Save Our Bank update
Shaun Fensom reports on the latest activities by the campaign to keep the Co-op Bank ethical
With its 20% stake, the Co-operative Group is still the largest shareholder in the Co-op Bank. The Co-operative Group held its AGM in May, and at a meeting attended by hundreds of people we asked the Group if it would join with organised customers to keep the Bank to its ethical principles.
The answer was a remarkably straightforward ‘yes’. The chair, Allan Leighton, made clear that the Group is not waiting for the first opportunity to sell its stake, and committed to appointing someone to sit on the Bank’s board.
The Co-op Bank’s own AGM was an altogether different affair – barely 20 people in a small auditorium in London’s docklands. I attended on behalf of Save Our Bank and the Customer Union, which last year bought a small share to do just this, and was surprised to be the only person to ask a question.
My question was prompted by the bank’s decision last year to close the accounts of some campaigning organisations including the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. The bank has defended this decision, saying that it is required to perform ‘due diligence’ on organisations that transfer money to high-risk locations, and that unless it can show that there are adequate measures to ensure that money ends up where it is intended, there is a risk of substantial fines by regulators.
Save Our Bank’s view is that there is devil in the detail of how that ‘due diligence’ is performed and the risk assessed. I asked whether the bank would work with civil society organisations to look for the best ways for banks to meet their regulatory obligations and minimise damage to important human rights and aid work. We don’t yet have an answer, but it is clear that the board and executive are very aware of our campaign and how important this issue is to many customers.
Human rights seminar
The threat posed to civil society organisations by the world-wide clampdown on banking procedures was on the agenda at a meeting in July organised by Save Our Bank, Amnesty International UK and the Fund for Global Human Rights.
The meeting heard powerful testimony from solidarity organisations affected by the Co-op Bank’s closures. Not only is there a direct economic impact, with income from standing orders seriously affected, but also damage to reputation from the implied link to terrorism.
The problem goes much wider than the Co-op. Expert campaigners working in the field spoke about the immense pressure on banks coming from the US regulator and organisations like the Financial Action Task Force. Intelligence databases used by all the banks highlight risk, recording any alleged link to terrorism, from whatever source. Rumour becomes ‘fact’. Given a choice between costly investigation or closing an account most banks take the easy option.
The Co-op Bank is now taking more care to investigate accounts where it sees a risk. So far there has been one closure since the first batch of around 30 (that we know about) – but some accounts are still under threat. Damage has been done not only to human rights organisations but also to the bank’s claim to be ethical.
And yet the independently audited Values and Ethics report for 2015, shows a bank that has demonstrated real courage and determination to back up its policy with actions in other areas: £1m for co-op development, over £1m raised through charity credit cards, firm stances on fossil fuel extraction and on nuclear weapons, and a return to real campaigning with Refuge on financial abuse in intimate relationships.
Let’s hope that with organised customer power we can get the bank to show still more courage and take a lead protecting rather than abandoning organisations that do good work in high risk locations.
Join the Customer Union
At the Save Our Bank campaign we’ve been preparing to allow new members to sign up on our website for the new Customer Union for Ethical Banking.
See all the campaigns we support.