Why the RSPCA should stop its private prosecutions

In 2005 I started to investigate the RSPCA’s prosecution record – below for BBC Newsnight. I am posting here the (fully legalled) script I wrote at the time as a (freelance) reporter, just before the Animal Welfare Act became law. I wondered whether it was worth reviving this, seven years after transmission, but as I re-read the script, I realised that many of the concerns raised then are still legitimate today. For me, as a journalist, who has written a lot on the criminal justice system, I have my own concerns about a charity becoming a de facto enforcer of the law. It makes me uncomfortable – particularly when some of those prosecuted by the RSPCA are vulnerable people – children, disabled and older people, who might well might not be prosecuted if the CPS was involved. Justice should be tempered with mercy. Justice, at its best, is a balancing act. I think the RSPCA has lost its own sense of balance, because it is at the one time, a campaigner against animal cruelty, an investigator and a prosecutor. To safeguard its own reputation, and the good work it does to promote animal welfare in many ways, it should stop doing private prosecutions. Then, like the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, it might well regain many of the members it has lost.

The RSPCA states that most of its critics are pro-hunting. For the record, I have never hunted. I am not pro-hunting. I just happen to believe that both humans and animals are worthy of compassion.

Lastly, when I made the Newsnight film, I was told by BBC Security and others that I could be targeted by animal rights extremists who would be angered that I had criticised the RSPCA. I don’t blame the RSPCA for that, but I do think that it should be possible for journalists and others to criticise large and powerful institutions without fearing that they, or their children might be harmed as a result. 

Newsnight RSPCA film
Transmitted October 2005
Reporter Katharine Quarmby

KQ: “They call people like RSPCA Inspector Simon Osborne the animal police. Osborne’s beat cover’s North London and the city and he visits around ten animal owners each day, investigating complaints of animal cruelty. He joined the force eight years ago.”

Inspector Osborne interview: “I wanted to make a difference to animals. I wanted to alleviate the suffering I had seen and I’ve enjoyed it and I’ve had some successful prosecutions. I know I’m doing a worthwhile job for a good cause.”


KQ: “Inspector Osborne had received a complaint that a dog was shut out on a balcony for hours on end. The owner isn’t answering the door and Osborne can’t get in to check whether the dog is suffering. It’s a common problem.”

Piece to Camera from animal sanctuary: “RSPCA animal sanctuaries like this one near Guildford care for around 70,000 animals a year. Some of those will have been abandoned – others the victim of cruelty. This work has helped to make the RSPCA Britain’s best loved animal charity. But another aspect of the organisation is far more controversial.”

Simon Waldron sequence and voiceover by KQ: “Simon Waldron is Treasurer of Isleham Animal Sanctuary near Cambridge. It was raided by the RSPCA three years ago.”

Waldron interview: “We received a phone call, saying a large number of people had arrived at the sanctuary, police officers and RSPCA officers. It was a couple of hours before we found they wanted to take our animals way and that was when the panic set in.”

KQ voiceover over sanctuary pix. “The police, on behalf of the RSPCA, removed four animals. Waldron maintains they were in good condition.

Waldron: “It felt horrific, they were animals we loved and cared for, and they were being taken away unjustly.”

KQ: “The animal sanctuary was advised by their solicitors that their animals were being kept illegally. They sued the police who had removed the animals on behalf of the RSPCA. Three returned. One died whilst in the care of the charity. The RSPCA later dropped all charges, but the action had taken its toll on the rescue centre.”

Waldron: “It put severe financial pressure on me, as I was self-employed, on me and my family. When you are doing just that for two years your life is put on hold, all the money we had raised to try and make things better for the animals was having to be spent on legal fees so the animals were suffering. It was total mayhem for two years.”

PTC KQ: “The RSPCA carries out around 1000 private prosecutions a year – the charity is one of Britain’s most prolific prosecuting bodies, but should a charity, campaign, investigate and prosecute on the same issue?”

DAVID BOWLES INTERVIEW (RSPCA OFFICER) “There could be a conflict of interest and we have to be very careful and that’s why we separate out those three powers within the RSPCA. It is possible to do those three things if there are very clear lines of demarcation.”

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds raid pictures, followed by Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal raid pictures. KQ voiceover:
“The RSPB ceased carrying out private prosecutions in 1992. The charity had concerns about the separation of powers. The RSPCA’s sister organisations, the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, prosecutes animal cruelty cases through the Procurator Fiscal’s Office, the Scottish equivalent of the Crown Prosecution Service.

Mike Flynn, Senior Inspector, SSPCA Interview: “We have no influence over what the Fiscal decides. If we have the correct evidence and there is a breach in the law the Fiscal will take it to court. If they think that things haven’t been done properly and for whatever reason it’s being used as a campaign tool, then there will be no proceedings. For me if I was going to be accused I would rather be accused in Scotland than in England.”

Sequence with Chris Newman, a Gov advisor on animal welfare: KQ voiceover: “Newsnight has learnt of a number of cases where the RSPCA may have charged or prosecuted animal keepers for animal cruelty without having a strong case. Chris Newman advises the Government on animal welfare. He has reviewed thirty cases where the RSPCA prosecuted people caring for exotic animals.

Newman interview: “I can say that in thirty cases I have looked at in only two there have been issues about animal suffering and in both cases they were not mentally cognizant of what they were doing. If cases were independently reviewed I would suspect that 80% of the RSPCA prosecutions would not proceed because there is insufficient evidence of a crime having been committed or no evidence of a crime having been committed.”

STEPHEN HEADING (FARMER) SEQUENCE “The RSPCA rounded up my sheep here, penned them up here, just in this little area. They couldn’t find transport take them away, they left them penned over a hot weekend with little food and water.”

KQ voiceover: “Stephen Heading is an award-winning sheep farmer from Cambridgeshire. A year ago he was prosecuted by the RSPCA for cruelty to sheep. He was devastated by the accusation.”

Heading interview: “I hadn’t done anything wrong. I had to fight my cause. If it broke me in the end I had to do it.”

KQ “I t was going to cost him £40,000 to fight the case. He mortgaged his house. The pressure built.”

Heading: “I would wake in the middle of the night after a couple of hours sleep. As soon as I woke up the whole case was in my head, on my mind all the time so I got no sleep. So some days I was in a hell of a state.”

James Pavey interview (his lawyer): “The RSPCA did a number of things that were unsatisfactory. They knew his contact details but didn’t contact him. They seized his sheep without taking samples to prove what state they were in. They shot one of the sheep without a vet present. They took them away and wouldn’t allow Mr Heading to know where to.”

GRAPHIC PLUS VOICEOVER: “District Judge Parkinson was damning in his criticism of the RSPCA. He said: “Inspectors are not fully trained. I think the RSPCA needs to look very carefully at its investigations and conduct. The Inspector had little thought about his duties under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.” The Judge went on to say “If the RSPCA are going to prosecute they need to abide by the rules. The whole matter was unfortunate and flawed.”

David Bowles (RSPCA) response: “There are lessons to be learnt and we learnt those lessons from that case. We investigate over 100,000 cases. It’s not a surprise when sometimes you get it wrong. We are quite happy to put our hands up when we do. There are things that we could have learnt and the case was important because we learnt something from it and we did improve our procedures as a result of it.”

KQ voiceover: “The RSPCA says it follows the Police and Criminal Evidence Act but it does not routinely tape record interviews with defendants as police officers do. And there is widespread confusion about their powers.”

Simon Waldron: “It was very difficult to distinguish between the RSPCA and the police, difficult to know who had the power. They were all imposing figures in uniform, you give them all respect, the police were there to do their job and to keep the peace and we were not told they were legally responsible for seizing the animals.”

James Pavey: “The RSPCA will turn up and they look like officers in uniform, they have the paraphernalia of the police, the uniforms, the notebook. I’ve never had a client who had had it explained by the RSPCA officer that he or she has no statutory powers.”

BBC Six News and KQ voiceover: “Rosalind Gregson was jailed in June for three months after an RSPCA prosecution. The defence argued that Gregson’s hoarding of animals started after the death of her son from a drug’s overdose, a defence used regularly in the US and linked to obsessive compulsive disorders.”

David Bowles interview: “It’s difficult to say why people hoard. People have different reasons and I wouldn’t want to go into the mental health of the defendant. The information we were given was that she did not have a mental health condition. It was important because we didn’t’ want to undertake similar hoarding in the future. She had extenuating personal circumstancies and she couldn’t cope. It was basically a cry for help.”

KQ Question: “But couldn’t you have referred her to social services for a psychiatric assessment?”

Bowles: “In that case the prosecution department decided it was in the public interest to prosecute her because we were afraid things could get out of hand again.”

Mike Flynn, Scottish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: “There are times when we have dealt with people with obvious mental health difficulties but a lot of people with mental health difficulties do not present as such. The Fiscal will be able to find that out and if they think it is a mental health issue then they will be loath to take it to court.”

KQ voiceover, over pictures of Rosaline Gregson, and comments, on the Internet: “Now photographs of Rosaline Gregson, irrespective of her mental health, are posted on the Internet for all to see.”

KQ Piece to Camera with animal rights websites on computer behind: “We spoke to several people who had been charged by the RSPCA with animal cruelty offences. Although they had been cleared they were too frightened of the publicity to give an interview for the programme. Small wonder when those merely accused of animal cruelty end up on websites like this one.”

David Bowles, RSPCA: “I don’t think there is any room for harassment or breaking the law and we would try and stop that.”

Chris Newman pictures, KQ VO: “Even those who merely voice concerns about RSPCA prosecutions can face a backlash from animal rights activists.”

Chris Newman interview: “I have suffered quite a lot of persecution. I have had six interviews over the last two years in which my animals at home have either been killed or released, we have had our tyres slashed, our windows slashed, since I have been critical of what’s going on.”

Westminster PTC KQ “In the biggest shake-up of animal rights legislation since 1911 a new animal welfare bill has just been published. The bill will create a new duty of care offence, meaning that anyone who owns an animal will be legally obliged to ensure its welfare even if the animal is not currently suffering. The RSPCA estimates that prosecutions could increase by as much as 10% in the first year after it becomes law.”

Voiceover: “The minister confirmed that the RSPCA will carry out most of the new prosecutions, even though many groups – even the Association of Chief Police Officers, have concerns.”

Richard Brunstom, ACPO lead: “If our society chooses to use a charity to enforce the criminal law on welfare cases it has to be accepted that they are not part of the public service and in some cases are less accountable…I think it’s an interesting constitutional situation…clearly it’s an effective way of doing it for the public purse cos the RSPCA is funded as a charity through donations but it’s anomalous.”

KQ end thought (not verbatim): No doubts that animal cruelty exists in Britain – but should those who are so passionate about ending animal cruelty also be responsible for prosecuting those who they consider responsible?


 POSTSCRIPT: The RSPCA wrote a letter of complaint to BBC Newsnight. The film was investigated and found to be fair and accurate. The RSPCA did not pursue the matter. 



Rosie gets the plot – or how to change words into puppet magic

It must be well over a year since I first sent a draft of my story for primary school children, Rosie gets the Plot, to my agent, for some feedback about this story about sibling rivalry – and how the parents use gardening to get their older child, Rosie, to accept the new arrival, baby Robin. Cue a growing season full of challenges (for both her garden and the baby) and a wonderful harvest. 

It hasn’t made it to a picture book yet, but it has been transformed into a lovely pilot show on gardening and eating healthily for schools – which starts a mini tour in North London next week. Thanks to the brilliant Slavka from Little Angel Theatre, who spent months devising the show and fundraising,  and Tam Tam Theatre, who have developed the idea, it will now go around schools, communicating the great fun that children can have gardening. It’s not a very serious show, but we worked hard to make her gardening believable – like many kids in central London, Rosie only has a balcony on which to grow her firstImage few plants – and she encounters all sorts of problems on the way. A crawling Robin doesn’t exactly help, and nor does a bird and other pests – all part of the joy of gardening. 

Tam Tam Theatre, with its lovely crew (Marleen, the director, Laura and Thierry, the actors/puppeteers, Katherine the puppet maker and Karen, the student puppeteer) transformed my words into puppet magic. The children (at Vittoria Primary School) seemed to love the run-through and were clearly delighted to eat Rosie’s carrots at the end and stroke the baby’s head. And hopefully they know a tiny bit more about gardening now (each show is backed up with workshops on eating and growing in season and food miles). 

Let’s just hope we can get some more funding to send this round more schools – after some years of campaigning for better food in schools (as a journalist) it’s great to come back and build on all the work so many activists have done on food, and help promote the next important thing – teaching children to grow (and then eat) good food.

As we say at the end of the show: “We’ve grown our veg/Upon our plot/Now it’s time/To eat the lot!”