Theresa May was mocked today as she stoutly defended the Home Office after the radical preacher Abu Qatada succeeded in halting his own deportation with an 11th hour appeal to Strasbourg.
The Home Secretary insisted that the Jordanian terror suspect’s lawyers had misread the law and that his appeal on Tuesday to the European Court of Human Rights would be ruled out of time, as the deadline for appeals had expired at midnight on Monday. But Ms May faced a barrage of criticism from Labour benches and anger from Tory benches that the Government had again been humiliated in its attempts to rid the country of the Islamist terror suspect.
“On Tuesday night, while Abu Qatada was appealing to the European Court judges, the Home Secretary was partying with the X Factor judges,” accused Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary. The gibe was a reference to photographs taken of Mrs May at a function in the Victoria and Albert Museum which was attended by the X Factor judge Tulisa Contostavlos.
Dennis Skinner, the veteran Labour backbencher, wanted to know: “Does the Home Secretary know what day of the week it is?” And Pat McFadden, Labour MP for Wolverhampton East, asked whether she was capable of “organising a convivial social gathering in the nearest brewery”.
Sir Peter Tapsell, the venerable Tory MP who is Father of the House, was one of several Tory MPs to urge Ms May to heed the wishes of the British people and withdraw the UK from the European Convention on Human Rights altogether. Ms May dodged the question, agreeing with Sir Peter that reform of the notoriously slow and unwieldy court was much needed and adding: “And that is exactly what we are doing today.”
Tory MP for Broxbourne Charles Walker said: “You must not delay in getting this scumbag and his murderous mates on a plane out of this country. And in so doing would you send a metaphorical two fingers to the ECHR?” Ms May was forced to make an emergency statement to Parliament at 11.30am after a morning in which fellow ministers appeared to accept that the affair had turned into a farce. Ken Clarke, the Justice Secretary, did not deny that it had become a “cock up” and offered no more ringing support for the Home Secretary than that she “could well be” proved right.
Adding to Ms May’s woes, it emerged this morning that the Home Office had twice been alerted that there was a difference of opinion between itself and the European Court of Human Rights over the final deadline for appeals. Ms May stuck closely in her speech to the written statement to Parliament that she had issued earlier today, and confirmed that Abu Qatada’s deportation was now once more on hold. Her admission opens the intensely embarrassing possibility that the preacher may yet again be released on bail. He has been held in Belmarsh top security prison in East London since he was rearrested on Tuesday with a view to being deported. “Abu Qatada remains in detention, and the Government will resist vigorously any application he might make to be released on bail,” she told the Commons.
The Home Office had twice been warned that there was a disagreement over the legal deadline before Ms May made her confident speech to MPs on Tuesday afternoon claiming that the preacher’s deportation was under way. Daniel Shaw, a BBC correspondent, revealed that he had telephoned the Home Office on Monday afternoon to ask why it was insisting that the deadline for an ECHR appeal was Monday, when the ECHR itself was saying it was Tuesday.
And at 2pm on Tuesday afternoon, 90 minutes before Ms May spoke to Parliament, Abu Qatada’s barrister, Edward Fitzgerald, QC, told a bail hearing attended by very senior Home Office lawyers that it was too early for his client’s deportation proceedings to go ahead as there was still time for an appeal. He too referred to the difference of opinion between the Home Office and the ECHR. Home Office officials are refusing to release any papers showing who they spoke to at the Court, or what they said, saying it is ‘not incumbent on them’. Mrs May also ducked repeated questions from opposition MPs over whether she was told there was potential for confusion over the date.
Today Ms May faced criticism from several of the lawyer MPs in the Commons that the Home Office had failed to study legal precedent over appeal deadlines. Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, revealed that he was summoning Ms May to appear before the committee next Tuesday and that she would be questioned on precisely that issue. ‘What worries me is that a North London law firm [the lawyers for Abu Qatada] managed to outwit the very expensive silks of the Home Office,” said Mr Vaz. “If she looks at two previous cases before the European Court [those of Otto v Germany and Praha v Czech Republic], she will see that the time limit actually begins the next day. Could she look at those two cases, and ensure that proper advice was taken by the Home Office?” Ms May retorted that the cases of Otto and Praha involved the European Court itself, and not the Grand Chamber which is its appeal body.
A spokesman for the Strasbourg-based court said the human rights judges did not have any discretion to hear appeals made after the three-month deadline. The panel of judges will now decide whether or not Qatada’s appeal was made in time, and if it was not it will be dismissed, the spokesman said.
The row comes as Mr Clarke hosts talks in Brighton with justice ministers from the other 46 member nations of the Council of Europe over improving the ECHR’s efficiency, reducing its backlog of some 150,000 cases, drastically trimming the number of cases it hears, and increasing the role of individual nation states in protecting human rights. Asked about the Abu Qatada case, Mr Clarke said he was “sure the Home Office lawyers will sort it out… If I was the Home Secretary, I would probably be confident it was right,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. “I know what the Home Secretary has said. It seems to me quite sound and she could well be proved right.”