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Investor groups call for UK firms to provide a virtual AGM

FILE PHOTO: Canary Wharf is seen with the O2 arena, illuminated blue in support of NHS and other key workers as the number of coronavirus cases increases globally, London, Britain, April 2, 2020. REUTERS/Paul Childs

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s biggest listed companies have been urged to hold ‘virtual’ annual general meetings after two-thirds of the firms to announce meetings so far opted to hold them behind closed doors because of COVID-19.

In a letter to the boards of FTSE 100 companies, campaign group ShareAction said it was concerned the move would deny shareholders a chance to directly question management on issues from strategy to pay.

“This is not a moment to hide away,” said ShareAction Director of Corporate Engagement Simon Rawson in the letter, dated April 17.

“The COVID-19 crisis has seen the value of pension assets and shareholdings fall sharply. Management teams are making vitally important decisions that will affect the long-term success of companies, as well as the lives of their workers and customers.”

Of the 22 companies to announce changes to their AGMs so far, 15 said they now planned to hold them behind closed doors, among them Barclays (BARC.L), currently the subject of an activist campaign.

The rest have chosen to hold a ‘hybrid’ AGM with an element of virtual participation or follow up their closed-door AGM with an additional online question-and-answer session.

ShareAction, though, said it wanted all the companies to hold a virtual AGM in 2020 that would let investors question boards in real time, and for voting to be replicated online.

“Shareholders will want to question directors about the impact of coronavirus and its implications on the company liquidity and solvency and will want reassurance about these and the ongoing business model,” said Cliff Weight, director of ShareSoc.

“Never has the importance of the AGM been so high. However, questions and answers can be in a hybrid physical meeting and broadcast over the web.”

Reporting by Simon Jessop; Editing by Kirsten Donovan

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