The recent travails of NatWest bank show what happens when the ESG agenda strays beyond being a good citizen into social engineering. Their practices seem to have included vetting and sacking long-standing customers whose political views were judged unpalatable. Who decided which views, and who did the judging, we may never know. It is likely, though, that this drive to cleanse their customer base of certain political positions is not limited to one customer or one bank. A month ago most people knew nothing about this. Now it has cost the NatWest chief executive her job, along with another senior executive, the head of Coutts bank. Billions have been wiped off the share price as a result. How could good intentions – or perhaps do-good intentions – lead to this?

Like all businesses, banks need to operate responsibly, treating employees and customers decently, and using resources efficiently so as to minimise their environmental footprint. But the vogue for ESG reporting seems to have prompted companies to report proudly of proactive initiatives that go beyond their business activity into general do-gooding. Employee team-building through charitable or community projects is nothing new. It’s the enthusiastic, sometimes almost rabid, vocal support for righteous causes that can lead companies astray. When Black Lives Matter happened, there was pressure on businesses to express overt support. Keeping quiet was seen by some as bordering on racist abuse. It took considerable resolve to say, this is not our business. Pride has become increasingly corporate, and this year it was a whole month of logos changed to rainbow colours and displays in offices, shops and branches. Halifax rebranded the entire exterior of its flagship London branch in rainbow colours. If only the same energy went into making such places more accessible for disabled people.

The NatWest story is troubling because it goes even further than noisy virtue-signalling. NatWest is free to demand its employees sign up to behavioural codes, whether to support certain positions or to keep quiet. Up to a point, because there are limits even there. Employers are not free to discriminate against people based on their protected beliefs, and that will normally include not gagging them. The recent Forstater case at the Employment Appeal Tribunal established that believing that sex is binary and immutable is a protected belief, and that you should not be required to pretend otherwise in the workplace. Who’d have thought that needed to be a protected belief, but here we are. Maybe that is a sign of how far the corporate ESG agenda and the drive for “purpose” has gone way past old-fashioned volunteering days and charity fundraising. Purpose is about what you are here for as a business. But many businesses seem to have centred some form of social engineering instead. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

But until now there was no suggestion that businesses also vetted the beliefs of their customers. It’s a bit of a shock to find out that Coutts, the private banking business within NatWest, had people trawl through customers’ social media accounts and compile a dossier of their wrong think. This was revealed by arch-Brexiteer Nigel Farage, a polarising figure for sure. But all his views have been out there for years, and none of them are illegal. After Coutts wrote to tell him they would be closing his bank accounts, he submitted a Subject Access Request to find out what internal correspondence there was about him. The result was a forty-page dossier listing his offences. Apparently one of these was liking a jokey Tweet by Ricky Gervais, because it made fun of trans issues. Risqué jokes and memes are everywhere on social media. It’s breath-taking to think that your bank – whom you pay to provide a service, but with whom you have no personal contact – could be stalking you online, and deciding that some jokes, some comments, some opinions render you beyond the pale. In this case, it was the bank, not Farage, who revealed that he banked with Coutts, so there was not even the defence that the association could be harmful to their business. Well, it is now.

The Financial Conduct Authority may now investigate the goings-on at NatWest and Coutts. Meanwhile, it’s likely that tighter regulations will be drawn up to ensure that in future no bank can treat a customer this way. We now know that Coutts’ policy on getting rid of customers had been amended to include “discrimination”.  Disagreement is not discrimination. Liking jokes online might demonstrate bad taste but it affects no one else. The only discrimination here was by the bank, against Farage. You have to wonder what’s gone wrong, to get to this point. Most concerning is that the people who made these decisions – and there must have been several inside the bank  – thought they were the good guys. This is a long way from the ESG goal of using transparency to encourage good business practices.

Comment | July 2023