'The unspeakable in pursuit of the uneatable” was how Oscar Wilde described fox hunting. District Judge Tim Pattinson missed a trick in not using the phrase when he rounded on the RSPCA, the animal charity, for spending what he said was a “staggering” amount of money in prosecuting the Heythrop Hunt.
Its patrons, too, are emblematic of how the organisation manages to shelter under its umbrella both the establishment and fairly hardcore animal rights activists. Its royal patron is the Queen and its vice-patron is the Archbishop of Canterbury. But it also has as honorary vice president Professor Peter Singer, the author of Animal Liberation, one of the seminal works in the animal rights movement, which proposed the idea humans should not take precedence over other species. A fellow animal rights pioneer, Richard Ryder, author of Animal Revolution, which suggested animals should enjoy all the rights that humans do, sits on the charity’s council of elected members.
All donors and members, however, are united in that they are “against people abusing animals”, says Mr Grant, who adds that the response to the successful prosecution this week “has been, judging by today’s feedback, overwhelmingly in favour of our actions”.
It is sometimes assumed that because RSPCA officers wear uniforms, they have a semi-official status and that the charity has special powers. While it is true that the charity spends the bulk of its money on training and funding its inspectorate, who investigate alleged cruelty, often in tandem with the police, they do not have special powers. The RSPCA is, as all charities are, a private organisation. It has the right, as all private individuals do, to bring private prosecutions against anyone it suspects has broken the law.
It is believed that no other organisation in Britain brings more prosecutions than the RSPCA; it is one of its key methods of achieving its mission to end cruelty. Lawyers say it is very unusual for private prosecutions to be brought. The NSPCC, the children’s charity, used to do it on a regular basis, but in recent years the Crown Prosecution Service has taken on this role.
“We are seen by the police and the CPS as experts in prosecuting animal cruelty and we take our responsibilities to the court very seriously,” Mr Grant says. Last year, the RSPCA secured 3,114 convictions by private prosecution, which its critics say represents an awful lot of its time and money being tied up in court.
Mr Grant points out that prosecution is always a last resort and that these convictions were secured after a total of 160,000 complaints of alleged cruelty were investigated by its internal investigations unit, many of whose number are ex-police officers.
Nevertheless, the RSPCA’s total spend on bringing cases is eye-catching. Its annual accounts for last year say that £8.7 million of its total outgoings of £120 million was spent on prosecutions. And its critics say it is overly zealous with prosecutions, often employing expensive and high-powered QCs to represent the charity in fairly minor magistrate court cases against pet shop owners, for instance.
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To which Mr Grant says: “The notion that we will, at a drop of a hat, prosecute a confused old lady who has forgotten to feed her cat is just not true.”
The other major accusation is that the RSPCA is becoming more political, and that is a charge becoming difficult to ignore. The National Farmers Union claims that farmers, many of whom are supporters of the RSPCA, feel alienated from the charity after it tried to stop the badger cull. Martin Haworth, director of policy at the NFU, says: “The RSPCA stepped over the line. It was despicable to threaten farmers in the way they did. It is one thing to express your opinion, another to intervene in such a politically motivated way.”
One thing that these high-profile incidents do is create headlines. And these can be helpful for any charity, especially in the current climate, with the proportion of people giving to charity falling from 58 per cent in 2011 to 55 per cent this year, according to the Charities Aid Foundation.
The RSPCA may have had an income of £116 million last year, but its costs are under pressure as they are in most businesses. And the total going out is higher than the amount coming in. Mr Grant has been forced to cut 90 jobs from the 1,700 staff in recent months, a move for which he does not apologise. “My responsibility is to run the most efficient animal welfare charity in the country possible.”
All the while its membership is falling. There are just 26,043 members, down from 47,298 a decade ago, a fall of 45 per cent. The chief executive is playing a high-stakes game. He risks losing long-standing countryside supporters in return for greater publicity and, possibly, greater revenues.