David Prosser: James Murdoch cannot lose Sky ballot, but the protest votes must still be counted
Outlook: Only a huge yes vote for James Murdoch as Sky chairman should be seen as a vote of confidence
Let's not pretend otherwise: there is almost no chance of James Murdoch losing the vote when he stands forre-election as chairman of BSkyB today. The arguments over his role at the company have been raging for months now, but a single inescapable factremains: News Corporation's 39 per cent stake in the company makes Mr Murdoch's re-election as chairmanalmost inevitable.
That is deeply regrettable. The list of reasons why Mr Murdoch should not go on chairing this company is a long one – and it is not confined to the phone-hacking scandal. He should not have been appointed in the first place – the City's corporate governance codeexpressly warns against moving acompany's chief executive into the chairman's office – and once News Corp made a bid for Sky, the resulting conflicts of interest should have seen him step down.
Now there is the additional question of integrity. There is no escaping the conclusion that Mr Murdoch must shoulder his share of the blame for the scandal at News Corporation's British newspaper business – certainly enough to undermine his position at Sky. If one accepts Mr Murdoch's testimony to MPs – his claims that he was not properly briefed about what went on at the News of the World – it still represents afailure to exercise proper oversight. If not, of course, the implications are more sinister.
Nor has this been the finest hour of Sky itself. The unanimous and unbending support Mr Murdoch has received from the rest of the board – executives and non-executives alike – ill behoves a company that is admirable in many other ways.
Nicholas Ferguson, Sky's deputy chairman, says the shareholders he has spoken to have been supportive of Mr Murdoch – or at least indicated they believed the question of his continued chairmanship is a matter for the board (which is a pretty miserable dereliction of their responsibilities).
We will learn today just how representative those shareholders are of the general mood among investors in the company – and if Mr Ferguson has been speaking to the wrong people, his chairman should consider his position once more, even after winning the day.
The key is the size of the rebellion against Mr Murdoch. Taking intoaccount the 39 per cent News Corp stake, a 20 per cent vote against his re-election, say, would actually be theequivalent of a third of shareholders suggesting he steps down.
A rebellion of 31 per cent or more would mean more than half the company's investors, excluding News Corp, want to see him go. Even if the numbers against re-election are not that high, we should take into account abstentions too. Given the tumult of Mr Murdoch's business life in recent months, only a huge yes vote in favour of re-election should be seen as a vote of confidence in his chairmanship.
Pensions delay is unfair and economically illiterate
Some of the more draconian suggestions made by Adrian Beecroft, who the Government asked earlier this year to look at red tape hindering businesses, have been quietly ignored, but theprivate equity veteran secured onevictory yesterday. The delay to theintroduction of auto-enrolment for smaller companies (though not that small, since firms with up to 3,000 workers will be affected) is being presented as a move to ease the burden on such organisations
In fact, this tinkering with pensions policy will merely kick the burden down the road a little, since auto-enrolment is being postponed at these firms rather than being cancelled altogether. Either way, it is a big mistake.
One can quite see the Government's thinking: why impose additional costs on small businesses – both for administration and pension contributions – when they are struggling in the face of such difficult economic headwinds?
Well, the first point to make is that yesterday's announcement only affects companies that had been due to auto-enrol from August 2013 onwards, by which time the economic environment might look quite different. Even on the current implementation timetable, there is plenty of time for smaller firms that plan ahead to spread their administrative costs.
The depressing thing about delay is that the workers who will now have to wait longer for decent pension provision are exactly those that reformers had in mind when auto-enrolment was designed. By and large, it is the employees of small organisations who are the least likely to have access to a private pension currently.
The other problem is that delaying auto-enrolment is economicallyilliterate. The baby boomer generation needs to do its bit in meeting the costs of providing for old age – the longer that auto-enrolment is delayed, the smaller the generation of workers who will have to bear the cost of providing for the baby boomers.
Cameron and Osborne at odds over transactions tax
There is no chance of George Osborne backing a financial transactions tax in today's autumn statement. But he might at least note the emergence over the past few days of two unlikely supporters for the duty. David Harding, the hedge fund mogul who runs Winton Capital, turns out to be an ally transaction tax campaigners might not have expected. More surprisingly, David Cameron told The Guardian's Saturday magazine: "I'm all in favour of a financial transaction tax, but only if you can do it globally".
It is a pity then that the Prime Minister hasn't got round to making the case for the tax on the global stage, or even to sharing his view with the Chancellor, who rubbishes the idea of such a tax at every opportunity.
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