‘Catgate’ and the threat to the UK Human Rights Act

By Kate Donald

Last week, the Conservative party conference seized the headlines in the UK when a dispute erupted between two government ministers over a cat. So-called ‘catgate’ (a.k.a. ‘catflap’, ‘catgate’, etc.) was extremely revealing, not only with regard to rifts in the cabinet, but also the way human rights are depicted in the UK media, and viewed by the governing Conservative party.

To explain briefly, ‘catgate’ occurred when the Home Secretary (in charge of internal affairs, policing, immigration, national security), Theresa May said in her conference speech that the UK Human Rights Act had to be scrapped, partly so “the right to a family life” (Article 8, European Convention on Human Rights, which the HRA incorporated into domestic legislation) could not be used by ‘criminals’ to avoid deportation.
“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.”

This was rightly criticised by Ken Clarke, the Justice Minister, who said the claim about the pet cat was "laughable and childlike". Cue Tory infighting. Ludicrously, Clarke was eventually forced to apologise to May, even though her ‘story’ about the pet cat proved to be just that. “I am not making this up”, she had claimed; but unfortunately, someone else had.

The pet cat story had first appeared in stories in the tabloid media in 2009, with inflammatory headlines along the lines of “immigrant allowed to stay because of pet cat”. Of course, the real story was much less headline-worthy. The immigrant in question, a Bolivian man, was in fact granted leave to remain in the UK due to a long-term relationship with his partner. The cat, which they co-owned, was presented as a small part of the evidence of the seriousness of their relationship. [For more detailed information on the case and analysis of catflap, see here and here.] However, unfortunately, this is a just one example of many in terms of media misreporting (either through guile or ignorance) about the Human Rights Act, and indicative of the negative way that human rights are portrayed in the tabloid and right-leaning media and the public discourse in general in the UK, increasingly as an ‘us against them’ issue. Human rights are portrayed as only protecting ‘them’ – illegal immigrants who are not deported despite committing crimes, prisoners who may be allowed to vote, or are allowed to watch violent porn in their cells (another popular falsehood), all because of their precious human rights. The Human Rights Futures project at the LSE has done some interesting work on this, and last year presented a report to the UK Bill of Rights Commission on Human Rights Act reporting in the media.

In terms of the Tory party, first of all it is worrying that the Home Secretary’s staff are willing to rely on lurid tabloid headlines without feeling the need to run any fact checks before the minister uses them in a high-profile speech. Clearly, such a sensationalist claim was felt a worthwhile rabble-rouser/vote-winner because of the populist, misinformed, media-stoked public antipathy towards the Human Rights Act and the European Convention in the UK presently. But yet more worryingly, May’s speech and the ensuing furore, culminating in a reproach of a fellow minister who dared to question her (incorrect) claim and defend the Human Rights Act, speaks to the steady movement of the Tory party into opposition to the European Court, the European Convention, and the Human Rights Act. May’s claim was made in the context of a speech in which she promised to reduce immigration through ‘tough new rules”, and scrap the Human Rights Act entirely, replacing it with a British “Bill of Rights”. This is by no means a minority view within the Conservative Party; stemming from long-term opposition to ‘Europe’ and immigration, based largely on the view that immigrants either steal British jobs, or don’t work at all and just come to milk our welfare system, dilute British identity and culture, and commit crime. (The link between cutting immigration and cutting crime was explicitly made in May’s speech.) Ken Clarke is, thankfully, joined by some other conservative and Conservative voices speaking in defence of the HRA, but they are increasingly isolated. Sadly, it seems that public opinion is following this trend; solidarity is weakening by the day in the UK (see the vitriol spouted about the working class rioters, and the eviction notices served on their families) with large sections of the media stoking anti-immigrant sentiment and with the financial crisis providing justification for swingeing cuts in welfare and public services. It is vital that progressive voices within the UK speak up to educate the media, the public and politicians about human rights, and to defend their essential relevance to the lives of all in the UK and abroad.

About the Author:

 Kate Donald is Research Fellow at the International Council on Human Rights Policy.

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