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Head of Standard Life warns of flight south

Standard Life is ready to transfer the domicile of over 180 companies and funds to England to avoid the uncertainty of a new Scottish regulator, it chairman has told the annual meeting.

no PROMISES: Standard Life chairman Gerry Grimstone says the firm is absolutely right to look at contingency plans.
no PROMISES: Standard Life chairman Gerry Grimstone says the firm is absolutely right to look at contingency plans.

Gerry Grimstone robustly defended the management's disclosure in February that it would take "whatever action is necessary, including transferring parts of our operations from Scotland" in the event of a Yes vote in the independence referendum.

Responding to a shareholder who complained that chief executive David Nish "should stay out of politics, it is not his job" and that the board had "acted disgracefully by making public what it thinks it might or might not do", Mr Grimstone said Mr Nish and the company were strictly politically neutral.

Mr Grimstone added "We would have been strongly criticised if we hadn't made our position clear — we would be failing in our duty if we hadn't looked at contingency plans."

The chairman went on: "We have over 180 Scottish funds and companies — we have got three insurance companies, 13 other companies regulated by the FCA, 75 unit trusts, 65 Oeics, and 38 Scottish limited partnerships.

"Who knows, every one of those if there was constitutional change might be affected, this is a very detailed matter."

But on the headlines that Standard Life would "quit Scotland" after a Yes vote, Mr Grimstone urged shareholders to read the company's actual statements.

Pressed earlier on whether moving operations would mean moving the company's 5000 jobs in Edinburgh from the capital, Mr Grimstone said: "No, it won't mean that...but until we know the technicalities we don't know what the impact will be."

The plans were needed, he said, because "the Californian teachers' pension fund thinking of putting in $500m is of course going to ask how our fund will be regulated were Scotland to become an independent country".

The problem was that "nobody can tell you what the arrangements would be", so to avoid any material impact on the company it had to be able to guarantee continuity of regulation.

Mr Grimstone told shareholders that since the company demutualised in 2006 it had delivered a progressive dividend and a 174% total return to those who bought discounted shares, against a 53% total return for the FTSE 100.

To a suggestion that more mutuality in the financial sector might have been a defence against the crash, the chairman said: "In the wrong hands mutuality can be a very dangerous force." As a mutual Standard Life "had some issues" which prompted its conversion to a plc, Mr Grimstone said.

"There has been a recent example of a mutual which seems to have got into great problems — I won't name it but it begins with a C. My view is that there is no better model for a complex financial services company than a plc with a strong board...people on the board need to know what they are doing."

Mr Nish said Standard was ideally positioned to reap the benefits of the changed landscape in pensions, most recently the scrapping of compulsory annuities and the 0.75% pension charge cap.

"We were the first UK insurer to stop offering commission payments for new business, we have passed fund rebates to customers, and we were the first platform in the UK to deliver full pricing transparency for our customers," Mr Nish said.

He added: "We reduced the cost of almost all of our pension business back in 2001 to an annual charge of 0.85% or less."

He said that 70% of customers did not buy a Standard Life annuity, showing that they had been properly informed of their options and giving Standard a valuable leading position in alternative products.

Mr Nish said the UK government's initiatives showed "a better appreciation of the need to stimulate broader savings".

Asked by shareholder Michael Gibson how soon its emerging markets ventures would contribute to profits, Mr Nish said the Indian venture had now paid its first dividend.

He added: "We have high hopes of large-scale value being created from it in the future."

Standard Life plc is listed on the London Stock Exchange and has approximately 1.3 million individual shareholders in over 50 countries.

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