Sir Win Bischoff faces wrath of Lloyds shareholders

Hamish Macdonell saw the bank's outgoing chairman come in for a rough ride at his final investors' meeting

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The Independent Online

Sir Win Bischoff could have been forgiven for hoping that his final shareholders' meeting would be an easy one. After all, the outgoing chairman of the Lloyds Banking Group had delivered – by his own admission – a much-improved prospect for the partly state-owned bank during his time in charge.

Lloyds was "ahead of plan", he said, in its bid to get back on such a sound financial footing that the Government could sell off its 39 per cent share and return the bank to private investors.

If that was Sir Win's hope, it was a forlorn one as angry shareholder followed angry shareholder to berate the chairman at the bank's annual general meeting in Edinburgh. The words "disgrace", "shame", "shambles and "abysmal" were hurled at Sir Win and the other members of the board during the three-hour inquisition.

"I am a great believer in these meetings," Sir Win declared stoically afterwards. "Your views, support and, yes, criticism, are valued and keep your board and management of their toes," he told the shareholders.

But it was mostly criticism, rather than support or views, that he had to cope with. Although only 4 per cent of investors voted against the directors' pay resolution, many shareholders at the meeting were angry with the bank's failure to issue dividends while allocating more than £1bn in bonuses to staff over the last three years.

Others attacked the pay levels of senior staff, some called for the bank to stop avoiding full UK taxes by using offshore havens, while a few complained that the problems associated with the takeover of HBOS five years ago still had not addressed.

The Rev Dennis Nadin was one shareholder to take issue with Sir Win, appealing for an end to the bonus culture. "Why do those who already get large salaries need incentives to do their job well? he asked, adding: "Greed breeds greed."

Mr Nadin said that the reputation of banking had sunk low because of the "greed culture" that senior bankers had allowed to flourish, and appealed to the meeting to reject the recommendations of the remuneration committee of the bank which set out the pay and bonuses packages for staff.

David Harrison was another shareholder to attack the proposed bonuses. He claimed that had the bank paid bonuses of a maximum of £1,000, then the bank might already have been returned to private hands. He said: "If you had done that you could have paid off the Government by now and you would be returning a dividend to shareholders."

Sir Win pointed out that overall bonus payments had gone down, despite a good performance by the bank. "Despite the substantially better results in 2012 over those for 2011, the total bonus pool has been reduced in 2012 by approximately 3 per cent to £365m," he said.

He also argued there would be a return to dividends, soon. "We remain committed to restarting dividend payments as soon as we are able," he said. "We fully understand the difficulties that their absence is causing our shareholders. Once regulatory requirements have been clearly defined and we have prudently met them, and the financial position of the group and market conditions permit, it is our intention to recommence dividend payments."

The chairman also said he believed the bank would be returned to private investors in the near future. "Now that the balance sheet has been substantially strengthened and all of the liquidity support received from the UK Government has been repaid, our focus is on increasing profitability and returns to shareholders.

"Over time, this should in turn allow the Government the opportunity to commence the sale of its shareholding, which currently stands at just under 39 per cent."

Ann Edmonds from Edinburgh attacked the bank for its use of tax havens, arguing that, if Lloyds really wanted to help boost the UK economy, it could stop avoiding UK tax. "Tax avoidance is legal and that is what the Lloyds Banking Group is doing," she said, referring to 259 subsidiary companies of Lloyds which, she claimed, operated from offshore tax havens.

Sir Win admitted that the bank did operate some offshore subsidiaries. "We do have, for operational reasons, some subsidiaries in what might be called tax havens," he said. But he defended the bank's activities by declaring that Lloyds was the third-biggest taxpayer in the UK.

Other questioners demanded to know why the bank was still suffering from the fallout from the takeover of HBOS; several commented on the collapse of the plan to sell 600 branches to the Co-operative Bank; while others demanded dismissals at a top level because of the payment protection insurance mis-selling scandal.

Sir Win dealt with every question as courteously and coolly as he could and smiled often – no doubt aware that by the time shareholders gather to berate the board again next year, this will all be somebody else's problem.