It dates back to a Sunday Telegraph article from 17 October 2009 which had the headline 'Immigrant allowed to stay because of pet cat'. The following day, the Mail, Express, Sun and Star all ran the story, the Express going with the headline 'Got a cat? OK, you can stay'.
The story was then repeated by columnists including Richard Littlejohn, Amanda Platell, Sue Carroll and Eamonn Holmes, who stated:
If you are an illegal immigrant facing deportation from the UK then don't worry - just tell the authorities that you have a cat and they will let you stay.
Except, they won't, because - as Dominic Casciani makes clear - that isn't what happened. The Telegraph's Tom Chivers explains:
There never was someone who could not be deported because he had a pet cat. It goes back to a Bolivian student (not an illegal immigrant) who applied to stay in this country. In his application, he does indeed mention a pet cat. But he was granted leave to remain in Britain as "the unmarried partner of a person present and settled in the United Kingdom", not as the owner of a British cat. Under UK Border Agency rules (not the Human Rights Act), if a couple has lived together for two years in "a genuine and subsisting relationship akin to marriage", they have a right to stay, regardless of whether they're married.
Yet the cat has popped up occasionally since 2009. In March 2011, a text to the Daily Star made a 'joke' of it. It was mentioned again in the Star on 14 July, in the Mirror on 13 June and in a Daily Mail editorial on 20 June.
And on Tuesday, Home Secretary Theresa May said:
“We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act...The illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat.”
As Kevin Arscott noted, she was right to say she wasn't 'making this up' - instead, she was repeating something that wasn't correct that had appeared in several newspapers.
But it had been debunked. The lawyer in the case, Barry O'Leary, was quoted saying the cat was 'immaterial' - including on on Radio Five Live - but this was either ignored or overlooked.
As Adam Wagner of UK Human Rights Blog, writes:
Put it this way. If I had a client who was facing deportation and I wanted to show that the simple fact that he had a cat meant that he should stay, and I tried to use the Bolivian cat judgment as a precedent, I would be laughed out of court.
Following May's speech the Judicial Communications Office reissued their two-year old statement which pointed out:
"This was a case in which the Home Office conceded that they had mistakenly failed to apply their own policy - applying at that time to that appellant - for dealing with unmarried partners of people settled in the UK.
"That was the basis for the decision to uphold the original tribunal decision - the cat had nothing to do with the decision."
But that didn't stop today's Daily Mail claiming it had the 'truth':
A judge allowed an illegal immigrant to dodge deportation because he feared separating him from his cat risked ‘serious emotional consequences’, it emerged yesterday.
The human rights ruling, obtained by the Daily Mail, vindicates Home Secretary Theresa May over the ‘cat-gate’ row with Justice Secretary Ken Clarke at the Tory Conference.
She claimed that the cat, Maya, was a key reason behind the decision to let the man, a Bolivian national, stay in Britain
They were so sure of their version of events, they put it on the front page.
Yet on page 17, even their own columnist wasn't even convinced. Stephen Glover said May was:
partly misinformed as well as uninformed
Back to the front page article, however, and there was the inevitable clarification towards the end, in which the Mail admitted:
the Bolivian – whose name is blacked out in the court documents – won on different grounds at a later hearing which found the department had not followed its own rules.
Today, Barry O'Leary has issued a lengthy riposte to the Mail and others. He says:
The Judicial Office has already made a statement in this matter and I wish to give my support to that statement.
The case referred to was not decided on the basis of ownership of a cat. It was decided on the basis of a Home Office policy which the Home Office themselves had failed to apply. This was accepted by the Home Office before the Immigration Judge. The Home Office agreed the appeal should be allowed. The ownership of a cat was immaterial to the final decision made. Any press reports to the contrary are not based on fact.
The Mail claimed:
Yesterday it was revealed that the Bolivian not only argued that he would suffer from being separated from his cat, but also that his pet’s quality of life would be affected.
But O'Leary replies:
I stress that it was not argued at any point by this firm, nor by my client, that he would 'suffer from being separated from his cat' nor that 'the pet's quality of life would be affected.' Our arguments were based on the long-term committed nature of the couple's relationship. Their ownership of a cat was just one detail amongst many given to demonstrate the genuine nature of their relationship.
It was, in fact, the official acting on behalf of the Home Secretary who, when writing the letter of refusal, stated that the cat could relocate to Bolivia and cope with the quality of life there. This statement was not in response to any argument put forward by this firm or my client (and was, frankly, rather mischievous on behalf of the official).
The appeal against the refusal was successful and, when giving judgment, because the reasons for refusal did refer to the cat the judge commented on the couple's cat. It was taken into account as part of the couple's life together. However, it was not the reason for allowing the appeal. The appeal was allowed because of the couple's relationship, and the judge also relied on the Home Office policy that had not been applied.
There is one further problem with the Mail running this story today. When the paper mentioned the cat on 20 June, a complaint was made to the Press Complaints Commission. The complainant stated that as Mr O'Leary had already made clear the cat was 'immaterial', the article breached Clause 1 (Accuracy) of the Code of Practice.
As the complainant was a third party, the PCC contacted Mr O'Leary who told them that his client did not want to make a complaint about the article. Without the participation of the subject of the story, the PCC did not feel able to adjudicate on the complaint.
But in its conclusion, it said:
The Commission fully acknowledged the concerns raised by the complainant in regard to the accuracy of the article...
While it emphasised that the complainant’s concerns were indeed legitimate, it did not consider, in the absence of the participation of the Bolivian man or his representative, that it was in a position to investigate the matter, not least because it would not be possible to release any information about the outcome of the investigation or resolve the matter without the input of the man.
That said, it recognised that the complainant had raised concerns which had a bearing on the accuracy of the claim made in the article and, as such, it trusted that the newspaper would take heed of the points raised in the complaint and bear them in mind for future coverage.
Today's Daily Mail goes to prove how much the paper 'takes heed' of what the PCC says.
(More from Channel 4 Fact Check, Full Fact, David Allen Green, Alan Travis, Adam Wagner, Alex Massie, Ed West and Minority Thought)