The woman stood at the counter looking confused. Was there something wrong with her debit card? The checkout operator was apologetic, “you have exceeded the permitted amount.” The woman looked even more alarmed and looked around appealingly.
“Fourpence,” said the assistant at the till, “you are fourpence over the permitted total. You must insert the card and enter the PIN number.” It sounded accusatory, the woman looked embarrassed. The assistant continued, “contactless payments have a limit of £30, your bill is £30.04.” One could sense the awkwardness the woman felt as she inserted her card and keyed in the numbers. If the woman felt confused, it was understandable, she had only spent £29.99, the extra fivepence was charged because she had accepted the offer of a plastic carrier bag.
It seemed absurd that the system had not the flexibility to cope with an unintentional excess. Sometimes rules seem better designed to inconvenience honest people than to restrict the activities of the dishonest. There will be inquiries regarding pence and pounds, but an indifference to massive amounts.
Perhaps it is about economic and financial power, in childhood years it was often said that if one owed the bank a hundred pounds, it was your problem, but if you owed them a million pounds, it was the bank’s problem. The figures may have changed, but the principle seems to remain – laws seem to be made for ordinary people, while those who are rich enough can disregard regulations that govern the rest of us.
Russian oligarchs, Arab sheikhs, African dictators; no matter how many questions may surround individuals, no matter how public the allegations may be, there seems a culture of complete impunity. Whilst ordinary people must furnish banks with utility bills and other information to open the humblest of current account, to hold hundreds of millions in offshore accounts seems to be readily possible for the super-rich. Measures intended to prevent fraud and money-laundering seem only applicable to those who cannot afford to establish themselves as offshore companies.
Of course, there must be a limit for contactless payments, otherwise cards would have no security, but it is hard to imagine that millionaires encounter a comparable degree of rigidity. The rules seem more designed to create the appearance of security and regulation than to catch villains. Embarrassing a shopper for the sake of fourpence sends out the signal that there is strict discipline; it also sends out the signal that different rules apply to different people.