The BAE AGM is one of the constants of the CAAT calendar. Every May we mobilise our supporters to line up to ask the sort of questions the BAE Board definitely do not want to answer. 2009 was no exception.
This year we decided to focus on what happens inside the AGM, rather than outside. Even so, the day started with a small group of CAAT supporters holding posters highlighting BAE’s rising profits and ethical record. As usual, the area outside the giant Queen Elizabeth 11 Conference Centree was heavily policed and we were confined to a small holding pen, made even more frustrating by the narrowed pavements and extra barriers thrown up by roadworks. Hopefully, the Korean tourists and French schoolchildren who passed by understood at least some of our message.
At least you can see our messages in our photos. Although BAE faithfully recorded the entire AGM on film, shareholders cannot use recording equipment inside the meeting.
We were faced with the usual bland setting. The BAE Board – all male, almost all white – sat on the rostrum. Most stayed mute, letting Chairman Dick Olver dominate the meeting. Apart from a report from Chief Executive Ian King, and a few short replies from others, it was Olver all the way.
He started by talking about BAE’s commitment to “total performance” which also meant a “commitment to corporate responsibility and high standards of business conduct” and “behaving responsibly is the right thing to do”. In fact, we heard a lot about ethics throughout the meeting, mainly because CAAT shareholders asked question after question about it.
Among the questions asked by CAAT supporters were issues of BAE participation in DSEI (“yes”), human rights in Saudi Arabia (“not as bad as people make out”); arms sales to India and Pakistan (“yes” to both”) ; job losses in the UK (“yes, because of MOD requirements decreasing with withdrawal from Iraq, but still the UK’s largest employer of graduates”; manufacturing enviromentally-friendly weapons (“I am sure this is a possibility”) ; continuing corruption allegations in South Africa (“We dont have agents; on occasion we use advisors appointed by a panel chaired by an external lawyer”; previous commitment to a budget for harnessing weapons for civilian use (“nothing has happened with that budget”); business turned down for ethical reasons (“I am not going to tell you because of competition”).
There were questions that even the dominating Dick Olver could not answer. A CAAT question elicted an answer that showed Olver was not aware of what was written in BAE’s own Corporate Responsibility report. Another question on the number of SFO investigations BAE was still facing got the initial answer: “Probably four or five – I don’t know”. Pressed further Olver named Romania, the Czech Republic, Tanzania and South Africa, and said that he wished that the investigations would come to a “speedy, rigorous solution”.
Asked about BAE’s stake in MBDA who are involved in the manufacturing of French nuclear weapons, Olver confirmed that BAE had a 37.5% stake but didn’t make nuclear weapons but nuclear-powered submarines but that “that [nuclear] information is classified – we are not allowed anyway near that”. However, in answer to a later question, Olver confirmed that BAE was manufacturing nuclear-powered attack submarines and that BAE “is involved in discussions about plans to replace Trident”.
For CAAT the day wasn’t completely satisfactory. We didn’t have a chance to ask all our questions. But it was good to see the steely Dick Olver steadily lose some of his formerly impenitrable sang-froid. By the end he was distinctively techy while the Board seemed more uncomfortable than ever. We got revealing answers to some questions and a few laughs as well.
Dick Olver told the meeting that he will stay on as Chairman till 2013. Well, CAAT will be there every year till 2013 and beyond. Thanks to everyone who attended, inside and out – and see you again next year.