12 Jun 2012

Rangers: the taxman will not walk away

Today’s the day the taxman, in the shape of HMRC, said not only will he not be walking away from Rangers, but that they, the HMRC, “are the people”. And the people not only want their money back from this catastrophically mismanaged “football club”, but now they want to come after the men who reduced the once proud name of Ibrox to a pathetic byword for toxic governance.

And that is the real story.

It is not often that you are on holiday and find your plans are interrupted by the Voice of the Taxman, and it is hardly ever anything but bad news, I would imagine. But I have to report barely concealed joy and enthusiasm from my contact in HMRC who once memorably told me, referring to Rangers Football Club: “Remember our Eleventh Commandment, Alex – Thou Shalt Not Get Away With It.”

Not the kind of language HMRC regularly employs, but Rangers was always going to be big for them. Very big. An example. A test case. A litmus test. Take your image, but you get their drift.

So now it is all about a proper investigation. Bluntly, a CVA (company voluntary arrangement) would have allowed far too much to be simply swept under the carpet. Years of evidence, allegations, arguably an entire Ibrox culture of funny money and living beyond everyone’s means, can, as the HMRC put it this morning “now be properly investigated – and let me say there is no way we could have done that under any proposed CVA deal”.

When the CVA was proposed down at Portsmouth FC, the taxman was promised all kinds of phone number figures from any amount of whacky offshore accounts etc and guess what? Yes – they got a fraction of nowt out of it, in the end.

They were not minded at all to go down the same route this time.

In short, this is a warrant for the proper, detailed, lengthy and forensic investigation of just what David Murray, and to some extent Craig Whyte, were doing at Rangers and – yes – all those men who walked away from the club they professed to cherish and love and have run from any serious kind of questions ever since in the celebrated style of Glasgow football, largely unencumbered by any pursuit and awkward questions from the compliant press of that city who cannot handle the idea that Rangers was after so many years too corrupted to survive liquidation.

Well, now it is time to get used to the truth and reality so widely predicted and investigated online and by those notable journalists in broadcasting and papers around Glasgow who bucked the trend. They can all hold their heads high today after all the years of abuse.

The succulent lamb just went off. The stench will hang around Rangers for years to come.

So a CVL (creditors’ voluntary liquidation) is, the HMRC believes, a way of taking the gloves off, and getting to grips with, the former directors which a company voluntary arrangement (CVA) could never have done, in their view.

Getting away with it just became very, very much more difficult for all the directors involved with Rangers over the past 15 years or so, and nobody – least of all Rangers fans – can possibly do anything but welcome that fact, whatever it means for the club.

Today HMRC said this: “A CVL is the statutory process whereby a company’s assets are realised by an insolvency practitioner (the liquidator – BDO in this case it seems) and paid out to its creditors. If there is not enough to pay creditors in full after the costs of the liquidation, they will receive only a proportion of their claims. The directors and employees of the company play no part in the liquidation.”

Moreover, the actions across recent months of administrators Duff & Phelps might well now come under scrutiny. Given some of the more bizarre twists and turns, it would be astonishing if they did not.

The HMRC again: “Liquidators are required by regulatory best practice to undertake a certain minimum level of investigation into the actions of the directors of the company in the run up to its liquidation. These investigations may reveal legal actions which only liquidators can take whereby directors can be ordered by the court to compensate the company in respect of any wrongdoings they may have committed during the pre-liquidation period. If the liquidator considers it economic to pursue such actions he will do so. ”

Not only that. There are wide powers to investigate and take actions against directors including –

– Wrongful trading: directors can be ordered to make a payment to the company if they continue incurring debt at a time they should reasonably have known the company could not avoid going into liquidation.

– Transaction at an undervalue: where a director has caused an asset to be transferred to a connected party for less than its true value at a time when the company was insolvent, the asset can be transferred back to the company or the person benefitting can be ordered to compensate the company. An example would be a director buying his own company car for £1.

– Preference: where a director has paid someone with the intention of making them better off in the event of a liquidation than they would otherwise have been then they can be ordered to pay compensation to the company. An example would be a director causing the company to pay a debt that he had personally guaranteed so he would not have to meet that debt himself when the company goes into liquidation.

– Misfeasance: this covers a wide variety of breaches of duty by directors. Duties of directors are set out in the companies act and include such matters as putting the company’s interests first, and not taking account of the director’s personal interests.

And just to top it off, under the liquidation the liquidators also now have all kinds of powers to get information from directors and others with inside knowledge of the football club, and they can use the courts to do it if they have to.

Or to put it another way, Rangers directors of the recent past can run from the questions, if they like – but hiding would be futile.

So the HMRC are pretty much where they want to be in all this. And anyone who believes that if you try to thwart the taxman, they should come after you, will no doubt agree.

Questions therefore for several Scottish MSPs and First Minister Alex Salmond to answer about their blatant political interference with the HMRC – several MSPs blatantly and publicly attempting to pressure the taxman away from any liquidation. I know from sources within HMRC that basically all they managed to achieve was to antagonise the taxman who simply wanted everyone to play by the rules and for there to be no special case, no exceptions and no special pleadings.

At the time when Channel 4 News dared question whether or not their actions might not be counter-productive, given that Holyrood has no powers over HMRC, the hue and cry from said MSPs and Mr Salmond’s minders was long and loud. I wonder if they are re-examining their actions today?

And then there’s the football side of things, for Rangers did also masquerade as a football club during the long years of apparently being a casino. In immediate terms –

1. Rangers will be banned from European competition for three years.

2. Most of their players can and will leave in the coming weeks often – many having no doubt had enough of doing their bit on wage cuts of up to 75 per cent.

3. The club still faces the Big Tax Case tribunal decision laughingly due “soon after Easter”, and on that the HMRC still have no news, this could see Rangers face a further tax bill of up to £70m in dues and penalties.

4. The Scottish Premier League will soon run out of excuses to not report on its investigation into alleged wrongful player registration which, if the club is found guilty as charged, could see the club losing much of its silverware won over the past decade or so.t

5. The liquidation makes it even more difficult for both the Scottish Premier League and its appeal body the Scottish Football Association to readmit and license Rangers to play in the Scottish Premier League.

6. Despite the Green consortium’s lofty statements about buying the club’s assets, there is no guarantee that they will in fact be bought up as a job lot. There is no guarantee about simply playing on at Ibrox. There are, as things stand, few guarantees in terms of the asset sale at all.

It is hard to see any way forward with any kind of probity except starting a clean sheet at the foot of the Third Division in Scotland and playing their way back, thereby sending a message across the sporting world, at last, that some things matter more than money – even in football.

And that is what many Rangers fans – for so long ignored in all this and the people most badly sold down the river by those who “managed” their club – want to see happen. To that extent they are the people, the people who matter, and, unlike all their directors, they did not walk away and they will not.

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