Protests bring Boots chaos: Animal rights activists interfere with queries on board salaries

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BOOTS' annual meeting descended into chaos yesterday as animal rights activists launched a barrage of attacks against the directors over the testing of drugs on animals.

The protests, which culminated in a number of people being forcibly removed from the meeting, were more vociferous than in previous years.

This was partly due to the withdrawal of Manoplax, Boots' heart drug, after it was found to increase the risk of death and illness requiring hospital treatment. The decision was used by the activists as a plank for attacking the practice of animal testing.

Disruption by animal rights activists is common at drug companies' annual meetings. But the protests angered other shareholders, who were denied the chance to question the board on their salaries and Boots' performance.

Some criticised the way in which Sir Christopher Benson, chairman, handled the meeting. One investor, who had travelled from Surrey to raise questions about the salaries paid to the board, said he should have adjourned the meeting in a bid to quell the disruption.

The protests began when Sir Christopher said he could not say how many animals had been used to test Manoplax. He was replying to a questioner who said he had been a shareholder for 40 years and was not an animal rights activist.

The exchange sparked a chorus of calls from the activists for Sir Christopher to answer the question, which drowned out most of the later questions and answers.

Eventually, Sir James Blyth, chief executive, said that more than 90 per cent of the pounds 100m cost of launching a drug was spent on human testing and a 'tiny percentage' involved animals. He added that animal testing of drugs was required by law.

Despite the protests, some questions on salaries did get through. Sir James's pay rose from pounds 571,000 to pounds 620,000 while his pension contributions went up from pounds 177,000 to pounds 193,000.

One shareholder pointed out that the earnings per pound of directors' remuneration had declined from pounds 129 five years ago to pounds 75.

He added that the total cost of the board, including the exercise of options, was pounds 6m and asked Sir Christopher to show that the board added more than pounds 6m value in the year.

'Demonstrating the value of a board is always very difficult,' Sir Christopher replied.

Boots also announced the sale of its French business Sephora to Altamir, the French group, for Fr360m (pounds 40.9m), including Fr182m for the repayment of inter-company loans.

Sephora, which operates a perfumery chain, made Fr270,000 on sales of Fr606m in the year to March 1993 and has net assets of Fr273.4m.

Sir James also said there would be 'drastic action' at the Do it All chain, which lost pounds 14.4m in the year to March.

But he expected Childrens World, where losses were pounds 3.3m, to be in profit within 12 months.

The shares were unchanged yesterday at 429p.

(Photograph omitted)