How much is that doggy in Westminster?

Conservative MPs like to sneer at the Human Rights Act. It is, they say, anti-freedom, nannyist, and, worst of all, much too European. One of their number, though, is about to invoke the act on a matter dear to his heart. He believes the House of Commons authorities are in breach of Article 8 of the Act, which protects “the right to a private and family life” of all citizens.

Matthew Offord, MP for Hendon, has a Jack Russell terrier called Max. An official spotted Max’s basket in his owner’s office. James Robertson, the civil servant in charge of such matters, informed Offord that all dogs, except those used for security, had been banned from the Palace of Westminster since 1991. The Tory whip become involved in the imbroglio and supported the anti-Max line.

In desperation, the MP has thrown himself upon the mercy of the Speaker. If that fails, he and his dog could be trotting off to the law courts. To a non-lawyer, the idea of invoking the Human Rights Act, on the grounds of some universal right to a private and family life, seems like a non-starter.

It is said that a Bolivian immigrant successfully took this line in 2009 arguing that, if he were deported, he would be unable to look after his cat, but a dog in the office is a very different matter. If having a private and family life is a legal right even at work, then presumably toddlers should be allowed to scamper around boardrooms. There would be no limit to the kind of websites which might be visited on the office computer during lunch hours.

Offord would be better advised to take a line with which Tory MPs are more at ease: that of everyday common sense. He could argue that, because of Max, he is a better MP, a better person. He communicates with civil servants more effectively than he otherwise would. He is more caring. He is happier, and therefore more effective. He takes more exercise and is generally healthier. This line of argument might, at first, meet some resistance. Dogs and their owners tend to get a bad press. There are the weird fanatics who have too many in their back garden, the yobs who use them to frighten or attack people, the airheads who have taken to carrying around some luckless toy dog because, for a few weeks, it was a fashionable accessory. The vanity of humans is never more evident than when they express their own insecurity through an animal.

The vast majority of dogs, though, are a powerful force for good. They embody a combination of dependence and independence which acts as a stay against self-absorption and pomposity in their owners.

Anyone who has brought a dog into the office will know that, if it is a friendly, well-behaved animal, the mood of the place is transformed. People talk more. The kinder side of their natures, usually kept under close guard during working hours, emerges. There are a tiny number of people who suffer from a pathological fear of dogs, and a few more who come from cultures where animals have scruffy, street associations, but most of those who object to the presence of dogs at work are dour rules-are-rules types. The warmth and normality which dogs bring out in humans make these people feel uneasy, threatened, perhaps even a touch jealous.

Nowhere are men and women in more need of a civilising canine influence than in the House of Commons. Imagine Ed Miliband at the despatch box, with an Airedale looking up at him lovingly. Or Dennis Skinner, with an old Labrador slumbering at his feet in the manner of David Blunkett’s guide-dog. Or even – a bit of a stretch, this, I admit – George Osborne delivering his budget speech as a Shih Tsu lies, curled up on the seat behind him.

A few more dogs like Max at the Palace of Westminster would improve the way we are governed no end.

Independent, Tuesday, 21 June 2011