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RSPCA (Prosecutions)

Volume 557: debated on Tuesday 29 January 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Nicky Morgan.)

It is a pleasure, Mr Williams, to serve under your firm control. This debate is important, and I should begin by saying that I have some history with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which will not entirely surprise fellow Members. We go back a good 20 years or so. I am a former chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, and in that role I probably came into contact with the RSPCA as much as almost anybody in this room. I have argued with it on several points, mainly in a civilised manner, and I have disagreed with it on many things, although I agree with it on more things than some people might imagine. There is therefore much on which we can find consensus.

For a start, let us remind ourselves that the RSPCA was created 189 years ago by a Conservative MP—a pro-hunting Conservative MP, I should say—called Richard Martin. He said:

“It would be ill judged for it”—

the RSPCA—

“to become known as a prosecuting society and the prime aim should be to alter the moral feelings of the country.”

I am sorely tempted to say yes, but I will say no for the moment.

That is why we are here. The RSPCA can be, and often is, a huge force for good, particularly at a local level; that is why I was a member for many years. The debate is not about country sports or the differences of opinion we might have about animal welfare; it is about the RSPCA’s role as possibly the most prolific private prosecutor in the UK.

The hon. Gentleman quoted Richard Martin a moment ago. Did he not also say:

“If legislation to protect animals is to be effective, it must be adequately enforced”?

Is what the RSPCA is doing with the Heythrop hunt not enforcing exactly that legislation?

The hon. Lady makes a useful contribution, but I hope she will forgive me if I say I will cover that point later. If I do not, I will take another intervention from her if she so wishes.

The RSPCA is a prosecutor that, in 2012, secured 3,000 convictions at a cost of £8.7 million. That is more than twice the number of prosecutions it brought in 2008, when it prosecuted 1,252 defendants for cruelty to animals, compared with the Crown Prosecution Service’s 240. The RSPCA is a prosecutor that makes claims to comply with CPS guidelines.

I know that we are not going to agree on hunting, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that the RSPCA plays an extremely important role as a prosecutor in other cases, highlighting and enforcing the law in cases of animal cruelty?

I will probably disappoint the whole House by not mentioning the H-word at all during my speech, but I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. Nothing I say today will in any way offer comfort to those who wish to break the law of the land; nothing I say will alter that. Anyone who might think there is some kind of scam going on here might be disappointed by my comments.

The RSPCA is a prosecutor that does politics in a big way. It needs to raise about £120 million a year to keep its engines running. The debate is about the conflict that arises when CPS criteria are applied in cases where the RSPCA might have a political or commercial interest.

My hon. Friend and all other hon. Members will be aware that the RSPCA has limited funds, like all charities. Those of us who have worked with animals all our life welcome the presence of local RSPCA officers, who are able to give advice, help and support to people who manage animals. Less of that is happening because more money is being spent in other ways.

My hon. Friend makes a valuable point, and I would love to be able to quote one or two RSPCA regional officers who have mentioned to me their frustration at being underfunded while reading in the papers of enormous sums being spent on cases in which the animal welfare benefit achieved is doubtful.

Is the hon. Gentleman saying the RSPCA should not be involved in prosecutions? If not the RSPCA, who would do it?

No, I am not saying that. As I will say later, the manner in which the RSPCA goes about its prosecutions needs to be more in line with the relationship between, for example, the CPS and the police: it need not be the closed shop it currently is.

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that all lawbreakers should be prosecuted, unless they are found to be rich, powerful or Tory?

I now regret not accepting an earlier intervention from the hon. Gentleman, although it was worth the wait. I will press on, otherwise we will get bogged down. A number of other hon. Members want to make a contribution.

I will take an intervention later, but I want to make a little progress if I can.

The debate asks why the RSPCA prosecutes when pretty much every other worthy charity, whether they deal with animal or human welfare, such as the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, relies entirely on the CPS and the police to deal with problem areas they come in contact with in the course of their professional duties. Why is animal cruelty in Scotland dealt with perfectly satisfactorily by the procurator fiscal, rather than by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the sister organisation to the RSPCA, as private prosecutions are not permitted in the same form north of the border?

I draw the Attorney-General’s attention to the fact that all those activities have a cost to the taxpayer both through the beneficial tax regimes that all charities benefit from and through gift aid, which assists the RSPCA to the tune of several million pounds a year. Will he comment on what powers the society really has, and its relationship with the police? Even some police officers often assume that the RSPCA’s officers have powers of entry. They do not. Their rank and uniform, although often similar to those of the police, provide no authority whatever in the eyes of the law, yet they can and do liaise with the police to engage in covert surveillance, raids on property and interviewing or cautioning those whom they might suspect. Given the political and commercial activities of the society, is it right that it operates so closely with the police? Should the police exercise some care in the relationship, especially as it applies to the use of cautions?

I want to address how the decision-making process for prosecutions fits with CPS guidance, especially as it applies to the old, sick, infirm, vulnerable and young. Many fellow Members will have examples of constituents who feel that they have been the victims of heavy-handedness from the RSPCA. I will highlight just two.

The hon. Gentleman talks about the RSPCA being heavy-handed, but does he agree that the common criminals who are in breach of the Hunting Act 2004 should be prosecuted whenever possible?

The hon. Gentleman and I disagree on many things, but what we can agree on, whether it suits my taste or not, is that the law is the law until such time as it is not. I am not here to defend anybody who breaches the law in this area or any other, frustrating though I may find the law. I reassure him—I refer back to my answer to an earlier intervention—that nothing I say today should offer any comfort to those who wish to break the law. This is about process, rather than policy.

The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. Further to the last intervention, is the solution not further legislation —I am sure he will disagree—to make it easier for the CPS and the police to prosecute people who break the law? At the moment, they are not able to prosecute, and that is why the RSPCA feels it necessary to take out these private prosecutions.

I regret that I disagree entirely with my hon. Friend’s comments. I will explain why in a minute. The debate is not about trying to pass yet more legislation to deal with what some people consider to be a problem. This is about how we can actually empower the CPS, and, indeed, for that matter, impose a degree of accountability on those who wish to prosecute privately. I am not here to try to stop people prosecuting privately; I am just trying to ensure that, if they prosecute, they do it in a way that does not conflict with their political or perhaps, commercial objectives.

I remind my hon. Friend that the police had the ability to prosecute in their own right removed in the 1980s, with the creation of the Crown Prosecution Service. The police must gather evidence, make arrests and submit a file to the CPS, which will then apply a stringent and objective test. That process is right, and exists to protect the public from police officers who might, through no fault of their own, be tempted to chase targets or satisfy neighbourhood or other pressures, which might distort their proper objectivity. I am attempting to argue that if any charity were to go about its private prosecutions—and, let us face it, the RSPCA is about the only one that does it—with that degree of objectivity and accountability, we should have achieved something, and my hon. Friend’s fears would not come to fruition.

Does the hon. Gentleman at least accede to the point that the Charity Commission has agreed that the RSPCA’s approach to prosecutions follows the CPS code—a two-stage evidential and public interest test, which is applied in all RSPCA prosecution decisions and that it believes that the RSPCA’s work is consistent with the duties placed on trustees?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention, which I suspect she wrote before she read The Daily Telegraph this morning. I refer her to a letter written yesterday from the Charity Commission to the RSPCA:

“The charity should ensure that it has fully considered the reputational damage to the charity of adverse publicity; fully assessed the risk of such publicity; and taken steps to mitigate such risk where possible.”

The letter continues that

“although we understand the reasons for the ‘independence’ of the charity’s Prosecution Department…ultimately the trustees are responsible…and…the trustees should review the current arrangements to ensure that they are entirely satisfied with the criteria for prosecutions”.

The Charity Commission has therefore today issued a rebuke to the RSPCA on the manner in which it carries out prosecutions.

I am not going to take further interventions just yet. Hon. Members may disagree with what I say, but I advise them to have a look at what the Charity Commission has said.

I am going to press ahead, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, for a bit. It is nothing personal. I wanted to refer to two examples, and then I hope I will eventually get to him.

Pauline Spoor, a pensioner from Manchester, was convicted and tagged for not putting down her old dog, which had arthritis. She admitted in court that her actions were misguided, but said she could not bear to put him down as he was her constant companion. Would not, in those circumstances, a quiet word from the RSPCA have resolved the problem just as effectively and at considerably less cost? What of Georgina Langley? In 2010, three RSPCA inspectors, with police reinforcement, entered the home of the 67-year-old and took away her 13 cats, four cockerels and dog. Within days, she was told that the RSPCA had put down five of her cats. The Royal Veterinary College carried out an independent post-mortem examination on a ginger tom and an adult female, after being contacted by Miss Langley’s vet. He said:

“There appears to be no good reason why the RSPCA allowed these animals to be put to sleep. The RVC post mortems concluded the cats were healthy with no signs of incorrect feeding or problems with fleas or other illnesses. This lady needed help and support, not hauling through the courts.”

It does not end there. The RSPCA pushed for costs of £28,000, asking magistrates to make an order on the pensioner’s home and calling for her to be banned from keeping animals. Instead, it was ordered that Miss Langley’s dog and cockerels and one cat should be returned. She was given a conditional discharge with no fine or costs imposed. Was the action that was taken that of a responsible and proportionate prosecutor?

Does not that remind us of the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Roger Williams) about resources on the ground for the RSPCA’s regional officers, to enable them to give support to such people as my hon. Friend has mentioned?

My hon. Friend makes a sensible point, and in a way the thrust of the debate is to highlight something of which I think the public are increasingly aware: the gulf between very good activity on the ground carried out by RSPCA inspectors, whom we all know, work with, and value, who do good things in communities, and whose principal function is to deal with animal welfare, and the leadership of the organisation, whose principal function appears to be to deal with animal rights. The animal rights agenda is compromising the animal welfare agenda on the ground, leading to precisely the sorts of example in question.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. At this time of year particularly—post-Christmas, when there is a lot of pressure on RSPCA kennels to look after pets that have been given as Christmas gifts—education is probably the key to the debate. If the RSPCA could spend more money on educating people to understand animal welfare, that money would be better spent than on prosecutions.

There must be balance, and I have said in response to several interventions that there are occasions when prosecutions may be the only way forward. I wanted to compare what goes on in England and Wales with what goes on in Scotland. The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals does very good work of the sort mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr Williams), but is not hampered by also being a prosecuting body, as the RSPCA south of the border is. That relationship seems to work perfectly well, and there is no reason why a similar one should not work for the RSPCA, enabling it to spend more time and money giving people a helping hand.

I wonder if my hon. Friend agrees that one of the big problems is that when Suzi Leather was in charge of the Charity Commission she confused political charities and charities, and allowed far too much leeway on politics coming into charities. Does my hon. Friend think that that should be addressed, given what we have heard about how the RSPCA has been prosecuting?

My hon. Friend raises a good point. There is political activity and party political activity. Party political activity is still outwith most charitable law. I suspect that there must be a degree of politics in every charity, but it cannot conflict, I suggest, with the prosecuting role of a charity, if that is the role it wants to pursue.

The hon. Gentleman has mentioned Scotland and the prosecution service there a few times now. Does he feel that that prosecution service is as successful as the RSPCA in England is, with its 98.2% success rate?

I think the situation in Scotland is deemed to be perfectly satisfactory from the point of view of animal welfare charities. I do not think that they are particularly governed by statistics. I am intrigued by the 98% success rate, because nowhere in the RSPCA documentations could I find any reference to conditional or unconditional discharges, which I think make quite a difference to the overall figure. I believe—and I stand to be corrected on the point—that those are included in the 98% success rate. I suggest that the lawyers in the Chamber might consider that slightly misleading.

I want to press on somewhat, and discuss something that I think is a commercial disincentive, using the Freedom Food brand as an example. It is a wholly owned brand of the RSPCA, launched in 1994. The society claims that more than 75 million farm animals and salmon were reared to RSPCA welfare standards under the Freedom Food scheme in 2011. So far, so good—I have no problem with that. Yet in the 19 years since the scheme was introduced, the RSPCA has not brought a single prosecution against a Freedom Food member, despite several members of the programme having been prosecuted—not by the RSPCA—for seriously compromising animal welfare standards. It is odd that in that instance the CPS is deemed expert enough to prosecute under animal welfare legislation, whereas in other cases the RSPCA argues that it alone possesses the necessary skills and resources to do so. That raises the question—I put it no more strongly than that—whether in a case where there is a commercial risk to the RSPCA brand, it is dissuaded from bringing prosecutions, whereas it may be tempted in the direction of a tantalising, juicy case that it might want to get its teeth into because of its political or financial benefits. Those are unnecessary and unfortunate consequences of trying to mix prosecution with politics.

The more I listen to the hon. Gentleman the more I am convinced that what he is talking about is a smokescreen for the attack on the RSPCA for having the temerity to prosecute the Prime Minister’s hunt. Is that not the real reason he brought the debate to the Chamber today?

The hon. Gentleman has omitted a declaration of interest, which is his vice-presidency of the League Against Cruel Sports. My response, therefore, is, “He would say that, wouldn’t he?”

This raises further questions for the Attorney-General. Does he agree with the Environmental Audit Committee’s findings on wildlife crime? The Committee states:

“The CPS should review its performance on prosecuting wildlife crime in England and Wales with a view to either employing specialist wildlife crime prosecutors or introducing specialist wildlife crime training for its generalist prosecutors.”

That would enable the CPS to be better equipped to handle prosecutions, by aligning it with the procurator fiscal and reducing the need for prosecutions to be brought by a politically motivated charity. As was mentioned earlier, there are means by which we can achieve the same ends without the uncertainty about conflicts along the way and whether people are being dragged into the court system at great expense to themselves when they should not be there in the first place.

The hon. Gentleman quotes from the recommendations of the Environmental Audit Committee somehow to give credence to his argument. The professionalism of the CPS and proper funding for the enforcement of police activity through the wildlife crime unit were important considerations when we produced the report.

I think that I agree with the hon. Lady, and I think that she will have been pleased to see the announcement this week or last by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs of the funding for the wildlife crime unit.

Much as I welcome the debate, as an opportunity for all concerns about the issue to be put on the record, I point out that whereas our recommendation was that we should have certainty about future funding, the funding of the wildlife crime unit has been secured for only one further year.

I suspect that you will reprimand us both, Mr Williams, if we go down the route of discussing DEFRA funding, so I hope that the hon. Lady will forgive me for nodding but not proceeding too much with that side of the debate.

There are numerous examples of the RSPCA failing to prosecute when there is evidence with which to do so, and vice versa, and that gets to the nub of the debate. The charity sometimes pursues tantalising cases, at not only considerable public and private cost but to the cost of some innocent victims, some of whom plead guilty simply because of the fear of the huge cost risks of doing otherwise and finding themselves on the receiving end of this massive financial machine. What is the Government’s view about how members of the public can guard against a campaigning charity with a political and commercial agenda also acting as a prosecutor in its own right? Are the Government happy with the situation as it is, and are they aware that the Charity Commission only yesterday advised the RSPCA of the need to review its prosecution procedures in the light of recent complaints?

The Charity Commission’s intervention yesterday is a serious rebuke, as others have agreed. The CPS was created to ensure that prosecutions are free from any possible suggestion of political interference, commercial influence or personal beliefs. It protects the public while ensuring that crime is properly dealt with. Over the weekend, I spoke to a police office—a former wildlife officer—who told me that it is the only check in the process that protects the public. It is a check that simply does not independently exist within the RSPCA.

I will finish with a reference to Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate. The HMCPSI carries out the vital role of ensuring high standards in all CPS prosecutions. The Attorney-General already has the powers to

“ask HMCPSI to inspect other prosecution bodies for which he has responsibility, or to inspect bodies where they are agreeable to voluntary inspection, and to undertake reviews of high profile cases.”

Surely, if that is good enough for the CPS it is good enough for a big, responsible charity such as the RSPCA. Will the Attorney-General consider in what circumstances the CPSI might be asked to review high-profile cases, as is its right?

I hope that nothing I have said compromises the RSPCA and the state’s ability to deal with animal abuse. That is particularly important. The debate raises questions about process. It makes a distinction between an agenda that we all used to be able to support, driven by genuine animal welfare concerns that united not only the House but the country, and an agenda that seems to be increasingly driven by some kind of animal rights ideology. It seems unfortunate that that division is affecting support and potential income for the society. If anything comes out of the debate that enables us to draw a line between what are claimed to be the legitimate political and commercial activities of one of Britain’s biggest and best-known charities and its role as an objective and independent private prosecutor, we will not only have achieved some good from the point of view of members of the public, who may from time to time come into contact with the RSPCA, but, ultimately, we will have done a favour in the interests of animal welfare.

Order. There are 10 right hon. and hon. Members seeking to catch my eye. I intend to start the winding-up speeches at 10.40 am, so I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members to keep their speeches brief, at about four minutes please—but it is, of course, up to their own discretion—and for interventions to be short and to the point.

Bore da. Mae’n bleser gwasanethu o dan eich cadeiryddiaeth am y tro cyntaf, Mr Williams. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I shall be uncharacteristically brief because a number of others want to speak.

The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) said that he was not going to use the H-word this morning, but he did not say what it meant. May I suggest that it possibly means hypocrisy? We are asked to believe that the apostles of cruelty, who for many years have campaigned in the House to keep gratuitous killing as part of hunting, now want to be compassionate to animals, and to ensure that the animal societies have enough money to prosecute cases. That is not convincing.

I am delighted, however, to see that the hon. Gentleman has broken cover. During his election campaign, he described himself as a chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, but he did not go into the details of his involvement in campaigning in this House on one subject alone that the Countryside Alliance took up: halting the great reform in animal welfare that is the stopping the killing of animals for fun and amusement.

I speak from a constituency that had an MP, Peter Freeman, who introduced a Bill in 1935 to ban hunting with dogs. It took a long time for Parliament to agree that the practice was unacceptable, along with bear-baiting and other barbarous activities that use animals as objects for sport and entertainment, but we have got that far, and those who lost that debate are coming back now and trying to refight the battle by attacking the splendid work of the RSPCA. It was absolutely right to prosecute—the law had been broken.

If the hon. Gentleman wants to save the charity money so that it can concentrate on its other work, he should persuade his friends to stop breaking the law. As the Hunting Bill went through the House, he and others sought to introduce amendments, which Members generously accepted, saying that perhaps they were genuine or there were special conditions here. All kinds of loophole were put into the law, which hunters have since used every possible means to exploit. We need another Bill. We need to define what the will of the population of this country is, and it is to take the gratuitous cruelty out of hunting. There is no objection to people dressing up and charging around the countryside following a trail, if they want to.

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman address the subject of the debate, which is the role of the RSPCA in prosecutions?

The RSPCA is a charity with a splendid record of investigating cruelty against animals. We have come to a situation—I will conclude on this point—where a case has drawn attention because of a particular prosecution involving high-profile people, including the Prime Minister of the land, who is a member of the hunt, and all we have today is the malice and spite of the pro-hunting lobby fighting again. Let them have a debate in this House to restore hunting as it was in the past. They cannot do that because they know they lack a majority, as people of good will and sense in their own party also want to see hunting continue to be banned. That ban must be strengthened and reinforced.

Thank you for calling me so early, Mr Williams. I wish to make only a short contribution that is effectively an observation. It is a huge pleasure to serve under the chairmanship of a fellow Welshman, and a proud Welshman at that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) not only on introducing an important debate, but on the tone in which he did so and, indeed, on focusing on an essential point that the Government must address. He could easily have been tempted into other areas where Members who disagree with him may have wanted him to go.

I was a huge supporter of the RSPCA for most of my life. I was born on a livestock farm, and I became a huge supporter of animal welfare mainly because of the annual ritual of slaughtering the family pig. Anyone who remembers that will know what a terrible thing it was. Children who experienced it became supporters of animal welfare, and I was one of them. As I became older, it stayed with me. When I took over the family farm, I abandoned rough shooting on the farm, which had been a tradition. Indeed, for a while I stopped any form of hunting on the land simply because I wanted my farm to become a wildlife centre. At some later stage, I realised that that was not the right way to go to benefit wildlife, so I changed the entire policy. The farm had rough shooting and people investing in shooting, and I welcomed back the hunt. The hunt now meets on my farm because I was so outraged by the previous Government’s hunting ban.

This debate is on the specific role of the RSPCA and the way it is carrying out its job. The RSPCA is doing a range of things, but we are addressing the specific role of prosecutions. For most of my life, I was a huge supporter of the RSPCA. When I was a member of the National Assembly and chair of the relevant Committee, quite often the advice of the RSPCA was hugely beneficial and a big part of our decisions, but in my mind it was always an animal welfare body; I now find the RSPCA to be what one might loosely describe as an animal rights body. My personal support has disappeared. I do not feel that sense of support, and I think a huge number of people in this country who were previously big supporters of the RSPCA and saw it as making a huge contribution to the cause of animal welfare no longer see the RSPCA like that.

I say to Opposition Members who are very supportive of the RSPCA that, with its current focus on prosecutions, including high-profile political prosecutions, the organisation is losing the support of a huge number of people. We will find that the RSPCA effectively becomes an animal rights body in deep conflict with an awful lot of people like me, who have been great supporters of animal welfare.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, sadly, there is evidence of the increasing politicisation of many organisations, and the RSPCA is just another very sad case?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I know Opposition Members will say that there is a law and that the RSPCA’s job is to pursue the law, but the RSPCA then becomes a prosecution body and an animal rights body, and it loses the support of all those people who care about animal welfare first and foremost. I am one of those people.

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that upholding the law is not a political act? Prosecuting lawbreakers is not an overtly political act, and a range of organisations that bring private prosecutions are not particularly political.

I thank the hon. Gentleman, but he would surely agree that almost all coverage of the RSPCA in the media today gives the impression of it simply as a prosecution body because it has pursued high-profile political prosecutions. The RSPCA has become that sort of body, and it is losing support.

Animal welfare is hugely important to many of us, and I want my RSPCA back; it was a body I felt supportive of, and I want it back.

It is good that the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) has secured this debate, because it is important that we both discuss how prosecutions are pursued and address the allegations made against one of the country’s most admired charities. I make it clear that I am not a member of the RSPCA and never have been.

The RSPCA is a vital member of our charitable sector and its work across the country is invaluable and widely appreciated. The RSPCA is supported, for a range of reasons, by Members of all parties. I know, as do most MPs, just how important the RSPCA’s campaigns are for my constituents, who care about animal welfare and who welcome the opportunity through their membership to ensure that their concerns are heard. I have never felt that a campaign to highlight animal cruelty, bad practice and neglect has been run for purely political reasons. Under the Labour Government there were innumerable campaigns to raise awareness and to enable MPs to ask questions and seek answers from Ministers. It is absolutely right for a charity to inform Members of this House, because, ultimately, we are the people who write the laws.

The main thrust of the RSPCA’s work is to investigate, thereby hopefully changing behaviour and making people aware of the mistreatment of pets and livestock. So much mistreatment arises from ignorance. However, there are those who are only too aware that their actions are outside the law and that they are laying themselves open to prosecution, private or otherwise.

The RSPCA’s investigations rarely end in prosecution, and it is important to emphasise that the RSPCA’s prosecutions department is independent and separate from the investigators. The RSPCA had every right to investigate and prosecute the Heythrop hunt and those involved in the maiming of foxes last year.

Those seeking to criticise the work of the RSPCA, and ultimately defend hunting as a sport, have pointed to the significant figure that the RSPCA spent on the case to bring about, in their view, a fairly insignificant punishment. Criticising the RSPCA for pursuing political motivations in bringing the prosecution is completely unfair. The RSPCA does not prosecute unless there is just cause, and it considers the public interest test of the code for Crown prosecutors before deciding whether to prosecute. The RSPCA is supported by, and has good relationships with, Members on both sides of the House.

I listened to the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire in the early hours of this morning on Radio 4, when he talked about the RSPCA being the only charity that seems to be pursuing—[Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) says from a sedentary position, that is not true. We should remember that, historically, charities such as Shelter and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children have faced persistent allegations of the politicisation of their work. Both charities have assisted or encouraged prosecutions, in Shelter’s case against rogue landlords and in the NSPCC’s case to protect another group that is unable to protect itself—children.

We make the laws in this place, and we make them for a reason. We do not sit here and make laws just for fun. Laws are there for a reason, and if they are broken, there are consequences, irrespective of whether someone is Joe Bloggs or a member of the Heythrop hunt.

In some cases, the charities the hon. Lady mentions have not brought private prosecutions for nearly 20 years. Will she share what the reasons for that might be? Will she also comment on the fact that the Charity Commission has today instructed the RSPCA to review its prosecuting procedures?

The hon. Gentleman is being extremely partial in his interpretation of the Charity Commission’s letter. Yes, the Charity Commission pointed out to the RSPCA the role of its trustees, but it has also stated that it will not investigate the RSPCA, which is testament to the fact that the RSPCA acted within its remit and has a right to private prosecution.

The prosecution could not have happened without the work of the RSPCA. If its powers are revoked in any way, hundreds of cases of animal cruelty in the UK will go unchallenged each year. Its role is vital. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) suggested that it ought to concentrate on animal welfare. The bulk of what the RSPCA does is on animal welfare, and to suggest otherwise is grossly misleading. That work would not be carried out by any other body. The Association of Chief Police Officers has stated that if the RSPCA were to decide not to do it, no other public service could pick it up, and animal welfare would be significantly damaged.

I am a south-west MP, so the matter is important to my constituency. One reason why I wanted to speak today was the weight of interest among my constituents. Public opinion on fox hunting is divided in my constituency, as it is elsewhere in the country. This is not about fox hunting; it is about prosecutions and the RSPCA’s ability to continue taking prosecutions forward where it thinks they are appropriate.

I do not support hunting, but neither do I condone illegal behaviour by those who are either pro or anti-hunting. I want our legal system to be the guardian. The RSPCA’s decision to test that in the courts was, in my view, absolutely the right thing to do. I hope that the Attorney-General will not be chased to ground by the baying pack of Back Benchers sitting behind him.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this debate. He has done the House a service in doing so. Of course there are different views about all sorts of underlying issues; the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson) demonstrated that from the outset. He was outed by my hon. Friend as a member of the League Against Cruel Sports. I had not the slightest idea who he was or what his membership consisted of, but I am delighted that he called in to see how we get on. That said, we would be naive if we did not think that the underlying current of debate about hunting infects some of the views expressed in this debate, although it is specifically about the RSPCA’s role as a prosecutor, which is what I will do my best to concentrate on.

My hon. Friend also told us that the RSPCA is a prolific private prosecutor, and the statistics tend to support that allegation; more than 2,000 private prosecutions were brought in 2012. However, the problem that the RSPCA faces is the public perception, whether true or false, that it has become a political prosecutor.

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman reads The Daily Telegraph more often than I do, but there we are; I am sure he enjoys doing so.

I want to make it clear that as a Member of Parliament, a private citizen and a former Law Officer, I have no objection in principle to private prosecutions. Equally, however, Parliament has controlled in one way or another private citizens’ ability to take private prosecutions. I think the most recent example—my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will correct me—was the alteration in how prosecutions may be brought for the international reach of war crimes. I do not have the detail in my head right now, but I think that the situation has been altered to require that the Director of Public Prosecutions take over that sort of prosecution. We should not shy away from alterations to the rules relating to private prosecutions.

The hon. and learned Gentleman will accept that the Law Commission considered the issue of private prosecutors in 1998 and found that adequate safeguards were in place. That was relatively recent. Does it not explain the situation? Everything is okay and should continue as it is.

That is rather complacent. The whole point of being a Member of Parliament is to express one’s view on the basis of indirect or direct knowledge. Yes, the Law Commission considered the principle of private prosecutions not very long ago, but that does not prevent me from having a different view about particular types of private prosecution, and I am about to express it.

We must be watchful of the ability of the citizen—by “citizen” I mean either a corporate organisation, such as a charity, or an individual—to convert a legitimate public interest activity, namely the bringing of a prosecution in an appropriate case, into an arm of a political campaign. We all have different views about particular public issues—that is why we are elected for our separate parties—but we must be careful that the prosecuting system does not allow itself to become an arm of any one political campaign or a number of campaigns. That is the whole point of having a Crown Prosecution Service.

Certainly during my time in government, the Crown Prosecution Service subsumed the prosecuting wing of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Within DEFRA, there is a group of prosecutors who take on animal welfare cases, among other things, that were previously dealt with by Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food prosecutors. That subsection of DEFRA has now moved into the Crown Prosecution Service, which seems a sensible place for those people to carry out their work.

We must be careful. Although we do not wish all private prosecutions to be brought to an end, we are entitled to issue a warning to the RSPCA that if that sort of conduct—that is, the prosecutions referred to by the hon. Member for Derby North and others, in which the costs of £300,000-plus incurred were described by the judge as quite staggering—

I refer the hon. and learned Gentleman to a letter from the Charity Commission dated yesterday and stating that

“the Commission does not consider that the trustees have breached their duty of prudence in the case of this prosecution”—

that is, the Heythrop hunt. Does he not therefore agree that the RSPCA was perfectly within its rights to prosecute the Heythrop hunt, and is doing a sterling job ensuring that animal abusers are brought to justice?

Of course the RSPCA as presently constituted was within its rights to do whatever it thought appropriate in that particular case. Whether it was wise to do so is another matter. It seems to me that if it continues to prosecute at such huge expense in such a disproportionate way, it will be open to public criticism. It cannot do something of that nature in public—that is, prosecute suspected criminals—without expecting to be criticised either by the judge, as it was, or by Members of Parliament, or by contributors to The Daily Telegraph or even The Guardian, or by ordinary members of the public.

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman not acknowledge, however, that the prosecution costs in the case that he referred to were so large mainly because those prosecuted resisted the charges for so long before deciding in the end to plead guilty? Could the costs not have been reduced significantly if those prosecuted had done the right thing?

The hon. Lady was in court and clearly knows more about the detail of the case than I do, but it strikes me that anybody who manages to run up prosecution costs of more than £300,000 on a summary case in a magistrates court is rightly subject to criticism for being responsible for a disproportionate piece of activity.

My simple point is that if the RSPCA does so, it cannot expect to escape public criticism, either in this Chamber or elsewhere, and I am entitled to make that criticism. Were such a prosecution brought by the Crown Prosecution Service, whether on the evidence or the public interest test, as it could well have been, there would have been a far greater grip on the management of that case. I do not imagine that, when the cost of prosecutions in magistrates courts are in the low thousands of pounds, rather than the low hundreds of thousands, the CPS would have gone about it in quite that way.

We need dispassionate intervention from the CPS in such cases. This is not to say that the RSPCA should not or may not investigate but, like the police, it should hand the evidence to the CPS for it to make a dispassionate judgment.

My hon. and learned Friend makes a good point. I am a member of the RSCPA and support its prosecutions, but this was a summary case before the magistrates court, so why did it not, in the first instance, use its own in-house team of lawyers—which I as a member have to pay for—and go to expensive Queen’s counsels only when the case goes to the higher court? Surely, it was an error of judgment on the part of the RSCPA to use up such huge amounts of its members’ money.

I am very fond of expensive QCs, but it is a matter of judgment. The RSCPA, in that case, made a misjudgment. I am not criticising, for one moment, the quality of the representation that it had, but any private organisation, whether a charity or an individual, spending such an amount of money on that sort of prosecution is open to criticism. If I were a member of the RSCPA, I would want to know that my money was going to the purpose that I thought it was intended to go towards, that is to say, protecting animal welfare, rather than—as it appears, from comments made by many—the pursuit of some political agenda.

Last October, I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Kenilworth and Southam (Jeremy Wright), an oral question in Justice questions about why the courts rarely seem to make costs orders against the RSCPA when it brings prosecutions that fail, either because it got the law or the facts wrong, and cases collapse. Although the Minister promised to write to me, he did not, but the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant), kindly replied with a somewhat opaque letter, which did not contain any information of interest or value relating to the discussion that I intended to have.

Undoubtedly, the RPSCA is fortunate because it is not subjected, as the CPS is, to orders for costs when it makes a mess or fails to bring home a prosecution. The CPS set aside £154,000 in the financial year 2005-06, and more than £1.5 million in 2010-11, in relation to costs awarded against it by the courts. Whether those costs fell under section 19 or section 19A of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985 does not much matter: these are big numbers. The CPS has a turnover of some £600 million and I understand that the RPSCA has a turnover of about £120 million. One would think that there ought to be some read-across for the sums paid in response to costs orders, but we do not see that.

Finally, I think it was my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire who suggested that Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate should, either of its own volition or with the encouragement of the Attorney-General, consider the way the RPSCA conducts its prosecutions, whether thematically or by looking at particular cases. I agree with my hon. Friend, and I encourage my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to do that. When he and I worked together—it was a joy—we encouraged the Serious Fraud Office to invite the inspectorate to look at its prosecuting activities. That was a beneficial and useful inspection. I encourage my right hon. and learned Friend, in the little spare time that he has, to encourage Mike Fuller to look at how the RSPCA conducts its activities as a prosecutor.

Of course, I respect the right of the RSCPA to conduct itself as an animal welfare charity with all the vigour and all the money that it can lay its hands on, but it needs to be careful that it does not move away from being an animal welfare organisation and becomes a political campaigner, using the state prosecuting system as a weapon to promote its political campaigns.

The hon. Gentleman, whose constituency I do not know, but who is a member of the league, mumbles that it should uphold the law. Of course, it should. Nobody doubts that we should uphold the law. My central point is that it must be done dispassionately, proportionately and without turning a charity into a weapon of political campaign.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Williams. I have to put it on the public record that I am a proud member and vice-president of the RSCPA. I am also proud of the fact that the UK has laws protecting animals from abuse and neglect. There is always room for improvement, but, taken as a whole, this legislation is a marker of a civilised society that refuses to condone cruelty or tolerate the exploitation of other species.

I should like to say, as a member of the Committee that considered the Animal Welfare Bill in 2006, that when we make legislation we want it to be enforced. Does the hon. Lady agree that there is no point designing legislation and ensuring that it is workable and enforceable if it is not enforced?

I agree, which is why it is so extraordinary that, somehow, upholding the law can be regarded as a political or, worse, a party political act. I do not get that.

It is interesting to note that the hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart), who secured the debate, has coyly not mentioned the H-word. That is probably because he realises that he has lost that case. We have clear guidance from the Charity Commission, which says that

“the Commission does not consider that the trustees have breached their duty of prudence in the case of this prosecution.”

Having lost that case, the hon. Gentleman is now hitting out wildly with a lot of accusations, not based on evidence, about prosecutions more generally.

Like the vast majority of members of the public, I strongly support the Hunting Act 2004—I am not afraid of using the H-word—and I am committed to strengthening its provisions, as well as to seeing the ban on the use of dogs in chasing and killing wild mammals rigorously upheld. As the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said, as with other legislation designed to protect animals, or anything else, enforcement is critical. That is why bringing prosecutions is so important. The RPSCA is uniquely placed to carry out that task.

Colleagues know that in 2005 a Select Committee concluded that the RSCPA was the only organisation with the requisite expertise to undertake animal welfare prosecutions. The Association of Chief Police Officers has also gone on the record to pay tribute to the importance of this role and its fulfilment by the RPSCA, saying:

“Were the RSPCA, as a charity, to decide next week not to do this work any more none of the rest of us in the public service could pick it up. Animal welfare would not be furthered; it would be significantly disadvantaged.”

Thanks to its excellence and consistent best practice, in 2010, the RSPCA secured the convictions of 2,441 defendants for animal welfare offences and gave out 86,354 welfare improvement notices under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. In 2011, a total of 3,114 convictions were secured, further reinforcing the message that the law is essential to its work as a charity charged with protecting animals from abuse.

This work as a private prosecutor is clearly identified in the RSPCA’s constitution as part of its charitable aims, which include preventing or suppressing cruelty towards animals In the charity’s own words:

“Upholding the law is not a political act but is in direct furtherance of the RPSCA’s charitable purpose.”

That said, it rightly has a clear duty to ensure that any prosecutions undertaken both meet a public interest test and are backed up by strong evidence that animal cruelty is taking place. The Charity Commission says:

“If considering a prosecution, charities must consider whether bringing a prosecution is a reasonable and effective use of the charity's resources, what the prospects of success are, and whether the public interest is served by a prosecution.”

Let me take each of those considerations in turn in relation to the decision to prosecute the Heythrop hunt, as that case in particular seems to have prompted this debate.

Does the hon. Lady agree with the district judge who thought that the amount of money was not proportionate? He said that £320,000-odd on the particular case referred to was staggering. Could donors’ money not be put to better use?

I shall come on to that in a moment. There are many reasons why that amount of money had to be spent. I do not suppose that any of us would choose to spend money in that way, but, to return to the wonderful comment by the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn), if people stopped breaking the law the RSPCA would not have to keep spending the money.

Given that the RSPCA has a 98% prosecution success rate, compared with 50% at the CPS, it would seem to be pretty well practised at assessing whether a case looks set to succeed. In the instance of the Heythrop hunt, the charity’s judgment was correct and a conviction secured. It was a landmark case, the first time that a hunt has faced corporate charges for illegal hunting and the first case brought by the RSPCA for breaches of the Hunting Act. That case was based on footage of foxes being chased by dogs, filmed on several occasions in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire during November 2011 and February and March 2012. Expert analysis verified that the offences were deliberately committed.

All that indicates that the charity thought carefully before bringing a prosecution under the Hunting Act. It considered the evidence and judged accurately that the case was likely to be won. It assessed the impact of the case in acting as a deterrent and in sending out a clear message about upholding the ban on dogs chasing and killing wild mammals, thus preventing animal cruelty. Judging by the interest that the ruling has attracted, the charity made a pretty smart call on using resources effectively.

To defend the organisation, is it not true that this has nothing to do with a false concern about the expenditure of money, and that it is about neutralising the RSPCA before a new onslaught to repeal the hunt legislation?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right: there is a smoke screen, and I want to show how the case is not coherent and has no real rigour.

Much of the interest has been about the amount of money spent, with concerns expressed that the expense was not justifiable. I disagree. It was a test case and one based on a high volume of evidence, which needed careful examination to determine whether it constituted a strong enough case to bring to court. Ironically, many critics of the cost are also questioning the RSPCA’s judgment on the prospects of success, even though the charity’s thoroughness in considering whether prosecution was appropriate and its experience of other high-profile criminal prosecutions were what allowed it to budget accurately and appropriately.

It is also worth noting that the defendants indicated right up until trial that they would defend all charges rigorously. Given the importance of the case, and that the evidence and public interest tests were met, the RSPCA had a duty to respond with equal rigour and not to back down in the face of lawbreakers and those guilty of animal cruelty. Indeed, the Charity Commission has vindicated the RSPCA’s decision, stating in the letter I just quoted that it did not consider the trustees to have

“breached their duty of prudence”.

The public interest test is important. Enforcing such an important piece of animal welfare legislation is in the interests of the public, for both those who support the law and those who wrongly believe that they are above it.

Rather than worrying about whether the RSPCA is misusing its funds in bringing the prosecution, should we not as taxpayers be criticising the CPS for not being prepared to spend its funding on bringing fox-hunting prosecutions?

The hon. Lady makes an incredibly good point. That is exactly where the focus of our ire should be, and not on the RSPCA, which had to step in to fulfil such work.

The assertion that has just been made is entirely and completely incorrect, as I will explain in my speech. The CPS will prosecute cases referred to it.

I thank the Minister for his intervention, but the evidence and experience that we have is that the CPS does not prosecute in the number of ways in which the RSPCA would. I am sorry that he disagrees, but that is our experience in the area.

Eighty per cent. of people in Great Britain feel that, where there is evidence of people hunting illegally with dogs, such people should be prosecuted. In addition, 70% support animal welfare charities bringing private prosecutions against those whom they believe to have been hunting illegally, provided there is strong evidence and if the police or CPS, for whatever reason, do not proceed. In other words, the public want the RSPCA to prosecute in cases such as that of the Heythrop hunt; to do so is justified by their charitable aims.

Does the hon. Lady agree—she may not, of course—that the RSPCA is in danger of being not only a charity and a campaigning organisation, but an investigatory and prosecuting body that is pursuing a militant animal rights agenda? That is a concern that we have.

The hon. Gentleman is probably not surprised that I do not agree. That was an extraordinary statement. I return to the words of Richard Martin, a founder of the RSPCA, quoted at the beginning of the debate:

“If legislation to protect animals is to be effective, it must be adequately enforced.”

The evidence is available, and I have quoted from the police and other authorities that if the RSPCA did not prosecute, it would not be done.

I am sorry, but to accept more interventions would not be fair to other Members. I have been generous.

I emphasise that nowhere in any of my comments have I ever suggested that the RSPCA should not be allowed to prosecute. The hon. Lady is misleading the House by suggesting that that is what I am recommending. I am recommending that the process needs to be reviewed, not the policy.

Order. I think I heard the hon. Gentleman say that the hon. Lady was misleading the House. She certainly was not, or I would have told her so.

If I did, I did so in error. I know that the hon. Lady will take my comments in the spirit in which they were intended.

Yes, I think I thank the hon. Gentleman for that.

I will not go back over the motivation for introducing the debate. We all have our views and nothing can be proved.

I will finish, Mr Williams, as you want us to move on. I simply want to ask why the case was brought to the attention of the Charity Commission. I can only conclude that those who did that wanted to undermine the RSPCA—that was what it was about, not about the hunt per se. That move is cynical and not worthy of anyone acting in the public interest or in the interests of animal protection.

The UK has a body charged with the oversight of charities, the Charity Commission. That body has confirmed that it is not investigating the RSPCA, because there is nothing to investigate. A Press Complaints Commission case on misleading and inaccurate media coverage is pending, yet some have persisted in attempting to smear the RSPCA and to question its role as a prosecutor.

Does the hon. Lady agree that the so-called rebuke referred to earlier, from the Charity Commission, was actually the usual advice issued to organisations that have been under the media spotlight, and that the RSPCA has already started a review of its procedures, because it is confident that they are robust?

The hon. Lady is right: the RSPCA began that review before the Charity Commission mentioned anything.

I welcome the opportunity both to put on the record my understanding of how the Heythrop hunt prosecution and other prosecutions demonstrably further the pursuit of the RSPCA’s charitable objectives, and to represent the large number of constituents who have written to me, as to many hon. Members, about the importance of protecting the RSPCA’s important legal work.

Thank you, Mr Williams. I am grateful you called me. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) for initiating the debate.

I am going to make a speech that others will probably not expect from someone on the Government Benches. In my constituency, I have been grateful for the RSPCA pursuing a high-profile prosecution and, effectively, putting out political signals through that prosecution. The RSPCA has done us all a great service in its contribution to animal welfare and in its prosecution of those who treat animals inhumanely. When the Attorney-General winds up, I hope that he bears it in mind that the terrible case to which I will refer took place in Buckinghamshire, and he is a Buckinghamshire MP.

I am second to none in my admiration for the RSPCA. Sadly, cases of multiple animal abuse appear to be on the increase, and the RSPCA is well placed to bring and carry through the sort of prosecution that it did in the case of Spindles farm. In January 2008, more than 100 horses, ponies and donkeys were removed from the most horrific conditions at Spindles farm. I went to see some of the rescued animals, many of which had to be put down. Many had been treading on the carcases and bodies of other animals. I have never seen animals with deader eyes or in worse condition in my life, and I have farmers in the family in Wales and have spent a lot of my life around animals. The RSPCA worked with the Redwings horse sanctuary, World Horse Welfare and the Horse Trust, and they are all to be commended.

The prosecution cost some £2.3 million, but the investigation was highly complex. The number of animals involved, the cruelty, the defendants’ obstruction and intimidation of RSPCA inspectors, the need for expert reports, and the problems of identifying ownership of many animals contributed to a long and complex case. It is difficult to see how any organisation other than the RSPCA could have mounted such a complex and difficult operation and investigation. Indeed, the judge praised the RSPCA.

Is it not the point that if it were not for the RSPCA, we would expect the police to put together such cases, and they do not have the expertise or, certainly in the current austere world, the resources?

The hon. Gentleman almost took away my finishing line. Would others give the matter the priority that the RSPCA gave it? I am pleased to report that James Gray was sentenced to six months in prison, fined £400,000, and banned from keeping horses for life. It is a good job I was not the judge, and that a greater sentence was not available, because he would have had a much bigger one.

It is a pleasure, Mr Williams, to serve under your chairmanship. Many Tory MPs in this debate seem to be disappointed that their coalition Government have decided not to change the law on hunting, or to make it legal, and it seems that there will not even be a free vote. Their fury has been turned on another organisation, and it seems that the RSPCA’s prosecution of the Heythrop hunt has put its head above the parapet, so it is now in the firing line.

The hunt was frequented by the Chipping Norton set—Charlie and Rebekah Brooks, Jeremy Clarkson, and formerly the Prime Minister, whom I understand is currently too busy to be involved in the hunt. Let us hope that he will be freed of the burdens of office in the near future and able to resume legal drag hunting—to coin a phrase, tally-ho!

I turn to serious matters. The British are rightly famous for our love of animals, and the public take animal mistreatment very seriously. It is a matter of public policy and blights not just animals’ lives, but if unchecked leads to serious social problems. The illegal trade in wild animals, for example, is worth £12 billion, and that money is not put to good use. Underground dog ownership means that animals are brutalised and used as weapons in parks and cities; they are used in dog fights, and by gangs of poachers and hare coursers. As my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) said, we have laws and they should be enforced. The question today is, who should be enforcing the law?

The hon. Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) said that we should review the Crown Prosecution Service’s priorities, and that it should pick up the burden instead of leaving it to a politically motivated charity. The difficulty in practice is that the Crown Prosecution Service is suffering a 25% reduction in income over the tenure of this Government. He called for renewed emphasis on animal welfare, but the Crown Prosecution Service constantly announces new priorities. Hon. Members may remember that last week it said that its new priority would be tax evasion. Recently, it was violence against women and girls, and before that it was child abuse following Savile and Rochdale. All those matters are important and must be priorities, as are others that it has referred to, including driving up advocacy standards and improving support for victims and witnesses.

Given the difficulties that the Crown Prosecution Service is working under, and the importance of its priorities, on which we all agree, can it begin a new priority of animal welfare? That is not to say that it does not prosecute. This morning, the Attorney-General kindly gave me a table—I do not know whether he knows that he gave it to me, but he did—of prosecutions by the Crown Prosecution Service, and I understand that it will be put in the Library. The reality is that the Crown Prosecution Service works with the RSPCA, and the RSPCA works with the Crown Prosecution Service.

The Crown Prosecution Service must be independent, fair and effective. A concern felt by about half of hon. Members in the Chamber is that the RSPCA is not independent, fair or effective.

The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, and I will make one more before moving on to it. The national wildlife crime unit is a small group of 10 people. They work with the RSPCA, and the RSPCA works with them. They have done important prosecution work involving badger baiting and reptile smuggling. They are experts, but unfortunately it seems that their funding will end at the end of next year, so we will fall back even more on the need for the RSPCA. The question will then be, can we trust the RSPCA? The truth is that the vast majority of the public believe that we can.

In any event, we have a series of checks and balances in our legal system that allows prosecutions to go ahead without the process being abused. In fact, a process may be stayed on the basis that it is unfair, wrong and an abuse of the process. It is for a magistrate to decide that, not the RSPCA. A prosecution may be brought before a court, and it is for the magistrate to stop it if necessary. There are checks and balances before warrants such as search warrants are issued. There are always checks and balances in our system. In our view, the RSPCA does a good job, and is bringing prosecutions on behalf of the public and ensuring that we remain a civilised society. It is for the courts to ensure that prosecutions are not brought wrongly.

It is, of course, open to the courts to award costs against the RSPCA if it loses a case, and it seems that some sense has been spoken this morning about whether the courts should look again, if necessary, at awarding costs against. Many of the complaints that we have heard about this morning have been about successful prosecutions when the case was proved, yet the gripes continue. It seems that the RSPCA was right to bring its prosecution, the court accepted that the evidence was right, offences were committed, and the RSPCA had a public duty and protected an important constitutional right: the right to prosecute privately when the public authorities are unable to do so.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, inevitably with new legislation, test cases need to be brought to court to ensure that it is absolutely clear how the law will be applied?

That is absolutely right, and it is right that if, to use the H-word again, it is illegal to hunt in this country and people are hunting, there are prosecutions to stop that so that people understand that the law is serious. If we simply pass laws and do not enforce them, that radically undermines our constitution. In those circumstances, it seems to me that the RSPCA should be applauded.

It is a great pleasure, Mr Williams, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) on securing this debate. I know from discussions with him that he has considerable experience of the matter and feels strongly about it. I think the matter has been passed to me because, although my Department does not cover hunting—far from it—I superintend the prosecutorial services in England and Wales.

I shall start by dealing straight away with the point raised by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). The Crown Prosecution Service prosecutes cases instituted and referred to it by the police. They include hunting and wildlife offences. Since 2005, the CPS has prosecuted 378 offences under the Hunting Act 2004, and it regularly prosecutes other wildlife offences. In 2011-12, it prosecuted 298 offences under the Animal Welfare Act 2006, 16 offences under the Deer Act 1991, 43 offences under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, and 54 offences under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. The CPS publishes legal guidance on prosecutions under the Hunting Act 2004 and of prosecution of wildlife offences generally on its website. If I have time, I will return to that.

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is talking about a general figure for the CPS or about wildlife figures for the CPS.

That may well be, but the point remains that the hon. Lady suggested that the CPS does not take on those cases. If a case is referred to the CPS by the police, it will be considered for prosecution, and if it passes the code test for Crown prosecutors, it will be prosecuted.

The RSPCA, on the other hand, is a private prosecutor when bringing prosecutions. It is an unusual set-up, but the right to bring a private prosecution in England and Wales is an ancient right, which has existed from the time when the state did not have prosecution authorities and citizens were required to prosecute cases themselves. That certainly was the position when the RSPCA was set up. Although most prosecutions are now conducted by public prosecuting authorities, the right to bring a private prosecution remains, preserved by Parliament in the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985.

Speaking personally, I once threatened to bring a private prosecution when I was dissatisfied because the police were not taking action, which did at least lead to my getting a proper explanation from the police as to why they were behaving in the way they were. I believe that it is a fundamental and important right that we have in a free society. Private prosecutions allow an individual to bring a prosecution when the state, for whatever reason, does not. Prosecutions by the RSPCA are, however, just that—private prosecutions. It has no public or special status as a prosecutor. The RSPCA sets out, in accordance with its charitable aims and in its own literature, that it applies the full code test for Crown prosecutors. If I may say so—I do not mean this in any way pejoratively—that is a self-assertion. The RSPCA may well be correct, but it certainly cannot be independently verified, and it is in no position to do that.

To pick up on something that was said, I have no doubt that ACPO may well be correct in saying that were it not for the work of the RSPCA, the burden that would be placed on the police to investigate such crimes would be considerable. I am the first to recognise, as I am sure everybody in the room today does, that the RSPCA, through its charitable work, has performed an extremely valuable role in dealing with animal welfare and cruelty issues.

Is it not right that the police go further than that? They actually say that no other public body would pick the work up, which takes that further and underlines the work of the RSPCA even more.

There must be no doubt that if the police do not feel they have the resources or expertise to take on that work, in those circumstances it might be difficult to do it, unless some other private body were to emerge. The point I picked up from the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion is that the CPS will take on cases referred to it and consider them.

I must make some progress.

A point was made about cautions. The RSPCA has no power to grant cautions at all. That must be done by the police. Obviously, if the police are involved with the RSPCA in an investigation, although they are fully entitled to use the RSPCA’s expertise to help them on a joint investigation, the police must apply their own criteria and codes when deciding how a case should be disposed of—whether it should be prosecuted or dealt with in some other way. The police should not be influenced—I have no reason to consider that they are being influenced—by any private organisation with its own agenda.

Although the 1985 Act preserves the right to bring a private prosecution, it also provides—this is absolutely key to the debate—that the DPP can take over the conduct of such proceedings. The CPS will always consider a request to exercise that power and take over such a private prosecution, including from defendants, and has received requests in relation to some RSPCA cases. I will come back to that in a moment. The approach that the CPS will take in such cases is published on its website. It will review the case in accordance with the full code test contained in the code for Crown prosecutors and consider first whether there is sufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of conviction, and if there is, whether a prosecution is in the public interest. It will also consider whether there is a particular need for the CPS to take over the prosecution, either to stop it or to continue it. That is entirely a decision for the CPS. The DPP’s policy is that a private prosecution should be taken over and stopped if, upon review of the case papers, either the evidential sufficiency stage or the public interest stage of the full code test is not met. The Supreme Court has recently upheld the DPP’s policy on private prosecutions in the case of Gujra.

The RSPCA says that it applies the full code test when deciding when to prosecute. It undoubtedly has its own prosecutions department and is seen as having expertise in this field, both as an investigator and prosecutor. However, if an RSPCA prosecution is referred to the CPS, and the CPS considers that the prosecution does not satisfy the code for Crown prosecutors, the CPS will take over that case and discontinue it. Since the CPS began to keep records in that area, it has been asked to review RSPCA prosecutions on only four occasions. One of those requests is still under consideration, but in relation to the other three, the CPS saw no reason to take over the prosecution, and it continued in the hands of the RSPCA. There are also safeguards in the trial process itself, including the court’s ability to exclude evidence from the trial, and to stop a case entirely if it is satisfied that the proceedings amount to an abuse of process—for example, when the court judges that a fair trial will be impossible.

As some hon. Members have mentioned, the Environmental Audit Committee’s report on wildlife crime reported in September last year. It recommended:

“The CPS should review its performance on prosecuting wildlife crime in England and Wales with a view to either employing specialist wildlife crime prosecutors or introducing specialist wildlife crime training for its generalist prosecutors.”

The Government are finalising their response to the recommendations in that report, and that will be sent to the Committee shortly. The response is being prepared by DEFRA in liaison with the CPS.

The CPS is prosecuting wildlife crime where wildlife crime is referred to it, and where it considers that such a prosecution is justified. It has a multi-agency approach and works closely with the police and other relevant agencies in case building, so that cases can be effectively prosecuted. There are 13 area co-ordinators. To support its wildlife specialists in assessing evidence in cases, the CPS has published legal guidance. It delivers wildlife training to prosecutors and has done so for some time. In particular, in 2006 and 2009, the CPS worked closely with the police and other stakeholders to hold a Partnership for Action against Wildlife Crime court training day, exploring how to investigate and prosecute cases involving wildlife issues. It is likely that further such events will take place. In February 2011, the CPS held a seminar on prosecuting wildlife and heritage crime for CPS prosecutors, which looked at specific cases involving the Hunting Act 2004, the convention on international trade in endangered species of wild fauna and flora, and the Control of Trade in Endangered Species (Enforcement) Regulations 1997, as well as the National Wildlife Crime Unit, the Bat Conservation Trust, gamekeeping and trade in plants. Those are offences that the CPS takes very seriously, and when cases are brought to it that pass the full code test, they will be prosecuted.

Another issue raised by hon. Members is that when the RSPCA prosecutes, a cause for concern is that if the RSPCA prosecution is unsuccessful, costs are awarded to the defendant from central funds, and not from the RSPCA. I want to make it clear that, first, that will happen only on indictable offences, and secondly, exactly the same rules apply to any other public or private prosecutor. The reason is that if somebody is acquitted, it does not necessarily mean that the prosecution was wrong in principle. There would be a detrimental effect on prosecutors if they were liable to pay costs each time a defendant was acquitted. That may result in prosecutors being more reluctant to bring prosecutions if they feared the cost consequences. Cases that are properly brought can end in an acquittal. Even those cases that are dropped before the trial begins may well be properly started. Although the decision to prosecute anyone should not be taken lightly, I suspect that nobody in the House would wish prosecutions to be brought only if there was an absolute certainty of success.[Official Report, 4 February 2013, Vol. 558, c. 1MC.]

However, in the event that a judge or magistrates thought that the prosecution had been wholly inappropriate, they would have enormously wide discretion in how to deal with the matter, including the possibility of ordering a prosecutor to pay the defendants’ costs out of their own pocket. Or on a conviction—as happened in the Heythrop case—they have the power to say that only a small part of the costs should be paid by the defendant, and the rest has to be borne by the RSPCA itself. It is a matter for the court’s judgment.

Finally, I have been asked whether Her Majesty’s Crown Prosecution Service inspectorate could review the work of the RSPCA. That produces quite a big problem. The HMCPSI exists to review prosecution arms of the state. Applying that to a private prosecution would, I think, be extremely difficult.