2013 was not a good year for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
It had really started the previous year when what was supposed to be a landmark case against the Heythrop Hunt backfired spectacularly. It was the “staggering” cost of £330,000 which the society had to bear that brought the media spotlight onto the RSPCA.
From that time onwards, story after story hit national headlines reporting on the way in which the charity operates. Of course there were many positive animal welfare activities that were covered by local press, but it was the national press, which was virtually all negative, that set the tone.
Hunts – in the RSPCA sights for prosecution.
The society’s prosecutions policy prompted a debate in parliament. Concerns were expressed by senior politicians not only about the number of prosecutions taken by this private body, but that numerous cases, often those taken against hunts, had failed for lack of sufficient evidence and the cost then borne by the taxpayer. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) came into being precisely to separate ‘investigators’ from ‘prosecutors’ in order to allow a detached view to be made on the merits of any case. Many wonder why this doesn’t apply to the RSPCA if their evidence is as sound as they claim.
The heavy-handed way in which some people were treated by officers of the RSPCA was given extensive press coverage to the extent that it became the subject of a BBC investigation. Concerns about the RSPCA’s lack of action taken against certain farms that are part of the ‘Freedom Food’ scheme have been raised by other animal welfare groups, in particular Hillside Animal Sanctuary (www.hillside.org.uk). Just recently evidence obtained by Hillside supporters found appalling conditions on a pig farm belonging to the scheme, but the RSPCA chose not to prosecute.
The RSPCA was formed to prevent cruelty to animals, yet when plans were announced by the government to cull badgers in attempts to curb bovine TB – a serious problem that has meant the slaughter of tens of thousands of cattle, a miserable death for badgers with the disease and a cost to the taxpayer of over half a billion pounds – the RSPCA opposed it for what can only be described as ideological reasons. The society went into top gear to prevent such a process, even though the shooting of badgers would be undertaken by marksmen in controlled circumstances. Yet during the debates in the run-up to the passing of the Hunting Act, the shooting of foxes by virtually anyone with a shotgun or rifle was deemed acceptable by the RSPCA and other anti hunting groups.
Disabled pig on a “Freedom Food’ farm living in its own filth. RSPCA will not prosecute.
(Photo: Hillside Animal Sanctuary)
RSPCA officials sit on The Deer Initiative and the society accepts the culling of hundreds of thousands of deer every year. So oddly the society’s policy seems to be the culling of healthy deer is fine, but the culling of diseased badgers is not. The duplicity of officials when addressing some issues, choosing to ignore or demand scientific evidence whenever it suits them, is blatant. Even in the current debate on amending the Hunting Act to allow for more efficient fox control by hill farmers, the RSPCA has shown a stunning disregard for the science that backs such a call – and this despite the charity agreeing to the relevant exemption in the Hunting Act at its time of passing into law.
However, during 2013 things got worse. In numerous meetings around the country what should have been a calm and considered debate in support of efforts to curb bovine TB, was instead turned into to a campaigning issue. Public feeling was deliberately whipped up by the RSPCA, resulting in a call for a boycott of milk from farms that permitted the cull and for farmers and shooters taking part to be publicly “named and shamed”.
The RSPCA’s ‘solution’ is vaccination, even though a vaccine proven to be effective against bovine TB in badgers in the field does not exist, but that minor point didn’t stop an emotive advertisement stating, “Vaccinate or exterminate” being placed in the national press. The advert was later banned by the Advertising Standards Authority for being misleading.
Recently, it’s been revealed that the RSPCA sought details of the cull sites via a series of letters to DEFRA. Coincidentally, policing costs for the cull have just been released (£2.4 million) and it’s ironic that this cost has been criticised by the very people who encouraged protesters to invade the cull areas.
Worryingly, it was discovered that the RSPCA had access to information on the police computer. Through a Freedom of Information request, the Countryside Alliance discovered that details of firearms licences held by individuals have been passed to the RSPCA. Quite how this often sensitive and personal information is used is open to question and perhaps even more worrying is who, precisely, has access to it.
All this media attention inevitably led to questions surrounding the issue of salaries paid to a range of charity chief executives and senior officials, many of whom receive far more than any Member of Parliament and some of whom are paid more than the Prime Minister. The government is now considering strengthening the powers of the Charity Commission.
Little wonder then that the new Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, declined to become the society’s Vice Patron, a position that had been willingly accepted by his predecessors.
With such an onslaught of bad publicity and with some local RSPCA branches closing for lack of funds, it’s not surprising that officials within the organisation expressed concern.
A leaked memo written by Deputy Chairman, Paul Draycott, was highly revealing. Mr Draycott spoke of finances in decline, contracts with large businesses being put at risk due to the society being seen to be “too political”, having to “fight off the Charity Commission“, low morale and “disillusionment” amongst the staff, a “lack of confidence in senior management” and concerns about future legacies in the light of so much negative publicity. Mr Draycott makes an important point when he suggests training for some trustees who may not fully understand their role and the responsibility they carry. Remember, these are the people – not a statutory body – to whom the RSPCA is directly accountable.
So the next time we hear a public statement from an RSPCA official about how things are all fine and that money is pouring in, bear this memo in mind.
2013 ended with the Countryside Alliance’s Executive Chairman, Sir Barney White-Spunner, referring to the RSPCA as, “sinister and nasty” and looking at the above, one can fully understand why.
The headlines throughout 2013 have been invariably bad.
So much of the RSPCA’s work is to be highly commended and some will argue that such criticism of the society is an attempt to destroy it. That could not be further from the truth and there is no pleasure in seeing how this change from an animal welfare organisation to an animal rights group is slowly killing a once great institution.
Glyn Davies MP, in saying that he had previously been a strong supporter of the society, summed it up perfectly during that parliamentary debate last year, “I want my RSPCA back”.