Monday, 30 August 2010
WHO WILL HOLD THE RSPCA TO ACCOUNT?
The RSPCA is one of Britain’s biggest charities. In 2009 it had an income of nearly £120m, of which over five-sixths came in donations. Its work is highly visible, and it gives the impression of having a moral authority which is beyond question. I wonder, how-ever, whether the general public really understands its nature and powers.
Recently, a woman from Coventry, Mary Bale, was recorded on camera behaving rather cruelly to a neighbour’s cat. Evidently under the impression that she was unobserved, she picked the cat up by the scruff of the neck and dropped it in a wheely bin. The cat wasn’t discovered for 15 hours or so, but has since recovered from its ordeal. The neighbours who filmed Miss Bale put the film on YouTube, where it quickly generated a quite extraordinary amount of outrage and hatred. As I write, Miss Bale’s job at a Scottish bank is under threat.
Enter the RSPCA. It was reported that Miss Bale has been “interviewed” by the animal charity, and that they are deciding whether or not to prosecute her. Reading this, you will probably assume that the RSPCA is acting in accordance with its powers. But, in fact, the RSPCA only has the power to bring a private prosecution against somebody who it believes has mistreated an animal. Any private individual could do exactly the same. It has no power to enter anyone’s property uninvited, nor to interview anyone. All it can do is to remove the animal, and to alert the police.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that the RSPCA’s modes of behaviour are generally interpreted as those of a branch of the police. Unlike other charities, their workers wear police-like uniforms with insignia and badges. It has been reported that RSPCA workers issue a verbal warning very similar to that made by arresting police officers – “You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence...”
No doubt Miss Bale’s behaviour, recorded on the internet, was rather cruel to the poor cat. If she committed a crime, there was some clear video evidence. All the neighbours had to do was to send the evidence to the police, who would decide whether or not there was a case of cruelty to an animal to answer. What on earth was the role of the RSPCA in all of this, and why was it getting involved to the extent of “interviewing” Miss Bale? It wasn’t as if the cat was going to be taken away from a neglectful or brutal owner.
In fact, the RSPCA has about as many powers to interview and enter private premises as any other charity. If the directors of what used to be the Distressed Gentlefolks’ Association took to putting on uniforms and demanding to interview us to discover if we had distressed a gentleman in the street, we would not care for it. If Miss Bale committed a crime against a cat, let the police prosecute her. I dare say they have more of a sense of perspective than this immensely wealthy pressure group, too.