BARCLAYS BANK'S annual meeting degenerated into a 210- minute farce yesterday as a well organised group of disenchanted business customers threw a barrage of hostile questions and abuse at the chairman, Andrew Buxton, and his new chief executive, Martin Taylor.
The dissident shareholders claimed that Barclays frequently turned to litigation against its business customers without giving them a fair hearing and that the bank had incurred huge legal claims against itself because of its adventures in corporate finance.
Sir Peter Middleton, chairman of Barclays' investment banking arm BZW, said that litigation was sadly on the increase, but accountants and lawyers in corporate finance were facing the same problem.
He said the recent legal claim for pounds 600m against Barclays by the administrators of British & Commonwealth would force the bank to make its own legal counter-claims.
'We will have to take precautionary action against a lot of people, and we expect more actions from the administrators,' Sir Peter said.
Likely targets for Barclays counter-writs include the accountants KPMG Peat Marwick and Spicer & Oppenheim (now part of Touche Ross) and possibly the City advisers Rothschilds. KPMG took over from Spicer & Oppenheim as auditors of B&C in 1989. British & Commonwealth Merchant Bank may also be in the firing line.
The well drilled and occasionally abusive rebels repeatedly turned on Martin Taylor, the former Courtaulds executive who was accused along with Mr Buxton of failing to respond to letters and complaints.
The meeting stretched way over schedule as more than 40 members of Safe - Struggle Against Financial Exploitation - presented their individual grievances against the bank one after the other, ranging from businesses forced into receivership to an 83-year-old artist who faces repossession of his house.
The artist, Granville Whitehead, a former RAF bomb-aimer, called on Barclays to embrace 'integrity, honesty and sympathy'. He also said how much he had enjoyed sketching the very handsome Mr Buxton during the meeting, as well as the other 'ugly ducklings' on the board.
One Labour and one Conservative MP gave their support to the group, which has bought shares in Barclays specifically to disrupt the bank's meetings. Brian Jones, of Safe, says they now plan to shut Barclays down for a fortnight with the help of the banking union Bifu.
The protesters' speeches were quite different to the usual shareholders' questions about dividends and accounting policy. One member of Safe compared Barclays to a football club.
'The players are picketing outside, a team that used to be at the top of the Premier League are now in the Vauxhall Conference,' he said. 'The only answer is to sack the manager.'
Mr Buxton, who chaired the meeting at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in Westminster, ran into trouble at the outset when members of Safe demanded that the minutes of last year's meeting be read before the meeting could proceed.
The chairman, standing to attention in an immaculate black pinstripe, said that any shareholders wishing to see the minutes would be provided with a copy afterwards, and insisted that the meeting continue.
This prompted a chanting of 'You think you're above the law', and Mr Jones said he would report Barclays to the Department of Trade and Industry.
Mr Buxton said: 'Will you please all sit down. We do not think we are above the law,' and carried on with some dignity. He managed eventually to complete the business, but was assured by Safe that 'this is only the beginning'.
Safe was founded by the advertising entrepeneur Chris Joseph after a legal dispute with Barclays over his firm's claim to have originated the Rabbit mobile phone logo.
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