The RSPCA should step back from bringing private criminal prosecutions and only pursue them in exceptional circumstances, MPs on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee have recommended.
But the animal welfare charity has insisted it will continue to take animal abusers to court, saying almost nine out of 10 members of the public agree with its strategy.
The recommendation came in the committee’s report, published today, after a 10-month inquiry into the welfare of domestic pets, which also looked at licensing systems for pet breeders and the welfare impact of selling pets online.
The report recommends the RSPCA should continue to investigate animal welfare cases, working closely with the police, but should "withdraw from acting as a prosecutor of first resort where there are statutory bodies with a duty to carry out this role".
But it says the RSPCA "should retain the ability to bring private prosecutions where it reasonably believes that there is no statutory alternative and where such a prosecution would further its charitable objectives".
Instead, it suggested the government should amend legislation to make the RSPCA into a Specialist Reporting Authority, which would investigate and report alleged criminal activity to the authorities, but would leave the decision about whether to take a case forward to the Crown Prosecution Service.
But the recommendation was criticised by committee member Angela Smith, the Labour MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, who released a statement this morning describing it as an "unwarranted attack" on the RSPCA and something risked overshadowing the other recommendations in the report.
"The recommendations are to some extent reckless, because there is no other body with the resources, experience and the expertise necessary to take on this important role," she said.
She said the recommendation’s inclusion in the report was "deeply disappointing and surprising" because few of the witnesses the committee had heard from had supported it.
In 2015, the RSPCA secured convictions against 796 defendants for cruelty using private criminal prosecutions, a 92 per cent success rate.
But it has faced accusations in some sections of the media of being overzealous in its handling of some cases of alleged domestic animal cruelty, which has damaged the charity’s reputation, the report says.
Jeremy Cooper, chief executive of the RSPCA, said the report was overall very sensible with progressive measures that would improve animal welfare, but said the charity would continue its prosecution work.
"Our research shows that 89 per cent of the general public back our prosecutions work and they will be confused why a small number of MPs would suggest stopping the RSPCA carrying out a role which we are very good at and which is paid for by public donations rather than out of taxes," he said.
He said the recommendation "flies in the face" of the majority of evidence the committee had seen.
Other animal welfare charities have expressed support for the RSPCA’s prosecution work.
A joint statement from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, the Blue Cross, Cats Protection, Dogs Trust and the PDSA said: "Animal welfare organisations see terrible examples of animal cruelty on a depressingly frequent basis and, as a result, we place great value on the work that the RSPCA undertakes to secure prosecutions under the Animal Welfare Act.
"We would reject any move to reduce the charity’s powers to bring the perpetrators of this cruelty to justice."
A CPS spokesman said it would handle any cases referred by the police or other law enforcement agencies but any proposed change the legislation was an issue for government.