Barking up the wrong tree with passports for pets

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The Independent Online
YOU WOULDN'T have thought it possible to ask a question about Passports for Pets just now without at least cracking a smile. The next thing we know, distressed chihuahuas and anxious Jack Russells will be telling their story to the Daily Mail - "We're booked to go on the Lampposts of Luxembourg tour on Saturday and we still haven't heard whether we'll get our passports in time!"

But party discipline is more effective than curare for disabling those seditious muscles at the corner of the mouth, and when Tony Colman rose to put the first question to Nick Brown his manner betrayed not a scintilla of levity. He acted as if his party card would be shredded at the merest hint of frivolity and Mr Brown matched him for stolid, eyes-front gravity.

Mr Colman can't be blamed for the fact that an inquiry thrown as a bouquet - designed to be caught by the minister with masterful ease - had turned into a custard pie shortly after leaving his hands. But both men were foolish to try to pretend that nothing had happened at all, since you could have bet your pension that the first Tory to rise would point out the joke.

It turned out to be Nick St Aubyn, who didn't make much of a fist of it, being too anxious to press on and mention two of his constituents, the Prestons - currently domiciled in Japan and apparently unsettled over their imminent return to England, with or without furry friends. Mr St Aubyn berated Mr Brown for his lack of pace and tried to sound angry about the fact that the Prestons' "hopes have been dashed". He failed, since the amiable Mr Brown cuts an implausible figure as a cold-hearted villain.

Mr St Aubyn knew this perfectly well, but his lack of conviction won't matter too much, since Hansard doesn't record the sincerity of the speakers, only what they say. The Prestons will eventually get their clipping - evidence that their MP will leave no stone unturned to keep constituent and canine together.

This happens a fair amount in the Commons - the sudden eruption of a request-programme name-check into what is notionally a general discussion of policy. The more assiduous MPs can give you the impression that they are busy working their way through the electoral register, determined to mention every single voter by the time of the next election.

In most cases, though, getting your name into Hansard involves a certain amount of discomfort, since it is often attached to criticism to add a bit of emotional leverage. Protesting against government inaction over the current pig crisis, for instance, John Healey drew the minister's attention to Mr and Mrs Brooks, who had recently, he said, taken out their first overdraft in four generations of farming. As a cry of pain this might not strike the average urban wage-slave as very piercing - indeed it might cross their minds that the Brooks had been living pretty high on the hog for most of the century. But scepticism is not an option for the minister in such circumstances - the only safe course is to match the concern ounce for ounce.

Occasionally the puff for a constituent will be even more shameless. That same question on the pig industry provided Hilton Dawson with just the opportunity he had been looking for. He had praised Gargrave sausages before, he reminded us, and Hansard reporters had been so moved by his endorsement that they had asked him to obtain some. A shipment was even now on its way and, should the minister wish it, he would set aside some of "Mary Miller's" excellent product for him.

In its way, this was the most honest name-check of them all. It's all advertising, after all - whether the product being pushed is an MP's attention to detail or a pound of the finest pork sausages.