The depth of divisions at the heart of Government over the Human Rights Act were exposed today, after Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke flatly dismissed a call from Home Secretary Theresa May for it to be repealed.
Mrs May won a standing ovation at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester today after telling party activists that the Act "needs to go" to restore "sanity" to the UK's ability to deport foreign nationals.
She said she was planning to change the rules which prevented the deportation of some prisoners on human rights grounds, and sparked audible gasps from the audience as she reeled off a list of cases of offenders who could not be deported because it would breach their right to a family life.
"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," said Mrs May.
But Mr Clarke said such cases had "nothing to do with the Human Rights Act" and cast doubt over whether they were all genuine.
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.
Speaking in a meeting hosted by the Telegraph on the fringe of the conference, Mr Clarke said: "She has given her opinion. We all have our opinions. It is not my opinion, as it happens.
"I have never had a conversation on the subject with Theresa. I shall have to look into these strange cases she is throwing out. They are British cases and British judges she is complaining about and I can't believe that anybody has had deportation refused on the basis of owning a cat.
"I will have a small bet with her that nobody has ever been refused deportation on the grounds of a cat ... Certainly it has nothing to do with the Human Rights Act and nothing to do with the European Convention on Human Rights."
Mr Clarke suggested that some of the cases which Mrs May complained about may be down to misinterpretation of the rules by immigration officers and said he would be "quite content" for her to make changes to their procedures.
But he added: "If you repeal the Human Rights Act, all the cases go back to Strasbourg and 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."
Referring to the case involving the cat, a Judicial Office spokeswoman 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 - the cat had nothing to do with the decision."
Ms May was pressed about the accuracy of her account of the case in an interview with BBC Radio 4's World at One.
She responded: "Of course the things I said in my speech were checked before they went in my speech but... 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'."
Mr Clarke told ITV News that he expected to win any bet with the Home Secretary over the cat case: "I heard Theresa refer to it and I sat there with a Victor Meldrew reaction. I thought: 'I can't believe it'."
In her keynote speech to the conference, Mrs May said that problems were caused by "misinterpretation" of provisions in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. The first sentence of the article states that everyone has "the right to respect for his private and family life", while the second allows the authorities to over-ride this right on certain grounds, including to uphold public safety and prevent crime.
"The right to a family life is not an absolute right and it must not be used to drive a coach and horses through our immigration system," said Mrs May.
"The meaning of Article 8 should no longer be perverted. So I will write it into our immigration rules that when foreign nationals are convicted of a criminal offence or breach our immigration laws, when they should be removed, they will be removed."
And she added: "I remain of the view that the Human Rights Act needs to go."
And she said that the UK authorities must not be "constrained from removing foreign nationals who, in all sanity, should have no right to be here".
But Mr Clarke told the fringe meeting that Mrs May had made clear that "there is nothing wrong with Article 8 if you read it all".
He added: "She says British courts have been paying too much attention to the first half and not enough attention to the second half. If she is able to alter the immigration rules, that's fine. I'm quite content with that."
The Justice Secretary defended the Human Rights Act and the European Convention, which he said were rooted in a long British tradition dating back for centuries.
"The British are great believers in human rights. We invented the idea. It goes back to Magna Carta," he said.
"We have lectured the world on human rights and the human rights that British authors put in the European Convention are things that matter to us - the rules against torture and against someone losing their liberty without proper process of law."
The Human Rights Act introduced by Labour in 1998 incorporated fundamental rights enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law.
The Conservatives promised in their manifesto at the last election that they would replace it with a British Bill of Rights, but this is opposed by their Liberal Democrat coalition partners. Shortly after the election last May, it was announced that a commission would review the working of the Act.
Mr Clarke today said that human rights issues were "bandied about in an extraordinary way" in the current debate over the retention of the Human Rights Act.
"Human rights are very important - we fought a war over human rights," he said. "What we don't want is trivialising of it in debate and trivial use of it in minor decisions, including by immigration officials, if that is what they are actually doing."
He added: "I will find out from Theresa what these examples are that have upset her and I will probably find that she agrees with me that it is a piece of misinterpretation of the Act which is giving the whole thing a bad reputation.
"We should be in fact in favour of human rights and individual liberties in the modern world, not in any way resiling from this country's traditional support for it."
Civil liberties group Liberty said that the cat case involved a Bolivian man who had come to the UK as a student and was seeking the right to remain in the UK and believed he should be given credit for living in a settled partnership for four years.
Joint ownership of a cat was one of the details provided by the couple to prove that their relationship was genuine.
Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti said: "I had thought rather better of this Home Secretary than her dog-whistle conference speech today. It is dangerously unbecoming of a Cabinet Minister to misrepresent court judgments - especially where her own department conceded this case on appeal.
"No one got to stay because of a cat. She well knows that the Human Rights Act leaves the last word on immigration control to Parliament.
"Perhaps tomorrow the Prime Minister will explain how he is going to scrap the HRA without ceding more decisions to European judges in Strasbourg."
Liberty released polling data suggesting that an overwhelming majority of voters (93%) think it is important that there is a law to protect rights and freedoms in Britain.
In the ComRes poll of 1,007 adults, taken on September 20 and 21, 95% said that respect for privacy and family life was vital or important, while 96% said the same about the right to a fair trial and 90% about the right not to be tortured or degraded.
"Why put your party at odds with 93% of people who value human rights protection in this country?" asked Ms Chakrabarti.
But Sir Andrew Green, chairman of campaign group Migration Watch UK, backed the Home Secretary.
Sir Andrew said: "At last some common sense on human rights. All strength to her arm."
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