LEADING ARTICLE : Stay at home and mind the shares

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The Independent Online
Jeanette Jefferies, of Virginia Water, in the county of Surrey, this week discovered that she owned a lot of shares. She had been vaguely aware that something had been put in her name but did not know what or how much. It was not, she said, any of her business - it was her husband's business and completely above board.

In fact, last year she had become the unwitting repository of 58,949 shares in the National Grid, placed in her name by her husband, David Jefferies, chairman of the National Grid. His fellow (all-male) directors had bestowed similar favours on their Gridwives. They did it because the shares, worth about pounds 400,000, attract less tax if divided between husband and wife. This division has probably netted them only an extra pounds 3,000. The shares were originally part of the share options awarded to the directors of the National Grid three years ago.

Yesterday in Parliament, John Major defended Mrs Jefferies's right to own shares, whether she knew she had them or not. And surely he was right. After all, the transfer was perfectly legal. Plenty of husbands and wives gain tax advantage by putting things in each other's names - in fact, tax advisers recommend it. If it is a loophole, as Labour has insisted, it is the sort of loophole that many thousands of married people make use of.

So why do the share arrangements of the National Grid executives leave such a bad taste in the mouth? For although Mr Major was technically correct not to condemn the Jefferies for their tax plans, he came over as being on the side of greed and godlessness. Tony Blair, who argued for share options to be taxed as income - not capital gains - once again seemed to speak for conscience and responsibility.

It is not hard to discern the reason. The outcry over the remuneration of the executives of privatised utilities is not the product of media hype but of a genuine sense of scandal. Jeanette Jefferies's husband may be an amiable man who works hard. But the vast riches that have been heaped upon him in the last couple of years have been out of all proportion to his actual work or his value to the company. The act of privatisation created private monopolies, like the National Grid, which were inherently immensely profitable. The executives in situ had not somehow been transformed from rather plodding middle management to twinkling tycoons - yet they and their boards started to reward them as if they were. Absurd notions of the international "rate for the job" began to circulate, though not one of these wannabe Iacoccas has yet tested the market by resigning and applying for jobs in New York or Atlanta.

Yesterday Mrs Jefferies told journalists that her husband, who has probably netted pounds 1m worth of shares and salary this year, was "sick and tired of all this coverage". But was there, perhaps, an interior voice to tell her that he had brought it all upon himself?