Archive for May, 2013

Uncharitable acts

Everybody has a good, if not precisely accurate, idea of what constitutes a charity.

The work carried out by charitable bodies not only compliments that which is undertaken by government and local authorities, but in some cases substitutes for it. Yet the line between what should and shouldn‘t be a charity (and what activities they are allowed to assume) has become blurred over decades and that has consequences far wider than just extra pounds in donations via ‘Gift Aid’.

The description of a charity is explained in the foreword to the Charities Commission document ‘Charities and Public Benefit’, “Charities are more than ‘a good thing’ and, as their supporters recognise, are special. Not all organisations can be charities. To be a charity is a mixture of what you are, what you do and how you do it. The core characteristic is public benefit. Whilst the charitable sector is enormous and very diverse, the aims of each and every charity, whatever their size, must be for public benefit. Public benefit is therefore central to the work of all charities.” It is those words, “public benefit” that should be noted.

The Charities Act 2006 defines a charity as a “body or trust which is for a charitable purpose that provides benefit to the public”. It goes on to list 13 headings that give greater details as to these purposes, including “the advancement of animal welfare”. The most well-known ‘animal charity’ in this sense is the RSPCA and the accepted view is that preventing deliberate and avoidable suffering to animals is good for society. In the main this concerns domestic animals, over which humans have control, but it is hard to see this applying in exactly the same way to wild animals that have to be controlled for a variety of reasons, including disease and population levels, protection of livestock and crops and wider conservation and bio-diversity. Of course sadistic acts towards wild animals are not justified, but there is a crucial difference here between domestic and wild, one that is reflected in animal welfare legislation.

When I was Executive Director of the League Against Cruel Sports the question was often asked, “Why isn’t the League a charity like the RSPCA?” The issue was discussed a number of times and always came to the same conclusion; it would not help the League in what was essentially a political campaign. Of course, some aspects of the LACS could be argued to be charitable, but the main thrust of the organisation did not fall under that banner. It was clear that the abolition of hunting with dogs could only come about through a law and to achieve that law it was not only necessary to be political, but party political. Charities can and do work in the political field, but they specifically cannot be party political organisations.

In 2003 part of the LACS’ operation covering land holdings in the West Country became charitable. Then, in 2008 the organisation was once more restructured and all LACS members became part of a company that is now registered as a charity. It would seem that those in charge of the Charity Commission in past years applied the acceptance criteria rather loosely. However, even they were forced to remind the LACS of overstepping the mark when a party political press release was issued in 2009 and subsequently had to criticise the LACS when a blatantly party political advert was produced prior to the last general election.

The party political advert the LACS was forced to drop

The party political advert the LACS was forced to drop

This situation raises a number of important questions. The first being where precisely is the “public benefit” in banning hunting with dogs? Whereas it is easy to point at the effect deliberate cruelty to animals can have on individuals who maim or kill animals for sadistic reasons, it is simply inconceivable that the wide variety of people, including veterinarians, doctors, nurses, members of the judiciary, members of parliament and members of the police, are somehow corrupted or perverted by the fact that they support and take part in organised hunts. Is it therefore right that a body can claim charitable status on the basis of perceived public benefit?

A second question relates again to Charity Commission rules. On its website under the heading ‘Guidance on Campaigning and Political Activity by Charities’, the commission says, “A charity can campaign using emotive or controversial material, where this is lawful and justifiable in the context of the campaign. Such material must be factually accurate and have a legitimate evidence base.” Where is that legitimate evidence base? Despite numerous letters to the RSPCA requesting scientific information on cruelty in hunting with dogs, no evidence base could be provided.

Importantly, what stems from the acceptance of an organisation as a charity is that its work is seen as ‘charitable’, in other words it is automatically regarded as beneficial to the public. That changes the dynamic from a debate in which people can hold different opinions to one in which only one side can be right.

It plants a strong notion in the public mind that everything charities do must be for the good. In the case of the LACS, that means trespass on private property by ‘monitors’ is now ‘charitable’ work. Covert filming (even of children) is somehow ‘charitable’.  Operating in a politically dubious manner is ‘charitable’ work. Ignoring published and peer-reviewed research and relying on unpublished opinionated work is now ‘charitable’. Opposing a genuine wild mammal welfare bill (even though it hasn’t yet been published) is ‘charitable’.

And, in the case of the RSPCA, spending enormous and disproportionate amounts of money prosecuting hunts is ‘charitable’ work.

A recent press release from another charity, Care for the Wild, claimed that the present brown hare population was “unsustainable” due to excessive shooting during the breeding period. The story was then picked up by various news outlets leading to articles that clearly published wrong or misleading information. In fact, research by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species found that the population is rising slightly, a view supported by scientists at the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. When asked to substantiate their claims, Care for the Wild have not been able or willing to provide the “legitimate evidence base” as required under Charity Commission rules.

I am not pleased that hares are shot, but, as explained in a previous blog A close season for the brown hare? the situation is complex and will not be resolved by issuing misleading or false information and relying on simplistic measures.

The Charity Commission is clear on what criteria justifies an organisation becoming a charity, but in the past those charged with making decisions on who achieves that status appear to have forgotten their own rules. Last year the Charity Commission appointed a new chairman, William Shawcross, who said at the time he was being handed a “poisoned chalice”, a nod towards the problems that have been created and which he will hopefully resolve.

Adherence to the existing rules would be a good start.

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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.

Cruelty figures continue to rise and the RSPCA resources are stretched

Cruelty figures continue to rise and the RSPCA resources are stretched

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.

Huntsman Tony Wright with the Exmoor Foxhounds - young and old

Huntsman Tony Wright with the Exmoor Foxhounds – young and old

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.

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