Animal Welfare Centres (Closure)

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:05 pm on 12th June 2003.

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Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 5:05 pm, 12th June 2003

The final item of business is a members' business debate on motion S2M-34, in the name of Shona Robison, on the closure of animal welfare centres.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament is concerned about the possible closure of at least seven of the 13 animal welfare centres across Scotland owing to financial difficulties being experienced by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA); believes that this would be detrimental to animal welfare; notes with relief that the SSPCA board of management has postponed making a final decision on the closures of the centres for a further six months, and considers that the Scottish Executive should hold urgent discussions with the SSPCA to try to find a way of keeping the animal welfare centres open.

Photo of Shona Robison Shona Robison Scottish National Party 5:12 pm, 12th June 2003

The debate is not about cute kittens and fluffy bunnies, although I might have a soft spot for both. It is about the hard realities of animal welfare provision in Scotland and how seriously the Parliament and Executive take animal welfare.

The Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is facing a financial crisis that is not of its own making but is due to realities of the marketplace. The crisis arose because of a combination of rising costs, higher insurance costs after September 11, higher water and council tax charges, the loss of income from stock market investments and a deficit of £2 million in the society's pension fund that had to be made good to protect staff pensions.

Those are the facts and their impact will be immense. The SSPCA has already cut some of its services, including its 24-hour service that allowed animal emergencies to be reported at night. Many members will have received the same letter from the society that I received in March, which highlighted the further financial cuts that are under consideration. The letter proposed closure of seven out of 13 animal welfare centres, a reduction in the society's education department and a cut in the number of ambulance drivers. It is likely that there will be up to 60 redundancies.

It is fair to say that those proposals provoked a strong reaction from the public and from MSPs. That public pressure secured a stay of execution until October. We must use that time wisely in order to turn the situation around.

Members are concerned about the loss of their local centres and will no doubt want to say something about that during tonight's debate. The cross-party interest in doing something to save the animal welfare centres is a great strength of the campaign. I thank everyone across all the parties who signed my motion. I also pay tribute to the campaign that was launched by the Scottish Mirror newspaper to raise public awareness about the issue. However, let us be clear: if some form of assistance, even in the short term, is not forthcoming, there will be a serious reduction in animal welfare services in Scotland.

The work of the animal welfare centres is crucial in a number of ways. My own centre, at Petterden, just outside Dundee, is a good example. In the year ending 2002, the centre cared for 63 dogs, 51 of which were rehomed, and 156 cats, 134 of which were rehomed. A further 279 other animals were cared for at the centre. I was struck by the dedication of the staff who work at Petterden, many of whom have worked there for a great number of years.

Everyone locally knows where the centre is, and they go there if they are looking for a new pet, hence the good rehoming rates. People also know where to take injured animals, which they do frequently. The work that the centre does with local schools is important in teaching children how to be responsible and how to treat animals well. Last year across Scotland, nearly 28,000 pupils were taught about animal welfare by the SSPCA. Given the levels of animal cruelty in our society, we cannot underestimate the value of the work that is being done with children. Much of that local work is at risk if the animal welfare centres close.

The total running costs for Petterden are less than £80,000 a year, which does not seem much in the bigger scheme of things when we consider the work that it does, yet, in the current financial crisis, it is beyond the means of the SSPCA to continue with the centre. So what can be done? First, the public have a key role. In addition to the obvious way of giving support through donations, we need to ensure that donations go to the right place. Too often, donations are lost to Scotland as a result of confusion with the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which is a completely separate organisation. Recently, a legacy of £250,000 from a regular donor to the SSPCA was lost as a result of its being left, almost certainly in error, to the RSPCA. Members of the public need to know about that, and I support the awareness campaign that is being launched by the SSPCA. The public can do other things. For example, they can sponsor a space in an animal welfare centre, which I encourage them to do.

MSPs can help too, by putting pressure on the local authorities in their areas to enter into discussions with the SSPCA about the local services that they provide. As is often the case, there are 101 varieties of contracts and arrangements between the SSPCA and councils. Those discussions could centre on the varied and numerous statutory functions that the society performs, for which at present it gets little or no assistance from public funds.

The society has 58 uniformed inspectors who investigate alleged cruelty cases and report offences to the procurator fiscal. They carry out routine monitoring of animal premises, such as farms and pet shops. They are involved in incidents of neglect or disease on farms, and are trained in humane destruction techniques. They investigate cases of badger baiting, dog fighting, illegal snaring and much more. They also have to respond to calls from local authority departments to care for animals that have been left due to elderly people being unable to remain at home and to care for animals that have been left abandoned in empty houses, and to many other requests. It is fair to say that every local authority makes use of the society's services, but financial assistance is inconsistent and patchy. I hope that MSPs will use their influence to improve that situation.

All that will take time to take effect, though. The immediate crisis will require assistance from the Scottish Executive. This is not just a plea for funds—although it is a plea for funds—but a plea for recognition of the statutory functions that are performed by the SSPCA, and a test of how seriously the Executive takes animal welfare.

There is some confusion over which department has responsibility for animal welfare. It seems that the Minister for Environment and Rural Development has responsibility, but so do the Minister for Justice and the Minister for Finance and Public Services. That makes it difficult for negotiations to take place. That the society has been calling for the creation of an integrated animal welfare portfolio since 1999 is worthy of further consideration. The Executive must also recognise that some financial burdens that have contributed to the society's financial difficulties have originated from the Executive itself—increased water charges since the removal of charitable relief is a good example.

What I am asking for is simple: a commitment from the minister to meet the SSPCA to discuss ways in which assistance could be given to the society through a difficult period. There is light at the end of the tunnel. The society is working hard through fund-raising efforts to move forward, but a helping hand at this stage would allow it to get on to a more secure financial footing so that it can continue to provide Scotland with an animal welfare service of which we can be truly proud. I hope that the minister will listen to what is said in the debate and respond positively. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

We are pretty pressured for time and I am grateful that a couple of members have pulled out on that basis. If we keep to three minutes, I should be able to call all members who wish to speak.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour 5:21 pm, 12th June 2003

I thank Shona Robison for lodging the motion. The issue certainly caused a great deal of concern, and did so particularly at a difficult period during the election campaign. I am pleased with the efforts that have been made—Shona Robison mentioned the Scottish Mirror campaign, but there has also been action by the Transport and General Workers Union, of which I am a member, and MSPs. Such action has led to a reprieve from the board until October, for which we are thankful.

The SSPCA's work does not have to be highlighted. The society is involved in many areas other than animal welfare centres. I could mention inspectors, education, training, campaigns and so on, but the financial situation that Shona Robison spoke about is the key issue that we must consider.

So far, there has been no lack of effort in considering ways to get a funding package together. During the election campaign, I wrote to Ross Finnie and asked him whether he would be willing to consider how financial help could be given. To be fair to him, he said, rightly, that he had not been approached by the SSPCA at that time. I have also written to the Minister for Justice Cathy Jamieson and asked for what Shona Robison has asked for today—a meeting involving SSPCA representatives, the minister and her department to discuss ways forward. There have been several meetings in my locality in Stirling and the chief executive Ian Gardiner has been in attendance. Others—Jackie Baillie and no doubt Shona Robison in her area—have had meetings. Latterly, I chaired a meeting that brought together as many of the parties as possible, including the SSPCA and the Transport and General Workers Union—we hoped to get a member from the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities, but unfortunately they could not be there. The meeting was fruitful in considering the type of funding that we need to get together. Such funding would include, for example, lottery and European funding, funding for training, Scottish Executive funding—which has been mentioned—and local authority funding. I have also written to Stirling Council, which is willing to consider putting money into the local centre or the SSPCA.

That is the final point that I want to make, but we may have to address other issues. Perhaps one such issue would be some form of devolved management to local centres; many people are enthusiastic about giving money to their local centres, but sometimes do not like their money going into a main central pot.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative 5:24 pm, 12th June 2003

I should register an interest—there is an animal welfare centre in Ayr, which provides a good service. I think that the motion was originally entitled "Animal Welfare Centres", but I recognise that its implications go much deeper than that.

It came as something of a shock to me to find out that funding of the SSPCA is purely voluntary and that no Government money seems to be going into the organisation. I am not one to ask for Government money to be spent higgledy-piggledy, but the SSPCA provides a national service. The inspectors perform duties that I see as responsibilities of a Government that is committed to animal welfare. The Government has a responsibility to ensure that animal welfare is sustained at a high level in our country.

The issue goes even deeper than that. Cruelty to animals affects our society in the most hideous ways. Both young people and older people are responsible for it. The task of the inspectors is to create a bridge—to pull people back so that they recognise the problems that cruelty to animals creates. The inspectors provide vital services for which the Government has a responsibility.

Sylvia Jackson made a number of constructive proposals for alternative means of funding. I would like all those suggestions to be investigated. I would like the minister to say tonight that the Scottish Executive has a responsibility for this issue, as part of its justice remit, and perhaps to give the SSPCA some well-deserved relief.

Photo of Margaret Smith Margaret Smith Liberal Democrat 5:26 pm, 12th June 2003

I congratulate Shona Robison on securing this debate and thank her for bringing this issue before the chamber this evening. I am the constituency MSP for the headquarters of the SSPCA, but I know that the society has centres around the country and that a number of MSPs take an interest in this matter. MSPs from all parties, including Shona Robison, Sylvia Jackson and Jackie Baillie, have exerted considerable pressure to ensure that we deal with the funding crisis that the SSPCA faces at the moment.

It is welcome news that seven animal centres have been reprieved from closure. However, it is important that we use this debate as an opportunity to safeguard the longer-term funding of the SSPCA and to ensure that all the partners with which the SSPCA works on a regular basis are brought into the loop in the way in which Sylvia Jackson outlined, so that services are paid for by the people who ought to pay for them.

The SSPCA is central to animal welfare in Scotland. It receives 90,000 calls from the public, attends 40,000 incidents and conducts 9,500 investigations. It has already been said that its work is not about picking up cuddly little chicks and fluffy little bunnies. Rather, it is about dealing with serious incidents related to animal welfare—sharp-end stuff. It is about education in our schools and keeping people such as us informed on a range of animal issues that we are considering—for example, wildlife crime and animal cruelty. One of the SSPCA's most interesting roles in recent times was to highlight, through the first strike Scotland campaign, the link between cruelty to animals, cruelty to children and violence against other human beings.

The SSPCA works constantly with the police and local authorities. It is time for the Executive and local authorities to sit down with the SSPCA and to put costs against responses to calls from local authority social work departments, caring for animals when prisoners are on remand and working with housing departments when inspectors are called in to deal with animals that have been abandoned in empty houses. Our briefing paper indicates that those animals include snakes and spiders, as well as dogs and cats. We must start to quantify the cost of that work, which is being done in our communities and council areas on behalf of us all.

It is time that the SSPCA received some central Government funding to allow it to continue doing the great work that it does. I put on record my appreciation of the work that is done by the staff, volunteers and supporters of the SSPCA.

Photo of Andrew Welsh Andrew Welsh Scottish National Party 5:29 pm, 12th June 2003

I congratulate Shona Robison on her choice of debate tonight. The speeches that we have heard have shown the tremendous depth of support for and good will towards the SSPCA. I want to talk about a centre in my constituency, but what I will say could apply to every centre in Scotland, because we have come to expect the highest standards from them all.

Over many years, I have seen at first hand the tremendous work that is done at Petterden animal welfare centre and the range of animals that are looked after. I have witnessed the exceptional care that is offered to ensure that abandoned or injured animals are nursed back to health, that ill-treated and scared animals are nursed back to confidence and that animals are rehomed with care and sensitivity. Sharon Comrie and her staff deserve the highest praise for their work, which is a great asset to our community.

At this stage, I should perhaps declare an interest. My Jack Russell terrier, Sam, was abandoned when he was six weeks old. I found him as he was wandering in the countryside near the village of Arbuthnott in Kincardineshire. It was during an election campaign and I was on my way to a public meeting with Margaret Ewing—then MP, now MSP—the late Dr McCartney and his wife. In the middle of nowhere, we saw an object at the side of the road that turned out to be Sam. Of course, being politicians, we knocked at the nearest cottage door and asked whether the people there had lost a dog. The answer was no. After putting word around about the dog, we called in at the nearest police station. The police were helpful but were simply not equipped to cope with strays or abandoned animals. In this case, the animal, Sam, found a home with my family and is still alive and well 13 years later.

Without Petterden and similar establishments, the story for other lost, injured or abandoned animals would be different. My cat came from the Arbroath and district branch of Cats Protection and my other dog came from a local estate. My daughter's pony is now retired and pampered. I care deeply about the superb service that is offered by Petterden and other animal welfare centres. I urge everyone to give the maximum support to the SSPCA in its crucial work. If Petterden closes, there will be no major animal welfare centre in the north-east of Scotland. Sending animals in need to centres in Glasgow or Edinburgh is absurd and must not be allowed to happen.

The stock exchange will not always be in the doldrums and I hope that, with greater Scottish emphasis in the SSPCA's campaign, the charity will receive support. Scots should support their animal welfare organisation. I hope that this debate will generate some of that support and that the Scottish Executive will be able to play a part.

Photo of Shiona Baird Shiona Baird Green 5:32 pm, 12th June 2003

Obviously, Angus has produced some good MSPs, because three of us who all live close to Petterden have spoken. Like Mr Welsh, I have been the recipient of several rehomed animals—or perhaps I should say the ducks and geese that have taken up residence on our farm pond.

I was staggered to learn that Petterden is the only SSPCA centre in the north-east. Once it closes, there will be nothing. I could not believe that such a situation could have arisen in an organisation that has the word "Scottish" in its title. We cannot allow it to happen. The SSPCA is a Scottish society that represents all of Scotland.

Rather than closing centres, it should be opening centres further north.

I am relieved to hear that the inspectors' jobs are not at risk, but the planned redundancies of about 60 members of staff must be prevented. It was pointed out to me that, if the ambulance drivers become redundant, that would have an incredible knock-on effect on the replacement of inspectors. Ambulance drivers gain a great deal of experience in their time on the job and that allows them to move smoothly into the job of inspectors.

The wider role that the SSPCA provides in terms of the volunteering aspect of its work is never costed. Giving people the chance to feel that they are doing something useful with their spare time is extremely valuable. I wish that there was a mathematical way of showing the relationship between the boost to self-esteem engendered by volunteering and the lessening of demand on the national health service. If it were possible to cost that benefit, perhaps the support that we are asking for from the Executive would be offset.

The SSPCA does a lot of good educational work. All primary 4 pupils have been given a chance to learn about the activities of the charity. Furthermore, the centres provide useful work-experience opportunities. All that is provided free of charge. Therefore, that is another cost.

All those unsung aspects of the SSPCA's work, as well as its traditional role, must be supported and not allowed to fall by the wayside. I urge the Executive to consider an interim funding package to enable the SSPCA to continue in all its roles while it seeks ways of ensuring its future. Part of that money could be offset against the unemployment benefit that would have to be paid if there were any redundancies.

Photo of Jackie Baillie Jackie Baillie Labour 5:35 pm, 12th June 2003

Like other members, I congratulate Shona Robison on securing the debate. As the chamber knows, the news at the end of March about the proposal to close seven out of Scotland's 13 animal welfare centres caused considerable dismay in communities throughout Scotland. However, it is important for us to understand the context of the SSPCA's closures proposal. The charity had an operating deficit of £3 million pounds at the end of the year and a declining return on stock market investments, whose value has dropped over time from £20 million to less than £12 million.

I think that all members accept the need for financial stability in organisations. The SSPCA is no different from other organisations in that regard. However, there is perhaps an opportunity to look wider than the original remit that the board suggested—which was simply to consider cost- saving measures—to a view that would encompass thinking about how the SSPCA can maximise its income. Like other members, I am delighted that the board agreed at the end of April to consider that issue, as that has provided a six-month window of opportunity.

I, too, should perhaps declare an interest, because Milton animal welfare centre, which is one of the SSPCA's bigger facilities, is in my Dumbarton constituency. Milton, like the other centres, provides an essential and valuable service to a huge geographical area that covers Argyll and Bute as well as East and West Dunbartonshire. Milton provides a first-class service, working alongside local authorities, in rehousing abandoned and mistreated animals. I believe that about 16,000 such animals were cared for in 2002.

Like most voluntary organisations, Milton has several other strands to its work. Its education service, which was cited earlier, makes contact with about 28,000 children a year. It also provides vocational training for unemployed adults, which enables them to move into jobs. Another aspect of Milton—and, I assume, other such centres—is the critical support of volunteers. Hundreds of volunteers throughout Scotland—the young and the old, and the employed and the unemployed alike—assist not only with the work of the animal welfare centres, but with fundraising.

The centres are held in high regard. For example, in my local area alone 20,000-odd people signed a petition. That situation was replicated in other areas. There were also many spontaneous donations to centres. I, too, received an e-mail from a young primary school child, in which she asked whether she and her friends could assist with fundraising.

Members have made several suggestions. I want to focus on the role of the Scottish Executive, because I think that all members are clearly aware of the need to sustain animal welfare centres. I pay tribute to the Scottish Mirror newspaper for its campaign and to the Dumbarton and Vale of Leven Reporter, the Helensburgh Advertiser, the Lennox Herald and Castle Rock FM 103 for their support for Milton.

The situation is urgent and I know that MSPs will do all that they can to assist. However, a commitment from the Executive—from its voluntary issues unit or the Environment and Rural Affairs Department—will sustain an important service and allow us to have a discussion about its long-term stability.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram Scottish National Party 5:39 pm, 12th June 2003

I, too, add my congratulations to Shona Robison on securing the debate. Indeed, I thank other MSPs who have been active on the issue.

I am concerned in particular by the potential closure of the SSPCA's animal welfare centre in Ayr and the adverse impact that that would have on the charity's good work in Ayrshire; that good work goes some way towards salving our collective conscience about mistreatment of animals. If the mark of a civilised society is the way in which it treats animals, we have a long way to go to come up to scratch on stamping out cruelty.

The closure of animal welfare centres and the inevitable reduction of the good work that the SSPCA is able to do in our communities would surely be a significant retrograde step, which all members must strive to ensure does not happen. We would be failing in our duty to promote animal welfare if we allowed the good work and services of people such as the Ayr centre's Marion Heaney and her assistants to be dispensed with. The people of Ayrshire certainly think so, going by the massive response to a petition and campaign that was organised by the Ayrshire Post to support the SSPCA presence in Ayr. I commend the Ayrshire Post for its efforts and wish it every success in the fund-raising events that it is organising for the Glasgow fair fortnight.

The annual running costs of the Ayr animal welfare centre are a mere £38,000. I, for one, do not believe that such a sum could not be generated from within communities that are affected by the proposals.

I do not want to be critical of the SSPCA in the debate—we need to find solutions, not to apportion blame—but might I suggest that there should be an overhaul of marketing strategy? The SSPCA should consider the impact that local newspapers such as the Ayrshire Post have achieved in a short time. Surely the way forward is to build from the grass roots and make a concerted effort to remove the confusion between the SSPCA and the RSPCA in the public mind. That confusion has lasted for far too long and has cost animal welfare in Scotland far too much lost revenue. That needs to be tackled now. I also urge the minister to respond positively to the many requests for help that we have heard tonight.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP 5:41 pm, 12th June 2003

I thank Shona Robison for providing us with the opportunity to have this debate. It is genuinely a cross-party matter—I find myself agreeing with what Phil Gallie had to say and I will pick up on an important point that he made. Until the Scottish Mirror and the Transport and General Workers Union took up the campaign I, like Phil Gallie, had not understood that the SSPCA received no mainstream funding. I admit to my ignorance about that and must say that I find it sad that, in Scotland, we do not mainstream fund our animal welfare centres.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

I am not trying to target Tommy Sheridan. It could be—I think it is the case—that the SSPCA did not previously ask the Scottish Executive for money. It was quite happy with its funding situation.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

I agree—I was going to come on to that point, because part of my contribution to the debate is to support the campaign to save the animal welfare structure and services that we have.

As a Glasgow MSP, it would be remiss of me not to mention the Cardonald cat and dog home near where I was brought up, which provides an excellent service. There is no doubt about that, because I have had occasion to visit it on several occasions. It is sad, however, that when I leave I think that some of the animals will not find homes and that some of their lives will be terminated. However, the staff and volunteers do the best that can.

I must say to members that, given the conditions in, and the size of, the Cardonald cat and dog home, the idea that the services in other parts of the country can somehow or other be transferred there is absolute nonsense. I hope that that is borne in mind.

I congratulate the SSPCA on the work that it has been doing and I want to try to increase campaigning to ensure that none of the 13 animal welfare centres is closed, but I also wonder whether it is time for an overhaul of the structure of animal welfare services in Scotland. When we examine the £8.9 million running costs and the fact that 32 local authorities throughout Scotland rely on those services, we must ask whether, at a cost of £300,000 per local authority, we could consider centralised funding and running of this essential service. My worry is that the service is viewed as a distant service that is not part and parcel of our society because it is seen as a charitable service. It should not be a charitable service; it should be mainstream funded.

Whether the service is fully or half mainstream funded, £300,000 for each of the 32 local authorities would give the service about £10 million, which would allow it to investigate even more of the 70,000 calls that are received. I wonder whether a call to provide that money could generate support throughout Scotland and throughout the Parliament—I do not think that there would be political opposition to that proposal. Even Phil Gallie said that such services deserve at least some mainstream funding. I argue that we should consider restructuring the service as a whole, so why not agree as a Parliament to fund that?

Photo of Des McNulty Des McNulty Labour 5:45 pm, 12th June 2003

Like other speakers, I congratulate Shona Robison on securing the debate. There is widespread concern about the proposed closure of animal welfare centres. Jackie Baillie spoke about the closure of the Milton animal welfare centre, which serves not just the Dumbarton area but Argyll and Bute, the rest of West Dunbartonshire, including Clydebank, and all of East Dunbartonshire. Many people from my constituency and Dumbarton constituency have benefited from the centre's being there, and it would be a tragedy were it to close.

We should pay tribute to the many people in various parts of the country who have signed petitions on the issue and who have begun to pay attention to how the animal welfare centres can be saved. The Clydebank Post has run a campaign, and Jackie Baillie referred to the newspapers in her area. There is widespread public concern on the matter, and it is entirely right that we in the Parliament are discussing it and considering different approaches to securing the service that we have.

I take Tommy Sheridan's point that, in considering how we secure those services, we should not necessarily close our eyes to investigating ways in which the service can be improved or changed. We need to examine the financial circumstances as well as the animal welfare issues. We also need to assess the range of provision across geographical areas and gauge the appropriate balance to strike in order to meet the need that exists.

There needs to be an enhanced local dimension to the way in which the services are provided; I question whether the SSPCA has the balance right between its headquarters functions and the services that it provides locally. We should be trying to make it easier for people who wish to make donations to their local animal welfare centre to do so, with that funding not necessarily going into the organisation's larger pot.

There is an important role for the Scottish Executive to carry out along with the SSPCA and other organisations in identifying ways to improve the quality of fundraising and in managing the funds once they are gathered in. It is not necessarily the right solution for the Executive to assume the costs of providing the service; I think that the public are willing to make an increased contribution, as has been demonstrated through some of the campaigning that has taken place.

However, the Executive still has a strategic role in improving the way in which such organisations as the SSPCA gather funding and balance their funds between various activities. If it turns out that there are matters that the Executive should be examining, such as the question whether it should fund the SSPCA's headquarters function, it is only reasonable for the Executive to look into them.

Local authorities and interests should be given a greater role in assessing how local animal welfare centres can be secured. We have discussed the introduction of community planning; animal welfare services could benefit from community planning becoming a reality, with local interests and local authorities getting more involved in decision-making processes.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party 5:49 pm, 12th June 2003

It is appropriate that I am speaking at the tail-end of the debate. I am an incorrigible pet owner—I have had one dog and six cats in my adult lifetime. The only animal I purchased was the dog; the cats were either rescued or were literally left on the doorstep. Contrary to my image in here, I am a kind person and a responsible pet owner. As we know, unfortunately, many people are not. Sometimes I cannot bring myself to look at the pictures that are sent by the SSPCA and other animal welfare organisations. The cruelty shown to the animals concerned is just too horrific.

I put down a marker for Mellerstain in the Borders, the first SSPCA welfare centre, which was opened in 1992. It is a small place, but it is part of support services for animal welfare in the Borders. It supports the work of inspectors, so if it goes, there will be no central place for them. It takes in animals that are subject to cruelty and that are unwanted in the area.

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

I would love to, but I have only three minutes. Can I get a bit of extra time, Presiding Officer?

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

The member highlighted the fact that the centre that she mentioned is a small centre, similar to that in Stirling. Does she agree that there are issues with security cover in such centres?

Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

Yes, I know that there are issues to be considered in small centres. I was going to mention the fact that the manager at Mellerstain, a lovely lady called Mary Thomson, is not well just now and that means that the animals have had to be decanted elsewhere. That is unfortunate, but there is a dependence on one person at the centre.

It is dreadful that 4,500 animals have gone through the centre since 1992. The centre has a policy—as, I am thankful, have many—of not putting animals down just because they have nowhere to go. Some animals are difficult to rehome, because of the life that they have had.

I will finish with a little story, which cheered me up immensely. It just goes to show the little touches that there are in small centres. I was told the story of a dog that nobody would take, because it suffered from severe separation anxiety—I think I know the feeling. The centre eventually found someone to take it who suffered from agoraphobia—it was a marriage of animal and person made in heaven. It is those wee touches that make the small welfare centres worth while.

On a serious note, I support the mainstreaming of funding for the SSPCA. For goodness' sake let us educate people that an animal is not a thing; as they say, an animal is with you for the whole of its life.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour 5:52 pm, 12th June 2003

I will try to deal with the points that members have raised and I am happy to take interventions and questions on anything that is not covered in the Environment and Rural Affairs Department's notes.

I congratulate Shona Robison on bringing the matter to the Parliament's attention. The debate has helpfully drawn attention to the SSPCA's recent financial problems.

The SSPCA has a long history and a substantial annual budget. There is something in the British psyche or—I say this with due respect to the nationalists—the Scottish psyche, if there is such a thing, that says that animals should be cared for when they are injured or abandoned. Every member who has spoken tonight has said as much.

The SSPCA came into being without stimulation from central Government and, as Tommy Sheridan and others have said, continues to this day to provide a comprehensive range of animal welfare services without central support. The SSPCA has always been robustly independent of local and central Government. Through its inspectors, in particular, it makes a substantial contribution to the fight against cruelty to animals. With increasing evidence that cruelty to animals is an important predictor of violent and callous behaviour towards human beings, the influence of the SSPCA's work cannot be underestimated.

Shona Robison asked whether there was a test for the Scottish Executive and Tommy Sheridan asked whether it was time to consider animal welfare in its widest sense. If there is a test for the Executive, it is one that I would wish it to pass. Perhaps Tommy Sheridan is right that it is time to consider animal welfare in its widest sense.

This year we have joined our colleagues in UK departments in consulting on a more strategic approach to the welfare of animals that are kept by man. More recently, we circulated for consultation a draft protection of animals bill, which is designed to address the lack of power available to local authorities to remove livestock where necessary, for example.

We are concerned about the serious financial difficulties that prevail at the SSPCA, on which all members have commented. However, we are happy to note that the society has been able to defer closures of animal welfare centres for six months.

Photo of Phil Gallie Phil Gallie Conservative

I emphasise that I was not looking for a handout for the SSPCA in my earlier comments; I was looking for a payment. The SSPCA already has contracts with some local authorities to carry out certain statutory duties. That is what I envisage from the Scottish Executive.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

At this point, I should probably confess to not being an expert in the field, as I inherited the problem only recently. As I understand it, the SSPCA is not seeking a handout either. Local authorities have statutory responsibilities and must employ specialist staff. That applies especially to dogs, as others have mentioned.

At UK level, the Government has policies to ensure that the value of gifts—on which the SSPCA has been very reliant, historically—can be maximised. The society derives its principal income from public donations, subscriptions and legacies. The tax concessions that are available—which are a boon to all charities—enable those contributions to be maximised.

I share the concerns that have been expressed about the SSPCA's immediate situation, regardless of how it arose. I know that the society is looking hard at all the funding options. Many members—Sylvia Jackson, in particular—have engaged closely in discussions with the society on the options for maximising its income.

We understand that the society intends to make a further approach to the Executive for support. We would be happy to discuss funding issues with the society, but it must take the initiative. As the society is an independent body, it is not my job to manage its affairs.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour

A letter has been sent to Cathy Jamieson to ask whether she will liaise with the SSPCA, so I ask the minister to liaise with Cathy Jamieson.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

I will be happy to do that; I hope that we will be able to shortcut the process.

Photo of Tommy Sheridan Tommy Sheridan SSP

I appreciate that the minister cannot make commitments tonight, but is he open to the idea that, if the society's financial crisis becomes even more serious, the Executive has a responsibility on behalf of society to pick up that animal welfare provision?

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour

I accept the member's point. My only caveat is that we have not yet received a formal request. If and when we receive such a request, we will have to consider it in the context of other demands for support. I sought some advice about how many charities are involved in the field. In addition to the SSPCA, we have organisations such as the National Canine Defence League, the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals and the Edinburgh Dog and Cat Home; I could go on. As always, the situation is not as simple as we might expect.

We would have to consider funding support in the context of long-term sustainable recovery plans, which would involve giving due respect to the organisation in any discussions. As I have said, I would be happy to take part in such discussions.

I stress that the SSPCA decided to make an application for funding from the Executive only recently—we have not been sitting on an application, waiting for a response or twiddling our thumbs. We have still not received an application, although we have a letter from Sylvia Jackson.

The situation is developing. I know that the SSPCA has decided to launch a public appeal for funds and to investigate the possibility of securing funding from other sources. It is considering imposing charges on local authorities for services that, until now, it has provided free. All those developments are commendable actions that ought to be pursued.

Perhaps the best way forward, as has been suggested, is for the Executive and MSPs to work together with the SSPCA to devise a strategy for new income so that the charity can safeguard its independence, which it presumably cherishes. Such a strategy must offer a long-term sustainable future, so that we do not have to return to the same unhappy subject two years later.

It is probably premature to draw any dark conclusions from the situation. As has been said, the SSPCA still has £12.5 million or thereabouts in preserved assets and its inspection service is, I believe, unaffected by the proposals. The SSPCA is also a highly regarded organisation in the British and Scottish psyche. I presume that some operational adjustments will be necessary, but I understand that some of the smaller animal welfare centres that have been referred to have problems that are a bit more complex and which need more than simply additional resource. There is obviously a lot to be discussed. The Executive is concerned, but central funding per se may not be the sole answer.

Personally, I am in no doubt that the SSPCA will overcome its current problems and will prosper in the future. I give the assurance that every member has sought that the Executive will be pleased to sit down at the earliest opportunity with members and the society to discuss a sustainable long-term future for the service, which we all cherish and value and whose existence says something about us as a nation.

Meeting closed at 18:01.