Call me a prig - but is it imbecilic to ask why so many people today can't tell right from wrong

by TOM UTLEY

Last updated at 00:22 21 March 2008


The people of Hull seem to have taken a cash machine malfunction as an invitation from on high to help themselves to large amounts of money that wasn't theirs

Perhaps I'm becoming insufferably pious in my middle age, but I find it very hard to join in the general merriment over the faulty cash machine outside a Sainsbury's Local supermarket in Hull.

It was around 5pm on Tuesday, apparently, when the hole-in-the-wall started dishing out twice as much cash as customers had requested, while billing them only for the amount they'd keyed in.

Yet nobody appears to have thought it worth stepping into the shop, ringing the number on the machine or contacting the police to report what was happening.

On the contrary, the people of Hull seem to have taken the malfunction as an invitation from on high to help themselves to large amounts of money that wasn't theirs.

For the next three hours, as word of the bonanza spread, people lined up at the machine to steal as much cash as they could.

It's said that at one stage the queue was 100-strong - and to judge by the photographs, by no means all the thieves were young hoodies, from whom we've learnt not to expect too much in the way of integrity and public-spiritedness.

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Quite a few were respectably dressed, middle-aged men and women who looked as if they ought to know better.

Yes, I suppose it's possible they were not aware of the fault and were innocently waiting to withdraw their hard-earned cash, wondering idly why the queue was 50 times longer than usual.

But even the most charitable among us will find that hard to believe.

Shameless

What surprised me most was the fraudsters' complete lack of shame. It doesn't seem to have occurred to them that they were doing anything remotely wrong.

Indeed, some positively crowed about their good fortune - one man boasting that he'd pocketed £400, while his statement said he'd drawn out only £200.

I couldn't help wondering what he would have done if he'd asked for cashback at the till and the checkout girl had accidentally given him £200 too much. Would he just have trousered the money and said nothing about it? I have a nasty feeling that he would.

True, defrauding a faceless corporation through a machine probably doesn't feel quite the same as ripping off a flesh-and-blood human being.

But you don't have to have a very highly developed moral sense to work out that the offence is identical.

If something like this had happened 20 or even ten years ago, I feel sure that someone with a social conscience would have intervened to stop it.

But for three hours, nobody in all of Hull saw fit to protest against this systematic larceny, which came to an end only when the machine ran out of cash. By then, the banks' losses must have run into thousands.

"It was really funny seeing all those people trying to get one over on the banks," said one witness.

"They were walking away with huge wads of cash and big smiles on their faces." Well, I thought it more shocking than funny. Call me a prig if you will - but if I can't be a little moralistic on Good Friday, then when can I?

Of course, the cash machine raiders of Hull aren't the only ones who seem to be finding it increasingly difficult to distinguish right from wrong.

The banks themselves, from which they stole, have hardly covered themselves in moral glory over the past couple of years.

If only the City slickers had thought a little less about their own commissions and bonuses - and a little more about the rights and wrongs of lending money they didn't have to unfortunates who couldn't afford to repay it - then the global economy wouldn't be in half the mess it's in today.

As for those contemptible traders who are said to have placed bets on falling bank share values - and then spread malicious and unfounded rumours to force those prices down - they are surely guilty of immorality on a Herculean scale.

Feeble

For the sake of their private gain, they are prepared to risk bringing the world's financial system crashing down about our ears, destroying tens of thousands - perhaps millions - of livelihoods in the process.

If Hell exists, it can't be too hot for them.

Just like the cash machine raiders, they seem to think the only test of right and wrong is: "Can I get away with it?"

(Alas, knowing what I do about the Financial Services Agency - which competes with the Civil Aviation Authority and Ofwat for the title of the world's feeblest official regulator - I'm afraid the answer is almost certainly "yes".)

It's the same throughout British public life.

Where we were once renowned the world over for the integrity of our institutions and incorruptibility of our authorities, increasing numbers of people in positions of power seem to have given up asking about rights and wrongs.

All they are interested in is their chances of getting away with it.

Take MPs and their claims for second home allowances.

They all know that these allowances exist for one excellent reason alone - to enable them to do their jobs, at Westminster and in their constituencies.

It would be very wrong, after all, if only those rich enough to afford second homes were able to stand for Parliament.

As they all know, the allowances are most emphatically not meant simply as a tax-free means of topping up their salaries or buying luxuries to distribute around their homes at the taxpayers' expense.

Yet this is how an alarming number use them.

Strictly speaking, the rules may indeed permit husband-and-wife MPs to charge twice for the same house or to claim reimbursement for "renting" properties they own outright.

But you'd have to be a complete moral imbecile not to realise that behaviour like this is plain wrong.

All right, there's nothing very new about the suggestion that some British politicians may be less than scrupulously honest.

What is new, however, is the way dishonesty and corruption are seeping through other national institutions.

For example, it used to be a truth universally acknowledged that British justice couldn't be bought.

Say what you like about our judges and magistrates - and I can think of plenty - but at least they wouldn't pervert justice in return for backhanders, as they do almost everywhere else in the world.

Integrity

Can we be certain any longer, after this week's shocking case of Balbir Singh Sandhu, the Wolverhampton magistrate jailed for 18 months for telling a businessman he would make a prosecution against him "disappear" in return for £45,000?

Again, what about our elections, national and local? Not so long ago, it would have been utterly unthinkable that there could be any interference with the integrity of the British ballot box.

Election-rigging was the sort of thing that happened in Russia or the Third World - not in the Mother of Parliaments.

Yet look at us now. On Tuesday, after Tory councillor Eshaq Khan and his agents were found guilty of applying for hundreds of postal votes in false names, Judge Richard Mawrey described the whole system as "lethal to the democratic process".

The next day, we had to endure the national humiliation of hearing the Warsaw-based Office For Democratic Institutions - which usually monitors dodgy elections in the former Soviet Union - voicing "serious concerns" about the integrity of our forthcoming local and mayoral elections.

On this Good Friday, wouldn't we all do well - from the cash-machine raiders of Hull to City traders, politicians and administrators of justice - to reflect on how quickly countries can descend into misery and anarchy when rulers and ruled lose sight of the difference between right and wrong?

But that's quite enough preaching from me. A very happy Easter to all.

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