call for RSPCA to cease prosecuting – 5 Conservative and 1 SNP against 3 labour and 1 SDLP.  This political split is hardly surprising given the number of Tory MPs who want the Hunting Act repealed. The committee received a large number of submissions from people with a clear motive to have anti-RSPCA action promoted e.g. people who had been prosecuted by the RSPCA and found guilty in a court of law.

The statistics show that the RSPCA prosecutes thousands of cases of animal cruelty

It’d be easy to believe that the recommendation to remove prosecution powers from the RSPCA has less to do with animal welfare and more with the protection of hunting, shooting and farming interests. The latest RSPCA prosecutions report shows that in 2015 the RSPCA investigated 143,000 complaints of cruelty and served over 81,000 non-statutory improvement notices. 1781 convictions were secured. Most RSPCA investigations are resolved through advice or improvement notices, but an important minority do go to court. The RSPCA’s conviction success rate for cases brought to court in 2015 was over 99%, suggesting that they are highly focussed and diligent independent prosecutors.

The supposed ‘diminution’ of respect for the RSPCA referred to in the report is hard to understand. While donations to the RSPCA may have fallen a little in recent years, there are many reasons for this, including the economic context. Public support for the RSPCA is still very strong,  with over £100 million donations each year. Most of the recent opposition to the RSPCA seems to come from those who have objected to the RSPCA prosecuting hunts and campaigning against badger culling.

Who would prosecute cases of animal welfare if the RSPCA were stopped from doing this?

The Police, the Crown Prosecution Service and to a large extent local authorities have shown little interest in animal welfare investigations or prosecutions. The cases that the RSPCA pursue are often appalling, in urgent need of effective action and prosecution. The RSPCA has performed a massively valuable service funded by the public in investigating and prosecuting.

The right to pursue private prosecutions is a general right in law in England and Wales. It is an important right. It is one that can be pursued by any citizen if they feel that justice would not otherwise be served, and it is a right that organisations pursuing a range of public interests can also pursue (for example, with respect to child abuse, negligence, breach of health and safety regulations, corporate manslaughter etc). It is difficult to see how it could be seen as fair to arbitrarily and for politically-motivated reasons remove this right from selected individuals or organisations that powerful vested interests are opposed to.

Vets & animal welfare groups want the RSPCA to continue to prosecute animal cruelty cases

A large number of veterinary and animal welfare organisations have been surprised by this direct effort to muzzle the RSPCA.  Gudrun Ravetz, the President of the British Veterinary Association, summed up what many others felt when she said: “Calls to reduce the RSPCA’s prosecution powers received scant support from the organisations and individuals submitting evidence during the EFRACom inquiry so it is surprising that MPs are not only progressing, but shining a spotlight on this recommendation.”

It surely seems a shame that a committee set up to review the welfare of pets seems to have been side tracked by a political effort to tamper with the legitimate powers of the largest animal welfare group in the UK.