City Diary

IT APPEARS things may be worse at Reuters, the financial information group, than we feared. Not content with shipping most of its staff to Tiverton in Devon, where they pay them a fraction of London wages, it has imposed a tight budget on its staff Christmas lunch - no more than pounds 5 a head, including drinks, will be allowed. Any extra has to be paid for by the staff themselves.

"Tiverton may be cheaper than Fleet Street," muttered one Devon-based employee, "but it's not that bloody cheap." In London staff will be served with mulled wine by Peter Job, Reuters' chief executive.

IF ANYONE thought it was going to be a grim New Year's Eve for the thousands of IT professionals chained to their desks to ensure that there are no computer crashes come the millennium, it looks like it is going to get grimmer. About 200 of them, we are told, will be phoning the Financial Services Authority hourly to tell them that all's well, while the rest of us party (or sleep) the day away.

Silicon.com, the online IT service, is offering online competitions to keep up interest during the wee small hours. The Y2K survival kit includes doling out pounds 2,000 handouts to the winners of a "Why I deserve Y2K" competition, a game that generates fool-proof excuses. An example of the stunning wit - "Don't blame me, my PC isn't working because it has just discovered girls and our NT server has heard Cliff Richard's single so many times it has gone insane." Can't wait.

IF YOU are bored, try Start-Up, a computer game that allows you to be a Silicon Valley tycoon from the safety of your workstation. Brought to you by the same people who gave us Wall Street Trade 99, it promises that you too can "create your own worldwide commercial empire and become the virtual Bill Gates of the 21st century".

Start-up is the creative fruit of Jean-Marc de Fety - a former CSFB vice-president, it says on the box - and Jean-Christophe Marquis, a former Mars strategy consultant. Of course, while you are pretending to get rich being a virtual tycoon, they are trying to be the real thing.

LIKE MOST organisations, we have been inundated by large quantities of Christmas cards, many bearing cheery messages from people we've never met. So hats off to HSBC, which has been keeping up its five-year-old tradition of giving the money it would have spent on corporate Christmas cards to charity. This year the bank is giving pounds 25,000 each to Action Against Breast Cancer, CancerBacup, Fauna and Flora International, the International Centre for Child Studies, RYA Sailability and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. HBSC has raised pounds 600,000 for charity this way.

TALKING OF Christmas cards, it was with untold delight that I opened an envelope bearing the unmistakable hand of that old hero, Howard Hodgson. If you need reminding, he is the Birmingham entrepreneur who made his name as the most flamboyant funeral director in the land, but later turned his attention to the perhaps less depressing enterprise of selling cigarette lighters.

Now, it seems, he has found another outlet for his talents. Beaming from his Christmas card in his dapper wedding attire as he shows off his dazzling (third) bride, Christine, Mr Hodgson is every inch the cheesemaker extraordinaire.

STRANGE goings-on in Edinburgh, where a self-styled Spanish financier, Jacques Hachuel, has engaged Peter Watson, a Scottish lawyer, and Jack Irvine, a former Scottish tabloid journalist, in a bid to frustrate Royal Bank of Scotland's ambitions towards NatWest.

Mr Hachuel, who claims to be a shareholder of Banco Santander, Royal Bank of Scotland and NatWest, says he is totally opposed to the RBS bid for NatWest on the grounds that the bidder is receiving the support of the Spanish bank. According to a press release that came thudding on to my desk on Friday evening, Mr Hachuel was claiming that Banco Santander officials were set to come on trial in Spain for alleged money laundering, and therefore make wholly unsuitable partners for RBS or NatWest. He later issued a correction, alleging that the charges that the Banco Santander bigwigs faced were lesser ones of alleged tax evasion.

The allegations bear a remarkable similarity to stories that have surfaced in some Spanish publications recently and which, we understand, have been vigorously denied, not least by Royal Bank of Scotland.

Mr Watson, of course, is no stranger to controversy. As he says in his press release, he was most recently involved in representing the American evangelist Dr Pat Robertson in his banking interests in the United States.

I am sure the fact that Dr Robertson earlier this year struck a joint venture deal with Bank of Scotland - which is trying to stop Royal Bank of Scotland from bidding for NatWest - is pure coincidence. Likewise with the fact that Jack Irvine was drafted in by Bank of Scotland to cope with the media storm that the bank's decision to go into a business partnership with the outspoken evangelist provoked.

Mr Hachuel, rumour has it, feels aggrieved about the alleged role of Banco Santander in the downfall of Mario Conde, a fallen star of Spain's early 1990s boom.

Mr Conde is still smarting over the fact that Banco Santander managed, with the help of the Spanish central bank, to have Mr Conde ejected from his role as chairman of Banesto - for years one of Spain's fastest growing banks - which was then taken over by Banco Santander.

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