The Private Investor: 'No signs of Bolshevism in Tunbridge Wells. Yet'

It may be a terrible old cliché, but last Saturday I really did meet "Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells". Two of them, in fact. I suppose that is an occupational hazard one has to accept when attending the annual general meeting of the Tunbridge Wells Equitable Friendly Society, of which I am a member.

It has been calling itself "The Children's Mutual" recently as a marketing gambit, but I'm afraid most of the 97 members in the Assembly Rooms, Tunbridge Wells (where else?), could be confidently placed at the other end of the age spectrum. Nothing wrong with that, but it did make an odd juxtaposition. Then again, I suppose lots of the Society's Baby Bonds will be taken out by doting grandparents, so it may be understandable.

Anyway, back to the disgruntled ones. One chap, who had been a member since he was a lad, complained that the society seemed to be changing its name by stealth and he wasn't happy about members not being consulted about that.

The response from the top table was that Tunbridge Wells is not the advertising people's dream name, because of the old gag trotted out at the start of this very column, and that the word Equitable had also got a bit of a tarnish since Equitable Life (no relation) ran into its well-known difficulties.

Besides, the emphasis they wanted to place on children's products made it a natural - although not universally popular - move. There was some argy-bargy about this, and two members voted against adopting the annual report and accounts. Another member claimed that he had been missold a policy some time ago and not had an adequate response from the society.

In the course of the AGM, the chairman, Lord Naseby, made some interesting remarks about "ill-informed" coverage of friendly societies in the press. I didn't need to wonder who he might have meant. Somewhat stung by this, I re-read with extra interest the annual report and accounts of the society on my way home.

There I found the chairman of this small mutual financial institution, Lord Naseby, was paid £80,000 last year, up a little from the £78,000 he was paid the year before. He is on the committee of management and I'm sure he does a very good job of putting the society's case in Parliament. He is, after all, a former advertising exec and a former Conservative MP, when he was plain Michael Morris.

He did not rise to high ministerial office but he did make Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons. He lists his hobbies in Dod's Parliamentary Companion as "golf, cricket, tennis, shooting, forestry and budgerigars", (presumably he doesn't shoot the budgies), but that's no reason to mock or doubt his ability to do a good job for the society's members. Even so, £80,000 does seem a bit on the high side. The Tunbridge Wells has 326,502 members, about £580m in assets and a staff of 194, so you can make your own mind up.

At all events, he is paid more than Stephen Maran, the chairman of the much larger Liverpool Victoria (a million members, £6bn assets, 2,713 staff), who gets by with £75,000. Maybe I'm not comparing like with like, and Mr Maran's executive responsibilities might be less onerous than Lord Naseby's. Maybe there is some sort of "going rate" for a chairman of a mutual, although that tends to be a self-perpetuating phenomenon itself.

And, if so, Lord Naseby needs to bear comparison with that of the chairmen of Family Assurance Society (£51,000), Homeowners Friendly Society (£50,000) and, just for fun, the tiny Nottingham Oddfellows Friendly Society, who commands the sum of £1,564.

I would suggest that directors' emoluments are subject to a vote by the members, as is nowadays the case with plcs. There was no such vote at Tunbridge Wells last week, which was a pity. Nor was there a postal ballot, because there is no provision for one in the society's constitution. But the very small turnout, 97 members out of 326,502, or 0.03 per cent, suggests little hope for radical action by activist members on these issues. No sign of Bolshevism in Tunbridge Wells. Yet.

s.ogrady@independent.co.uk

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