04/10/2011 16:34 BST | Updated 04/12/2011 10:12 GMT

Theresa May Causes Cabinet Debate Over Immigrant's Cat

Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke has questioned the accuracy of Home Secretary Theresa May's assertion that a convicted illegal immigrant successfully fought deportation on human rights grounds because he had a pet cat.

May said in a speech to the Conservative Party conference that the Human Rights Act "needs to go" because it prevented convicted foreign criminals from being deported.

Citing examples of ex-prisoners who could not be deported because of the way courts interpreted their rights to a family life, the home secretary said that the act was driving "a coach and horses through our immigration system".

She told delegates: "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."

The judiciary press office and the attorney general quickly rubbished May's claims, while Clarke challenged her to a bet that the cat example she cited had not happened.

The justice secretary told a conference fringe event hosted by the Daily Telegraph: "I've never had a conversation on the subject with Theresa, so I'd have to find out about these strange cases she is throwing out.

"They are British cases and British judges she is complaining about. I cannot believe anybody has ever had deportation refused on the basis of owning a cat. I'll have a small bet with her that nobody has ever been refused deportation on the grounds of the ownership of a cat."

Clarke said that he had not checked the examples she had given, but said he suspected if true they were the result of "misinterpretations" of the act and not the fault of the act itself.

"When I have found out from Theresa what these examples are that have upset her, I will probably find she agrees with me," he said. "It is these daft misinterpretations of the Act which are giving the whole thing a bad reputation, when we should be a force in favour of human rights and individual liberty."

The Home Office has defended May's statements, however, and in doing so quoted the judge in the cited case as saying: "The evidence concerning the joint acquisition of Maya [the cat] by the appellant and his partner reinforces my conclusion on the strength and quality of the family life that appellant and his partner enjoy."

In her speech May also said that police officers had to be allowed to fight crime, and not "be social workers".

"I haven't asked the police to be social workers, I haven't set them performance indicators and I haven't given them a 30-point plan. I've told them to cut crime."

The Home Secretary also said that the English riots in July were not "about poverty or politics" and that the sentenced they received were comparable to the offences committed.

"It was about greed and criminality, fuelled by a culture of irresponsibility and entitlement," she said.

"To those who say the judges were too tough, I say the guilty should get what they deserve."