Don’t force out our best executives

Yet, while it demonstrably succeeds in stirring public anger, this journalistic crusade rarely breaches the citadel. Fat-cat directors do not, as a rule, hand back the cash. Attitudes are unlikely to change simply because shareholders are suddenly given a greater say in the workings of boardroom pay.

There is no denying that aspects of UK boardroom practice fall disastrously wide of the mark. Bob Ayling should never have been permitted to walk away from his disastrous tenure at British Airways with a #2m pay-off.

How can Lord Simpson of Dunkeld justify taking even a penny from the wreckage of Marconi? The British public is tired of reading about these rewards for failure.

But allowing annual shareholder votes on directors’ pay is little more than a sop from a government desperate to appear in tune with popular feeling.

It burnt its fingers badly in 1997 when it tried to force the directors of Camelot, the lottery operator, to hand back their bonuses.

They threatened to resign and the government was forced to back down.

Ministers want to appear tough on boardroom pay, but are frightened of overstepping the mark.

Agms have always been a forum for shareholders to stand up and shout about boardroom pay. Directors endure the jibes in the knowledge that the real force – the big institutional shareholders – very rarely goes against the board. The proxies always carry the day. This is why votes at agms by individual shareholders are never more than a cosmetic protest.

In financial services, self-regulation has worked well enough as a system of control. The alternative – regulation by red tape – risked strangling the spirit of enterprise that thrives in this country. By tightening the noose around executive pay, the government risks turning Britain’s boardrooms into breeding grounds of mediocrity.

The best executives will just go to America, where they can earn 10 times as much and not be made to feel guilty about it.

The market is aware of misgivings over boardroom pay. It should be left to devise its own solution.

  • Jon Ashworth is business features editor at The Times.

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