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Archive for September, 2012

It is surely no surprise to anyone that the European Commission has entered the debate on the SNP government’s policy of introducing a minimum price for alcohol. So this is a fight that the Scottish government would have been expecting – but is it one that Alex Salmond actually wants?

The European Commission has argued that minimum pricing would be in breach of trade laws that promote competition in the EU. Bulgaria, France, Italy, Portugal and Spain – all producers of alcoholic drinks – have all lodged objections too. And the Scotch Whisky Association is pursuing an action through the Court of Session questioning the legality of the policy.

Minimum pricing would increase the price of cheaper bottles of spirits to around £14. A quick look at the Asda website showed they are selling own brand vodka at £10.27 a bottle and whisky at £11.96.The logic is that higher prices would decrease the amount that people could afford to drink.

Health experts predict that this could save 50 or 60 lives every year. I have my doubts as to the impact on hardened drinkers. Addicts will always find the money they need – after all heroin isn’t exactly cheap and many beg, steal or borrow to get the funds they need. But higher prices might reduce the amount that some people drink, and that can’t be a bad thing.

The new Cabinet Secretary for Health, Alex Neil, is not for backing down. “The European Commission is in favour of addressing alcohol abuse and have asked us to consider their points, which we will. We are confident that we can demonstrate that minimum price is justified on the basis of public health and social grounds and I will continue to press the case for minimum pricing in the strongest possible terms,” he said.

So it seems that there will be a fight. But does it suit Alex Salmond and his government to be seen as standing up against big bad Europe to defend what is a generally popular policy? With one eye on the referendum that is to come – and we all know that is Salmond’s absolute priority – I think that it does.

There are those within Salmond’s own party who disagree with the notion of independence in Europe, arguing that a truly independent country cannot exist within the EU. So putting some distance between the Scottish Government and Europe is no bad thing for Salmond right now.

And any situation where Salmond can be seen as standing up for Scotland on an international stage is a gift. The First Minister loves to be seen as an important figure beyond the confines of Scotland and will take any opportunity to play on the world stage. Especially when he can play the underdog, standing up for what he will argue is Scotland’s right to set its own policy.

So a challenge from the EU is no bad thing from an SNP perspective. If they were to win it would be seen as an endorsement of their approach and a victory worthy of celebration. A defeat would not be a disaster as it would be used as fuel for the independence argument – Salmond would find a way to blame the UK as the member state of the European Union, I’m sure.

One last thought. Did this expected EU challenge play a part in the decision to move Nicola Sturgeon from the health brief? It leaves Alex Neil to deal with alcohol pricing while Sturgeon is free to concentrate on arguing for independence.

 

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No, that title is not a mistake. The former Sun editor really does think that he has been wronged and is due an apology.

As everyone knows, the comic masquerading as a newspaper that MacKenzie used to edit blamed Liverpool fans for the tragic events that cost 96 people their lives. The despicable front page article titled “The Truth” that MacKenzie ran led to The Sun being boycotted on Merseyside – and rightly so.

 

But now the bold Kelvin claims that it wasn’t his fault. He was duped, he says. The police lied and all he did was to report it. And so he has now instructed his lawyers to write to South Yorkshire Police seeking an apology for giving his journalists misleading information.

MacKenzie states in a magazine article that he has been “deeply affected by the affair”, adding that he is not a victim but has “suffered collateral damage”.

Damage? Almost 100 people died, their families were denied the truth for over 20 years in a massive cover up and a newspaper editor thinks he suffered damage? Don’t make me laugh.

A South Yorkshire Police spokesman stated that, “It is well known that many media outlets ran similar stories at the time based on the same sources but chose to treat them differently.”

“Mr MacKenzie was responsible for the particular headline he chose to run with.”

And there is the rub. MacKenzie ran a story slanted against Liverpool fans. He endorsed an article containing allegations that have proven to have no substance as if they were facts. He must accept the consequences for those decisions.

The Daily Mirror was given the same briefing as The Sun but decided not to believe it as the content could not be verified. Indeed Mirror journalists concluded that the police were simply trying to divert attention from their own failings – a correct analysis as we now know. The different approach taken is clear in its headline: “Fury as police claim victims were robbed.”

Very different, in other words, to “The Truth”.

 

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Zombie: noun – a corpse said to be revived by witchcraft, especially in certain African and Caribbean religions (Oxford English dictionary)

The banner pictured above was displayed at a friendly between Celtic and Norwich City back in July. Now, a full two month later, the Scottish Football Association has issued a Notice of Complaint against Celtic, alleging that by allowing fans to display this “offensive banner” the club broke no fewer than four separate disciplinary rules.

Now this is not a spoof. It’s not a lead in to a Monty Python script. This is the SFA at its worst.

The background to the banner is obvious. It mocks, in very clever fashion, the descent of the former football club Rangers FC, its death and the attempts to revive it as a new club, which now plays in the fourth tier of Scottish football under the same name.

For most people this is called satire. But according to Mr Vincent Lunny, the SFA’s Compliance Officer, it is offensive. I don’t know if he received any complaints from actual zombies or whether he was acting purely off his own back. Or if he just had nothing better to do one afternoon.

So who exactly is this banner offensive to?

Did they pass some sort of Undead Rights Act when I wasn’t looking? Are zombies covered by the Disability Discrimination Act now? It all gets rather absurd. The only thing I know is that the European Human Rights Act can’t be blamed as human rights clearly end with death.

So we are left with one of two explanations. Either Mr Lunny is suffering from a severe sense of humour bypass or this is simply an attempt to have a go at Celtic. The idea that anyone would actually see the cartoon shooting of a zombie as genuinely offensive is too absurd to contemplate.

It is perhaps worth taking a look at a related matter from the world of social media. In an age where many millions of tweets and posts are written every day there are bound to be a fair few that cause offence. But where should the line be drawn between legitimate free speech and offensive behaviour?

The Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales, Keir Starmer, has been looking into this matter. He announced this week that a consultation will be launched on the subject following some recent high profile cases. And in a blog he wrote:

“If the fundamental right to free speech is to be respected, the threshold for criminal prosecution has to be a high one and a prosecution has to be required in the public interest.”

Now I know that the SFA isn’t raising a criminal; prosecution; it doesn’t have that power thankfully. But it is still a regulatory body acting here in a quasi judicial role. And it should surely take account of the right to free speech when considering matters like this. It should also perhaps get itself a sense of humour.

Clearly this banner was intended as a dig at a former rival. It used humour to make its point. It did not contain language or imagery that could be construed as sectarian, racist or anything else that the law might legitimately have an interest in. So where is the offence? And why is it in the public interest, or indeed in the interest of Scottish football, to bring these charges?

I don’t like the phrase common sense, as in my experience good sense is a rather rare commodity. So I would call on Mr Lunny to show some good sense here and cancel the planned disciplinary hearing.

Or is he afraid that the zombies will be outraged and come after him?

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The recently published 29th British Social Attitudes Survey has a vast array of interesting results. It shows a country that sees health as its priority (68%), but wants to see a reduction in immigration (75%). A country that is steadily losing trust in all political parties but still believes in a United Kingdom.

And it also shows a country where religion is less relevant than ever. 45.7% of respondents stated that they do not belong to a religion. And this figure rises to 65% for the 18–24 age group.

Since the British Social Attitudes survey was first produced in 1983, religious affiliation among people in Britain has dropped from 68% to the current figure of 54%. Clearly this is a trend and not just a one off finding or a statistical blip.

The survey also showed that levels of religious practice remain static at a fairly low level, with only 14.3% attending religious services once a week or more. So it seems that even among those who consider themselves to have a religion, under a third actually attend a church or equivalent place of worship.

The annual British Social Attitudes Survey is prepared by the National Centre for Social Research and asks a vast array of questions to a sample of over 3,000 people, representing a cross section of the British population.

The religion with which the largest number identify is ‘Church of England’ at 21.1%. 8.7% of respondents identified as ‘Roman Catholic’, and 10.1% identified as ‘Christian’ but did not give a specific denomination. 3.4% of respondents identified as ‘Muslim’, 2.2% as ‘Hindu’, 0.8% as ‘Jewish’, 0.4% described as ‘Sikh’, and 0.2% as ‘Buddhist’.

The results of the questions on religion have not been widely publicised, with the media concentrating on findings about attitudes to public spending and immigration. But surely almost half of respondents having no religion is worthy of comment?

The academics who analysed the 2011 findings concluded that this long term decline in religion is not good news for the current Government, which seems more and more inclined to involve religion in public life.

“What does this decline mean for society and social policy more generally? On the one hand, we can expect to see a continued increase in liberal attitudes towards a range of issues such as abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and euthanasia, as the influence of considerations grounded in religion declines. Moreover, we may see an increased reluctance, particularly among the younger age groups, for matters of faith to enter the social and public spheres at all.

“The recently expressed sentiment of the current coalition government to “do” and “get” God (Baroness Warsi, 2011) therefore may not sit well with, and could alienate, certain sections of the population.”

Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs at the British Humanist Association, commented on the government’s attitude. “Certain government ministers have recently taken a more aggressive stance regarding the role of religion in public life, and have claimed that Britain is still a Christian country. We urge the government to take note of these new survey results, and to recognise the fact that almost half of the British population are in fact non-religious,” he said.

At a time when church leaders are commonly in the media being quoted on all sorts of subjects it seems strange that I cannot find a single quote from any religion on this survey. Perhaps they are all too busy with campaigns against marriage equality?

 

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Some people seem to think I’m obsessed with a certain club in the third division of Scottish football, judging by past comments on this blog. This is not the case at all – I simply find the machinations and mental gymnastics taking place around the case of Rangers/ “The Rangers”/ Sevco 5088/ Sevco Scotland fascinating.

And it’s my blog so I’ll write about whatever interests or amuses me. That’s the rule.

Now, after many months of debate, where football fans have had to get to grips with the worlds of corporate finance, company law and insolvency practice, exactly where are we with the various corporate entities involved in this saga?

Terminology is everything in this discussion. It has generated many column inches, or whatever the web equivalent is, of text. Fans of the team that plays in blue at Ibrox (let’s be vague just for now) are desperate to believe that the history of their club is unbroken. They argue that the various corporate entities are simply the owners of a football club, which is separate from all of them and has a continuous life of its own.

The problem for them is that their position does not stand up to a logical assessment.

Rangers Football Club was formed in 1872.It was simply a sporting club with members who probably paid subscriptions and a committee elected according to a constitution. Now such a club has no legal identity in law, it is simply a group of like minded people coming together to do something collectively, be it organise fishing trips or football matches. In the modern parlance it is an unincorporated voluntary organisation.

The club later incorporated, that is it became a company. It changed its legal status and so obtained a legal identity. Rangers Football Club Ltd was not then a new entity, simply a new form of the original club. And when that limited company later became a public limited company it had again simply changed its legal status. Rangers Football Club PLC was a continuation of Rangers Football Club Ltd was a continuation of Rangers Football Club.

So there is an unbroken line from 1972 to 2012. The club existed all that time, simply taking different legal forms. But that, as we all know, is when things changed.

Rangers Football Club PLC was placed into administration with massive debts. Administrators were appointed to run the club in accordance with Scots law. An agreement was proposed to creditors seeking to pay them a mere fraction of what they were owed but this was not accepted.

And so the administrators of the club sold its assets to one Charles Green. Note that he did not buy the corporate entity, the company, but merely its assets. He didn’t want to take on the debts as well, of course.

So the owner of the assets, Ibrox and Murray Park, was now Green’s company called Sevco Scotland. Some of the players transferred from the old company to the new one while others walked away. Confusingly, this company has apparently now changed its name to Rangers Football Club Ltd. But if you check with Companies House you will find that it is Company No. SC425159 and was formed on 29 May 2012.

The original company still exists. It is still in administration, with liquidation to come soon. It has no assets but retains massive debts that we know will never be paid. But that company still exists – and is totally separate from the brand new company that it sold its assets to.

So where does this leave us?

There are now two corporate bodies. An old one with debts that used to own a football ground and employ football players, which is not now a member of any football league. And a new one that now owns the ground and employs football players, playing in the third division.

Clearly they are different legal structures. There is no unbroken history from one to the other. That’s why the players had to be transferred from one to the other and the new entity had to apply to join the football league.

But the argument is that a football club is not a corporate entity, it is something else.

So what exactly is it then? No one can come up with an explanation that makes any sense. Of course fans support a football team not a company. But the team is merely something that the company controls; it has no separate identity in law. It would be like arguing that he Woolworth’s shop on Argyle Street was not simply something that the company operated and could continue to exist when it went bust. It wasn’t and it didn’t. The shop that now operates from those premises is not in any sense Woolworth’s.

In football there simply is no separate “club” that is operated by a company. They are one and the same thing. The company employs the players and coaches, sells the tickets, banks the money and (in theory at least) lives up to the footballing and legal responsibilities of the bodies that govern it.

Top level professional football clubs actually ceased to be clubs in any meaningful sense a long time ago. They are now, in the main, corporate structures owned by shareholders and not clubs controlled by members. And we all know that companies can go bust. They can cease to exist yet have their assets used by new companies, often for the same purpose.

And that’s exactly why the football team playing in the third division as “The Rangers” is now is a separate entity from the football team that used to play in the SPL as Rangers.

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A government reshuffle has been on the cards for some time now, and David Cameron has made all of the major announcements this morning. There are not too many surprises in the announcements though.

None of the government’s top cabinet ministers were expected to move, and that was exactly how things worked out. The likes of George Osborne, William Hague, Theresa May, Philip Hammond, Ed Davey, Michael Gove, Eric Pickles, Michael Moore, Vince Cable and Danny Alexander stay in the same jobs.

But Cameron did make quite a few changes to the cabinet.

Ken Clarke was widely tipped for a move from Justice and he now becomes a Minister Without Portfolio, i.e. a cabinet minister without a department to run. Is this a step down, or will he have a wider platform across government? Could be interesting.

Ian Duncan Smith was apparently offered the Justice brief, but decided to stay at Work and Pensions. And that has to be bad news for everyone as his “reforms” bite. His deputy Chris Grayling got Clarke’s old job instead – an obvious move to the right

Andrew Lansley was moved from Health to become Leader of the House of Commons – a clear demotion in an area where the government has rightly been heavily criticised. Jeremy Hunt’s takes over – a reward for his defences of the government at Leverson. Mind you, is someone so close to the Murdochs in charge of the NHS a good idea? He will probably try to give them the odd hospital to run. Well if Virgin can run health services then why not, he might think.

Andrew Mitchell moves from International development to become Chief Whip, replacing Patrick McLoughlin who is the new Transport Secretary. Owen Patterson moves from Northern Ireland to Environment.

Lady Sayeeda Warsi’s replacement as chairman (sic) of the Tory Party was no surprise, despite her pleas to keep the job. Her appointment to a role at the Foreign Office is something of a sweetener and she will also have a role as minister for faith and communities. Overall it is a demotion though.

Justine Greening leaves Transport for International Development, while Caroline Spelman’s gaffe ridden time at environment is over as is Cheryl Gillan’s tenure as Welsh Secretary. Maria Miller takes over at Culture and Theresa Villiers was promoted to the cabinet, getting the Northern Ireland job.

On Nick Clegg’s side of the coalition there was little movement. David Laws, the Lib Dem former chief secretary to the Treasury, becomes a junior Education minister. Laws was the first person to resign from the Coalition cabinet – after being caught out for claiming over £40,000 in expenses that he wasn’t entitled to. Interesting that he is now thought worthy of promotion, isn’t it?

Changes at junior level will continue to be announced throughout the day, although Cameron may have to look hard for “rising stars” to promote.

So what does this all actually mean? In reality we will not see too many changes on government policy as a result, especially as none of the key economic briefs have changed hands. Cameron has tried to appease the right in his own party, particular by removing Ken Clarke from Justice and replacing him with Chris Grayling.

Perhaps the two areas of greatest interest will be Clarke’s new role across government given his reputation for speaking his mind and Jeremy Hunt at Health. I’m sure the opposition will be looking forward to that.

The reshuffle will not affect the governments popularity, or lack of it, greatly. Only a change in the economic mess could do that – and the reluctance of the Prime Minister and his Chancellor to admit that their policies are not working makes change unlikely.

So the game of political musical chairs is over for now. But don’t expect it to matter too much.

 

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