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How much longer can the Home Secretary hang on to her job?

May 4, 2014 at 4:20 pm

The office of Secretary of State for the Home Department is one of the great offices of state but is regarded widely as a poisoned chalice. It is one of the most challenging and, arguably, thankless jobs in the British government. Home Secretaries are often damned if they do and damned if they don’t; few incumbents last more than two or three years. Following the Palestinian civil rights leader Sheikh Raed Salah’s victorious appeal against a deportation order served by the current Home Secretary, Theresa May, questions are now being asked about how long she can hold on to her job.

The decision by senior immigration judge and the Vice President of the Upper Immigration Tribunal, Justice C M G Ockelton, that May “was misled” and acted “under a misapprehension as to the facts” is of itself a very serious indictment. It calls into question the judgement of the Home Secretary, who because of the importance of her office is normally held to higher than usual moral and discretionary standards. Not only should she, therefore, be free of prejudice and influence, but also any inkling of gullibility. Several previous Home Secretaries have lost their jobs for reasons of far lesser import than those which emerged in this particular case.

Fundamentally, a Home Secretary’s main duty is to protect the people under their jurisdiction. The post presumes an ability to act in good faith at all times and in all circumstances. So, did Mrs May act thus in the case of Mr Salah?

Judge Ockleton noted that, “In this particular case according to the evidence of Mr Rosenorn-Lanng, the Secretary of State acted upon information provided by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) which in turn took advice from the Community Security Trust (CST) and the Jewish Board of Deputies.  It is of concern that apparently the Secretary of State did not consult with any Muslim or Palestinian organisations.”

It took Mr Salah almost 10 months to clear his name of the allegations made against him. As the litigation progressed tortuously through the various levels of the Immigration Tribunal, it became increasingly evident that the claims made against him were not certain. His legal representatives managed to show that those advising the Home Secretary had actually informed Mrs May that the available facts were ‘finely balanced’. With such shaky evidence it seems that she had ample time to retreat from her original stance. But she did not change, choosing instead to rely on ‘irrelevant factors’, according to Judge Ockleton.

One such trivial item brought forward on behalf of the Home Secretary was that Salah was indicted in Israel for obstructing a policeman. In her apparent zeal to denigrate Sheikh Raed the Home Secretary lost sight of the fact that what is regarded as a criminal offence in Israel may not necessarily be so in the UK. Notable examples mentioned by Mrs May were the cases of Hamas, which is banned in its entirety in Israel but whose political wing is not banned in the UK; and Interpal, which although banned in Israel is a legal charity in Britain.

Ultimately, the case was decided on the basis of available evidence and facts. The Judge decided that Salah’s appeal against the deportation order was successful on all grounds. In practice, this means that there is no lawful basis for the Home Secretary to implement the exclusion order that was based on the evidence she submitted before the Tribunal.

Theresa May’s mishandling of this landmark case has the potential to do significant damage to the image of the British political establishment abroad, particularly in the Arab and Islamic worlds. At home, the fall-out could be equally detrimental. The fact that Mrs May did not consult a single Palestinian or Muslim organisation speaks volumes about the contempt the Conservative-led coalition government has for these communities. There are already calls for a public inquiry into the relationship between the Home Office and the CST and other pro-Israel bodies. Their obviously special relationship with the Tory party has raised concerns about their influence on the decision-making process at the heart of government. Initial responses from Home Office officials that they are contemplating an appeal are unlikely to have any legal significance. At best, they must only be seen as a face-saving exercise.

When all is said and done, the enduring perception in the public mind is that the Secretary of State for the Home Department was entrusted with considerable power but has abused it, at the behest of a small minority, acting on behalf of a foreign government which has gained notoriety for its abysmal human rights record. After proudly amending the laws on universal jurisdiction to allow Israeli war crimes suspects to visit Britain, the case of Sheikh Raed Salah says all that needs to be said about the coalition’s double standards and hypocrisy. Even so, this may yet turn out to be an opportunity to turn a new page in the government’s relations with Palestinians and Muslims. It’s still not too late to mend broken bridges.