The Plastic Hippo

November 16, 2013

Open goal

Screen grab via BBC parliament

Screen grab via BBC parliament

Imagine the managers of Manchester United and Chelsea deciding before a vital cup tie to play ten against ten and not field any goalkeepers. The resulting goal fest might delight match sponsors and broadcast sports media but the fixture could not under the current FA rules, be described as a game of football. As ridiculous as this appears, it is a common procedure in what is laughingly known as parliamentary democracy.

On Tuesday, the parliamentary Labour Party called an Opposition Day debate on Housing Benefit in an attempt to kick into touch the utterly vile and pernicious Bedroom Tax; a sanction designed specifically to punish people for being poor, vulnerable and disabled. As commendable and well-intentioned this enterprise by Labour might be, it was not considered an important enough issue to impose a three line whip and so the pairing system of House of Commons voting allowed MPs to be absent as long as an opposing MP wanted a day off as well. Out of a total of 650 elected representatives, 478 turned up to vote leaving 172 otherwise engaged and able to claim that the “pairing system” ensured that their potential vote was meaningless.

In theory, the pairing system seems profoundly sensible. Like the rest of us, MPs can become ill, have family commitments such as funerals, weddings or waiting in for the man to come and fix the boiler and may require some time off work to attend to real life. Ministers might be required to address serious matters of state elsewhere and so it would be rather unfair for an opposition to take advantage of necessary absence. However, if we extrapolate this system into the real world, you are only allowed time off if that nasty person you don`t get on with in your workplace agrees to take a day off as well.

As for the 478 who turned up to vote, very few actually attended the debate and fewer still offered any contribution. At the moment of the division, the majority arrived and trooped into the lobbies having avoided the tedium of actually listening to arguments for or against and voted on tribal party lines without a second thought for the people they are supposed to represent or, indeed, the importance of the vote. It should come as no surprise that MPs, it seems, follow party dogma rather than the interests of the constituents they are paid to represent.

However, by simply voting they occupy the moral high ground compared to those MPs who deliberately absented themselves because they were expecting a parcel to be delivered to their second or even third home. Clegg was wrestling with how to best vilify immigrants, Balls was missing, wee Dougie Alexander was washing his hair, Cable was watching television, Osborne had to attend his weekly stupidity lesson, Danny Alexander encountered prolonged difficulty in working out how shoelaces work and Iain Duncan Smith, architect of the eugenic Bedroom Tax, discovered that he was required to be in Paris for some reason. Quite how he survives on £53 a week remains a mystery. Cameron at least had the decency to turn up and break foie gras and champagne wind after the Lord Mayor`s banquet before jetting off to sell some more ordinance to dictators.

Perhaps those that absented themselves were supplementing their meagre public incomes by offering “consultations” to external vested interests (cash only, no cheques, no coins) but as least they did not damage the reputation of parliamentary democracy by actually appearing in the chamber. That right honourable task was left to the few Conservative and Liberal Democrat who managed to extract their snouts from the trough and made it to the green benches without falling into the Thames. Their primary defence of the Bedroom Tax was simple and elegant. It`s not called the “Bedroom Tax” so, therefore, the Bedroom Tax does not exist. It`s called the “Spare Room Subsidy”, stupid, so shut up while I say “inherited deficit” over and over again and shout “Len McCluskey” at the top of my voice. Sadly, absent pedants did not point out that the legislation is actually called “Under Occupancy Penalty”. The clue is in the title; penalty equals sanction under law.

A secondary defence involved summoning up the spectre of overcrowding and waiting lists for accommodation skilfully orated to set poor people against poor people. Forgetting for the moment that these exotic elected creatures claim thousands of pounds for their second homes, it is futile to point out the house building is at an all time low, wealthy property developers will benefit from the sub-prime toxic “Help to Buy” scam and their government is forcing local authorities to board-up and demolish the homes of recently evicted wheelchair “scroungers”.

All of this unnecessary fact was too much for some Members of Parliament. Bob Stewart, the hero of Bosnia, a man who once claimed that he used a camp bed in his Westminster office because he worked so hard, was observed to be giving close inspection of the inside of his eyelids. Clearly, he was in deep contemplation regarding the plight of people with disabilities and probably recovering from a rather splendid, tax-payer funded liquid lunch. Fortunately, the gentle snoring sound was drowned out by the braying laughter of Conservative MPs who regard the need for daily dialysis as hysterically funny and the suicides of abandoned human beings as the most amusing thing since the Prime Minister told us that we are all in this together.

In the absence of Iain Duncan Smith, forced to go to Paris on the important government business of precisely God knows what, it fell to the fragrant Esther McVey to defend this economic cleansing. The lovely Esther, it should be remembered, claimed more than £20k for her own accommodation needs and is clearly an expert on bedrooms. It is clearly an example of sexist, regional stereotyping to suggest that Esther McVey and Kerry Katona have never been seen together near a dispatch box or, indeed, at the checkout in Iceland. Similarly, it would be totally wrong to suggest that Iain Duncan Smith, regardless of what it says on his CV, has ever seen the inside of a legitimate university. Mercifully, the other chamber is there to keep these commoners in check and the noble Lord David Freud provides value for money by keeping cheques on Atos, Capita and the Department of Work and Pensions. If you want to see how the vote on destroying people`s lives went, the Public Whip can give you the voting details.

Incidentally, the fictitious game between Manchester United and Chelsea ended up as a nil-nil draw. After extra time, the referee won 252 to 226 on over occupancy penalties. The “noes” have it. The “noes” have it.

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