Theresa May refuses six times to answer question on Abu Qatada deadline
PUBLISHED April 24, 2012
Questioned by MPs for the second time in a week about the last-minute appeal by the terror suspect that derailed his deportation, the Home Secretary denied it was a "farce" and said she had to order his arrest in case he escaped.
She admitted there had been "speculation" even before he was detained that he might still have time to lodge an appeal with the European Court of Human Rights, but insisted she had "unambiguous" legal advice that she was in the right.
But Mrs May's repeated failure to refer to any official confirmation of the deadline has prompted fresh claims that the Home Office blundered when it tried to kick the extremist preacher out of the country last week.
She also failed to back up David Cameron's claims that the Home Office had "checked during the process" with the court and had been "told throughout" when the deadline was.
Qatada was under curfew at his home in north London having been released on bail in January, following a Strasbourg ruling that evidence obtained under torture would be used against him were he sent to Jordan to face trial.
Believing the deadline for either party to appeal against the judgement to be midnight on Monday 16th, the following morning the Home Secretary ordered his arrest in order to trigger a new round of deportation proceedings.
But late last Tuesday night, the 17th, Qatada's lawyers lodged an appeal with the ECHR, putting the expulsion on holdfor several months and leaving Mrs May facing ridicule.
Appearing before the Home Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday afternoon, the Home Secretary was asked directly and repeatedly if her officials had any records of phone calls, letters or emails from court officials setting out exactly when the deadline was.
Keith Vaz, chairman of the committee, pointed out she had 61 lawyers to help her compared with Qatada's two and said: "On something as important as that, wouldn't it have been wise for the Government legal service to have something in writing as to when the deadline was?"
But in six separate exchanges, Mrs May refused to say whether or not officials had confirmation of the date.
She would only say: "What I'm telling the committee is that the judgment about the deadline is one that will be made by a panel of judges.
"There was speculation and mixed messages on the Monday night and Tuesday morning about what the deadline was. But the unambiguous advice I received then and continue to receive to this day, from legal advisers in the Government, both Home Office and the Foreign Office, is that the deadline was the 16th."
Mrs May said she decided to act straight afterwards because of the risk posed by Qatada and the danger he might try to escape.
"I thought it was operationally appropriate to take that decision because I believe there was an increased risks there might be an abscond."
Asked if she thought the case had turned become farcical or a fiasco, she replied: "I don't consider it a farce for a Government minister to take unambiguous legal advice."
Mrs May dismissed claims that the ECHR's ban on deportation was not binding in English law and that the Government could simply put Qatada on a plane immediately following domestic court rulings.
She said the Government abides by international treaties, and that any deportation attempt could still lead to another court challenge by his lawyers.
Mrs May confirmed that Qatada is eligible for Legal Aid to contest deportation cases in this country, but not for his European court battle.
She denied he would be able to sue ministers for wrongful arrest if they detained him before his appeal deadline had passed.
Asked about other matters affecting her department, Mrs May insisted there would be sufficient immigration officials to deal with airport arrivals during the Olympics, claiming not all the athletes and spectators would arrive on the same day. She said there would be a separate queue for air passengers taking part in the Games.
The Home Secretary said she was "open-minded" about what functions police forces could contract out to private firms but that it should not involve those that require the warranted powers of an officer.
She refused to say if internet service providers would be required to use "black boxes" storing details of customers' website and email usage under controversial surveillance proposals, claiming it was a "technical" question.
Mrs May confirmed she has been asked to set up a public inquiry into allegations of police corruption in the Stephen Lawrence murder investigation, but said no decision has been made.
She also insisted she was still enjoying her job and brushed aside focus on her colourful outfits and footwear, pointing out that her Cabinet colleague Ken Clarke - with whom she has repeatedly clashed over criminal justice policy - also receives comments about his shoes.
Yvette Cooper, Shadow Home Secretary, said after the hearing: "The Home Secretary's evidence shows she has taken significant risks which may make it harder not easier to deport Abu Qatada and directly contradicts the Prime Minister's claims yesterday.
"The Home Secretary made clear she did not get any assurances from the court that said the deadline was Monday 16 April. Nor did she contact the court on Monday after the Home Office were told by journalists that the European Court was saying the date was Tuesday instead.
"The Home Secretary also admitted that she was "aware of speculation" over the deadline on Monday.
"Why then did she still take the risk and go ahead with the statement?
"Why did she not wait 24 hours so there could be no shadow of a doubt, and so she did not play into the hands of Abu Qatada's lawyers."