It’s been the battle of the kitten heels vs the Hush Puppies this week as Theresa May, the home secretary, and Ken Clarke, the justice secretary, went head to head in a Human Rights Act-related skirmish over a Bolivian student and his cat.

Those who know me personally will know why I’m not a huge fan of feline related omni-shambles right now but the wrangle over a pet cat isn’t just a political story with the added bonus of pictures of cute kittens. The row over the cat has a deeper agenda.

Let’s get the boring stuff out of the way. Theresa May was wrong. And no, having the Daily Mail on side doesn’t change that fact. Let’s not forget the Mail is the paper that published that Amanda Knox was guilty of murder on appeal and fabricated quotes to back it up - and I’m not making that one up…

The Bolivian student whose visa had expired (not illegal immigrant as Theresa May said in her speech) was allowed to stay not because of article eight of the Human Rights Act – the right to a private family life – but, as the solicitor representing the man in question notes because of Home Office rules that allowed someone to remain in the country if they had been in a relationship for at least two years without deportation action – in the final hearing the government barrister even conceded the Home Office had got it wrong.

In short, the Home Office screwed up. Using the Human Rights Act as an excuse is political cowardice.

There is a hidden agenda behind this battle. It’s Europe, its immigration and its populism. That’s why the vitriol from the right against the Europhile and broadly liberal Ken Clarke has been so visceral, with Conservative Home http://conservativehome.blogs.com/thetorydiary/2011/10/ken-clarke-should-be-sacked-for-his-renewed-attack-on-theresa-may.html, and Philip Davies MP, executive member of the 1922 Committee, calling for the veteran cabinet minister to be sacked.

You see the Conservatives aren’t necessarily against the idea of human rights. The difference in terms of rights between the Human Rights Act and a British Bill of Rights would, I’m happy to wager, be minimal. The reason for the fuss is simply down to a Home Secretary dog whistling to the anti-Europe, anti-immigration, Conservative base.

The Conservative right don’t like Europe, with its fine cuisine, efficient public services and decent weather. This isn’t news, but they really don’t like the idea of a European Convention on Human Rights coming over here and giving us rights.

Except the Human Rights Act is a check on the power of the executive. When the Home Secretary goes on about wanting to deport ‘people who perhaps are terrorist suspects’ I’m reminded of the last government's use of extraordinary rendition that allowed suspects, many of whom were innocent, to be smuggled out of the country and tortured in the name of intelligence gathering. I'm glad she finds the act problematic in those circumstances.

Often, where the government says it has problems with immigration, it’s because the Home Office have got its own rules wrong as with the case of the Bolivian, or because it doesn’t agree with a decision arrived at by a court. However, just because the immigration minister disagrees with an immigration tribunal doesn’t mean the minister is right. Home Office decisions can often be wrong in law, excessive in pursuit or lack common sense. It's right that there is a legal system to give oversight. 

The problem is not the Human Rights Act. Why shouldn’t all humans, not a select few as defined by politicians, have the right to life and liberty and freedom from torture, degrading treatment, slavery and forced labour? The problems arise when politicians seek to make issues political footballs to pander to their own side’s prejudices.

The law works – ministers coming up with infantile excuses or blaming Brussels may play well to the gallery but it’s not going to change a thing on the ground, and will only stoke up anti-immigrant feelings that have their own ramifications.

If Theresa May is serious about cracking down on illegal immigration and sorting out our asylum system then she’d beter crack on in making sure a five-year backlog that lost track of nearly 100,000 applicants doesn’t reoccur. She’d get a grip on proper border controls and speed up the decision making process so people aren’t left destitute, in some cases for decades, rather than blaming Europe.

It doesn’t get a laugh in the conference hall and it might not help her gain favour with the rabid right wing in a future leadership contest but it will fix the problem long-term and its what she’s paid to do.

The curious case of the Bolivian and his cat has done nothing but draw attention to the fact that the Home Office waited four years before realising that someone’s right to remain had expired before going through the costly process of trial and appeal, despite forgetting its own policy prevented that. Theresa May would do well to never mention it again.

Tags: Asylum, Catgate, Home Office, Immigration, Theresa May