Police call for new agency to prosecute animal welfare cases
POLICE chiefs have called for the RSPCA to no longer be responsible for prosecutions under the Animal Welfare Act.
Instead they want a single, Government-funded agency to take control.
At present the RSPCA prosecutes 80 per cent of cases.
The National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) has submitted evidence to a new Environment Food and Rural Affairs enquiry into the welfare of domestic animals. It said it had some concerns about enforcement of the Act as because there is not a single agency ultimately responsible or accountable, enforcement activity was inconsistent across the country.
Many police forces report animal welfare concerns to the RSPCA and provide a police response in emergency cases only. Similarly, local authorities in the West Midlands are set to stop handling animal welfare cases, which will instead be handed over to the RSPCA.
NPCC spokesman Deputy Chief Constable Gareth Pritchard told DOG WORLD: “Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 there is no one agency that is held responsible or accountable for enforcement of animal welfare. This means there are inconsistencies, but the police, local authorities and animal welfare charities do seek to work together to deal with serious cruelty to animals.
“While powers under the Act are not regularly used by frontline officers, every force has access to a nationwide network of police dog legislation officers and wildlife crime officers who have received specialist welfare training. Some larger police forces do provide an animal welfare capability which is usually under the supervision of the dangerous dogs teams.”
The RSPCA says its prosecution work saves the taxpayer about £43m a year. Last year 796 defendants were convicted of 1,781 animal cruelty offences, a success rate of 92.4 per cent.
“The RSPCA brings private prosecutions as a means of carrying out its charitable purposes of preventing and suppressing cruelty to animals for the public benefit,” a spokesman said. “We have no statutory powers to investigate or prosecute. It is a long established legal right in English law that any individual or organisation may bring a private prosecution. This right is preserved under the Prosecution of Offences Act (POA) 1985.”
Three years ago the Government said RSPCA inspectors and prosecution case managers were ‘best placed’ to continue the work.
“It has largely fallen to us to ensure that the Animal Welfare Act is adequately enforced in relation to domestic animals,” the spokesman said. “Local authority enforcement has, if anything, reduced further in the past few years.
“While we are not against statutory enforcement we wonder which public body has the expertise, experience and money needed to take this forward at a time when public spending is being cut.”
In Scotland and Northern Ireland, animal welfare groups have the power to investigate cases, but the decision to prosecute lies with the state. MP Neil Parish said this model was a potential alternative in England and Wales.
It was important to ensure the ‘right cases’ were taken to court, he said, adding: “They need to balance what they do as an animal welfare organisation with campaigning activities.”
The RSPCA’s head of public affairs David Bowles said police in England and Wales had not the resources to prosecute.
“Animal welfare is not a high-priority area for them,” he said.
He accepted prosecuting people was a difficult job and that ‘sometimes we don’t get it right but we learn our lessons and are going forward and protecting animals’.
There are safeguards in England and Wales allowing the Crown Prosecution Service to take over a prosecution if they believe them to be malicious or connected to a campaign, he said.
Meanwhile, West Country MPs have launched a new Parliamentary enquiry. Members of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee want to establish whether existing welfare laws are still ‘fit for purpose’ in the age of online trading.