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Archive for January, 2013

A three man commission is this week looking into potential breaches of Scottish football’s rules on payments to players by the former Rangers FC. The Nimmo Smith Commission will rule on whether the club made payments to players between 2000 and 2011 without declaring them to the footballing authorities.

Now it has to be stressed that this is a different issue from that considered in the so called Big Tax Case, where the former club won an appeal against HMRC in a first tier tribunal. That one related to whether tax should have been paid on payments made to players. This one is considering the rules of football rather than the laws on tax.

In simple terms, all payments made to football players for what are defined as footballing activities must be included in a contract submitted to the footballing authorities. This includes basic wages, bonuses and any other moneys paid to them. And any additions or amendments later made to the contract must also be notified to the authorities. The allegations made against Rangers FC relate to payments allegedly made over and above their registered contracts.

The three members of the Commission – Lord William Nimmo Smith, Nicholas Stewart QC and Charles Flint QC – act for the Scottish Premier League. An initial investigation by the SPL’s solicitors found that there was a case to answer, and the evidence gathered is now being considered in detail by the Commission.

It is also worth remembering that in some of the individual cases involved in the Big Tax Case, Rangers admitted that tax should have been paid. So if these players’ contracts lodged with the authorities don’t include those payments then there is automatic guilt in the Commission case.

And where any of the charges are found to be proven, it would mean that player played while his contract was not properly registered with the league – in effect making him an ineligible player. And the rules of football mean that the result of a game in which an ineligible player takes part is usually amended to a 3 – 0 defeat.

There are plenty of precedents for this. In some cases of very minor discrepancies – a date missed out, a signature in the wrong place – the results of games have been amended and clubs thrown out of cup competitions as a result.

It should be stressed that Charles Green, chairman of the current third division club The Rangers FC, is refusing to recognise the Commission and its inquiry. And, as he is chairman of an entirely different football club, I can see why he feels that it is nothing to do with him.

Yet Green has always claimed that as well as buying the assets of the former club, the stadium and training ground, he also bought the titles it won. Now I’ve always seen that as a rather ridiculous position. How can a new club claim to “own” titles won by an entirely different club?

However should the Commission rule that ineligible players played in games that the former club won, and their results are therefore amended to defeats, then the final league tables for several seasons may look very different. And that means the footballing record books will require amendment to remove titles from the former Rangers FC – in exactly the same manner as Lance Armstrong has had titles stripped from his record.

This is not a sanction or a punishment but simply the inevitable result of a ruling that ineligible players were fielded. The commission would decide on punishment separately should it come to a guilty verdict. Although what the point of fining a club that is already in liquidation with massive debts that will never be paid would be, I’m not quite sure.

Rangers’ fans are being represented at the hearing by lawyers paid for by the Rangers Fans Fighting Fund. They claim to have amassed a sum of half a million pounds to fight any attempts to have titles won by their former club removed. And they will, in all likelihood, go to court should that happen.

The Commission is likely to announce its findings next week.

It seems that the saga around the activities of the former Rangers Football Club will continue to run and run. As well as this commission, HMRC is still likely to appeal against the decision in the Big Tax Case and take the matter to an upper tier tribunal.

Rangers FC may be in liquidation. But the issues surrounding it will continue to keep the lawyers busy for a long time to come.

 

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So David Cameron has finally made his big speech on Europe. The long awaited setting out of the Prime Ministerial position. The delayed keynote speech detailing his philosophy on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union.

It seems that after due thought and statesman like deliberation Cameron has come to the conclusion that there will be need to be negotiations, and depending on their outcome, and if he wins the next election in 2015 there could then be an “in-out” referendum in 2017.

Well, that was worth waiting for, wasn’t it?

Of course we all know that he was trying to find a way to placate his own right wing, which is full of rabid little Englanders, and also to appeal to prospective UKIP voters. This was about David Cameron’s leadership of the Tory party rather than the good of the UK. But then politicians play politics, don’t they? It’s not really about democracy or the economic needs of the country. It’s about what suits them and their party best.

Now the UK is a country which is not really that keen on referendums .. or is it referenda? These big votes tend to be reserved for key constitutional issues and most of the time we are expected to leave our elected politicians to sort things out on our behalf. Representative democracy at work.

But here in Scotland we could have two big votes to look forward to in the coming years. And there are some interesting parallels when you look at the positions of the Prime Minister of the UK and of Scotland’s First Minister.

Cameron doesn’t want a quick EU referendum as he fears what the outcome might be. Salmond set the independence vote for 2014 for exactly the same reason. He knows he can’t win now and hopes things will change.

Cameron treats the EU as a remote foreign body rather than something that the UK is a component part of, while Salmond’s approach to the UK is identical.

Cameron states that the EU must agree to repatriate powers to his government while Salmond wants all power for the Scottish government.

Cameron maintains that years of uncertainty won’t do any economic damage and Salmond uses exactly the same argument.

Cameron knows a referendum defeat would end his political career in spectacular fashion and Salmond knows that his one political dream is in danger of being rejected as support for independence falls.

Yes, there are real similarities between the approaches of these two very different politicians.

Now where things get really interesting is if you look at the two referenda together.

We know that there has been a lengthy debate about whether a theoretical independent Scotland would automatically become a member of the EU or whether as a new country it would need to apply in some fashion to join. Let’s not rehash that one, and for now simply state that there is no clear and definitive answer to the question.

But if there was to be a massive swing in Scottish opinion leading to an unexpected vote for separation in 2014 then that would obviously make any UK vote on EU membership to be held in 2017 irrelevant to the newly independent country.

Would there be a referendum in this new Scotland on EU membership, either actual or proposed? Alex Salmond says no. An independent Scotland would be (or become) an EU member state in its own right. There would be no vote.

Salmond clearly hopes that those who are pro Europe, and that appears to be a majority of Scots, will now feel that a No vote in the Scottish referendum could then expose Scotland to the danger of leaving the EU through the later UK vote. He has talked of the “Tory threat” in this regard. He wants pro-Europeans to feel that the safest path to continued EU membership might just be through independence.

Conversely I think he has calculated that those who oppose EU membership are unlikely to vote in large numbers for an independent Scotland in any case. It’s not a matter of principle but one of politics, much like Cameron’s gamble on a referendum.

Europe has been a lively issue here in Scotland in recent months, and David Cameron’s party difficulties have led him to place it high on his political agenda. And it seems as though there will continue to be as many in-out discussions around the UK in the EU as there are around Scotland in the UK.

 

 

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Our cash strapped country currently maintains a royal family at a cost of £200,000,000 each year. But we are repeatedly told that this is purely ceremonial and that we live in a constitutional monarchy where the Windsors have no real power.

Yet this week a court decision has shown the true extent of the Queen and Prince Charles’s secretive power of veto over proposed new laws.

The government fought to keep the royal veto process under wraps, an interesting step for an elected administration to take. But a court ruled that we have a right to know what happens in our supposed democracy. And so we can now see just how wide the powers that the monarch and her heir have over new legislation actually are.

We are not talking about the ceremonial Royal Assent that involves the monarch signing bills passed by parliament as they move into law. Rather there is a little known royal veto process that demands advance consultation, and can see prospective legislation rejected before our elected MPs ever have a chance to debate it.

As an example, we are told that the Queen completely vetoed the Military Actions Against Iraq Bill in 1999, a private member’s bill that sought to transfer the power to authorise military strikes against Iraq from the monarch to parliament.

Think what that means. A bill that would have enhanced the power of parliament in such a fundamental area was not even discussed purely because the queen said so.

We do not as yet have a full list of potential bills that have been vetoed, or indeed know all where the royals have had their say. Andrew George, Liberal Democrat MP for St Ives, which includes land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, the Prince of Wales’ hereditary estate, has submitted parliamentary questions to try to find out.

But we do know from the papers issued following the court order that the Queen’s consent is needed for laws affecting hereditary revenues, personal property or the personal interests of the Crown, the Duchy of Lancaster or the Duchy of Cornwall, where her son is also consulted. Now given that the royal roles here includes those of landowner, employer and business owner, the list of issues that might be covered is vast.

So any proposed change to employment law, for example, has to be cleared with the royals before it can even be discussed in parliament. How can that possibly be defended in a supposed democratic country?

The British public is still largely enamoured by the lives of the House Of Windsor. Like some medieval costume drama, the press reports on every move, every dress and every utterance as if it actually mattered. But all of the pomp and ceremony simply covers the true power that still comes with the hereditary crown.

The royal family is the tip of a social system that concentrates power and wealth in the hands of the few at the top. Rather than debating whether our monarch after next can be a firstborn daughter or not we should be looking to rid ourselves of this feudal system.

Has there ever been a stronger case for an elected and accountable head of state than the revelations that the royal veto can override any other view in the land?

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Why do so many religious bodies seem to spend so much time debating issues related to sex? I’m no psychologist, but there seems to be something rather odd at work in the collective psyche in the Church of England right now.

Not content with splitting itself over whether women should be allowed to become bishops, the established church in England has, it seems, been debating whether or not gay men should be allowed to don whatever fancy robes their bishops wear.

Now normally such a discussion in a church would be of interest only to the ever decreasing numbers who actually take part in its activities. But as an established church, the C of E is allied to the state. Some of its senior figures sit in the House of Lords, taking part in the governance of the country, and the appointments the church makes are therefore of interest to all of us.

So back to the division in the church. On the one hand there are the fundamentalists who say no to gay bishops, arguing that the bible defines gay sex as a sin. Then there are the modernisers who say yes, contending that a church must change to reflect the society it finds itself in. So it was perhaps inevitable that the House of Bishops would look to fudge the issue.

Their rather bizarre solution is that gay men will now be allowed to become bishops as long as they are in a civil partnership – but don’t ever have sex. And they must also repent for any past sins, meaning sexual acts of course. No, this is not a long lost Monty Python movie script, although it sounds very much like one.

Now this raises so many questions. Why not single gay celibate men? Just what will the interview process be? What exactly constitutes gay sex in the Church’s view? What sort of guarantees will any potential candidate be expected to give? How will their continued celibacy be monitored once in post?

And can you imagine the conversation that a gay candidate would have with his partner, telling him that there was good news and bad news: a possible promotion to look forward to – but also a lifetime without sex. (There’s a joke about bashing the bishop in here somewhere …)

There are those who see the fact that the church has moved this far as a good thing. The Rev Sharon Ferguson of the Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement said the change was welcome. “This is good news that makes common sense,” she said.

But the Rev Rod Thomas from Reform, which is an evangelical network that wants the church to be more traditional, said, “It’s a very worrying development. If someone were to be appointed who was in a civil partnership, that would be a very divisive step”

So should a Christian church not simply stick to the biblical position? After all they do believe that it is the word of their god, don’t they? “You shall not lie with a man, as with a woman: it is abomination” according to Leviticus. Seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?

But then a lot of things are wrong according to Leviticus. Eating three day old cooked meat for example. Harvesting the corners of fields. Cursing the deaf. Wearing a garment of mixed linen and wool. Shaving the side of your head. Tattoos. All of these are forbidden in that one book of the bible.

And there are some pretty strict rules for priests there in Leviticus too. They cannot become bald, must only marry virgins and cannot offer the bread of god to any disabled person. Honestly, it’s all in there.

I’m sure anyone who considers homosexuality to be wrong because of the biblical prohibition also follows all of these other rules, and also the many other oddities that their holy book contains. Because to pick and choose which of their god’s pronouncements to obey and which to ignore would be rather hypocritical, wouldn’t it?

But back to the Church of England. It will be interesting to see what happens the first time that a gay man applies for a post as a bishop. Just how will they apply these rather strange new rules – and how will congregations react to them?

The Church has got itself into a rather strange position after its considerations of who can become a bishop, first over women and now over gay men

Its conclusion seems to be that a bishop must have a penis, but can only use it in some circumstances.

 

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It seems as though Scotland’s football leagues are about to be reconfigured yet again. Four divisions will become three and three governing bodies will become two – at least if discussions between the Scottish Premier League and the Scottish Football League are as near to conclusion as weekend press reports suggest.

The drivers for more change to the professional game are not clear. Better distribution of prize money and more play off games have been mentioned – but could this not have been achieved within the current four division set up?

And why rush to have something agreed for implementation as soon as next season? Why change the rules regarding promotion and relegation in the middle of a league campaign? Is there an ulterior motive at work here? More on that one later.

The current league set up is a Scottish Premier League (SPL) of 12 teams and three leagues of 10 teams each below that operating as the Scottish Football League.

The new proposal would see the two bodies merge to form the Scottish Professional Football League, operating three divisions with a 12-12-18 structure. On what basis has three divisions been decreed as the ideal model? No one knows. And why such a relatively large bottom division rather than three of similar size? Again no one has explained.

But it seems those who have designed this new structure wish to make it as complicated as possible. In the top two divisions, teams will initially play each other home and away. A split will come after those 22 games, following which the bottom four clubs in the top division and the top four from the second tier will play a further 14 games home and away to determine which four clubs will secure top-flight status for the following season.

The top eight teams from the top division play each other again home and away to decide the title and European places. Similarly the bottom eight in the second division will play again, presumably with the bottom team or teams being relegated and their places in the following season’s second division being taken by the top team or teams from the third division.

All as clear as mud, isn’t it?

I’m no fan of league splits or play offs. I’d rather have a straightforward system where all teams play each other a set number of times home and away. The team with the most points wins and the team with the least points comes last. In fact, exactly the way that most football leagues around the world work. Austria and Switzerland have both used similar systems in the past – but both have dumped them and gone back to a more straightforward league set up.

Splitting two divisions into three half way through the season seems to be a rather bizarre system. And it is in the middle of these sections that things would work very strangely. As the teams will have come from two different divisions, the bottom of the premier division and the top of the middle one, they would have an unequal number of points. So presumably all would have to start again from zero for the second half, the mini league stage.

Look at how this would work from the current league tables.

The bottom four teams in the SPL currently range from Hearts with 26 points to Dundee with 12 points. Yet under the new structure they would start the second half of the season on equal points – hardy fair on Hearts, is it? Similarly in the current first division, top placed Dunfermline on 36 points would lose the 11 point lead they have built over fourth placed Raith Rovers.

There is one other interesting factor to look at – the transition from current to new structures, which we are told will take place at the end of this campaign. Forget all of the rules on promotion and relegation that clubs thought they were playing to – different ones are now required to determine where clubs will play next season.

The new top division will have 12 teams in it, so here we could perhaps keep things as they would otherwise have been, with 11 clubs from the current SPL joined by the champions of the current first division.

That means that the new middle division of 12 teams could be made up of the SPL’s bottom team, the remaining 9 from the current first division and the top two from the current second division. Or perhaps the last placed first division team would drop into the new bottom division with three teams to be promoted.

And that leaves the remaining 18 teams to form the new bottom division. Now this would include all 10 sides from the current third division – effectively making the rest of their season entirely meaningless.

The only possible alternative would be to have one team from the third jump over many other sides to join the new middle division – and that would hardly be fair would it? The team finishing in 33rd place finding itself promoted to the top 24? That club would be the one clear winner in all of this.

I wonder if it will affect the thinking on this final point when the powers that be realise that the club we are talking about here is likely to be brand new club The Rangers?

Remember that last summer attempts to parachute The Rangers into the SPL were made but rebuffed. A second vote, to allow the new club to join the current first division, was also defeated before it was allocated a place in the third division. And there has been talk since of “fast tracking” the club through the league structures – supposedly for commercial reasons.

Now would it be paranoid to suggest that we are finally getting to the nub of the sudden need for immediate league reconstruction? Could a new set up allow The Rangers to be placed in the middle division of three? And therefore give them a great chance to make it into the top division for the next season through the bizarre new version of the league split?

Why it’s almost as if the whole thing was designed for the benefit of The Rangers, isn’t it?

 

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There are likely to be a few big political battles during the forthcoming year. At Westminster the economic arguments will continue as recession looms yet again, while the Lib Dems will strain the coalition as they try to show that they are not just stooges for the Tories. Meanwhile Europe and marriage equality will continue to exercise back bench Tory minds. And in Scotland there are now less than two years to go until the referendum.

The first big battle of the year though will be on the subject of welfare benefits. In his Autumn Statement George Osborne announced a bill that would mean most benefits for those of working age would be increased by a mere 1% per annum for the next three years – well below the expected rate of inflation in each year. In other words three years of cuts in real terms.

Cameron, Osborne and co feel that this is an issue they can gain support on. After all ever Daily Mail reader knows that everyone on benefits is a workshy scrounger who doesn’t want a job. And many of them are immigrants too. So cutting benefits will not only save money, it will also encourage these scroungers to go out and get one of the many jobs available everywhere. (Note – there is no prize for noticing the obvious flaw here.)

And the posh boys also think that this wheeze will put Labour in a difficult position, forcing them to defend scroungers. But Ed Milliband and Ed Balls look to be up to the challenge, arguing rightly that benefits claimants, those in work and those unemployed or sick, are entitled to a minimum standard of living, and that a 3% rise on the basic £71.00 per week level of adult Jobseekers Allowance is hardly reckless spending or the equivalent of a lottery win.

Iain Duncan Smith has now entered the fray, releasing a series of figures to back the Tory case. But the problem for IDS is that, like George Osborne’s economic approach, the figures just don’t stand up.

Smith claims that benefits have risen over the past three years at a faster rate that private sector wages. Now when you have to define a category of wages over an arbitrary time period to make your case then that should flag up a problem immediately. Look back five years and we find benefits falling behind wages. Pick another arbitrary point, say 1979, and we find that unemployment benefit was 22% of the average wage compared to 15% today. So the long term picture is actually of falling benefits.

Smith has also pulled out the old myth of fraudulent benefit claims costing the country billions. Yet his own department’s figures show that less than 1% of benefits are misclaimed – less than the amount that staff errors cost. And less than the amount of benefits unclaimed by those who do not know what their full entitlement actually is. More Tory lies then.

But in essence this is a political argument and not a financial one. The Tories are attempting to cut the living standards of the poorest in the country at the same time as those on the highest rate of income tax are given a bonus. The driver is ideological and not economic. And a benefits freeze is only one strand of the attack.

Later this year the government’s benefit cap will come into play, limiting the total amount that any family can receive. The usual Tory rhetoric of “making work pay” will be used, but the reality is that most of those who claim high levels of benefits do so because of expensive rental levels. Analysis by the Children’s Society indicates that some 220,000 children will suffer as their parents are forced to cut spending or try to find cheaper accommodation. And many will be forced to move to different areas in search of affordable housing, especially from London and other cities where rents are highest. Of course acting against landlords and controlling rents would mean interfering with the market, something that the Tories are not too keen on.

The process of “reassessing” those on Incapacity Benefit as they are moved to Employment and Support Allowance continues, with many likely to lose out. And severely disabled people will also face difficulties as Personal Independence Payment (PIP) will be introduced to replace Disability Living Allowance (DLA), which meets the costs of care and mobility. Again this will mean cuts for many. The assessments are meant to be objective – but we are told beforehand that they will result in a reduced number entitled to benefit.

But the biggest change to welfare payments will begin in April with the trial of Iain Duncan Smith’s big idea – Universal Credit. This is described as a simplification of the complex benefits system, but not surprisingly many will find their benefits cut. According to the DWP’s own impact assessment, “approximately 2.8m households will have notionally lower entitlement than they would have done as a result of Universal Credit. The average reduction in entitlement is estimated to be £137 per month.”

And at the heart of Universal Credit lies a complex computer system that, at present, does not work. Given the poor track record of large government IT projects the idea that all claimants will be switched to the new system by October seems fanciful. Treasury secretary David Gauke stated in a parliamentary answer that the system underpinning UC failed for over a quarter of pilot cases in November. It has also been reported that at least one cabinet minister sees problems, calling it a “disaster waiting to happen”– but IDS is not for delaying any further.

The Tories are driving the income of the most vulnerable in society down, aided it has to be said by their Lib Dem partners. Their hope is that this will help them to stop the haemorrhaging of support that sees them trail in the opinion polls. For Labour this is the time for Ed Miliband to stand up and fight back. He must show that his One Nation rhetoric has some substance behind it by fighting for a basic living standard for all.

There are many people who want to work, or to increase part time hours to make a decent income. But the jobs are simply not there because of the economic slump made worse by this government’s failed economic policies. The debate is really a simple one: do we see the most vulnerable people in society as worthy of help and support – or do we define them all as scroungers?

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