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

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 well—and that includes me—regret 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, approximately?

  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 Bill—

  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 that development?

  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 prosecutor".

  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 issue?

  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 standards—at least they should do—but 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 advice.

  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 of inspectors?

  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 group.

  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 issues—not 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 route—or 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 clear—that 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 mother—whoever, 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.

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