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Cost of bringing prosecutions to keep court cases under RSPCA remit
07 Feb 2017

<b><i>Animal welfare: Government rules</b></i>
Animal welfare: Government rules
The Government has ignored MPs' warnings and allowed the RSPCA to keep its historical powers to prosecute animal abusers.

Last year the House of Commons' Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee (EFRAC) recommended that the charity's long-standing powers to bring routine prosecutions of owners on cruelty grounds should only be used in "exceptional" circumstances.

The move came in the wake of the first of a series of short inquiries on animal welfare over the course of this Parliament and followed a string of cases brought by the body, which has led to accusations that it “bullies” owners.

The initial report findings of the EFRAC said the RSPCA should pass on evidence to the independent Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), rather than bring cases to court itself.

Owners have long complained that the charity uses the “threat of prison and fines” to force them to hand over their pets – or even to have them put down.

In the UK, about one in two households lays claim to ownership of an estimated 21 million pets – with nine million dogs and eight million cats.

The Animal Welfare Act 2006 places a legal obligation on owners and keepers of animals to care for them properly.

However, a report published on Tuesday (February 7) concludes the RSPCA will be allowed to preserve its abilities to instigate prosecutions.

The Government cited two main reasons for its decision: the principle that everyone has a right to a private prosecution; and the public expense that would be incurred if animal welfare cases were handed to the CPS.

According to the RSPCA, it spends nearly £8 million a year on prosecutions, a cost which would fall to taxpayers if its powers were stripped away.
Committee chairman Neil Parish said he was "very disappointed" with the Government's decision.

The Conservative MP told The Daily Telegraph: "We wanted to move to a system where the Crown Prosecution Service is more involved as this would feel more independent.

"We have seen some evidence of cases where the RSPCA has taken animals from their owners and then later they can't be found. Now, we would welcome them setting up a truly independent committee to check what they are doing."

The Government said: "[We] do not consider, at this time, that the RSPCA should be made a specialist reporting authority.

"Instead we believe that the RSPCA should be given the opportunity to implement the recommendations of the Wooler Review and demonstrate its commitment to responding to the concerns that have been raised by the committee."

The Wooler Review, commissioned by the RSCPA in 2013, recommended a range of measures including the creation of an appeals process, as well as an independent audit committee to check lost cases and perform spot checks on successful ones.

The RSPCA has reportedly confirmed that these measures were finally in the process of being put in place.

Mr Parish also expressed frustration that the Government had ignored the committee's recommendations to increase the maximum sentence for animal abuse to five years, saying he felt the crime was being put on a par with computer theft which was "not good enough".

At present the maximum sentence for animal abuse crimes is six months, however defendants who plead guilty in court are granted an automatic 30 per cent reduction, reducing prison time to four months.

In a surprise move the Government used the report to signal its intention to prosecute people who deliberately over-breed pedigree dogs and knowingly put them at risk of being born sick or deformed.

Under current rules people who breed dogs irresponsibly can not be prosecuted, as the law only relates to crimes committed against puppies which have already been born.

The report said: "We will explore the possibility of further protecting the progeny of dogs within the proposals to modernise the dog breeding regulations."

RSPCA chief executive Jeremy Cooper said he is "extremely pleased" that the Government is continuing to recognise the exceptional role carried out by the charity in investigating and prosecuting those accused of the worst cases of animal cruelty and neglect.

“We know that the public overwhelmingly wants us to undertake this role, and we welcome the support we have to carry out our prosecutions work from vets, local authorities and other animal welfare organisations,” he said.


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