CHARITY Commission is investigating a complaint that the
RSPCA’s anti-hunting campaign flouts the strict rules
on charities indulging in political activity.
The complaint was made by Lord Willoughby de Broke, a keen huntsman, and Sir Stanley Johnson, a conservationist and former MEP who now runs a United Nations programme to save great apes.
They claim that even if the commission decides the RSPCA is acting within its political rules, the Society’s anti-hunt campaign cannot be shown to further the RSPCA’s charitable purpose nor fulfil any of the legal criteria for ‘charitable activity’.
a letter to the chief commissioner, John Stokes, they said:
"In these two substantive respects the RSPCA’s
campaigning activities in support of a hunting ban may contravene
its charitable status."
John Rolls, the spokesman for the RSPCA, dismissed the complaint, saying it was a desperate attempt by the hunting lobby to stir things up.
"They are scratching around to cause a diversion when they have lost the argument and the Government is about to introduce a Bill to ban hunting with dogs," he said, seemingly to ignore the fact that there is no anti-hunting Bill currently under consideration by the Government.
A similar complaint by hunt supporters was rejected by the Charity Commission in 1999.
Mr Rolls said the commission had not yet contacted the RSPCA but added: "We really don’t have a problem and we are perfectly happy with our political campaigning and with our evidence to show that hunting is cruel.
"We will look at any complaint and wait to see what the commission wants from us."
Sir Stanley praised the RSPCA for much of its work but made clear the complaint raised serious issues for the RSPCA and other charities which were engaged in political lobbying.
He said he expected aggressive campaigning from the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the League Against Cruel Sports, which are partners of the RSPCA in the umbrella anti-hunt group the Campaign for the Protection of the Hunted Animal, "but they are not charities. The RSPCA is".
are all paying for its charitable status in the income the
Exchequer forgoes. It is a matter of great importance and
needs to be resolved," he said.
The letter to the commission alleges the RSPCA may be in breach of the rule which says "a charity may not undertake through an alliance, activities which it would be improper for it to undertake directly".
It also suggests the RSPCA may be in breach of guidance on political campaigning and refers the commission to a statement on the RSPCA website under the heading "Take Action".
A message on the website urges supporters to keep up pressure on MPs, to e-mail Tony Blair directly and to thank anti-hunt MPs for their support.
One of the commission’s rules states: "A charity must not provide supporters or members of the public with material specifically designed to underpin a party political campaign for or against a Government or particular MP."
Sir Stanley and Lord Willoughby de Broke argue that, as the Labour Government is now committed to a ban on hunting with dogs, "it is hard to see how the RSPCA’s appeal to the public to write to MPs is not specifically designed to underpin a party political campaign".
The Charity Commission confirmed a letter which raised concern over the RSPCA’s activities had been received. "We will give it our full consideration," said a spokesman.
"We have regular contact with the RSPCA’s trustees and have previously offered guidance on what sort of campaign activity is appropriate."