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Shareholders challenge shady deals

Recent weeks have been a peak period for big corporations' AGMs, many of which have been targeted by demonstrators and by (very) smallscale shareholders claiming their legal right to attend - and to embarrass the directors by raising issues they would rather weren't talked about.

BAE Systems

Anna Jones reports: More usually known by their former name, British Aerospace, BAES attracted activists from the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) and elsewhere to their AGM - at London's high-security QE II Conference Centre on 4 May - to challenge the company's appalling activities.

New chairman Dick Olver had only just set out the agenda when disruption started, beginning what the Guardian described the next day as his “baptism of fire”. A dozen stewards were forced to carry out a group chanting “Stop the trade in torture, stop the trade in death” before the meeting could get under way.

Then a barrage of questions set in. The board were tirelessly grilled for more than an hour and a half over topics such as bribery, corruption, ethics and other aspects of arms exports, with plenty more questions still unasked when proceedings ended. Olver's performance was generally smooth and evasive and he had clearly anticipated much of what he had to face, though he was unable to hide his frustration at some points.

Meanwhile, a lively protest took place outside the venue - with banners, handing out of leaflets, and chatting to the public - to make it clear that this was not a respectable company's AGM. The East Anglian group Theatre of War provided entertainment throughout the morning, highlighting the revolving door between companies like BAES and the government.

The following week, BAES held an extra meeting to authorise the acquisition of United Defence Industries in the USA. CAAT shareholders used to opportunity to carry on where they left off, challenging the company over recent investigations by the Serious Fraud Office. Dick Olver tried to deflect these questions with the excuse that they were of “no relevance” to the business of the meeting. He also confirmed that, with the acquisition of UDI, around 40% of BAES's employees would be in the US, and hence they expected to welcome new US members onto the board. Perhaps they'll be in position in time for next year's AGM...

Reed

Albert Beale reports: Anti-arms trade campaigners targeted the company AGM of information and publishing multinational Reed Elsevier for the first time this year, because of its acquisition of Spearhead, the company which organises the massive DSEi arms fair held in London's docklands every two years.

The board responded to the first question about their role in the arms trade by dismissing the matter as non-controversial. By the time the meeting was over, and there had been as many questions from shareholders on Spearhead as on every other topic put together, they at least were no longer able to sustain that argument.

Although this first CAAT intervention at Reed was fairly smallscale and low-key, several police vans were waiting outside the West End hotel hosting the event. Some CAAT staff members were harassed when they left, being followed to tube stations and repeatedly photographed at close quarters. The Police Complaints Authority is investigating.

Rio Tinto

Andy Whitmore reports: Rio Tinto, the world's largest and most notorious mining multinational, is based here in Britain, and has been attracting shareholder activists for more than 20 years.

This year's questions ranged over topics such as contaminated water getting into the processing plant, exposing workers to radiation, at a uranium mine in Australia; still-awaited compensation for cases of lung cancer in workers at the Capper Pass aluminium smelter in the north of England; and indigenous struggles involving the Bougainville copper mine in Papua New Guinea.

They were also asked for information on the ratio of highest to lowest pay rates in the company - one director “earns” US$6 million a year. They don't publish such figures and think “it would not be useful or meaningful”.

There was at least an admission - after years of pressure and questioning - that “much remains to be done” by the company in terms of environmental and social problems caused by its activities. When asked what needed to be done, and when it would be done by, the response was that “It was a good question” - as indeed it was.

Serco

Janet Kilburn reports: On 29 April around ten anti-nuclear activists attended the Serco annual general meeting, held at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in central London. A further group staged a protest outside the venue.

Campaigners are opposing Serco's involvement in a 25-year contract to manage AWE Aldermaston, reportedly worth #5.3bn to the joint venture company (of which Serco represents one third).

As the meeting began one woman stood up and, as a point of order, suggested that the meeting be abandoned due to the “illegal nature” of some of Serco's business. Shortly after, a second woman - clutching a banner with an anti-nuclear message - was ejected from the venue.

The meeting was disrupted several times, much to the dismay of regular shareholders who appeared to feel that “causing a scene” about nuclear weapons was “spoiling” the event.

Speaking outside the venue, one woman from the Aldermaston Women's Peace Campaign - who organised the protest - said “Serco have dirty fingers in a wide range of dirty pies, from prisons to PFI hospitals, to WMD. Almost 30% of their turnover comes from `defence' contracts. We want to draw attention to Serco's profiteering from British nuclear weapons and call on their private and commercial investors to disinvest from them.”