We would prefer you didn’t publish that,” said the spokesman for the RSPCA. “But of course it’s up to you.” Well, so it is, and so I will. What he would prefer you not to know is this. Despite its adoption of police-style uniforms and marks of rank, the RSPCA has no legal right of entry to your home. It is a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Nevertheless, it seems to like what it sees in the mirror. Though it insists it does not actively encourage people to believe it has powers of entry and arrest – “We would never try to mislead anyone,” says the man – neither does it try very hard to put the canard to rest. “It helps us to be able to get in there and have a look.”
[snipped to relevant paragraphs for the sake of brevity the full article is here Invasion of privacy ]
It would be hard to think of a charity that stirs more controversy than the RSPCA. Whole websites are dedicated to it, smarting with injustice, bristling fur balls of virtual rage. The webmasters are not frustrated badger-baiters, dog-eaters or seal-clubbers thirsting for blood. They are animal lovers in the full, mildly eccentric British tradition of enjoying the company of other species rather more than their own, and placing animal welfare at the top of the moral pyramid. But it’s “welfare” that is the problem. Welfarists believe they have a duty of care to wild, domestic and companion animals, which, crudely put, means treating them kindly. Against this school of thought stands the rights movement, which rejects human exploitation of animals in all its forms: as meat, pet, workhorse, laboratory tool, racer, fighter, public exhibit, performer or quarry in the hunt. It is towards this school of thought that the RSPCA, amid much well-publicised clamour, has shifted its ground. This places in the front line every cat- and dog-owner but especially pet shops, a point made clear by the RSPCA in a letter to local authorities in 1999. “The RSPCA,” it said bluntly, “is opposed to the sale of animals in pet shops.” It is this demonisation of the trade, and what critics regard as the harassment of individuals, that has done more than anything to widen the rift. Any allegation of cruelty by one person against another is likely to result in the appearance of a police lookalike demanding to inspect or even seize their animals. Widespread misunderstanding of the Animal Welfare Act means that many pet-owners do indeed believe RSPCA inspectors have the power to do this. It is a misapprehension that the organisation finds convenient and which it seems in no hurry to correct. As the spokesman said, “We would prefer you didn’t publish that.”
It is a position that many might applaud. Legal nicety versus relief of animal suffering? It’s a no-brainer. But it’s not always as simple as that. Conflict arises because the police, who do have bona-fide powers of entry, have neither the resources nor the expertise to enforce the act. For this reason, says Chris Newman, chairman of the Federation of Companion Animal Societies, enforcement defaults to the RSPCA. “They impersonate police officers and commit trespass. People do believe they have powers of entry.”
Nigel Weller, a solicitor based in Lewes who specialises in defending RSPCA prosecutions, puts it more strongly: “In every single case I’ve been involved in, they have abused their power.” Often, he says, the RSPCA ask police to attend, ostensibly to avoid a breach of the peace. “Then they argue it was a police officer, acting legally, who seized property, when in fact it was the RSPCA.” As RSPCA prosecutions are brought privately and do not require the sanction of the Crown Prosecution Service, this raises issues both of accountability and conflict of interest.
Sally Case, head of prosecutions, insists that RSPCA inspectors are trained specifically to make clear to pet-owners that they have no such right. They act without an owner’s permission, she says, “only if an animal is suffering in a dire emergency. If the court feels evidence has been wrongly obtained, it can refuse to admit it”.