This week, someone went in front of a House of Commons committee to complain that people were making things up that weren’t true. The first thing I thought was, oh dear, you’re asking members of parliament to get outraged about people telling fibs? I’m not so sure that’s going to work. However, it did have some impact, because the someone doing the complaining was very young, very passionate and very idealistic. In fact, the someone was a child.
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On Monday, nine-year-old Alex Rukin gave evidence to the HS2 hybrid bill committee, making him officially the youngest person ever to address a parliamentary committee. He carried a toy elephant, wore his Scout uniform and spoke in scathing terms about the proposed high-speed rail link which – if it is ever built – will run perilously near his West Midlands home.
In the petition which preceded his appearance at Westminster, Alex had written: “Because the people at HS2 Ltd are really, really bad at maths and make things up that aren’t true, Your Petitioner is worried that HS2 will cost lots more than the people are saying…
“If HS2 costs more money and not enough people use it, Your Petitioner, like his classmates, will be the one paying for it in extra tax.”
When he got into the committee room, he was even tougher. He said HS2 Ltd were “stupid”, “I really don’t think that HS2 are good at anything” and declared: “They really need my help with maths.”
A Nice Man sitting next to him asked him if he was good at maths. “I got 93 per cent in my last maths test,” Alex replied. “I was top of my class and three-quarters of my class is in the year above.”
The Nice Man then asked him: “What is 21.4 billion minus 14.4 billion?”
“Seven billion,” replied the concerned young citizen, without hesitation.
The Nice Man then explained that, given the same sum, HS2 Ltd had come up with an answer of 15.7 billion. “Alex, what do you think about that?”
“They really, really need my help at maths.”
It was most impressive, until I realised that the Nice Man’s name was Joe Rukin and – knock me down with a feather – not only is he Alex’s dad, he is also campaign director of…wait for it…Stop HS2.
I see what Mr Rukin was thinking. He was thinking: I badly need publicity, but if I go in front of the HS2 hybrid bill committee, will people notice? Will anyone put my picture in the paper? Will columnists as far afield as Scotland write about me? Oh, if only I could think of a good stunt to get everybody talking!
Well, Mr Rukin, congratulations on your publicity coup. We are indeed all talking.
The trouble is, I’m not so sure it’s such a great message to essentially say to the world: “My nine-year-old can do my job better than I can.”
Stepping aside to give your child the central role of spokesperson, and then insisting that they mean every word, doesn’t feel quite right to me. Perhaps Mr Rukin has convinced himself that, after weighing up all the hard evidence all on his own, little Alex has come to exactly the same conclusion as Daddy. It certainly sounds like it, when you read what Rukin snr has to say about his son’s political activism: “After I explained what petitioning was, he said he thought everyone in the whole country should be doing it, because he thinks HS2 is such a bad idea, and the wrong thing to spend lots of money on.
“He is committed to doing something about something he thinks is wrong, and I’m really proud about that.”
Even if Alex has single-handedly decided that HS2 is “wrong”, I still think Mr Rukin may have set a dangerous precedent here.
Anyone can play at this game. Now, whenever the chief executive of HS2 Ltd is called to give evidence to parliament, there is nothing to stop him sitting back and allowing his most “committed” – and photogenic – child to take his place.
Chief executive jnr could easily tug at the heart strings of even the hardest-headed MPs by pleading: “Fast trains are good! Pretty please, can we have really, really fast trains?
“I want to be a really, really fast train driver when I grow up – but without having to leave the UK to do it.”
If my concerns sound like sour grapes, it’s probably because I’m extremely jealous of Mr Rukin.
I also have a nine-year-old boy, but I would never dare parade him before anybody important, and especially not if my reputation depended on it.
Maybe I’d let him comment if the Cars That Turn Into Robots committee desperately needed some youthful input, and he would love to complain to the culture, media and sport committee about how he thinks the activities of the British Board of Film Classification are deeply unfair, but apart from that, McCade jnr can’t be trusted to do as he’s told in public. Not even when bribed with a chocolate frog and three extra hours on the tablet.
My son has also singularly failed to come top of his class in any test, never mind in maths, so I couldn’t rely on him to make anybody look stupid – except perhaps me. However, he’d do almost anything in order to get a day off school, and even Mr Rukin admits that he used this very ruse to get young Alex to go to parliament with him.
Even if you think that there’s no such thing as bad publicity, it’s still a risky move to use your child to get your point across, however cute they are.
Inspired by the Rukins, I was thinking of asking my wee one to write this column for me next week, but he says the subject would be: Why Nine-Year-Olds Should Be Allowed To Watch The Exorcist.
So maybe not.
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