RBS 'prudent' in vote consideration

Considering the "possible business implications" on the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) of a Yes vote in the independence referendum is the responsible and prudent thing to do, according to its chairman.

Protesters outside the RBS annual general meeting in Gogarburn, Edinburgh
Protesters outside the RBS annual general meeting in Gogarburn, Edinburgh

Sir Philip Hampton said there was a "great deal of uncertainty" surrounding the vote, with the bank - which is just over 80% owned by the taxpayer - raising a number of issues covering areas such as credit rating, tax and regulation.

Speaking during the annual general meeting in Edinburgh, he said they were holding continuous talks with the Bank of England, the UKFI (UK Financial Investments) and both the Scottish and UK governments over the referendum.

He reaffirmed that the bank, which has its headquarters in Edinburgh, would maintain its neutral position ahead of September's vote.

"That said, like many other companies we are having to consider the possible business implications of a Yes vote and our response. This is the responsible and prudent thing to do and something you, our shareholders, would expect us to do," he said.

"If there is a Yes vote there would be a period of time between the referendum and Scotland actually becoming independent when the UK and Scottish governments would enter negotiations.

"During this transition period, the Bank of England would be lender of last resort to the banking sector and the UK would be the sovereign domicile for RBS."

Shareholders were also told about the board's "need to reflect" on the bank's failure to show a profit after posting a pre-tax loss of £8.2 billion last year.

As the five-year plan set out after the bank's capital reconstruction in 2009 has now passed, Sir Philip said RBS was now a "much smaller, simpler bank" and spoke about the growth of online and mobile transactions, seeing a decline of about 30% in branch transactions since three years ago.

He said that the bank would continue to have more branches than "Asda and Sainsbury's stores combined" by retaining a "very large branch network" despite announcing some closures across the UK earlier this year.

"With continued rapid change in the way people choose to bank, there will inevitably be further closures. Where we have to make the difficult decision to close a branch, we will tell our staff and customers first and set out what the alternatives are, such as the post office network or mobile vans."

Ross McEwan, the bank's chief executive, also spoke about branch closures during his address to shareholders.

He said: "The truth is that some branches hardly see a customer, which is why we are taking tough decisions about closing some, and sometimes making staff redundant - although that is always a last resort."

During a question-and-answer session lasting just under an hour, Sir Philip was asked by a shareholder: "How do we get out of the spiral of all banks paying obscenely large salaries and bonuses?"

Sir Philip replied that the bank had "massively reduced" in this area, with pay bonuses down 60% in four years.

"I don't think it's job done yet but huge progress has been made," he said.

The bank has been blocked from paying bonuses twice the size of salaries after its plans were vetoed by the Government in April.

The Treasury insisted the bank should remain a ''back-marker'' on pay, even though other institutions will be able to ask their shareholders to approve the award of such bonus deals.

By sticking to a smaller bonus-to-pay ratio, RBS earlier said it now faces ''commercial and prudential risk'' as it tries to compete with bigger-spending rivals.

RBS had wanted its AGM to consider a resolution asking for approval under new European rules to award bonuses of up to 200% of fixed pay

The EU bonus rules, which came into force on January 1, limit annual banker payouts for 2014 onwards to 100% of annual salary, or a maximum of 200% with shareholder approval.

RBS and other firms are now planning to pay a fixed allowance to senior staff in addition to salaries in a move seen as side-stepping the EU bonus cap.