Standard Life chief in race apology

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A senior executive with the Scottish insurer Standard Life apologised yesterday after referring to the company's pension scheme as the "nigger in the woodpile" while addressing more than 550 of his staff.

Trevor Matthews, a straight-talking Australian who is favourite to succeed Sandy Crombie as chief executive when he retires, made the comments at a meeting with Edinburgh employees on Monday. The meeting was organised to discuss changes to the company pension scheme, which is to be changed from a final-salary to a career-average plan.

Mr Matthews was asked why the proposed closure of the final-salary scheme was buried in the back of the prospectus when the company demutualised last summer. He responded by saying: "That's the nigger in the woodpile."

After one of the staff issued a formal complaint following the meeting, Mr Matthews sent a written apology to all the company's employees yesterday.

"I would like to apologise to you for using an inappropriate phrase during my presentation at the first pensions briefing ... this week," he wrote.

"I deeply regret saying what I did - it is not in any way a reflection of what I think. As soon as the words came from my lips I realised that I had made a serious mistake by using a colloquialism that is not in any way acceptable today. Everyone acquainted with me will, I am sure, know I am against all forms of discrimination. I assure you I will never use an expression of this nature again. I am very sorry."

The trade union Amicus branded Mr Matthew's remarks as "absolutely scandalous".

A spokesman for the company said his comments had been a matter of "deep personal regret" for Mr Matthews, adding that he had apologised personally to the member of staff who had complained.