Laura Ashley tries to ditch preacher

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The Independent Online
A SECOND British company has been hit by the Pat Robertson scandal. Key shareholders in Laura Ashley are demanding the removal of the radical American preacher from the beleaguered company's board.

Jane Ashley, the fashion designer's eldest daughter, said yesterday her mother, who died in 1985 aged 60, would have been "appalled" that Mr Robertson was part of the company. Ms Ashley, 45, a photographer, is credited with the successful marketing of Laura Ashley products in the company's heyday, when she shot the dreamy, rural images that became its hallmark.

She also chairs the Laura Ashley Foundation, a charity set up to honour her mother's values. At Laura Ashley's AGM on Thursday, the foundation's six trustees, including Sir Bernard Ashley, voted for Mr Robertson's removal from the board.

Their opposition springs from Mr Robertson's views on gays, lesbians and other minority groups, which yesterday led the Bank of Scotland to severe its controversial business links with the preacher. Executives from the bank travelled to Virginia, where they told Mr Robertson they no longer wanted to work with him or gain access to his database of potential customers in America.

During a television show on his Virginia-based Christian Broadcasting Network, he had called Scotland a "dark land" where gays dominated and he attacked Europe for its tolerance of homosexuality.

Despite these statements, Mr Robertson, who has two million shares in Laura Ashley, worth about pounds 275,000, survived the AGM vote, which he did not attend. His survival was thanks to the support of Laura Ashley's largest shareholder, Malayan United Industries. Dr Khoo Kay Peng, chairman of MUI, recruited Mr Robertson, a personal friend, as a non-executive director in January, apparently because he believed the right-wing preacher's traditional family values fitted well with the ethos of the company.

Yesterday Jane Ashley said: "My mother would have been absolutely appalled by someone like Pat Robertson pasticheing her values. She valued family in the widest sense, including the extended family. She was strongly in favour of religious freedom and would have been appalled at Mr Robertson's attitudes to Jews and Muslims. She would have felt, like me, that people's personal lives were their own business and that no one, neither Pat Robertson nor anyone else, should dictate to them about how they should lead their life."

Another trustee, Martin Jones of the Camelot Foundation, an independent charity that distributes National Lottery profits, also spoke out. Mr Jones said: "As a charitable foundation which stands up for disadvantaged communities, we cannot run the risk of appearing, by association, hostile to lesbian and gay communities. We cannot afford for them to think it is not worth bothering to ask us for help.

"As a gay man it is also important for me to carry my values into public life. Particularly after the Soho bomb attack, one must take a stand against the antagonistic attitudes set out by Mr Robertson. When one remembers what happened to homosexuals in the Nazi concentration camps, there is a lesson for all of us."

Jane Ashley said the trustees would continue to seek Mr Robertson's removal despite the AGM vote. She said: "I can only imagine how much money the Bank of Scotland has lost through its association with Mr Robertson. If the bank has now broken off its partnership, then surely Laura Ashley is going to wonder whether it can afford to carry this liability much longer. I hope he goes soon."

Mr Robertson's fate is not, however, in her hands. Laura Ashley's family, which still holds an 11 per cent stake in the company, lost control last year as the firm made heavy losses in the American market after expanding too rapidly. Creditors demanded the business cut its losses and all its US interests were sold recently for $1 in a management buyout.

When Laura Ashley was family-owned, it prided itself in being community oriented. Its factories in Powys in mid-Wales were seen as model employers, placed there in an attempt to reduce rural depopulation. The company engendered strong local loyalty. In recent years, however, the troubled finances of the company have led to several of the factories being sold after the company announced that it intends to cease manufacturing in Britain.

Workers at the main Powys factories in Carno and Newtown are still awaiting news of their fate.