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Spiers on Sport: Rangers, EBTs, what’s right and what’s wrong

Confession time: I have a distinct dislike of EBTs, as once used by Rangers FC.

I think these trust funds look morally pretty dubious, and I say this in the full knowledge that the First Tier Tribunal has just found in favour of Rangers and the Murray Group.

Indeed, I’ve called EBTs “a form of cheating” and, while the context of that comment was specific, I can’t take the remark back.

EBTS benefited (in the case of Rangers) both the club and their employees, and were to the severe detriment of the Revenue.

In Rangers’ case, HMRC believed that upwards of £45m was due to them, and thus made their claim against the Ibrox club stretching back over 10 years.

It is little wonder that – the Rangers case being incidental to this - the UK government last year tightened up EBTs in what it called an “anti-avoidance” move.

We all know the buzzwords by now. There is “tax avoidance” which, during the Rangers saga, fell within the law (just), and there is “tax evasion” which, in the case of Rangers, HMRC felt had been the issue.

After an agonising period of investigation, and examining scores of witnesses, the tribunal finally announced by a majority verdict that the Murray Group and Rangers were in the clear.

There are two distinct issues for legitimate debate here. First, the legal argument, and second, the moral argument.

Legally, Rangers stand vindicated. There should be no dubiety cast on this (though some are trying). HMRC may well announce they will appeal the Rangers decision but, as things stand, within the legal framework, the club under Sir David Murray did nothing wrong.

Morally? Quite a few take a more dissenting stance. The EBTs system allowed for tax-avoidance on a grand scale – tens of millions of pounds – which might have been put to far greater use than lining the pockets of footballers and football clubs.

The moral cliché used here is “money for schools and hospitals”, which has come to sound over-earnest, but it still touches a truth.

Not for nothing were EBTs called “a legal tax loophole” because that is precisely what they were, prior to being reined in: they allowed for unpaid taxes via disguised remuneration which everybody knew would ordinarily have gone to the Revenue.

Are we allowed, even after Rangers’ legal victory, to cite this scheme as having been morally distasteful? I hope so, because that is how many have viewed this pocket-lining process.

Since the Rangers tribunal victory there has been crowing among many Ibrox fans about “the legal right” which the decision established. Others, however, still view the system exploited as “a moral wrong”. So the debate goes on.

Having said that, I don’t mind confessing I feel a measure of relief for Murray, the man who rode Rangers into the EBTs scheme in 2001.

The last two years have been a nightmare for Murray, who has been variously labelled “the man who ruined Rangers” or the person who was “duped” into selling to Craig Whyte.

The tribunal announcement on Tuesday must have been a huge personal relief to him, given the trashing he has faced, both from sections of the Scottish media as well as among certain Rangers fans groups.

In truth, Murray only ever wanted the best for Rangers. Back in his heyday he caught glimpses of European greatness on the Ibrox horizon, and it drove him on to ever greater – and wilder – ambition for his club.

These ambitions cost money, and Murray, hardly alone in British football, saw EBTs as a way of maximising his resources.

With this decision, the former Rangers owner has been spared a further humiliation, which in all probability would have scarred him.

When this whole mess clears, I hope Rangers emerge cleaner and stronger and ready for their assault back towards the top of Scottish football. Our game needs this club back in its rightful place.

The Ibrox EBTs saga, though, will not easily be forgotten.

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