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EDINBURGH May 13 (Reuters) - Edinburgh-based insurer Standard Life Plc has started detailed preparations to potentially move some operations out of Scotland to protect itself from upheaval if Scots vote for independence from the United Kingdom later this year.
The company, which in February warned it could relocate some activities if the Scottish referendum in September favours separation from the rest of the UK, said on Tuesday it would not hesitate to move parts of its operations to England or register its funds there to protect its market position.
Based in Scotland for nearly 200 years, Standard Life is one of the most prominent members of the country's financial sector, one of its most important industries, and any relocation could put some 5,000 Scottish jobs at risk.
The group had in February highlighted its concerns over how an independent Scotland would work, what currency it would use, how its financial services would be regulated and whether it would join the European Union.
Speaking on to journalists on the sidelines of the company's annual shareholders' shareholder meeting, Chairman Gerry Grimstone said these issues remained shrouded in uncertainty.
"What the individual wants to know is the fine print and the nature of these big constitutional matters is you don't get to the fine print at this stage in these processes," he said.
In his speech to around 100 shareholders, Grimstone reiterated the company's position that it would take whatever action it saw fit to protect the interests of customers and shareholders.
"We would not hesitate for example to move parts of our operations to England, where the majority of our customers are located, or move the registration of our funds," Grimstone added.
Standard Life is one of a number of companies with operations in Scotland which have said they are considering their response should the country vote for independence, though the pro-independence Scottish National Party (SNP) has played down concerns about an independent country's finances.
READY TO MOVE QUICKLY
Grimstone said Standard Life had started detailed preparations to set up registered companies in England to which its businesses could be transferred.
"In financial services, continuity is vital and customers won't tolerate uncertainty so we need to be ready to move quickly if the need arises," he said, adding the company's position was purely financial and did not reflect a political view on independence.
"We should not and would not attempt to influence how anyone should vote," he said.
Asked if they supported the company's contingency planning, the assembled shareholders indicated in a show of hands the overwhelming majority did. But not all were impressed and one criticised the board for weighing into the independence debate by making its contingency plans public.
"I don't know what your definition of neutrality is, but it certainly isn't mine and I think the board has acted disgracefully by making public what it thinks it might do or not do," the shareholder said.
Scotland has the second-largest financial services industry in the United Kingdom, accounting for about 150,000 jobs. Standard Life manages more than 244 billion pounds ($410.9 billion) of assets for its clients, around 90 percent of whom are outside Scotland.
An opinion poll earlier this month showed nationalists still needing to make up ground before the Sept. 18 referendum. ($1 = 0.5939 British Pounds) (Editing by Matt Scuffham and David Holmes)