How can anyone take Home Secretary Teresa May seriously?
It's hard enough to accept that the Home Secretary appears to have declared war on the Human Rights Act. Worse still, she appears to have fallen into the same trap as the Daily Mail and The Sun in associating the Human Rights Act with a supposed myriads of illegal immigrants who have misused it to extend their stay in the UK.
Ms May says the Human Rights Act "needs to go". Well, something certainly does. I'm just not in agreement with her that it's the legislation.
Addressing the Conservative Party Conference today Ms May took the predictable populist and right-wing approach, blaming the Human Rights Act for the non-removal of immigrants and vowing to amend immigration law to ensure that "misinterpretation" of the right to family life didn't result in illegal immigrants outstaying their welcome. Why it was necessary to remove the protections enshrined within the Human Rights Act (which can not actually be done without negating Britain's obligation to incorporate the European Convention of Human Rights into UK law) in addition to adapting immigration policy Ms May didn't say. It didn't seem to matter to the party faithful in any case.
Neither did Ms May reveal that only a tiny number - a little over 100 - illegal immigrants have used the Human Rights Act to remain in the UK. Many of these are people who genuinely have either strong family connections here or face potential persecution if they return home. But the Home Secretary did draw our attention to the curious case of Maya the cat which she cited as merely one example of the ridiculous unintended consequences of Human Rights legislation.
"We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act... about the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because, and I am not making this up, he had a pet cat." Yes, we all know stories - many of them fabricated or fantasy. Just like this one. Unfortunately, in spite of her protestations to the contrary, it seems that Ms May was, in fact, making it up. Within minutes the UK's best investigative journalists were able to establish that the decision made in this case by the Royal Courts of Justice had absolutely nothing to do with a cat and everything to do with the Home Office's inability to follow its own rules in relation to unmarried couples.
I can only imagine why someone of Ms May's supposed experience and expertise thinks that relationships with pets should have some bearing on immigration status. I should state here that my pet cat is a Bengal...perhaps that entitles me to an Indian passport?
Fortunately, not only journalists have been on hand to ridicule the Home Secretary's unwise intervention. Justice Secretary Ken Clarke bluntly admitted that "I cannot believe anyone was refused deportation just because they owned a cat". He also added that "this certainly has nothing to do with the Human Rights Act and nothing to do with the European Convention on Human Rights...I think it is a good idea that we remain adhering to the Convention on Human Rights and the cases are heard here by British judges." Tellingly he advised the BBC that Ms May had not in fact discussed any potential change to immigration law with him and that under existing arrangements any claim made to avoid deportation must be "extremely compelling".
Amnesty International have also hit out, branding Ms May "misinformed" and arguing her speech fuelled "myths and misconceptions". The Cat Society of Great Britain has yet to comment but as a lover of our feline friends I am personally outraged that cats are the latest in a long line of innocents to be blamed for the state of the country. It is a ludicrous situation that someone as senior as the Home Secretary can make such a mockery of her own position and the status of her office with a fabricated story about a cat. Firstly, the poor cat deserves better than to be the object of derision at Tory Party conference. Secondly, Ms May's researchers should be given their P45s.
This threatens to undermine David Cameron's attempts to portray his party and modernising and progressive, while reinforcing May's own assessment of the Conservatives as "the nasty party". Quite frankly, May looks ridiculous and so does her party.
However, this episode demonstrates there is a clear need for Liberal Democrats and other progressively minded politicians to both challenge the Tories' negative and misinformed opposition to the Human Rights Act while actively championing the principles enshrined within it. There is a great deal of public ignorance about both immigration and the impact of human rights legislation which, it seems, includes the Home Secretary. What is needed is a drive to promote the Human Rights Act, explaining its importance as a cornerstone of a tolerant, non-discriminatory society in which human rights apply to everyone equally.
We can laugh at Teresa May. Personally, I pity her: it must be difficult to sustain such an illogical worldview. However, the stark reality is that there are many people who believe the very myths she herself has perpetuated and reinforced - myths that must be broken and shattered if we are to move towards a more inclusive Britain.
Defending the Human Rights Act is the responsibility of all of us who care deeply and passionately about basic freedoms. However, while Ken Clarke's and Amnesty International's responses to Ms May's comments have injected some sanity into the conversation, there can be no escaping that senior Liberal Democrats, especially Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander, must become more adept at challenging illiberal and thoughtless proposals from their Tory counterparts.