The RSPCA should set up an oversight group to scrutinise its private prosecutions and should consider pursuing fewer cases against hunts and animal sanctuaries, an independent review has concluded.
The animal charity last year commissioned Stephen Wooler, a former chief inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service, to carry out a review of its private prosecutions after sustained criticism of its work in some right-wing newspapers.
The review, published this week, says that despite "extensive criticism" in the media, the charity makes a major contribution to animal welfare and enjoys substantial public support.
But it says there are "significant weaknesses", and its prosecution role has "failed to develop to accord with contemporary expectations of transparency and accountability".
"It therefore needs to adapt," the report says.
It says the charity’s role in relation to enforcement of animal welfare law is "insufficiently defined for it to develop an effective enforcement strategy".
The report says that the charity might need to curtail some of its prosecution activity if it is to avoid conflict with its commercial and campaigning activities.
"Specifically, these would relate to cases involving animal sanctuaries and rehoming centres; cases relating to organisations that have a commercial relationship with the RSPCA and some hunting cases," it says.
The charity attracted criticism after it spent more than £320,000 on the successful prosecution of the Heythrop Hunt in Oxfordshire. Wooler’s report says the action was appropriate but far too expensive.
The report says the charity should set up an oversight committee to strengthen accountability. The group could include the charity’s chief legal officer, two members of the RSPCA council and two external members with relevant professional experience, such as a lawyer and a vet, the report suggests.
In its response to the review, the RSPCA said it would discuss the recommendation of an oversight group with the Charity Commission.
Mike Tomlinson, chair of the RSPCA, said the charity accepted the need to adapt.
"The RSPCA’s next step will be to discuss the outcome of the review with other key players in enforcement of animal welfare legislation, such as the government and other statutory enforcement bodies, to develop a more clearly defined strategy for the enforcement of animal welfare legislation," he said. "Steps are also being considered to improve the society’s complaints procedure to improve transparency and accountability."
Tomlinson said that hunting prosecutions were a "tiny part" of the charity’s enforcement work "but this review provides an ideal opportunity to look at the way we handle such cases and to make any necessary adjustments".
"Significantly, the review found that the RSPCA’s prosecution of the Heythrop Hunt had been appropriately brought and was not politically motivated," he said. "We accept the criticism that the costs of that case were much too high and have implemented lessons learned in subsequent cases."