Exclusive British animal welfare charity the RSPCA enjoys unique access to confidential information on the Police National Computer (PNC) - the extent of which has not been disclosed before.
Civilians who claim to work for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals can access criminal records and carry out vehicle checks by making requests to the Association of Chief Police Officers Criminal Records Office (ACRO), which charges the charity for the information.
It's an unusual arrangement because the RSPCA can gain access to an individual's full criminal history (from warnings and reprimands to convictions), details of upcoming prosecutions, and "other information as deemed relevant by ACRO".
Police information may only be disclosed to "non statutory bodies" under strict criteria: each individual disclosure must be proportionate and necessary for the purpose for which it is being shared. Blanket disclosures are not legal.
The RSPCA is widely believed to have special powers to prosecute individuals - but it has none, and instead relies solely on common law rights. It does however have a large financial war chest to take out private prosecutions.
Although the number of animal cruelty investigations has fallen in recent years the charity has arguably used these resources much more aggressively. And it's claimed the taxpayer has footed the RSPCA's court prosecution legal bills - even when the charity failed to proves its case or the action was withdrawn.
The anti-cruelty organisation agrees to only request information about people it is actively investigating; to treat the data as restricted; and to handle it according to government guidelines – i.e. deleting it when it is no longer needed. In addition, the Leveson inquiry into press ethics published a Police National Computer User Manual [PDF, 618 pages] that specifically states the auditing requirements (paragraph 12.4, page 83) for sensitive information.
So where's the audit? Who's checking this? The answer, a series of Freedom of Information requests have established, is "nobody".
The RSPCA has not been audited by ACRO to establish whether it's following these obligations. For its part, the RSPCA does not need to disclose what information it uses or how, nor what auditing and training procedures it uses, since it is not a "public authority" under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act. The RSPCA therefore appears to inhabit a legal twilight zone, beyond the reach of scrutiny.
Freedom of Information (FOI) requests have teased out the service-level agreement (SLA) [PDF, 18 pages, easy read] between the police and the charity - as a response to this request [PDF]. It's lightly redacted (the cost to the RSPCA of police information is blanked) and the FOI requests confirm that ACPO has no record of auditing the charity.
The police are keen to throw a further cloak over its relationship with the animal protectors - as evidenced in this response, where the plod refer to an as-yet unfinished “national protocol” for dealing with the RSPCA.
The Home Office - in response to this [PDF] information request - confirmed it knows nothing about the legal basis of the agreement - while the Information Commissioner has never been challenged on the legality of the arrangement.
A cross-party group of MPs has called for an investigation of the RSPCA by the Charity Commission. ®