Westminster Hall Speech on RSPCA Private Prosecutions

Emily Thornberry (Islington South and Finsbury) (Lab):

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 course 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.

Jim Shannon:

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.

Emily Thornberry:

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.

Alison Seabeck:

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.

Emily Thornberry:

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.


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