Scaremongering about immigration and human rights is popular among UK politicians. So it was not surprising when Home Secretary Theresa May tried to exploit fears and prejudices on these topics at the annual conference of the Conservative Party (the dominant partner in the ruling coalition). But her speech did not go quite as planned.
On 4 October 2011, she launched a verbal attack on the Human Rights Act, set out plans to alter immigration rules to prevent "misinterpretation" of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights – the right to family life. “We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act... The illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat.”
But it was a made-up story. Her colleague, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke, was quick to express scepticism about her claim. The judicial communications office, which represents senior judges, insisted the tale was not true and said it had told the Home Office as much.
Journalists were quick to uncover the reality of what happened. A Bolivian student has lived with his British partner for four years. But the Home Office tried to deport him, contrary to its own immigration rules on unmarried couples. Judges overturned the decision on appeal. During the case, his lawyers pointed out that the couple had a committed relationship, and mentioned that they shared a cat. The pet was not the reason that he was allowed to stay.
May might not have been deliberately lying, rather repeating one of the myths peddled in sections of the press to try to discredit laws protecting ordinary people from abuses of power. On this occasion, it seems as if this might have backfired, as top politicians ‘let the cat out of the bag’ about their cavalier attitude to facts. Perhaps more members of the public will look sceptically at other claims made by government ministers about those facing intensified hardship as a result of state policies, such as welfare benefit claimants.
In a report following an inquiry on human rights, the Equality and Human Rights Commission gave examples of ‘Everyday situations in which the Human Rights Act might apply’, such as ‘Abuse or neglect of older, those who are learning disabled or other vulnerable people (Articles 2 and 3)’, ‘Loss of personal data by public officials
(Article 8)’ and ‘Refusal to allow people to attend a demonstration (Articles 10 and 11)’.
Many churches and other faith groups, humanist and atheist groups have spoken out over the years in defence of human rights principles. The British Humanist Association, to its credit, has publicly criticised the Home Secretary’s recent attacks on the Human Rights Act. Other belief-based movements should perhaps do more to educate their members about the ethical basis of human rights measures and what these mean in practice, so that misinformation can be more widely challenged.
© Savi Hensman works in the care and equalities sector. An Ekklesia associate, she is a widely published Christian commentator on political and social issues.