Tensions within the Cabinet over human rights were laid bare yesterday as the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, openly mocked a claim by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, that an illegal immigrant had avoided deportation because of his pet cat.
Minutes after Ms May's speech at the Tory conference in Manchester, Mr Clarke challenged his colleague to a bet over the facts of the case. To compound Ms May's embarrassment, the judiciary also contradicted her version of events, insisting that the Bolivian man's cat had no bearing on his fight to remain in Britain. She had won applause as she announced that she was tightening immigration rules because of perverse interpretations of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is enshrined in British law in the Human Rights Act.
The Home Secretary listed cases in which she claimed criminals and illegal immigrants had fought deportation on the grounds that it would breach their right to a settled family life. Her examples included the "illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had pet cat". At a fringe meeting shortly afterwards, Mr Clarke said: "I'll have a small bet with her that nobody has ever been refused deportation on the grounds of the ownership as a cat."
He added: "Any such case is nothing to do with the Human Rights Act and nothing to do with the European Convention on Human Rights."
The controversy centres on a successful attempt by a Bolivian man to resist deportation, in which he presented ownership of a cat named Maya as part of his evidence that he and his partner had enjoyed a settled life for four years. The case was seized on by tabloid newspapers as evidence of the idiocies of the Human Rights Act. The Judicial Office, which represents senior judges, yesterday reissued a statement from the time of the original row, insisting: "The cat had nothing to do with the decision."
Last night, a spokeswoman for Ms May said the fact that the cat was even mentioned in court underlined the need to clarify the interpretation of human rights legislation in immigration cases.
The future of the Human Rights Act, brought in by Labour in 1998, is developing into a major fault-line between the Coalition partners. Most Tories want it scrapped and the party is likely to promise abolition in its next election manifesto. The Liberal Democrats – backed by Mr Clarke – are adamant that it should remain. Only two weeks ago, Nick Clegg told the party conference: "Let me say something really clear about the Human Rights Act. In fact, I will do it in words of one syllable – it is here to stay."