Tom Bawden: Sir Roger nets own goal against angry Centrica shareholders

Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was always going to be a tough shareholder meeting. With Centrica's bumper profits and bonus package for 2012 leaving struggling customers bitter, the group's legion of small shareholders lined up to take a pop at the board.

As master of ceremonies, the chairman, Sir Roger Carr, lamented: "the phrase 'rip off' and energy company are entwined, but there is no foundation for this… we have an image problem, a media problem… and a political challenge," before pointing out that bills in the UK were lower than in Europe.

Up to a point, Sir Roger is right.

But he didn't do his credibility or reputation for transparency much good when he fended off criticism about the pay packages his top executives took home last year.

Asked about the differential between the top-paid director – Centrica's chief executive, Sam Laidlaw – and the lowest-paid employee, Sir Roger proudly exclaimed that the Church of England deemed a multiple of 75 times to be acceptable. Unbelievable though it may seem that the Church of England thinks it's ok for one member of staff to earn 75 times as much as another, Sir Roger boasted that Mr Laidlaw makes only 63 times as much as the lowest earner. He then made the questionable joke that Mr Laidlaw shouldn't see that as grounds for a pay rise.

It wasn't long before another shareholder asked how it could be that Mr Laidlaw – who made a total of £5m last year in salary and various bonus and share awards – only made 63 times as much as the lowest member of staff.

The shareholder took a guess that the lowest paid staff member probably earned about £15,000 a year. "£15,000 to £5m is a lot more than 63 times, sir," the shareholder said, adding that £30,000 also fell way short of that multiple.

Whether you think Centrica and the rest of the Big Six are saints or sinners, given the mistrust the public has in them, Sir Roger's failure to directly engage with the shareholder about earnings differentials looks like an illuminating oversight.