Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 860-879)


13 OCTOBER 2004

  Q860 Chairman: Right. Mr Vine?

  Mr Vine: I might make a suggestion that you ask Ms Kasica next because she actually founded it and I help with it, dealing with people, people phone in, they need help, they need—

  Q861 Chairman: So you are part of the organisation?

  Mr Vine: I am part of the organisation.

  Q862 Chairman: Right, well, now we have found the fount of all knowledge.

  Ms Kasica: I founded the organisation when I was prosecuted back in 1989. I found there was no help anywhere. Solicitors I went to had no clue how to deal with an RSPCA investigation and prosecution. I saw in the Farmers' Weekly that another farmer had been prosecuted in similar circumstances. I tried to contact him and in the end rang the magazine, spoke to a journalist, who said, "Oh, you want to start a self-help group." I did not but he wrote an article to that effect and calls came in literally from Southampton to the Shetlands.

  Q863 Chairman: And how long have you been helping each other?

  Ms Kasica: Since 1990.

  Q864 Chairman: Since 1990. Right, now we have got an idea of your backgrounds and where you are coming from, the role of the RSPCA in prosecution mode—and I am not going to ask you the standard question we started with because I think your focus is very much on the prosecution side of the Bill and you would not be here if you did not have reservations about those aspects—the Bill does appear to bestow upon the RSCPA a special status. Perhaps you might like to just comment by way of opening about the role that you perceive that the RSPCA might undertake in the context of this particular measure and the reservations you might have. Obviously all of you I guess must have had some experience in terms of prosecutory activity by the RSPCA and I think the Committee might find it helpful to know the type of problems that you come up against that you might wish to alert us to. Ms Kasica, shall we start with you. Obviously we cannot on every question have everybody speaking so a little bit of self-discipline would be helpful.

  Ms Kasica: Do you want me to stick to my specific case or do you want me to tell you about the whole range of cases from people who just ring us with a question, a query, a worry, right through the line to the people who commit suicide?

  Q865 Chairman: We are not in the role of an "agony aunt" for those who have been subject to prosecutory activity but I think what we are looking for are some general points which arise from your various experiences with the RSPCA. You have had some problems. They do have a special role in terms of prosecutions of animal welfare and if you have some general reservations that you wish to illustrate by way of actions that have occurred to those along the table or others who have been in touch with you, fine. I think the only thing that I would caution you on is please stick to the facts of the matter. Normally on these occasions when people have differing views, we have the benefit of the other side sitting alongside to publicly rebut whatever is said. I have no doubt that the RSPCA will in their usual way be taking very careful note of what is being put forward and I would just for the record say that they are coming back to see us tomorrow morning to deal with some of the issues that have come up so far in our proceedings so if you would care to reflect upon those points in framing any of your replies. Right, fire away.

  Ms Kasica: Our worry is that you are going to empower an organisation—

  Q866 Chairman: May I say we are not. The Government have put forward the draft Bill and they may.

  Ms Kasica: —may empower an organisation which is often campaigning politically to end the very activities that they are going to be investigating in their prosecutarial role. That is somewhat biased from the very beginning. How can they be non-judgmental? How can they go in from ground level and do this? If you then go on to look at a typical prosecution where the RSPCA starts an investigation, seizes animals (often unlawfully and often in very strange circumstances) you have the flow very much from the figures supplied to you of people who find they have signed their animals away when they did not even know what they were signing. They swear that they thought they were just signing them over for a couple of weeks respite care. You go on and on with this and then we have supplied you with some figures which should be in front of you. We only obtained these figures in the past couple of days. They flow very much from the figures supplied to you by Jackie Ballard. Yes, she is right, 96% of their prosecutions are successful—until they get to appeal. Consider this: the number of defendants who appeal magistrates' convictions is more than 26 times greater in RSPCA prosecutions than those progressed by the CPS and the number of successful appeals at crown court is almost three times greater in RSPCA prosecutions than those progressed by the CPS. Surely there is something wrong when you see such a vast discrepancy in those figures.

  Q867 Chairman: Mr Cairns, you are the lawyer and you have watched the RSPCA as a prosecuting body and you have heard what Ms Kasica has had to say. Give us your take on that.

  Mr Cairns: If I give you some early examples. The practical position in the first instance is the defendants do not know where to go or how to get legal advice. A very common story is that people come to me and say they have been to see a solicitor and they have simply been told to plead guilty. These cases are quite difficult, they are quite complex. What happens is that defendants are quite often questioned by RSPCA inspectors before there has been any form of disclosure, they are interviewed in their home addresses or in the street. It is very difficult for those individuals to know exactly what the medical position is. In practical terms what happens with these cases is that they can take up to four to six months before the real case papers are served on defendants, and I come back to clause 11(3) so far as that would apply in practical proceedings. These cases can take up to 12 months to come to a final hearing and in contested cases the typical shape of a case now is lasting anywhere from four to ten days. It is being heard in a magistrates' court with a number of expert witnesses and typically these cases are now being assigned to district judges. The majority of district judges seem to have a good grasp and handle on the facts and issues before them and they are making what I would say are reasonably fair decisions.

  Q868 Chairman: Can I just ask Joan Jackson are you here because you have been the subject of prosecution?

  Ms Jackson: Yes.

  Q869 Chairman: What happened to you?

  Ms Jackson: Firstly, can I just say thank you to everybody who answered our submission. We sent a submission to everybody on the Committee here, so thank you for replying. Myself and my husband have a specialist reptile and fish shop in Doncaster and we were visited by the RSPCA in February 2003 and, like Mr Cairns said, it took a long time for our case to come to court. It was six months before the papers were served and then it took 14 months before it came into court for a four-day hearing which was then adjourned because only the prosecution evidence was heard and after two weeks of the judge deliberating the charges were then dropped and the case was dismissed. During that time we found life very, very difficult. We did not know how to go about it at first but we had heard who to contact and we progressed from there with the help of Mr Cairns and Mr Newman. The powers that the RSPCA already have are quite worrying but to give them any more in the Animal Welfare Bill we think it is quite frightening from our point of view because they appear to be accountable to no-one. They seem to have the power to come in and they do not need to have a reason. The reason they gave us on the day as different to the reason they gave in court. It just begs the question what was the reason for coming in? Was there a reason? From the investigation that we made through the Data Protection Act there was no reason. So we find it very, very worrying. We also think that as far as seizures go the seizure itself was debatable. They called the Police we were told so that the Police could seize the animals because under the law only they can seize animals but the Police came only under a breach of the peace request. We have letters from South Yorkshire Police saying they did not seize the animals. Our animals were taken, they died in their care, not in our care. They were fine when they left us. They were taken as a precautionary measure. The animals died yet we were accused of neglect and cruelty for which we were prosecuted. We find that very, very worrying. It happened to us, it will happen to others, and it has happened to others.

  Q870 Paddy Tipping: I would just like to clarify what you think the Bill says about the RSPCA. I cannot see the RSPCA mentioned at all in the Bill. Presumably you are concerned that they might be appointed as inspectors by a local authority?

  Mr Vine: We know for a fact that the RSPCA has been approaching local councils and county councils and so on and saying, "Can we have meetings to see how we can enforce these new powers." We know that.

  Ms Kasica: Powers they have been granted as prosecutors under the 2000 amendment. Remember they have been saying for a long time they want no more powers, they do not want to be prosecutors and yet we suddenly find that they have been negotiating with Defra to obtain those powers. Assuming those powers are going to be transported into this Act which I understand they will be—

  Q871 Paddy Tipping: Can I just stop you there. Why do you say you understand they will be?

  Ms Kasica: From the wording of the proposed Act.

  Q872 Paddy Tipping: Perhaps Mr Cairns can help you. Just draw my attention to where it says that these powers are going to be imported across to the RSPCA.

  Mr Cairns: For my part I make no assumption it is going to be the RSPCA who will fulfil the full role of prosecution but in practical terms it is difficult to envisage any other organisation who on a national scale could actually take it on. I accept there could be restrictions placed on the RSPCA in certain areas.

  Q873 Paddy Tipping: Okay. Clearly all of you have had contact with the RSPCA and have a view, if I can put it like that, on the RSPCA. Are you saying to us as a Committee you would not want the RSPCA validated as inspectors?

  Ms Kasica: Very much so, unless there are strict controls and proper safeguards so that where an investigator or prosecutor breaches someone's human rights or destroys animals when they should not there should be some very severe comeback and there should be a requirement that the case is dropped. Furthermore it should be that prosecutor who would be prosecuted.

  Q874 Paddy Tipping: Okay. I think Mr Cairns has just told us that the RSPCA might be in the frame as a national body to do this. You have told us very strongly that you do not want them to do so.

  Ms Kasica: No.

  Q875 Paddy Tipping: Just spell out for us who you think should. You are all involved with animal welfare, you all care about animals. Just sketch out for us who should be the inspectors.

  Mr Vine: Just now you said that we have all obviously had contact with the RSPCA. I have never had any problem with the RSPCA except for the fact that I do not like the way they operate and take the law into their own hands.

  Paddy Tipping: That is a fairly definitive view. Let's go forward. You are involved with animals. Just spell out for me what you would envisage under the Act as inspectors? What kind of people?

  Q876 Chairman: Mr Day, you can add your two pennyworth after Mr Vine has finished.

  Mr Vine: Properly qualified and trained people.

  Q877 Paddy Tipping: Help me with that. That is a big catch-all, is it not?

  Ms Kasica: Defra, local animal health, local—

  Q878 Chairman: One at a time because Mr Day wants to get his bit in as well. You finish, Mr Vine.

  Mr Vine: The RSPCA certainly know their law and how to walk round it but they themselves have been approaching all different animal groups and saying, "We do not have the expertise in your animals. We need help. Will you collaborate with us?" They admit themselves that they do not have the knowledge of the animals so how can they be inspectors?

  Q879 Paddy Tipping: Help us with where we are at. You were saying Defra, local authorities—

  Ms Kasica: —Local authorities, animal health organisations.

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