Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Time to pose the Wooler question

Five years ago Wooler basked briefly in the national media spotlight after its Barclays cash machine began paying out double the amount requested. A midnight queue snaked down the high street, with one lady allegedly arriving by taxi, still in her nightdress and curlers.

This was reported as an amusing “and finally” story, replacing the usual skateboarding duck, and the participants were compared with the loveable rogues in Whisky Galore. I heard no suggestion that it actually represented fraud or terminal degeneracy. Even more remarkably, those involved apparently got away with it, since a Barclays spokesman announced that they could not be absolutely sure who had benefited, and their security company was to blame for putting the wrong notes in the machine.

I asked myself at the time whether I would have taken advantage of this glitch, if anyone had let me into the secret, and concluded that I would not. Primarily because I would have been too lazy and / or drunk to make the 28-mile round trip, but also because of a strong sense that it was bad and wrong. In addition, my chronically pessimistic outlook on life would have engendered a near certainty of being caught, having to pay the money back and perhaps garnering some unwelcome personal publicity along the way.

Unfortunately no such moral or practical considerations appear to have given most of our Members of Parliament pause before they formed an orderly queue in front of the defective machinery dishing out free money in their Fees Office. They forgot Hann’s First Rule of Life, which is to ask yourself the question “What could possibly go wrong?” before embarking on any course of action.

In this case, that would have involved thinking about how it would look to your constituents and the wider world if they ever found out that you had claimed for a load of ludicrous domestic and personal expenditure that clearly had nothing at all to do with the perfectly legitimate provision of a place to kip if you live too far from Westminster to commute there on a daily basis. And, more seriously, that you kept changing your mind about what constituted your second home with the clear objective of maximising your takings. Plus, infuriatingly, evading or reclaiming the taxes you impose on the rest of us, from capital gains to council tax and stamp duty.

Like many of you, I suspect, I am now bored with the whole saga, though sneakily looking forward to hearing about the Liberal Democrats and nationalists; and hoping that some mole is burrowing into the accounts department of The Daily Telegraph with a view to publishing all the expenses receipts of its journalists, which I dare say would demonstrate creativity on a par with the MPs’.

It would be nice to be able to say that this whole mess is the result of the professionalization of politics, and that it would not have happened in the days when men of substance sat in the House. Yet we find people who have made or married a great deal of money (such as Francis Maude for the Tories and Shaun Woodward for Labour) on the list of claimants along with the lifelong political geeks.

Greed and stupidity when faced with the lure of free money may be all but universal, but they are not exactly helpful to those of us who want the House of Commons to be stronger, not weaker: to reclaim much of the power it has ceded to Brussels, and to hold the executive to account. Perhaps the answer is an early General Election in which all candidates would be subject to the following lie detector test: “What would you have done if you had been passing through Wooler in April 2004, and heard the news about the dodgy cash machine?”

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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