Last week the RSPCA published its prosecutions report showing that convictions for cruelty to animals had risen in 2012 by almost 34%. A sickening statistic, but sadly one that is in line with every single year since the passing of the Hunting Act in 2004. It makes a mockery of the statement that banning hunting was a “watershed in the development of a more civilised society for people and animals”, a claim made by the charity on the very day this law was passed.
The catalogue of cases reported is appalling, ranging from acts of sadism towards amphibians and birds captured on mobile phones just for fun to the unwanted puppies buried alive to evidence of horrific neglect and cruelty to equines and other pets. Few would doubt that there is certainly something very wrong with the human psyche that allows, let alone enjoys, such acts.
All the people found guilty of these crimes deserve the punishments meted out to them and many would argue that they deserve far more. However, the judicial system works within rules and guidelines and the punishments and fines handed down in these cases generally reflect the severity of each case, the degree of suffering caused and the attitude of the perpetrator.
Common sense would also say that prosecution costs should be roughly in line with those factors too and yet nowhere in the report can these figures be found. In situations such as those in which animals are found to have been caused severe suffering for a considerable amount of time, and incidents in which the gathering of evidence has been difficult and time consuming, one would naturally expect and accept that prosecution costs would be high. In other words, that the money spent is proportionate to the end result, but that is not always the case as can be seen by the inclusion of the Heythrop Hunt case in the prosecution report – a ‘landmark’ case that cost the RSPCA £326,000, causing the judge to refer to the amount as “staggering” and question the RSPCA’s priorities.
The later ‘justification’ that the evidence was obtained by “independent hunt monitors” is sheer rubbish, as the self-appointed ‘monitors’ involved are totally biased against hunting. The prosecution costs were increased by using highly paid lawyers to view the filmed evidence and act for the charity– a point never fully explained by the RSPCA and certainly not mentioned in TV advertisements.
The fall-out after that case brought the prosecution role of the RSPCA into the media spotlight, prompting a parliamentary debate and a warning from the Charity Commission. Since then further cases brought by the RSPCA against hunts have collapsed, with costs running into tens of thousands of pounds usually being picked up by the tax payer. The most recent case against the Avon Vale Hunt just this week saw the judge criticise the charity for such an enormous waste of money and court time.
It would appear the no lessons have been learned. At a meeting of the All Parliamentary Group on Animal Welfare last month, RSPCA officials gave a presentation on the society’s prosecution work. During a Q&A session at the end, I asked what I thought was a reasonable question, “Given that money is limited and that cases of cruelty have to be prioritised, that the Association of Chief Police Officers place breaches of the Hunting Act at the level of a fixed penalty offence and given that there is a question mark over the future of the Hunting Act with the government raising the possibility of repeal, what was in the minds of the RSPCA prosecution team in being prepared to spend an enormous amount of money in prosecuting the Heythrop Hunt?”
The response from Phil Wilson of the RSPCA’s Prosecutions Department revealed more than a little prejudice against hunting, “If people like you, or the people you work for, have a problem with us prosecuting people who break the Hunting Act, I don’t really care.” He compared the Heythrop Hunt costs to those incurred in bringing to trial individuals involved in the Amersham/Spindle’s Farm prosecution, described in the media as Britain’s worse case of horse abuse.
What he and those representing the RSPCA can’t seem to grasp is that the genuine suffering relieved by the removal and treatment of the animals in this horse case, and indeed those cases mentioned earlier, can in no way compare with the ‘benefit’, such as it was, by prosecuting members of the Heythrop Hunt. Days, weeks or even years confined in appalling conditions is in a different league altogether to the hunting of a wild animal that is in its own environment and is used to hunting and being hunted by a natural means i.e. scenting hounds.
There is a certain attitude within some animal groups that makes them think that they can simply take on the world of cruelty – or what they see as cruelty – regardless of any practicality. Bold comments about ‘standing up for all animals’ may bring in the donations, but in reality they mean little and with limited funding priorities have to be made.
Yet the RSPCA and its ‘sister’ organisation, the League Against Cruel Sports, would rather prosecute someone like Tony Wright, Huntsman with the Exmoor Foxhounds. In 2006, Tony was the first hunt staff member to be found guilty under the Hunting Act following a LACS prosecution. Hailed as another ‘landmark case’, it took three years for the criminal conviction hanging over Tony’s head to be finally dismissed on appeal. It would be hard to find a more gentle and kindly man than Tony Wright, who allows his old hounds that have passed their hunting days to live out their lives pottering around the kennels. So what was the animal welfare gain in his prosecution? Zero.
The two judges sitting in the High Court which ended Tony’s years of worry described the Hunting Act as, “a most unusually formulated bundle of diverse exemptions.” And that’s exactly right. The Hunting Act doesn’t include any animal welfare provisions – it simply creates technical offences. To see this law as a genuine welfare measure and worse, to take prosecutions under it as if by doing so one is achieving a valid welfare outcome, is as misguided as it is wasteful and deceitful.
That RSPCA presentation in parliament concluded with a quote by founder Richard Martin MP, “If legislation to protect animals is to be effective, it must be adequately enforced.” Very true, but that legislation must be clear, proportionate and be based on a principle – three important criteria missing from the Hunting Act. Also missing was the word ‘foxhunter’ after Richard Martin’s name.
With incidents of animal abuse rising, we need the RSPCA. But we need an RSPCA that can tell the difference between genuine cruelty and political headline grabbing. We need an RSPCA that knows the difference between animal welfare and animal rights. We need an RSPCA that is true to its past and doesn’t pander to obsessive anti hunting fanatics.