WHILE Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to Scotland attracted international attention, the event this week that has brought Scotland bigger headlines worldwide has been the ignominious descent of Rangers FC into administration.
The club’s financial troubles have long been evident. But this one event has lit up the precarious state of football clubs generally. It has provoked a deluge of analysis and commentary about the way in which clubs have borrowed to the hilt and beyond and bid up player wages to utterly fantastical levels.
Altogether more worrying is how one of Scotland’s leading clubs has fallen into the ownership of someone with a questionable business past – and is now facing an avalanche of unpaid tax bills. This has brought the most searching questions to bear on the stewardship of the club, the financial judgment of owners past as well as present, and the bodies which supervise and regulate the game. The collapse of Rangers into administration points to a failure both of management judgment and of supervision.
This is what turns a matter which would seem to be the concern of a few into a public interest affair. That interest potentially extends to the sum of at least £49 million owed by the club to the taxman, and the further £9m in income and other taxes which should have been made over to the HM Revenue and Customs since Craig Whyte’s arrival as majority owner last year and which is so far unaccounted for.
The fact that he is now facing investigations on several fronts – a full independent inquiry by the Scottish Football Association into potential breaches of the SFA’s Articles of Association and on ongoing investigation by Strathclyde Police – further propels his conduct well beyond Ibrox into the public realm.
Such is HMRC’s evident lack of trust in Mr Whyte that the prospects of an agreed early settlement that might take the club out of administration now seem remote. The notable lack of transparency surrounding his ownership and the absence of any backing for him from anyone of standing either in the business or football realms may be a further sign of deepening problems ahead. Little wonder that the club’s fans are planning a series of demonstrations at Ibrox today and that Whyte has chosen to absent himself.
In the meantime remarks by Neil Lennon, manager of arch-rivals Celtic, likening Rangers’ previous league title successes to “financial doping” are unhelpful interventions. These only add to the tinderbox state of relations and cranks up hostility between the two. Such remarks undermine the summit last year designed to cool hostilities.
Mr Lennon could have shown some leadership by declining to comment on a situation in which he has a virulently partisan view. What is needed, both from him and the club’s chief executive, is a politic restraint and a leadership that sets a badly needed example during what is, by any standards a black week in the history of Scottish football.
All fired up about public sector payouts
DOES the Strathclyde Fire and Rescue Board have money to burn? That might be the firm conclusion of many on reading that its chief fire officer Brian Sweeney was allowed to receive £500,000 on retirement – only to be reappointed to the same role a month later.
The Accounts Commission, which monitors how public money is spent, has stepped in to ask Fraser McKinlay, the Controller of Audit, to investigate following questions raised by Price-WaterhouseCoopers in its annual audit as to whether Mr Sweeney had been independent of the decision taken by the board.
Mr Sweeney retired in July last year from his post with its reported £150,000-a-year salary but returned to work in August.
The board maintains that he was not present at board meetings when the matter was discussed and that PwC overlooked a saving to the public purse of £241,425 from Mr Sweeney not accessing his annual pension.
However, the affair has left Taxpayers Alliance Scotland blazing at what it describes “as a public sector redundancy merry-go-round”.
And it adds to a growing scepticism in the public mind as to whether there is much restraint and sacrifice at the top of public sector bodies in an era widely portrayed as one of “swingeing cuts”.
Mr Sweeney’s competence is not in question. Nor is the decision of the board to retain the services of a highly regarded officer. But might not his period in post have been extended – and his pension put on ice – until he really had retired?
Standard Life filters out electronic cigarettes
EVEN for Standard Life, a proudly traditional company now anxious to convey its commitment to modernity and contemporary mores, paternalistic attitudes die hard.
It has banned its employees from smoking artificial or “e” cigarettes – despite criticism from doctors for its hard-line approach and accusations that it is treating its 5,500 staff like children.
Even the artifice of smoking, it seems, is unacceptable in today’s Standard Life office. Bank workers at Lloyds, Scottish Widows and HBOS are all free to use electronic smoking devices if they wish.
Stressed fund managers at Standard Life could make a reasonable argument that “e” cigarettes kept them at their desks, while popping out for a cigarette break could, in today’s volatile markets, see tens of millions wiped off the value of their funds in that brief interval.
Whatever ban might the group next impose on its staff? Fiddling with paper clips? Chewing the ends of pencils? Or even resort to nicotine chewing gum? Handling policyholder queries and managing huge investment funds can be stressful occupations.
Perhaps, given the ban on even simulated smoking, the company could introduce de-stressing rooms where staff can lie down in the dark.
But clearly they should not be allowed to do so with each other. In the dark how could you tell between “e” simulation – and the real thing?