Standard Life could quit Scotland

  • 27 February 2014
  • From the section Business
  • comments
Standard Life building
Standard Life is the first major business to warn it could leave Scotland if it votes for independence

Standard Life is putting in place contingency plans to relocate funds, people and operations to England if Scottish people vote for independence and what it regards as material uncertainties about money and regulation are not sorted to its satisfaction.

In its annual report, published on Thursday, the chairman of the Edinburgh-based pensions and savings firm, Gerry Grimstone, says Scotland has been a great base for the company but that, "if anything were to threaten this, we will take whatever action we consider necessary - including transferring parts of our operations from Scotland - in order to ensure continuity and to protect the interests of our stakeholders".

According to Standard Life's chief executive, David Nish, the company - which has had its headquarters in Scotland for 189 years - has "started work to establish additional registered companies to operate outside Scotland, into which we could transfer parts of our operations if necessary".

"This is a precautionary measure to ensure continuity of our businesses' competitive position and to protect the interests of our stakeholders."

Standard Life is the first significant Scottish business to warn that remaining in Scotland may be untenable in the event of a vote for independence.

Its intervention in the debate on Scotland's future is particularly significant because it is a symbolically important company in Scottish financial history and is regarded as a great success.

Standard Life is the UK's biggest provider of defined contribution pensions and self-invested pension plans, and has around £240bn of assets under management.

Special report: Scotland's future

Uncertainties

Mr Nish insisted Standard Life has "a long-standing policy of strict political neutrality and at no time will we advise people on how they should vote".

However, he said his strict duty was to assess the impact of independence on the group's four million UK customers, its 5,000 Scottish-based employees and its 1.5 million shareholders.

Mr Nish said this judgement could not be made in a definitive way at the moment because of uncertainties about the currency to be used by an independent Scotland, how interest rates would be set, how financial companies like Standard Life would be regulated, how savings and pensions would be taxed, and on what timetable Scotland could join the EU.

I am told by informed sources that unless a formal monetary, regulatory and currency union were agreed by an independent Scotland with the rest of the UK, which also included some kind of compact on taxes, Standard Life would feel obliged to move both funds and people to England.

The point is that 90% of all Standard Life's UK customers are outside Scotland, while their funds are held inside the country.

And if Scotland seceded without delegating regulation and monetary policy to London, the risks, costs and complexities of customers being in a separate country from their money would be too great - or so Standard Life believes.

"Customers' money and our capital would need to be near regulators responsible for those customers," said a source.

Chief executive David Nish said this was a precautionary measure

Standard Life also does not believe it could continue to recruit the best people to work in Edinburgh if they were uncertain about how much they would be taxed.

Monetary union

What brought this issue to a head for the company was the recent declaration by Chancellor George Osborne, Labour shadow chancellor Ed Balls and the Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, that they would all oppose formal monetary union with Scotland.

I understand that Standard Life does not regard as satisfactory the apparent fallback position of Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond that Scotland would use the pound even without formal monetary union.

Although Standard Life's location is not vital to Scottish prosperity, the threat of tens of billions of pounds of funds and thousands of highly-skilled jobs flowing across the border are bound to have an electrifying impact on the independence battle.

I am reliably told that the emigration of Standard Life could extend to shifting the headquarters from Edinburgh to London.

"There is no stock exchange up here [in Scotland]," said a well-placed source, "and we are not sure we would wish to become a foreign registered company on the London Stock Exchange. So we might have to move."