The RSPCA risks becoming a ‘political prosecutor’ rather than an animal welfare organisation, a senior Tory warned yesterday.
Sir Edward Garnier, the former solicitor general, said the costs of a recent case involving David Cameron’s local hunt were far too high.
And he called for the charity’s cases to be taken over by the Crown Prosecution Service.
MPs clashed over the the Heythrop hunt, which Prime Minister David Cameron has ridden with, after it was the subject of a £327,000 private prosecution by the RSPCA
The RSPCA prosecuted the Heythrop hunt in Oxfordshire last year at a cost of £327,000 following covert filming. The hunt was fined £4,000 after admitting four offences.
Although two of its members pleaded guilty and were fined, their supporters claimed the case was politically motivated to target the Prime Minister.
‘If they continue to prosecute at such huge expense in such a disproportionate way, they will be open to public criticism... by the judge, as they were, or by MPs, or by ordinary members of the public,’ Sir Edward said.
Speaking at a Westminster debate, he said the CPS would be more dispassionate.
He added: ‘This is not to say the RSPCA should not investigate, but it needs to be careful that it does not move away from being an animal welfare organisation and become a political campaigner, using the state prosecuting system as a weapon.’
The well-attended debate was triggered by Tory MP Simon Hart, a former head of the Countryside Alliance.
Former solicitor general Sir Edward Garnier warned the RSPCA would face more 'public criticism' if it pursued cases against hunts
He claims that the charity is pursing an ‘aggressive political agenda’ against pet owners which is ‘at odds with animal welfare’.
Pointedly avoiding the subject of hunting, Mr Hart called for ‘absolute clarity and accountability’ about the charity’s role as a prosecutor.
He said it pursued only ‘tantalising’ cases and that some defendants pleaded guilty because they feared crippling legal costs.
But Dominic Grieve, speaking for the Government, told MPs the charity had the right to bring private prosecutions and that it performed a ‘valuable role’ bringing cruelty cases which might otherwise go unprosecuted.
The Attorney General said the Crown Prosecution Service had the power to take over RSPCA cases, or stop them if they do not meet standards for evidence or public interest.
Mr Grieve said this had happened in only four of the thousands of cases the charity has brought.
The RSPCA says it spends £5million a year prosecuting cruelty cases, which it insists accounts for just 5p in every pound donated.
It said the prosecutions department was independent of its campaigning work and that it had a 98 per cent success rate in cases.
Mr Hart, MP for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, said the RSPCA was ‘not an arm of the law’ and claimed its relationship with police in offering to investigate such cases was ‘deeply troubling and part of the problem’.
But Paul Flynn, Labour MP for Newport West, accused Mr Hart of representing the ‘hunting lobby’ and trying to help ‘rich, powerful Tories’ break the law.
Cheryl Gillan, until recently Mr Cameron’s Welsh Secretary, praised a £2.3million prosecution that the RSPCA brought in her Buckinghamshire constituency.