Last Friday it was time to put my money where my mouth is. I posted on this blog a few months ago about a campaign training event I went to with ShareAction and Christian Aid. If we have shares in a company, directly or via pension funds, then the company is investing our money, and we have the right to hold them to account. I previously wrote about a campaign to challenge pension fund managers, but the training also dealt with attending a company AGM to ask a question as a shareholder.
So, on Friday, I found myself, standing at the podium, as a corporate representative for ShareAction, ready to ask a question at the RSA AGM. My heart was thumping and my knees were shaking, but my voice was steady and the room was listening.
RSA is an insurance company, better known as More Than for personal insurance. They’ve had a bad year, making as big a loss last year as their profit the year before. There was a lot of hostility in the room towards the board from shareholders who had seen their dividend disappear. I’d expected to be intimidated by the board, but it was clearly the board which was on the defensive.
Louise, who came with me from ShareAction, had met me outside the trendy building in Central London, prepared all the paperwork, including the question, and filled me in on the company background. We signed in and then registered our questions. We already got a positive response from the team registering questions to our plan to ask the company about its tax arrangements. “I hope you get a good answer”, we were told. As a veteran of these occasions, Louise made me feel at home, and introduced me to another AGM campaigner preparing to challenge the company about its poor performance.
I asked my question about the company’s business in places used as tax havens, wanting to know if RSA had substantial business there, or just used them for tax minimisation purposes. Despite identifying the need for transparency, and the risk to the business of a tax avoidance scandal, the best answer RSA could offer was that it complies with all appropriate tax law. I tried to follow up suggesting that the issue was about more than compliance, but the board hid behind the need to manage their taxes for the benefit of the shareholder. Louise asked about climate change, but also followed up my question for me, eventually getting the board to admit that some of these subsidiaries were there for “corporate purposes”.
It was good to be able to directly ask a company whether they were using tax havens. I wasn’t sure how much difference this would make to the company’s actual behaviour, but Louise seemed to think that the evasive answering indicated that RSA was embarrassed by our question. Asking questions at an AGM is not going change things over night. It is one campaigning tool among many, aiming to raise awareness of issues with companies which might not otherwise consider these things, putting things like tax and climate change higher up the agenda, chipping away at accepted norms.
Would I do it again? Yes! Fitting in a trip to London has its own challenges, but there’s always the free lunch! Next time I’ll bring a bigger bag, as snaffling a couple of napkins full of flapjacks and brownies would seem to be the order of the day.