Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Teresa May sets cat among the pigeons

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.


Andrew said...

Amnesty International have set up a facebook page: Human Rights Cat

Graeme said...

The idea that the Human Rights Act stops the government from doing *anything* is a total nonsense as long as Parliamentary sovereignty remains. They could sanction absolutely any course of action they pleased in contravention of the parts of the ECHR to which we are a signatory simply by legislating for it by Act of Parliament. All that would happen is they'd face rulings from the Strasbourg court for non compliance and be compelled to pay damages in just satisfaction to victims of breaches.

Doing anything to the Human Rights Act (from substantial amendment to repeal) doesn't change that. No. Their real desire is withdrawal from our international obligations under the ECHR, the very rights drafted by, well, British constitutionalists! It would see us be so retrograde as to be lumped into the same category as Belarus, the last European dictatorship, in the human rights stakes, and would see us less willing to regard these rights as important as those bastions of democracy in Russia and Turkey.

It's just total nonsense.

Andrew said...

Well, exactly Graeme. There is no need to repeal the HRA in order to make amendments to immigration law. Obviously May's real agenda is to undermine public faith in the ECHR and fabricate its supposed effects to win popular support for withdrawal.

The Tory logic doesn't stand up to scrutiny when compared with the evidence and experience from other EU member states. As you say, total nonsense.

I wrote this largely because the temptation to go for the easy laugh at the expense of the Home Secretary was too great, but as you point out there is a dangerous Tory agenda behind this which must be challenged.

Voicegig said...

Read Teresa May's full remarks to the Conservative Party for free at Voicegig

Anonymous said...

is that your cat??? looks a wee bit like a scottish wild cat.

Richard T said...

Just as we were thinking Ms May was outwith the usual run of Home Secretaries, Labour and Tory, she uses a piece of dishonest rhetoric to place her securely with Blunkett, Straw and Howard. I put it down to cynicism and a wish to appease the right wing Tories and no any genine belief.

Andrew said...

Martin Shapland has written a particularly good piece on Total Politics:

Andrew said...

You're absolutely right Richard.

I was chatting with a Green activist on twitter last night who blamed the Liberal Democrats for allowing the Conservatives into government and by implication also allowing such attacks on the Human Rights Act.

If we weren't propping them up, went his argument, they wouldn't be in governemnt. I pointed out that the Tories woudl still be in government because the electorate made them the largest party. They'd just be a minority government, free from the moderating influence of a minor partner.

The second thing I pointed out is that the government has absolutely no intention of allowing the HRA to be repealed or even significantly reviewed. This was Teresa May simply preaching to the converted, a misguided mission to appease her party's right-wing and convince them that Nick Clegg isn't (as Nadine Dorries thinks) leading the government. Her speech was designed simply to keep the more unsavoury elements of her party onside.

No, there's no genuine belief behind it - which in a sense makes it all the more irresponsible and unforgivable.