British Gas backers should be made more accountable

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The Independent Online
From the Rev Dennis Nadin

Sir: The Prime Minister has insisted that the huge increase in boardroom salaries is a matter for shareholders. As a result, I and 700 other shareholders of British Gas attended its AGM this week to test out the shareholding democracy that privatisation had promised us.

The gross errors of judgement on boardroom salaries and other issues was compounded by the way the meeting was conducted. Attempts by the meeting on points of order, allowing TV cameras and eventually replacing the chairman were all dictatorially dismissed against the wishes of the vast majority of shareholders present. This led to an attempt to dismiss the whole board which, we were informed, would require a further meeting.

It is clear that whatever their commercial skills, the board have not yet come to terms with the fact that British Gas is not a typical company and most of its shareholders have moral, ethical and social concerns that they feel appropriate for a great national utility.

I challenged Cedric Brown and his colleagues to inform us whether they felt that they could adjust to meet these concerns, and, if not, to consider resignation. He insisted he would not resign, but avoided the rest of the question. His statements since the meeting show little sign that he is likely to adjust. Quite the contrary.

Mr Brown dismisses what was one of the largest turn-outs of shareholders in history as a small minority and indeed we were. Despite the fact that the shareholders who attended overwhelmingly defeated the board on virtually every vote, the board had proxy votes to ensure they kept in control.

Who were these backers who were able to accumulate millions of votes? There are 1,844,492 shareholders and of these just 456 hold 65.2 per cent of the voting shares. They are largely fellow boardroom members enjoying high salaries. They are more dangerous than the old trade union barons, for they are unknown and do not even attend the debate. Some are administering funds of ordinary people, and they need to be made more accountable for their actions by government in similar ways to the unions.

As shareholders, we tried unsuccessfully to solve the problem the way the Government suggested. Now it must respond, unless the popular shareholding democracy is not to prove another Westminster confidence trick.

Yours sincerely,

DENNIS NADIN

Harlow, Essex

1 June

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