Home Secretary caught in a catflap over Human Rights Act

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by a Newsnet reporter

Home Secretary Theresa May thought she was playing to the home crowd at the Conservative party conference when she made her remark about an illegal immigrant allegedly being permitted to remain in the UK because he owned a cat.  However last night her comments had exposed divisions within the heart of the Conservative leadership when she was derided by fellow Conservative Justice Secretary Ken Clarke.

The Home Secretary devoted much of her speech to attacking the Human Rights Act, which incorporates into English and Scots law much of the European Convention on Human Rights to which the UK is a signatory.  Many in the Conservative party wish the UK to withdraw from this commitment, which obliges all EU members to uphold a high standard of respect for human rights.

Ms May claimed that the Act prevented the removal from the UK of illegal migrants and foreign nationals who had been convicted of crimes.  Ms May told the conference she would introduce changes to immigration rules which would restrict the ability of illegal immigrants and foreign criminals to resist deportation by citing the right to a family life protected under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.

To loud cheers from the Tory crowd at conference, Ms May said: “We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act.  The violent drug dealer who cannot be sent home because his daughter – for whom he pays no maintenance – lives here.  The robber who cannot be removed because he has a girlfriend.  The illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat.”

However it later transpired that although Ms May may not have been making it up, she had failed to vet the cat case to which she referred.  In a rebuttal hurriedly issued by the Judicial Communications Office, which represents senior judges, it was pointed out that in this particular case the appellant was permitted to remain in the UK because the Home Office, which Ms May heads, had failed to apply its own policies correctly.  The Judical Office categorically denied that the man had been given leave to remain in the UK on the basis of ownership of a pet cat.  The statement added that it was “dangerously unbecoming” of Ms May to cite this example in support of her argument.  

The statement from the Judicial Office said:  “This was a case in which the Home Office conceded that they had mistakenly failed to apply their own policy – applying at that time to that appellant – for dealing with unmarried partners of people settled in the UK.  That was the basis for the decision to uphold the original tribunal decision [to allow the appellant to remain in the UK] – the cat had nothing to do with the decision.”

The cat, called Maya, had been mentioned in the judge’s summing up of the case as “further evidence” that the appellant had formed a stable personal life with his British partner.

Speaking to the media after a Telegraph fringe event at the Conservative conference, Mr Clarke criticised Ms May saying:  “They are British cases and British judges she is complaining about.  I cannot believe anybody has ever had deportation refused on the basis of owning a cat.  I’ll have a small bet with her that nobody has ever been refused deportation on the grounds of the ownership of a cat.”

Mr Clarke added that the problem with the Human Rights Act was the way in which it was “misrepresented” and “trivialised” saying:  “I’ll probably find she agrees with me on these daft misinterpretations of the act which are giving the whole thing a bad reputation.”

Downing Street last night said that Ms May enjoyed the Prime Minister’s full support and that he “really liked” Ms May’s proposals to change Article 8 of the Human Rights Act.  

Speaking to the Guardian newspaper, a “friend of Clarke” said: “That statement [from the Judicial Office] is really serious.  That is the authentic voice of the judiciary.  We have a situation where the home secretary – the home secretary – has made a mistake on a basic point.  The Home Office are going bananas because they know Theresa made a mistake.”