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Scottish independence: RBS chairman tries to calm referendum jitters

The chairman of RBS made a deliberate attempt to calm market jitters over the bank's uncertain future in an independent Scotland yesterday.

Sir Philip Hampton used his keynote speech to the RBS annual general meeting to appeal to shareholders and customers not to panic, noting that there would be at least 18 months between a potential Yes vote and actual independence.

He also warned investors that "with continued rapid change in the way people choose to bank, there will inevitably be further closures" of branches in Scotland and England.

Although Sir Philip was forced to defend what one shareholder described as "obscenely high" pay and bonus for senior executives, only 0.34 per cent of investors actually voted against the remuneration report. The bank, which is still 80 per cent owned by the Government, was forced by the Treasury to abandon an attempt to pay bonuses of up to 200 per cent of salaries earlier this year; it still pays bonuses worth up to 100 per cent.

The RBS chairman defended its approach on pay, saying the bank could not fall too far behind rivals. He admitted that excessive pay and bonuses had helped fuel the banking crisis but argued that the situation was much better now than it had been before the crisis.

There was just the single question on pay. But the board had to face several questions from environmental protesters who had become shareholders specifically to urge the bank not to invest in coal mining, particularly in Australia.

Sir Philip stressed that RBS was not investing in the controversial coal port next to the Great Barrier Reef and while he was not able to give a definite guarantee that the bank would not invest in surrounding infrastructure, he insisted that RBS would do its best to be as environmentally friendly as possible.

Shareholders also avoided questions on Scottish independence, an issue which was tackled in Sir Philip's opening address.

Under European rules, banks have to be domiciled in the member state where they conduct most of their business; there has been increasing speculation that the Scottish-based bank, which employs 12,000 people in Scotland, would have to relocate to London if the Scots were to vote Yes in September.

Sir Philip stressed that RBS was taking a neutral approach and was not going to choose sides in the debate over Scotland's future. But he suggested that he, and other senior figures, had reservations about a Yes vote. "Like many other companies, we are having to consider the possible business implications of a Yes vote and our response," he said.