‘Apostles of cruelty’ attack RSPCA in parliament

Prosecutions brought by the RSPCA against alleged animal abusers have coming under attack today from pro-hunting MPs.

Simon Hart, a former head of the pro-fox-hunting Countryside Alliance organisation, used a Westminster Hall debate in parliament to question the "strong political and commercial pressure" he claims is distorting the animal welfare charity's judgement.

The offensive came as the Charity Commission warned the animal rights charity to review the relationship between its prosecuting arm and other interests.

"Given the amount of adverse publicity and the allegations of political bias that the charity has attracted as a result of this case, there are issues we consider the trustees of the RSPCA should review for the future," the commission's chief executive Ben Younger wrote to RSPCA chief executive Gavin Grant.

The letter, seen by the Telegraph newspaper, reinforced Hart's concerns that the organisation's private prosecutions seeking to enforce the Hunting Act and other animal welfare legislation are being treated in the same way as those sought by the Crown Prosecution Service, which applies public interest tests before mounting prosecutions.

"If they are going to put on the same mantle of a prosecutor, then their standards must be as squeaky clean as anyone else's," Hart told politics.co.uk before the debate.

"I think there's an attitude of 'we're not answerable to anybody'."

Hart accused the RSPCA of deliberately targeting the hunt taking place in Chipping Norton, close to David Cameron's constituency. Last December the Heythrop Hunt complained of "corporate bullying" after admitting four offences, for which it was fined £4,000.

He claimed the organisation, which was founded in 1824, was deliberately avoiding prosecutions against farmers who have signed up to their 'Freedom Food' brand, alleging there is a "commercial disincentive" for them to pursue farmers who are breaking the law on fox-hunting.

"They are making an independent judgement which an independent impartial prosecutor wouldn't make," the Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire MP claimed.

"The easiest way of dealing with this is they should separate their prosecuting role from their campaigning role."

The RSPCA mounts ten private prosecutions a day and racks up legal bills of between £8 million and £10 million a year, Hart claimed.

This amounts to just five per cent of money donated to the RSPCA, however. It said it has a success rate of 98%, higher than the CPS', and pointed out supporter surveys show its members back its efforts to bring animal abusers to justice.

An RSPCA spokesperson said its lawyers follow the CPS' code of practice. Its prosecutors work in a separate department to its inspectorate and campaigning work, which "ensure an objective approach is taken when considering cases for prosecution".

The position of private prosecutors has not been reviewed since 1998, when it concluded there were adequate safeguards in place.

Attorney-general Dominic Grieve acknowledged the "unusual set-up" of the charity but stood by the "ancient right" of private individuals and organisations to pursue prosecutions independent of the state.

"I once threatened to bring a private prosecution when I was dissatisfied that the police were not taking action… I believe it's a fundamental and important right for an individual in a free society," he added.

Paul Flynn, the backbench Labour MP, led the counterattack from anti-hunting MPs in parliament. He pointed out Hart had refused to mention the 'H' word, hunting, in his speech, and responded by suggesting it stood for "hypocrisy".

"We're asked to believe those apostles of cruelty who for many years in this House have campaigned to keep gratuitous killing as part of hunting are trying to convince us they are the ones who want to be compassionate to animals, to make sure the animals' societies have enough money to prosecute cases," he told MPs.

Edward Garnier, a former solicitor-general, pointed out the RSPCA never gets charged for costs, however.

Earlier this month Liberal Democrat MP Sir Bob Russell rallied in defence of the RSPCA, which he congratulated for taking on those who breach the law.

He told politics.co.uk he believes Britain faces a serious threat from people "who feel they are above the law… at the opposite end to football hooligans".

"As time passes on there will be those who feel capital punishment is something that should be brought back," he added.

"I think most people in civilised society don't agree. I think the same will happen with fox hunting, stag hunting and otter hunting – civilised people realise there's no room in modern society for such barbaric behaviour."

Environment secretary Owen Paterson said last month the fox-hunting ban is likely to remain in place until the end of this parliament because Conservative MPs do not believe they could win a Commons vote.