Examination of Witnesses (Questions 920-939)|
14 OCTOBER 2004
Q920 David Taylor: In his opening remarks,
Chairman, Mr Suckling refuted the suggestion that prosecution
patterns by the RSPCA reflected any particular campaigns that
may have been running at the time and what Mr Flower has just
apparently described to the Committee is a reactive approach that
is linked heavily towards the level of complaints they get from
members of the public, and not especially linked to the levels
or the nature of inspections that they are carrying out in a routine
way. But can you understand Mr Suckling's concerns of individual
people whom you have prosecuted where the prosecution is in the
same area as a campaign that you are already involved with? It
can look as if you are seeking, either by inspection or by prioritising
a complaint, to pursue a policy campaign in the courts. Can you
understand that that is how some people feel aggrieved by the
actions of the RSPCA?
Mr Bowles: I can see how they
can get confused. Obviously the RSPCA's objects are to promote
kindness and reduce suffering and we do that through two main
methods, one is through the enforcement of the legislation and
one is to try and improve the legislation which we do through
our campaigns. All of our campaigns are basically based on sound
scientific information, we would not run a campaign if it was
not, but we have to ensure there is complete separation from our
prosecution work because otherwise the campaigns could be in jeopardy
and also the prosecution work. If we look at the campaigns we
have run over the past five or six years we have run an awful
lot like, for instance, to get new zoo legislation, legislation
on drift nets, legislation for instance on the Animal Welfare
Bill, where on the zoos and the drift nets we have never done
any prosecutions in those areas. We may use the information from
the inspectorate work to show there is a need for better legislation
and improvement in standards, but we do not go round it the other
way by saying, "This is an issue, let us go out there and
prosecute on this issue". There is no evidence that has happened
and we have never taken a prosecution because we are running a
campaign on that particular issue.
Q921 David Taylor: Finally, the reverse
can also be the case, can it not, where you perhaps prioritise
your inspecting resources or your prosecution decisions away from
an area where you choose not to undertake any political campaigns,
even though those that wish you welland that includes meregret
that. I would cite the example and say game shooting or something
like that where there are lots of people who are concerned that
the RSPCA does not take much interest in areas and activities
which appear to involve significant cruelty to animals, and by
the same token your prosecution efforts seem not to be focused
on those areas either.
Mr Suckling: If I may, I can quite
understand the concern that Mr Taylor advances on behalf of people
who think that this happens within the RSPCA, but to my knowledge
the inspector is not directed as to what he should or should not
particularly concentrate on. The inspector reacts to a situation
as presented to him by a member of the public or by his own observation
in his day-to-day work.
Mr Flower: That is correct. Unfortunately
we do not have enough inspectors on the ground to be proactive.
Q922 David Taylor: How many do you have,
Mr Flower: About 320 who are covering
England and Wales. If you compare that to the number of police
officers I guess that would be about 250,000, and we do get a
very large number of complaints made to us which means that inspectors'
time is really spent reacting to complaints that are made, primarily.
Q923 Paddy Tipping: You have told us
how you prosecute and at the moment these are private prosecutions
under the 1911 Act. Can we now turn to the current draft Bill?
I think you told us in evidence when you came before that you
were seeking no new powers and, in fact, the Bill gives you no
new powers. That is the case, is it not?
Mr Bowles: That is absolutely
right. There has been confusion over two terminologies in the
Q924 Paddy Tipping: Tell me about inspectors.
Mr Bowles: The first terminology
is inspectors. If you look at Clause 54 of the draft Bill, the
term "inspector" there is defined as a person appointed
to be an inspector by the national authority or the local authority;
it is not an RSPCA inspector. Where many people have gone awry
is they have confused the terminology "RSPCA inspector"
with what is in the draft Bill as to the powers of the inspector.
That is not the case. Those two are completely separate.
Q925 Chairman: Can I just sneak in a
little technical point? As I understand it, you have prosecutory
powers under the Protection of Animals Amendment Act 2000 and
Schedule 3 of the Bill amends or repeals the whole of that Act.
Perhaps you could explain to us where you stand in relation to
Mr Flower: I think there is confusion
about this approved prosecutor status under the 2000 Act. All
that the 2000 Act does is to give a right to certain prosecuting
authorities to make an application to a court once proceedings
have been instituted to order the disposal of commercial animals
prior to the determination of proceedings. The Act itself restricts
the ability to make that type of application to the State Veterinary
Service or local authorities or approved prosecutors. We were
invited to become an approved prosecutor because of the significant
prosecution work we carry out, but the only real significance
of it is that it does not give us an approval to prosecute because
the prosecutions are private prosecutions. All it does is give
us the opportunity to make an application to the court once we
have commenced proceedings to have an order made regarding the
disposal of the animals. Those orders are only made with the support
of a veterinary surgeon, and made for the benefit of the welfare
of the animals in the case.
Q926 Chairman: So it is a parallel activity?
Mr Flower: Yes.
Q927 Chairman: Prosecution and dealing
with the animals?
Mr Flower: Yes.
Mr Bowles: Again, Chairman, the
reason why there is confusion about that is because of the use
of the words "approved prosecutor" where it does not
really mean that and, secondly, because the announcement of the
RSPCA getting these powers was made in the same week or very close
to the announcements on the draft Animal Welfare Bill, and people
put two and two together and should not have made five!
Q928 Paddy Tipping: So you do not see
yourselves as inspectors under the terms of this draft Bill? You
are going to continue to operate under the existing 1911 Act.
Mr Bowles: That is absolutely
correct. We have not asked for any new powers nor have we received
any. We are not the inspectors in the definitions under this Bill.
Q929 Paddy Tipping: Just describe to
us who will be the inspectors under this new Bill?
Mr Bowles: Well, the inspectors
under the Bill will be those that have been chosen or defined
by the Secretary of State, so they will probably be local authority
inspectors or State Veterinary Service inspectors.
Q930 Paddy Tipping: And I think you said
there were two areas of confusion. We have talked about inspectors.
Mr Bowles: The second area of
confusion we have already dealt with which is on the words "approved
Q931 Paddy Tipping: So, finally, you
are happy with the structure of this Bill? The major change is
new Clause 3, the welfare issue, and I think the issue I am asking
you is a lot of the detailed work comes in regulations and schedules
at a later date, but do you really think the Bill is practical,
that it can be operated? Then there is a second issue: what resources
are needed then to put it into practice successfully?
Mr Bowles: We are very happy with
the way the Bill is phrased: you will see that most of our evidence
is down to technical, legal corrections to the Bill to make it
work better. We believe it could be operational from day 1, particularly
the welfare offence. It does not need the codes of practice although,
of course, they will be beneficial and we think it is a very big
step forward, primarily because of the duty of care offence coming
in as well.
Q932 Paddy Tipping: And the resource
Mr Bowles: We have said that we
think that there will probably be an extra 100 or so prosecutions
to begin with because as the duty of care welfare offence comes
into effect that will increase, but in the long term what we should
see happen is that the number of cruelty case prosecutions declines
because the duty of care will be a precautionary approach, and
we should see through the duty of care a more educational outlook
being enforced by this legislation, so people should understand
what they are doing before they get a pet animal and that should
improve the conditions they are kept in.
Q933 Mr Lepper: Can I make sure I have
understood something about the structure of the RSPCA which may
or may not affect your work? Am I right that the RSPCA consists
of a national organisation and a series of local or regional organisations,
and that those are largely self-funding? Added to that, are RSPCA
inspectors employed by the local or regional organisation, or
are they employed at a national level?
Mr Suckling: Yes. The national
Society is the body that employs all the staff who operate at
our national headquarters. There are 170-odd branches of the Society
who are separately registered charities but who, under the 1932
Act, are to some extent regulated by virtue of the application
of branch rules by the national Society. They are in many cases
fiercely protective of their separateness but nevertheless operate
to the same policies and to the same rules as the rest of the
Society, and the same animal welfare standardsat least
they should dobut they do not employ any of the inspectorate.
They may employ their own staff to run their own animal homes
but certainly they do not employ any staff nationally and they
are self-funding, except to the extent that the national Society
may assist them sometimes with capital projects, or support or
Q934 Mr Lepper: So the inspectors are
employed by the national Society?
Mr Suckling: Yes.
Q935 Mr Lepper: You said there are 300
or so of them. How are they allocated across the country? Is it
in relation to the number of complaints in particular areas for
members of the public, or is there some other criterion?
Mr Suckling: There is an important
issue here and I think we are concentrating quite rightly at this
meeting on the investigatory function of the inspectorate. The
inspectorate do a lot of other things as well and I think while
they investigated a lot of complaints they also visit schools,
for example, to give advice talks; they assist various groups
of people; so they do things other than prosecute, but quite rightly
we are concentrating on investigations here. They are organised
into five regions and in each region there are some ten groups
Mr Flower: It varies. We deploy
staff depending on area workloads and some areas of the country
have higher workloads than others, but basically we have a five
region structure: each region is subdivided into a group of inspectors
who are led by a chief inspector who manages the workload of the
Q936 Mr Lepper: Finally, from me, you
talked about all of those regional and local elements operating
to the same standards in terms of pursuing animal welfare issuesnot
only prosecutions but your other work as well. Is there some form
of monitoring within the organisation to ensure as far as possible
that that does happen, so there are not local or regional variations?
Mr Suckling: Yes. I think it would
be fair to say there probably are some variations but the basic
premise is that all the animal welfare establishments that are
run by the national Society are run to national standards, and
all branch animal welfare establishments have the need to be licensed
by the national Society to set standards and they have to have
an operating licence in order to pursue their business.
Q937 Patrick Hall: What is the Society's
position regarding how we deal with the fact that many people
seem to perceive the current animal welfare regulatory framework
as toothless, and obviously look to the Bill to rectify this,
but one of the criticisms or observations is that one of the reasons
that it is toothless is because most of it is dealt with in the
Magistrates' Courts, and the magistrates are reluctant to, for
example, follow a custodial routeor very rarely. Is your
position one that apart from your views about the Bill which are
broadly supported, these issues should continue to be dealt with
primarily or solely in the Magistrates' Courts, except on appeal,
or do you favour being able to go to trial straight to Crown Court
in some cases?
Mr Flower: Our position here is
that we did feel that there ought to be a tiering of offences
and penalties and we did express the view that perhaps for the
most serious type of offence, which we would probably regard as
organised crime like dog-fighting or cock-fighting, perhaps the
penalties for that type of offence should be more significant,
and I believe we floated at one time a suggestion of a two-year
imprisonment which would make the offence triable either way.
For the offence of cruelty we were not unhappy to maintain the
status quo and with the change to Custody Plus that is coming
in in the future the penalty may be regarded as adequate, but
we did think there was some merit in a higher penalty for the
more serious type of offences, but we do recognise that that does
create difficulties in other areas because it does create a new
type of triable either way offence.
Q938 Patrick Hall: Because we have had
evidence, Chairman, have we not, that under the current situation
there have been examples of repeated offences, including people
who have been imprisoned for a short time nonetheless coming out
and repeating the offences, and because there is a limit on the
custodial sentence it is still dealt with in a Magistrates' Court.
This seems to be associated with a lack of respect for the law
and the suggestion that we have had put before us is that this
would be addressed largely by being able to choose the route of
the trial either to the Magistrates' or the Crown Court. But I
leave that point; you have made your position clearthat
you prefer the status quo?
Mr Flower: I think we would have
preferred to see more significant penalties for the more serious
types of offences.
Mr Bowles: One of the other loopholes
which is closed up in the draft Bill is the disqualification issue,
because at the moment, if a person is disqualified from owning
an animal because they have been cruel to that animal, they could
still have that animal in their flat and say it is owned by their
wife. Now the Bill closes that loophole which we think is a very
good thing because one of the frustrations we have is going back
to cases which we have already dealt with and finding that the
animal is still in the same place and even though ostensibly it
is not being owned by that person it is still being cared for
by that person, and that will close that loophole.
Q939 Alan Simpson: We had representations
yesterday from people who felt that the fines and potential imprisonment
was enough; they wanted us to remove the disqualification element
in any penalty structure, and I take it from what you have said
that you would be urging us to stick fairly firmly with disqualification
and extend it so that it would close the loophole from passing
the ownership to your partner, your sister, your motherwhoever,
and we hold to that on the grounds of animal welfare.
Mr Bowles: That is correct, yes.
Mr Flower: I think it is one of
the most galling aspects of prosecuting animal cruelty cases for
the RSPCA and one that causes the public most concern, where you
have an individual convicted of an offence of cruelty then being
allowed to have their animal back and not being disqualified from
having the custody of animals.