From time to time local news papers' columns will publicise the tale of a hapless individual who has ended up in front of the sheriff after taking on the thankless respon sibility of collecting money for the office Christmas party. Inexperienced at handling other people's money, sometimes naive, sometimes greedy, they mess up, spend the cash where they're not meant to and as a result are fined, humiliated and sometimes even imprisoned.

While the wheels of justice can bring the individual caught with fingers in the Christmas sack before a court, there appears to be no similar mechanism to deal with a company doing much the same thing. And whichever way one approaches the Farepak scandal, in which the Christmas hamper company went bust after taking almost a year's worth of deposits from thousands of low-income customers, it begins to look very much like the story of the individual stealing the Christmas club savings.

The circumstances are different only in the scale of the crime. With Farepak we're talking about £40 million taken from 150,000 depositors. What Farepak's parent company EHR did was play that popular Christmas party game, musical chairs, with money that customers regarded as a safe deposit. The game went on, covering one ailing part of a company with money from another, until HBOS, the bankers, stopped the record player. Guess who was left without a chair to sit on?

Loading article content

This practice of shuffling deposits held in trust around group companies is perfectly legal. Ethically it might be reprehensible, morally it might be odious - and in the case of Sir Clive Thompson, the unapologetic chairman of the EHR group, that adjective works particularly well - but within the confines of the law it is permissible.

One positive outcome of a scandal that has cancelled Christmas for thousands could be new regulation that would ring-fence customers' cash in saving schemes in much the same way as deposits in banks or building societies are. John McFall, among a number of commendable Scottish MPs taking up arms on behalf of those who have lost money, has asked for this to be done. Others have called for parliamentary inquiries - three are in the starting blocks at the last count - and even criminal investigation of Farepak, its directors and HBOS.

Scrutiny of the company and of the decisions that led to millions of Christmas deposits vanishing may have to wait for the result of the administrator's inquiries and the outcome of a promised Department of Trade and Industry investigation. Rarely do such inquiries lead to criminal prosecution, but disqualification of directors cannot be ruled out.

If neither Farepak's directors nor Sir Clive Thompson face criminal charges, it is only right that MPs, with Michael Connarty and Jim Devine at the forefront, should continue their campaign to have the guilty men dragged in front of parliamentary committees, where they will at least be humiliated in the court of public opinion. They deserve no less.