An error of judgment

An error of judgment

She had to go. You simply cannot have the CEO of a bank unable to understand that if a journalist sat next to you at dinner asks you about a live story involving confidential details about a customer of the bank, the only possible response is “I can’t talk to you about that. Mmm, isn’t the soufflĂ© delicious.” Especially not when in a few days time you will be presenting the bank’s results and therefore are currently in possession of price sensitive market information. If you can’t keep quiet about the former, how can you be trusted with the latter. NatWest will now look for a new CEO. The interim one will need to ensure many things but among them are: (1) sharpening up its public communications strategy; (2) remedial English classes for whoever wrote that shocker of an apology letter; and (3) making sure staff understand that it is not enough to get decisions done for the right reasons. They must also be accurately recorded and in a way that won’t cause problems if made public.

Politicians and commentators have, predictably, piled in, most of them ignoring why she had to go and drawing the wrong lessons from what has happened, or the one which most comfortably suits their prejudices and obsessions, often filtered through whether they approve or disapprove of Farage.

  • Will Hutton took this to an extreme, seeing this as Faragiste mob rule getting poor Alison.
  • Kemi Badenoch predictably enough sought to remind banks that they must remember free speech and not discriminate on the grounds of political belief. She “hoped” banks would remember this. What is it with Cabinet Ministers commenting on events like passers-by at the scene of an accident. She’s a Minister. If something needs doing, has she thought of actually taking some … er, you know …. action.
  • Other Tories have given the impression that they are bothered about this because Mr Farage was the victim. Unwise. Ms Rose’s actions would have been wrong were it any bank customer.
  • Farage himself has suggested that there should be a rolling back of AML and PEP requirements, presumably seeing these as some sort of EU plot.

This would be a mistake. There is always a problem with rules such as these in that the amount of detail and checking needed can make the process so bureaucratic that it is easy to lose sight of what they are for, why this matters and why judgment should never be absent from the process. But ensuring that banks (and other professionals) are not used by bad actors to disguise their actions and give them a wholly undeserved veneer of respectability is essential if London’s finance sector is not to become a shady place for shady people, which it too often has been. Importantly, this row is not just or even at all an issue about political beliefs, Brexit etc.,. Banks have obligations to “know their customer” which is something considerably more than simply recording their name and address. Anti-Money Laundering rules are onerous as are those for Politically Exposed Persons. In addition, banks do need to assess reputational risk – both in relation to who they take on as clients, who they do business with and how and why they exit them, if their risk appetite changes. This all needs careful consideration and even more careful recording and communication. It is not always easy to get it right. But saying that banks should never take into account the reputation of their customers is as absurd as saying that banks should only take on customers whose political beliefs they approve of.

Darren Jones, Labour Chair of the Business Select Committee has made a better point about the selectivity of the government’s concerns. He has pointed to the rush to express dismay about NatWest’s behaviour, a company only 38% of which is owned by the government, compared to its silence over the Post Office – 100% owned. Sunak and Co., would do well to heed him on this.

The other issue arising is the “inclusivity” issue – not the woolly-headed “I want to teach the world to sing” inclusivity so beloved of organisations thinking that the appearance of goodness is all that is needed to demonstrate their “values” – but the tension caused by having private profit-making companies provide vital services without which it is hard to be a fully functioning or contributing member of society: bank accounts / social media / transport / phones / internet access. If everyone needs these should companies be obliged to provide them regardless of other considerations. And if not who should? Governments would do well to think about this more intelligently than they have done so far. The issue will arise pretty soon over train travel and the extent to which the closure of ticket offices will severely limit or remove the ability to travel from some groups eg the disabled. Unmanned stations are also a greater risk for women, especially late at night. We’d have to be heroically trusting to believe that there will be lots of roaming staff available to help at all times.

Human beings are capable of making the silliest of mistakes, as we know, but they are also capable of making the human connections without which much daily life, especially for the vulnerable and marginalised, is intolerable or harder than it need be. This is too often forgotten but should not be.


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