Equitable accused of packing AGM

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The Independent Online
EQUITABLE LIFE, the UK's fifth largest life insurer, was yesterday accused of packing its annual meeting with employees to ensure a rebel policyholder failed in his attempt to get elected to the board.

Edward Doogan, a chartered accountant, told policyholders he was standing for election because of Equitable's poor investment performance. He also said the board was not representative of the society's membership.

Of the 350 policyholders present at the time of voting, up to one-third were Equitable staff members. In total, 600 members attended the AGM at the Barbican Centre in London in contrast to previous years when the meeting only attracted around 50.

The unusually large number of Equitable employees present became apparent when, during his presentation, Mr Doogan requested they stand up.

Mr Doogan lost the vote by a majority of two to one, gaining 104 votes with 222 against him. In the proxy vote 132,599 of the society's 600,000 members elected to put him on the board.

Although he failed to get on to the board Mr Doogan confirmed he would be seeking reelection and sources indicated he had high-level support within Equitable. After the meeting a number of board members praised him for his stance.

Referring to the vote Mr Doogan, 45, said: "I couldn't say it was rigged but I believe my question about how many staff were here was relevant."

The AGM also provided a platform for members furious with Equitable's action over guaranteed annuity policies to vent their anger.

Equitable, the UK's oldest life assurer founded in 1762, is going to the High Court on 5 July when it will ask if it can lower bonus payments for policyholders who choose to exercise annuity guarantees.

There are around 100,000 guaranteed annuity holders who bought their policies between 1956 and 1988 when annuity rates were much higher.

Equitable has made a pounds 200m provision for annuity guarantees in its 1998 accounts but policyholders' action groups estimate the cost at pounds 1bn. One policyholder, Michael Simmons, said the issue was "a poison pill" and told board members they were "sitting around their green baize table playing strip poker with my final bonus".

Professor Tony Eccles, who described the board's presentation as "sophisticated drivel", said the group was in danger of joining the list of damaged companies. "If you persist with this policy, people will desert Equitable," he said.

Mr Doogan said he was not protesting about annuity guarantees.