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Depending on your appallingly bad pun of choice, Home Secretary Theresa May variously let the cat out of the bag, set the cat among the pigeons, or caused a cat-astrophe at this week’s Conservative party conference. For those of you who managed to avoid the cat fight, May called for the Human Rights Act to be scrapped for allowing (among other bleeding-heart-liberal disasters) an illegal immigrant to escape deportation for the sake of his pet cat.

Depending on your appallingly bad pun of choice, Home Secretary Theresa May variously let the cat out of the bag, set the cat among the pigeons, or caused a cat-astrophe at this week’s Conservative party conference. For those of you who managed to avoid the cat fight, May called for the Human Rights Act to be scrapped for allowing (among other bleeding-heart-liberal disasters) an illegal immigrant to escape deportation for the sake of his pet cat.

Setting aside the fact that this case had been overturned because the Home Office had mistakenly failed to apply its own policy concerning the unmarried partners of UK residents, May’s example says more about her government’s own misunderstandings than it does about judicial ‘misinterpretation’ of the law.

May promises to do everything in her power to ‘restore sanity to our immigration system’ by ensuring that ‘when [foreign criminals or illegal immigrants] should be removed, they will be removed’. She fails to recognise that, far from being insane, this is exactly what UK immigration law is set up to do.  Where deportation does not infringe an individual’s basic human rights, UK officials can – and frequently do – send illegal immigrants, foreign criminals and refused asylum seekers home.

In situations where deportation does interfere with a basic human right – such as the right to privacy and family life protected under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act – the Supreme Court has the authority to declare this deportation incompatible with the UK’s human rights obligations. This is neither a ‘perversion’ nor an ‘abuse’ of justice but merely the judicial recognition of the role of rights as ‘trumps’  that protect the fundamental interests of often vulnerable or marginalised individuals against collective, non-rights related interests such as preserving a British way of life or increasing national wealth. 

May also argues that the ‘problem’ of human rights ‘lies mainly in British courts’. She cleverly sidesteps the fact that the UK is obliged, as a state party to the European Convention on Human Rights, active member of the European community and staunch critic of human rights violators abroad, to fulfil certain key obligations under international law – including incorporating the Convention’s provisions into domestic law. Were cases such as the cat-owning immigrant’s not decided in British courts, they would ultimately be decided in the European Court of Human Rights. The Human Rights Act is not some liberal project dreamt up by ‘left-wing elites’ but the domestic implementation of an internationally ratified, regionally binding instrument of law.

Finally, May also mysteriously fails to mention that the Human Rights Act does little to challenge the long-standing British tradition of Parliamentary sovereignty. Judges have the power to declare a piece of legislation incompatible with the government’s obligations under the Act, but the final decision about whether or how to act on this declaration always rests with Parliament.

Maybe next time May will try to get her facts straight before cat-egorically misleading the British public. Groan.

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