Nearly a fifth of britains largest companies have prevented smaller shareholders from holding bosses to account during the pandemic, according to a report by the uk regulator.

The financial reporting councils review of annual general meetings, published on tuesday, found that 163 of the 202 agms announced by ftse 350 groups this year were closed to physical attendees because of covid-19 risks. but 30 of those closed meetings provided no way for retail shareholders to question company boards or take part in live voting. of 30 physical meetings that did go ahead, 12 of these did not offer any live online voting or online access to the meeting.

Thirty companies appear to have not made any arrangements for shareholders to ask questions to the board prior to or during the agm, the frc said. this is disappointing and has led to concerns that any move to fully digital meetings could disenfranchise retail shareholders.

In late march, after the government announced lockdown and social distancing measures, the frc issued guidance on conducting agms advising companies to encourage proxy voting and to offer online q&a sessions.

However, campaigners for shareholder rights have complained that several large companies did not give smaller shareholders any way to question the companies they had invested in.

In april, direct line was criticised by sharesoc for not allowing any form of interaction between individual shareholders and directors. for a well-resourced ftse 250 company, arranging a virtual agm should not be too technically challenging, sharesoc said at the time. nevertheless, the company appears to have taken the easy way out, offering minimal opportunity for shareholders to quiz management...not good enough.

Royal bank of scotland, property group supermarket reit, and building materials supplier forterra were also criticised for their treatment of small shareholders.

In response to the frc report, sharesoc director cliff weight said that not allowing q&as and live voting at company meetings showed a callous disregard of investors rights.

However, the frc also identified some examples of good practice.

Marks and spencer hosted a fully digital meeting with live voting earlier this year and found this increased shareholder engagement. more than 1,500 people came to the digital agm, compared with the 561 who attended in person last year. the number of questions to the board trebled.

Hedge fund manager man group was also praised for holding a hybrid physical and webcast meeting, with a live online q&a.

All companies are now being advised by the frc to facilitate online participation so that boards can be questioned and held to account. the regulator has also proposed a new stakeholder group including government and investors to consider legal changes that would make agms more flexible.