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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 913-919)


14 OCTOBER 2004

  Q913 Chairman: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the final evidence session of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee's inquiry into the draft Animal Welfare Bill. We have one witness session this morning with the RSPCA. Gentlemen, you are welcome. You made a request to the Committee that you should come back before us for a second time; we have a limited amount of time this morning for your contribution and what we would like you very much to cover are three things. Firstly, your response if you like to concerns and key issues that have been put to us by the witness evidence that we have received so far, because I know you have been assiduous in attending and taking notes about what everybody has been saying; secondly, not to go through every single amendment you might have in mind but any key areas you think should be drawn to the Committee's attention as we now try to pull together the many and various views that have been put to us, and, thirdly, I want to give you a short opportunity to respond to some verbal evidence which the Committee received yesterday from persons who, shall we say, took a different view about the activities of RSPCA and its inspectors, which may be relevant to some of the issues about prosecution which we have discussed to date. It may well be that colleagues want, after you have delivered your observations, to ask you some questions but this is your public opportunity to comment on things so far. Would you care for the record, gentlemen, to identify yourselves and your position in the RSPCA, please?

  Mr Bowles: I am the head of External Affairs at the RSPCA.

  Mr Suckling: I am Deputy Director General.

  Mr Flower: I am deputy head of Prosecutions Department.

  Q914 Chairman: Mr Suckling, are you going to open the batting?

  Mr Suckling: Yes. Thank you, Chairman, and thank you for the opportunity to come again to the Committee. May I extend Jackie Ballard's apologies? She is unfortunately in America so cannot attend today. You have mentioned three issues. I think we have a fair idea of those concerns that were expressed earlier, and maybe one of those concerns would be, to start with, the issue of the independence of the prosecution process within the RSPCA. Can I start with that and then I will ask my colleagues to contribute on other matters. It has always been the case, and still is, that the investigating officer, the RSPCA inspector, does not make the decision as to whether or not a case is proceeded with. That decision is made by our Prosecutions Department, of which Mick Flower is a chief superintendent, and so there is independence in that respect. There is also independence between the campaigning side of the organisation and the investigating or prosecuting side of the organisation. We have never ever taken a prosecution just because we happened to have a campaign that is on that issue. Inspectors engage in investigations because they have reported to them or see themselves issues that concern them in animal welfare. Of course at a later stage, when we are reporting on the annual tally of prosecutions, if you like, then it is fair and right I think for us to comment on what has happened during a particular year. Can I also mention as well that the independence between the various issues that we deal with and the various work that we do is highlighted in the structure we have: I am responsible for the prosecutions function in the RSPCA; our director of Animal Welfare Services is responsible for the investigating function, and our director of Animal Welfare Promotion is responsible for campaigns. We do not have a single director that is responsible for more than one function. The co-ordination if it is necessary, and the person who decides if there are any issues involved, is the Director General. I hope that has covered the independence issue to some extent. I do not know if Mick would like to add anything to that?

  Mr Flower: Not at the moment but possibly later.

  Q915 Chairman: Can I just say that there is one question which I think the Committee would be grateful for some further clarification on, because I think we gained the impression from the first evidence that you did not want to be seen as the role of prosecutor, and yet clearly the position of the RSPCA, for example, in being invited by a local authority to carry out a role of inspection puts you into a position where, I suppose in theory, more opportunities to observe welfare issues under the terms of the proposed Bill come before your inspectors and, therefore, inevitably decisions as to whether to proceed to a prosecution would present themselves. As I understand it, it might just be helpful for you to tease out for us the nature of your prosecuting activity at the present time, because I think it has been made clear to us—and again you might like to just help us so we understand what you do at the moment—that you are able under civil powers to take out prosecutions under the current arrangements, and that is exactly what you do. So perhaps you might like to compare and contrast the current situation with the prosecutory framework as outlined in the Bill, and in brackets are you satisfied with the prosecutory framework as presently defined?

  Mr Flower: I will respond to that, if I may, Chairman. The present situation is that the RSPCA prosecutes as a private prosecutor. We do not claim and we do not have any authority from local or central government to act as a prosecutor. We act now as a private prosecutor; if the Bill becomes law we will continue to act as a private prosecutor.

  Q916 Paddy Tipping: Under what Act?

  Mr Flower: Do we act as a private prosecutor?

  Q917 Paddy Tipping: No. Under the 1911 Act?

  Mr Flower: Yes. All of the prosecutions launched by the RSPCA are as a private prosecutor. If the Bill becomes law that position will not change. We will still be a private prosecutor. You are probably aware that, although the Crown Prosecution Service was set up in 1985, the law specifically provided and allowed the preservation of the rights for private prosecutions to continue, and we are a private prosecutor. The way our inspectors work at the moment to bring about private prosecutions is this: generally we receive a large number of complaints alleging the cruel treatments of animals from the public—last year it was in the region of 105,000. Our inspectors investigate all of those complaints; they check on the welfare of the animals; they try and determine whether an offence may have been committed. In investigating complaints our inspectors require the co-operation of animal owners because the RSPCA inspectors have no statutory powers, so if an inspector wants to see an animal he is invited into the premises by the owner. If the inspector believes that an offence may have been committed because he is confronted with an animal in a very poor condition, then he will strive to take the animal to a veterinary surgeon for examination because we rely on the veterinary surgeon to provide evidence that the animal has been caused to suffer. If an owner is not co-operative and will not allow an inspector access or the removal of an animal, then we are obliged to enlist the assistance of the police, because the police do have certain powers under current law in relation to arrest and seizure of items of evidence, but we only need to call on the police in very limited circumstances. If the inspector then has evidence that there is a potential offence and the opinion of the veterinary surgeon is that the animal has suffered, the inspector will then proceed to investigate with a view to compiling a file of evidence. This will comprise witness statements, expert evidence, photographs, and the owner of the animal will be given the opportunity to be interviewed. The interview is conducted in accordance with the provisions of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, so the accused is cautioned and advised that they have the opportunity to seek legal advice before speaking. They are also told that they have the opportunity to have their animal examined by a veterinary surgeon of their choice in order that they have the opportunity to have an alternative opinion on the state of the animal. This is all done partly to comply with statutory provision, and partly to be fair to the accused. Once the investigation is completed the file of evidence is sent to the Prosecutions Department. There are five staff there who assess all of the cases that arise in England and Wales. The Prosecutions Department adheres to the provisions of the code for crown prosecutors when assessing the file of evidence. There are two principal tests, as you probably know. One is that there must be sufficient evidence to make a conviction more likely than an acquittal if the case is prosecuted, and there must also be a public interest in prosecuting, and all of the decisions that the RSPCA makes with regard to prosecution are based on those criteria. Although we are probably one of the biggest private prosecutors, prosecution is a very small part of our inspectorate's work. I mentioned that last year inspectors investigated about 105,000 complaints. The number of cases submitted to Prosecutions Department was about 1,400. Of that 1,400 we prosecuted about 700-800—about 50%, so I think this demonstrates that we are not, as some people may suggest, just out to secure convictions at all cost. We assess cases carefully and we apply the appropriate tests before we prosecute. That is why our prosecution numbers are so low. Although we are careful with our prosecutions, we do have a very high success rate. Last year the number of convictions we secured from our prosecutions was about 96% which is a significant success rate. I believe another criticism that may have been levelled is the fact that there is no form of accountability as far as our prosecutions are concerned. I think the example was cited that the police investigate offences but the Crown Prosecution Service decides whether to proceed and that is some sort of safeguard, but the position of the RSPCA is no different from any other non police prosecutor. There are plenty of them, from British Rail to British Waterways, TV licensing and local authorities will occasionally prosecute, but the CPS do not have responsibility for assessing cases brought by non police prosecutors. If a suggestion is made that RSPCA cases should go to the CPS to be assessed then that is a misleading suggestion because the CPS does not have the authority to prosecute for anyone other than the police. The position of private prosecutions was considered in 1998 by a Law Commission report and that concluded that there were adequate safeguards in place to ensure the right to bring private prosecution is not abused. Those sort of safeguards include the DPP having a right to intervene if a prosecution has been inappropriately -

  Chairman: Can I just stop you at that point because I know that Mr Breed would like to raise with you a question about appeals. You mentioned the 96% success rate but he would like to just follow that up with a quick point on appeals.

  Q918 Mr Breed: I am grateful for the comparison between yourselves and the CPS, although I have to say the CPS is not a particular organisation I have a great deal of admiration for, but the evidence yesterday suggested that yes, you get 96% convictions but you have a significantly higher number than the CPS overturned on appeal.

  Mr Flower: I do not know where those figures come from; I am not aware that that is the case. Certainly we do have a number of cases that go to appeal but my anecdotal response is that we do not lose particularly many cases on appeal either.

  Q919 Chairman: As it was an issue that was raised on the record yesterday by witnesses who did have some critical things to say, just so we can be reassured by your anecdotal thoughts, would you care to look back over what I might call a representative period, the last two or three years, and have a look at the success versus appeal rates and let the Committee have some hard, accurate data as to what the situation is so that we can see the facts from your side, in fairness to you?

  Mr Flower: Yes, of course.

  Chairman: Mr Taylor?

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