Saturday, August 17, 2013

Enquiry into the RSPCA? - Part 10: Rights or Welfare?

"Who can dispute the inhumanity of the sport of hunting, of pursuing a poor, defenceless creature for mere amusement, till it becomes exhausted by terror and fatigue...?"
Lewis Gompertz, co-founder of the SPCA.

"Nothing is more notorious than that it is not only useless, but dangerous, to poor suffering animals, to reprove their oppressors, or to threaten them with punishment. The general answer, with the addition of bitter oaths and increased cruelty, is, What is that to you?—If the offender be a servant, he curses you, and asks if you are his master? and if he be the master himself, he tells you that the animal is his own. Every one of your lordships must have witnessed scenes like this. A noble duke, whom I do not see in his place, told me only two days ago, that he had lately received this very answer. The validity of this most infamous and stupid defence arises from that defect in the law which I seek to remedy. Animals are considered as property only: to destroy or to abuse them, from malice to the proprietor, or with an intention injurious to his interest in them, is criminal; but the animals themselves are without protection; the law regards them not substantively; they have no rights!
... their rights, subservient as they are, ought to be as sacred as our own. And although certainly, my lords, there can be no law for man in that respect, but such as he makes for himself, yet I cannot conceive any thing more sublime, or interesting, more grateful to heaven, or more beneficial to the world, than to see such a spontaneous restraint imposed by man upon himself." 
... even in struggles for human rights and privileges, sincere and laudable as they occasionally may have been, all human rights and privileges have been trampled upon, by barbarities far more shocking than those of the most barbarous nations, because they have not merely extinguished natural unconnected life, but have destroyed (I trust only for a season) the social happiness and independence of mankind, raising up tyrants to oppress them all in the end, by beginning with the oppression of each other. All this, my lords, has arisen from neglecting the cultivation of the moral sense, the best security of states, and the greatest consolation of the world." 

Thomas, Lord Erskine, CRUELTY TO ANIMALS BILL.

HL Deb 15 May 1809 vol 14 cc553-71
On the order of the day for the second reading of this Bill,
Lord Erskine

Erskine's original bill extended protection to all domestic animals (with an expressed hope that wild animals would also benefit from increased awareness of animal suffering). He further amended it to limit protection to working horses and oxen following objections at the committee stage but the amended bill also failed and animals did not receive legal protection until the success of Richard Martin's Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle Act in 1822. The infant SPCA which later became the RSPCA was founded by a group of men gathered together by the reverend Arthur Broome for the purpose of enforcing Martin's Act (just as today the Hunting Act serves no purpose without enforcement).

At its inception the RSPCA was primarily about securing rights for animals—something that was probably more straightforward at a time when there was fairly universal agreement that all humans have rights but that all humans do not have the same rights. Erskine is quite clear that rights are things which are conferred by legal agreements, not truths that can somehow be discovered and he doesn't find any difficulty in believing that animals should have some rights but not identical ones to the rights which ought to be given to humans.

Many of the activities of the early society are familiar from the work of today's RSPCA—for example the training of magistrates.

Welfare work came later; initially mainly educational, for example publication of advice for horse owners and drivers and promotion of quick-release harness that would enable a fallen horse to be disengaged from a vehicle and allowed to stand.

Campaigning activities continued throughout the period which is sometimes held up as a golden age in which the RSPCA confined its activities to practical welfare work and prosecutions (or, depending on your point of view, a disgracefully stagnant period in which the Society hindered the work of more progressive organisations.)

Examples of this include the introduction of humane stunning in abattoirs, restrictions on the use of stray dogs in experimentation and greater protection for sea-birds.

What an enquiry might comment

The RSPCA has been involved in lobbying Parliament for animal protection measures and in enforcing protection legislation since its inception, and before charitable bodies were regulated by the Charity Commission. Under current Charity Commission rules, charities may take part in lobbying and provision of advice to MPs provided this is done for the promotion of their charitable objects and provided lobbying and campaigning is not party political and does not involve expressing an opinion of the relative merits of the different parties.

There appears to be a confusion which has caused animal welfare and animal rights to be discussed as though these were opposites (with further confusion because Singer, the most prominent advocate of philosophical interest in the moral status of animals does not believe in rights at all as he is a utilitarian.) This is rather as though someone were to argue that it is incorrect for a country to possess a judiciary or a police force as well as a health service and there can be no possible objection to the RSPCA continuing to promote scholarly discussion about the correct principles on which we should make decisions about animals as well as promoting enforcement of existing laws, improvement of these laws where needed and practical welfare provision such as animal homes and hospitals.

It may be that the lobby in favour of repeal of the hunting act is sufficiently powerful to threaten the RSPCA's ability to provide the practical welfare services which are by far the  most expensive element of its work. 

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Updating our Burleigh Street shop

Jenny Eden and Teresa spent most of today working on the new layout at Burleigh Street. I joined them after work and it was nearly 10 pm when we finished. We were nearly crippled by then, but as you can see, the final result is very pleasing and hopefully it will help us to raise more funds for local animals. 

We also shipped across a van-load of excellent donated stock collected at our Mill Road shop so we'll be opening again tomorrow with lots of fresh bargains and more will be going out over the next few weeks.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Enquiry into the RSPCA? - Part 9: other rescues

"The owner of an animal sanctuary was warned yesterday that she could be jailed after pleading guilty to 24 charges of animal cruelty, after one of the biggest investigations ever taken on by the RSPCA.
Anne Stott, 56, admitted causing unnecessary suffering after inspectors from the RSPCA found 140 dead dogs, cats, ferrets and a fox at her Crewe Animal Rescue Centre in Cheshire and in two lock-up garages.
They found another 20 animals alive but suffering from dehydration.
Magistrates in Crewe were told that some of the animals were pets taken to the centre by people who thought they would be looked after with care.
It appeared that Stott had put down animals entrusted to the sanctuary and stored their bodies in bin liners.
Inspectors went to the centre in Edleston Road - two flats over the charity shop which Stott used for fund-raising - last May after a caller said a dog was trapped inside in temperatures of up to 37C (99F).
A veterinary surgeon who examined the animal corpses said some were so decomposed that it was impossible to identify the exact cause of death."

One situation in which the RSPCA has to act is where rescues have "gone bad"—usually because the people running them have become so overwhelmed that they cease to have any appreciation of the animals' needs.

When this happens it is a tragedy for the sanctuary owners and puts a great strain on RSPCA resources because of the sheer numbers of animals who may need to be taken in.

What an enquiry might comment

Rescues (including the RSPCA's own branches) are under constant pressure to accept more animals, putting them at risk of entering a downward spiral in which the owners are so exhausted that it becomes easier to agree to take animals than to refuse, in spite of being unable to care for the ones they already have. The existence of the RSPCA inspectorate as an external body which can enforce acceptable standards provides an essential safeguard of the welfare of rescued animals but is understandably resented by many rescue owners who are at the end of their tether.

This situation has not been helped by some organisations using RSPCA prosecutions of failing rescues as another opportunity to attack the society and to create fear that there is an intentional policy to "take out the competition".

It might be beneficial for the RSPCA to attempt some outreach to small rescues firstly to reassure them that there is no intent to force them out and secondly to educate them about the potential risks of becoming overwhelmed (and indeed the value of being able to tell anyone who complains when they  refuse to take in more animals that they are acting on RSPCA advice to limit numbers to a level that they can cope with).

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Enquiry into the RSPCA? - Part 8: prosecution?

Unlike Australian RSPCA inspectors who are sworn as special constables and have powers equivalent to police officers, the RSPCA in England and Wales makes use only of legal powers which are available to any citizen.

There is little controversy over RSPCA prosecutions of acts of sadistic cruelty but much more disagreement over cases of neglect and the enforcement of the Hunting Act. 

In neglect cases the main cause for concern is that many people reported to the RSPCA for suspected cruelty are not deliberately cruel but have a mental abnormality which means they are unable to provide proper care for their animals.

The vast majority of neglect reports are dealt with by the RSPCA providing advice and support, including practical help such as neutering vouchers and veterinary treatment. In 2012 (most recent figures available) the RSPCA provided welfare improvement advice in 78,090 cases but only sent forward 2,093 cases for possible prosecution (2.6% of the 80,183 cases where any action was felt needed). 

The main point of prosecutions from an animal welfare point of view is firstly to obtain a court's instructions that the animals in question are relinquished for rehoming and secondly to ensure that people who are likely to re-offend are disqualified from keeping animals. This second function means that animals can be removed immediately if they are acquired by someone who is the subject of a disqualification order.

Currently the RSPCA forwards details of successful welfare prosecutions for inclusion in the Police National Computer records and has a service agreement with PNC to receive details of past convictions (which might be by other agencies such as Trading Standards) when court cases are commenced. This does not at any stage involve direct RSPCA access to the PNC.

What an enquiry might comment

Animal welfare is an emotive subject and there are legitimate concerns about high profile cases where individuals with mental disabilities are exposed to public hatred. Unless there were to be a policy of not prosecuting such people at all, this concern would not be addressed by transferring prosecutions from the RSPCA to the police as cases would remain of great interest to the media. 

Allowing animals to be removed without any legal scrutiny if an owner has a disability, is potentially much more discriminatory than the current situation.  As the major concern is the publicity surrounding neglect cases rather than the prosecutions themselves, a better solution might be to tackle this by introducing protection against naming of disabled defendants similar to the protection given to child defendants.

It might be helpful if the RSPCA were to record statistics showing the proportion of disabled people in the advice/support and prosecution categories respectively.

It has been estimated that around 90% of the prison population have some kind of mental impairment and that around 40% of those with a learning difficulty are unable to have their children living with them. It would be unreasonable to expect the RSPCA to reverse these trends in the case of dependent animals. However it would be a cause for concern if the RSPCA was less successful than the police in resolving neglect cases without the need for prosecution.

Once an RSPCA investigation has reached a point at which the police need to be involved there may be a feeling that the situation is now on a "conveyor-belt" to prosecution and can no longer be resolved by negotiation. It might be helpful to have discussions between the local police and inspectorate team to agree working practices which would leave the individual inspectors more lee-way to give animal owners another chance to rectify the situation without feeling they were wasting police time.

Preventing collation of criminal records  in the PNC would make it more difficult for the police to identify breaches of animal keeper disqualifications when visiting properties for non-RSPCA related reasons.

If, at some future date, the RSPCA were to announce that its prosecution role had become untenable due to organised campaigns by certain sectors, it is difficult to predict the likely outcome. However one possibility is that the police and CPS might feel under pressure to bring cases which the RSPCA would not in fact have prosecuted, rather than risk creating an impression that some people are above the law.

Enquiry into the RSPCA? - Part 7: the branches

Originally the link between the National (or Central) RSPCA and its branches was simple: each branch raised the funds needed to pay the wages of an inspector who would be trained centrally (to ensure consistency) and deployed to cover the branch area. Branches were required to raise at least 2 years funds and transfer them to the National RSPCA before they could affiliate and be given an inspector. This ensured that there would be a reasonably steady cash flow so an inspector could be confident of being paid.

As life moved on and the National Society built up more funding, the link between a branch's "quota" payment and employment of the inspectors gradually became more tenuous. The RSPCA gradually took on extra functions beyond campaigns and prosecutions, such as animal rehoming, veterinary treatment, pet neutering and so on. 

In the very early days, much of this extra activity was done by the inspectors (or their wives!) in their own homes and branch activity moved forward with the concept of their rôle of supporting the inspectorate being expanded to the provision of local welfare services which would reduce the workload of the inspector. 

Some branches took a very active part in driving forward change — for example Bath and District Branch was the first branch to adopt a policy that they would not put down healthy animals and would take in all unclaimed dogs from their local pound for rehoming (in 1955).

This additional workload gradually became a higher proportion of branch activity and the relationship between branches and employment of the inspectors weakened because it was more efficient to organise inspectorate work without reference to artificial geographical boundaries. As a consequence, branches who were struggling to meet all the calls on their resources began to resent the "quota" payment. At this time the Society as a whole was becoming more and more under pressure in relation to the hunting question and branch volunteers were sometimes very aggressively challenged to explain why they were unable to fund unlimited local services, often by people who assumed these services were all funded by the Central RSPCA and that the volunteers were themselves being paid and benefiting personally from money raised by a branch.

It gradually became obvious that a payment sufficient to cover the salary of two inspectors per branch area would leave most branches with little scope to handle their other responsibilities in respect of animals taken into RSPCA care by the inspector and that the issue was damaging relations between branch committees and the Society. The problem was finally solved by de-linking the quota payment from the inspectorate and introducing a sliding scale so that branches were required to contribute based on the levels of their uncommitted reserves. Funds raised from branch contributions are now ploughed back into regional funds to be spent on joint projects agreed between branches in a region and are no longer part of the general revenue of the Central RSPCA.

At present, branches receive a yearly grant of around £20,000 from the Central RSPCA in addition to a share of the subscriptions paid by RSPCA members living within the branch area.

Once telephone ownership became virtually universal the volume of phone calls to the society became such that it was not longer reasonable to expect them to be handled by a combination of branch volunteers and inspectors' spouses. First local, then regional and finally a national call centre was set up by the Central RSPCA to receive and triage calls about animals in distress.

A side effect of this was that larger numbers of injured strays and wildlife could be brought to the attention of the Society. Initially the Central Society assumed that this would fall under the existing remit of the branches to provide care for animals within their areas. However this proved to be impossible and the current position is that the Central RSPCA has an agreement with vets that it will provide up to £60 towards first aid so that branch volunteers do not need to be contactable 24/7 and can have uninterrupted rest at night.

What an enquiry might comment

The RSPCA is almost unique in the scale of its volunteer involvement. This is probably a major reason why it is able to achieve such low euthanasia rates but the negative side of this is some degree of inefficiency as a result of committees knowing their own patch but sometimes being unaware of the wider picture.

Branches are independent charities although they are governed by general society rules and some of them have turnovers approaching a million pounds p.a. This means the individual branch committees have a daunting task and a considerable amount of support is needed from the parent society when a committee consists mainly of newly recruited individuals. Consequently the amount actually spent by the society on support to branches is in fact considerably greater than the funds spent on grant aid.

Support is primarily given by the Branch Support Specialists whose rôles are subject to a degree of tension in that they are employed by the National society to support trustees of the independent affiliated charities and this may involve a degree of conflict if the interests of the National Society, a branch as a legal entity, the branch trustees as individuals and the local animals as beneficiaries are not fully aligned.

It may not be ideal if trained volunteer managers are recruited as Branch Support Specialists because of the importance of branch trustees being able to debate and act with some degree of independence from the National Society. This is less likely if their relationship with the link person "feels" like that between a manager and the group of volunteers who are to be managed.

It would make sense for the Central RSPCA and the branches to produce an agreed statement of the true financial relationship between them. Currently this is used as a weapon against the RSPCA, with claims  in the media that the branches have to pay large sums to the Central RSPCA while getting no funding from it for practical animal welfare work (and also that the Central RSPCA itself does no practical work). Branches may feel under pressure because they are accused of making a personal profit from their volunteer work and unintentionally contribute to the media attacks by issuing statements saying that their work is not funded by the Central RSPCA.