Home Secretary Triggers Row Over 'Catgate'

Theresa May has triggered a row on alleged abuses of the Human Rights Act by claiming an illegal immigrant could not be deported because he owned a cat.

The Home Secretary addressed the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, saying immigration laws will be toughened up to prevent foreign criminals using human rights arguments to escape deportation from the UK.

She drew gasps from delegates when she reeled off an example of an illegal immigrant who could not deported because he had a pet cat.

But Mrs May was later pressed on the accuracy of the claim, telling Sky News: "Of course the things I said in my speech were checked before they went in my speech.

"But, you would expect me to say to you here on air that, if somebody has said that there is a different situation then obviously we will look at the quote that has come out and have another look at the case.

"I know though that this is just one example of a number of cases where people have looked at what has happened and said to themselves 'you know what, here's a foreign criminal who can't be deported, the rights of that individual are being put above the rights of other people'."

A spokesperson for the Judicial Office later said the decision not to deport the man had "nothing to do" with his cat.

"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," she said.

"That was the basis for the decision to uphold the original tribunal decision - the cat had nothing to do with the decision."

Mrs May's calls for the Act to be repealed have flatly dismissed by the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke.

He said such cases of an illegal immigrant being allowed to stay in the country because they had a cat had "nothing to do with the Human Rights Act".

He offered to have a bet with Mrs May that no individual had ever escaped deportation because of ownership of a cat and he condemned the "trivialisation" of human rights issues which, he said, were very important to British people.

Theresa May announced she wants to alter the law to end the practice as soon as possible.

She told delegates the right to a private and family life must be balanced against the wider public interest.

Mrs May expanded on remarks she made to a newspaper at the weekend, which set her on a collision course with others in the Coalition.

"I'd personally like to see the Human Rights Act go because I think we have some problems with it," she said.

"I see it, here in the Home Office, particularly, the sort of problems we have in being unable to deport people who perhaps are terrorist suspects.

"Obviously we've seen it with some foreign criminals who are in the UK."

Some people facing deportation have argued they have the right to remain in the UK under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

But in her speech, Mrs May argued that the rule allows for national security, public safety and the protection of others to be taken into account.

The Home Secretary said secondary legislation - a tweak to existing laws - should be introduced in the Commons as soon as possible.

But she said the Coalition agreement stood in the way of scrapping the Human Rights Act entirely.

"I've made absolutely clear what my own position is, what I believe about the Human Rights Act, it's the position the Conservative Party took before the election, but of course we're in a coaltion. 

"The two parties in the coalition, what we have agreed to do is to set up a commission, which has been set up to look at a British Bill of Rights.

"That is doing its work now and it will report to the end of next year. 

"What I'm saying is there are some areas where we need to do something, we need to do it now, and it is government policy, we are agreed that we should do this; change the immigration rules this ability to balance wider public interest against the individual's right to a private life."

Her tone differs markedly to that used by Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg at his party's conference last month.

He told Liberal Democrat voters the Human Rights Act was not under threat and was "here to stay".

Any change is set to be opposed by human rights campaigners. 

Liberty policy adviser Tara Lyle said: "It is a shame that the Home Secretary has added to the myths and misunderstandings that abound about the Human Rights Act, as opposed to clearing them up.

"That someone in Theresa May's position can be so misinformed as to parade out a story about someone being allowed to stay in Britain because of a cat, is nothing short of alarming. She urgently needs to get her facts straight."