Welcome to the FSU’s weekly newsletter, our round-up of the free speech news of the week. As with all our work, this newsletter depends on the support of our members and donors, so if you’re not already a paying member please sign up today or encourage a friend to join and help turn the tide against cancel culture. You can share our newsletters on social media with the buttons at the bottom of this email (although not if you’re reading this on a desktop). If someone has shared this newsletter with you and you’d like to join the FSU, you can find our website here.
NatWest CEO quits after leaking Nigel Farage’s financial details to BBC
Dame Alison Rose, the CEO of the NatWest Group, which owns Coutts, has resigned, after admitting selectively leaking confidential information about Nigel Farage’s finances to BBC Business Editor Simon Jack, and, in doing so, creating the impression that the former MEP for South East England was de-banked by Coutts for entirely commercial reasons (BBC, FT, Telegraph, Times).
It was Mr Jack who first reported claims that the reason Mr Farage’s accounts had been closed was that he lacked the financial resources to be a customer of the millionaires’ bank. Mr Jack’s story (headlined: “Nigel Farage bank account shut for falling below wealth limit”) cited “people familiar with Coutts’ move” and was subsequently picked up, and the main points gleefully repeated, by various progressive media figures who happen to dislike Mr Farage’s politics.
However, thanks to a Subject Access Request subsequently submitted by Mr Farage, we now know that his accounts were closed largely, if not entirely, for political reasons.
Across the 40 pages of eye-poppingly partisan documents released to Mr Farage, his perfectly lawful views on Brexit, LGBT rights, the government’s Net Zero targets and many other contentious contemporary topics, are cited as evidence of the former UKIP-leader’s “distasteful” views, which “do not align with our values”, and which the bank’s reputational risk committee saw as grounds for “exiting” him from the bank.
And yet, in among the document’s politically subjective ‘findings’, the bank repeatedly refers to the fact that, although “NF” had technically dipped below the financial threshold required by the bank, he “meets the EC [economic contribution] criteria for commercial retention”.
All of which led to speculation that in the period following Mr Farage’s initial claim that he’d been de-banked, but before his Subject Access Request had been completed, Dame Alison may have selectively leaked aspects of the former UKIP leader’s personal financial profile to the BBC in an attempt to misdirect the media and scotch any suggestion that his accounts had been closed for political reasons (Telegraph, Times).
Why the speculation? Because the night before the corporation broke Mr Jack’s ‘exclusive’ story, the NatWest Group’s CEO had sat “laughing and joking” next to none other than Mr Jack himself, while attending a Charity Dinner at the five-star Langham Hotel (Telegraph).
In a statement issued on Tuesday evening, Dame Alison outed herself as the source of the BBC’s story, and accepted that she had made “a serious error of judgment”.
The latest news is that Peter Flavel, the CEO of Coutts, has also fallen on his sword, confessing that in the bank’s handling of Mr Farage’s case, “we have fallen below [our] high standards of personal service” (Sky News).
NatWest subsidiary Coutts may now face an investigation by Britain’s privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, after John Edwards, the information commissioner, said that Mr Farage’s trust had been “betrayed” by the bank.
Mr Edwards said: “The banking duty of confidentiality is over a hundred years old, and it is clear that it would not permit the discussion of a customer’s personal information with the media.” He added: “We trust banks with our money and with our personal information. Any suggestion that this trust has been betrayed will be concerning for a bank’s customers, and for regulators like myself.”
The Financial Conduct Authority has also raised concerns about breaches of confidentiality by Coutts and its parent company NatWest and said that it had “made clear” to the bigger bank the need for an independent review (Telegraph).
In an attempt to cling on to her £5 million-a-year job, Dame Alison had insisted she believed the information she disclosed to the BBC was already in the public domain. “In response to a general question [from Mr Jack] about eligibility criteria required to bank with Coutts and NatWest, I said that guidance on both was publicly available on their websites,” she said in her statement.
It’s difficult to imagine a journalist of Mr Jack’s experience getting particularly excited about a story he’d just pulled together having scrolled through a few pages of Coutts’s open access website on his phone. Indeed, if the information Dame Alison let slip at the Charity Dinner really had been as generic and inconsequential as her statement suggests, then why did the BBC subsequently contact her office to confirm she was happy for the corporation to run Mr Jack’s story – a story that the Head of BBC News, Deborah Turness, felt at the time to be “of significant public interest”?
Following the release of her statement at 5:42pm on Tuesday, NatWest’s board expressed full confidence in their CEO, yet by 11pm was locked in emergency talks, as Treasury officials made it clear that the Prime Minister and Chancellor had “significant concerns” over her position at a bank which is still 38% owned by the taxpayer.
By midnight, the mood music had darkened, with the Telegraph reporting that there was now an “expectation” within government – or in the parlance of corporate governance, the ‘principal shareholder’ – that the group’s CEO would have to resign.
A few hours later, the banking chief who spearheaded NatWest’s pivot away from a strict focus on returning dividends to shareholders, and towards putting diversity, inclusion and equity at the heart of the business, was gone.
The latest episode of the FSU’s weekly podcast is out now!
In this week’s episode of That’s Debatable!, hosts Tom and Ben celebrate what is, arguably, our biggest victory to date – following sustained lobbying by the FSU, the government has announced it will be tightening the UK Payment Services Regulations to make it much more difficult for banks and payment processors to cancel people’s accounts just because woke execs in the C-suite’s air-conditioned offices happen to find their lawful political beliefs ‘distasteful’.
The link to listen in full – and for free! – is here.
Sibyl Ruth fundraiser – join the fight!
It’s been good to see the case of writer, editor and FSU member Sibyl Ruth gaining traction over the last few weeks (Express, Mail, Telegraph). Sibyl, who lost her job for pointing out that a man claiming to be a woman had a five o’clock shadow, is hoping to take her former employer to the Employment Tribunal in September – and needs your support.
You can find out more about the case and pledge your support here.
During a recent appearance on GB News’s Free Speech Nation with Andrew Doyle, Sibyl revealed a little more about what happened behind the scenes at Cornerstones, her former employer, in the lead-up to her contract termination (you can watch a clip of the episode here).
As Sibyl told Andrew, she had been working for Cornerstones as one of their ‘Core Editors’ without issue when “really suddenly” the company stopped sending her work in spite of positive feedback. First, management told her a client she had been working for no longer required her services. Then when she decided to tweak her profile on the company’s website, she realised she’d been “disappeared” from the editors’ page on the Cornerstones website. Finally, she was told it was “unlikely” that any more projects would come her way.
Thanks to a Subject Access Request (SAR) which we urged her to submit, Sibyl discovered that a member of staff had objected to her tweeting about her gender critical views. Although ‘objected to’ is perhaps not the right phrase, given how the SAR revealed staff members saying things like: “Is Sibyl working on a project? Let’s get rid of her.” It’s the sort of tone you might expect in cases where a staff member had been sticking their hand in the till, but not, as in Sibyl’s case, where the ‘crime’ is simply tweeting about Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform Bill, and the importance of women’s spaces in healthcare settings, prisons and rape-crisis centres.
Sadly, by the time Sibyl received these details, it was too late – Cornerstones had already stopped all her work and effectively terminated her.
Sibyl’s case is that Cornerstones discriminated against her based on her lawful gender critical beliefs, as well as her age.
The case of Forstater v CGD Europe established that gender critical beliefs are protected under the Equality Act 2010 and are therefore “worthy of respect” in a democratic society. However, the first phase of Sibyl’s case will involve establishing that she’s entitled to Equality Act protection in the first place. That’s because she was employed on a precarious contract and labelled an ‘independent contractor’ rather than an employee.
Whether contractors are ‘employees’ is therefore an important question of law. Without such status, writers like Sibyl do not benefit from employment legislation preventing unfair dismissal or Equality Act protections against discrimination.
That’s why it’s important we support Sibyl as she brings this case, which could be of ground-breaking importance for the arts world and beyond, signalling to de facto employers that they will be held accountable for discriminating against their employees.
Once again, we need your help. Please join the fight and support Sibyl’s crowdfunder here.
Big FSU victory leads to UK banks making free speech commitment
The heads of Britain’s biggest banks have committed to the principle of “non-discrimination based on lawful freedom of expression”, following a meeting with the financial services minister Andrew Griffiths (Investment Week, Mail, Reuters, Sky)
The news comes in the wake of Coutts bank’s politically motivated ‘de-banking’ of former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, an incident that captured the media’s attention and has shone a spotlight on the growing problem of politically motivated financial censorship in western liberal democracies.
In a statement issued on Wednesday, Mr Griffith said that the bank bosses had committed to bring their policies into line with planned government reforms as soon as possible.
The reforms in question relate specifically to the UK Payment Services Regulations (i.e., the regulatory framework currently applied to over 1,000 firms authorised as payment and e-money services in the UK).
Some months ago, the Government put in motion a review of the Regulations and sought evidence about politically motivated financial censorship. This followed a meeting between the FSU and Mr Griffith to discuss our own experience of financial censorship at the hands of PayPal. The City Minister then invited us to submit evidence to the Treasury about how widespread the de-banking phenomenon is. We duly did that, citing numerous cases – many of them members of the FSU.
The consultation culminated in the government’s announcement earlier this week of concrete new measures to protect customers. Under these new rules, banks will be forced to explain and delay any decision to close an account unless this plays into the hands of criminals.
The notice period for a closure will be extended to 90 days, giving customers more time to challenge the decision or find a replacement bank.
Banks will also have to spell out clearly the reasons why they are closing an account, giving customers more knowledge and power to challenge decisions.
That last point is important, not least because the 2010 Equality Act makes certain forms of belief discrimination illegal. So if customers are de-banked because the bank or payment services provider disapproves of their ‘protected’ beliefs , and they can prove it, the customer could sue.
If you’ve been de-banked, the first thing you should do is submit a Subject Access Request, demanding to see whatever information that company is holding on you. If it shows you’ve been discriminated against, you can then complain to the financial ombudsman and, if necessary, take the bank or payment processor to court. (See the FAQs we’ve just published on what to do if you’ve been de-banked.)
The FSU has already helped several of its members navigate this process, so if you need our support and advice, please do get in touch via [email protected].
In addition to the FAQs we’ve just published, we’re doing some research into how respectful each payment services provider is of its customers’ free speech. The aim is to give all of them a score out of 10, depending on how they react to customers who say something unorthodox but perfectly lawful.
High street lenders now able to monitor customers’ social media accounts
In a move likely associated with the rise of so-called ‘know-your-customer’ regulations in the financial services sector, the four biggest high street lenders and several others have quietly introduced the right to monitor customers’ social media into their privacy policies (Mail, Telegraph).
Buried in NatWest’s full, 13-page privacy notice, is the news that it may gather “information that you make public on social media”, including Facebook and Twitter. Coutts’s policy is identical.
Lloyds Banking Group, which also owns Halifax and the Bank of Scotland, ignored questions about the issue, but also says in small print that it may collect information from “published media and social networks”.
In its 28-page privacy notice, HSBC explains that it could monitor information “that relates to your social interactions, such as your communications via social media, between individuals, organisations, prospects”.
Barclays also conceded that in some circumstances “we collect information about you, such as from your actions on our social media pages”, including “what you say (such as comments)”, when explaining what data it holds.
Elsewhere, Metro Bank says it will “occasionally obtain [information] from publicly available sources, such as social media sites (e.g., we may collect your name and comments where you mention us in a post)”, while Virgin Money states that it gathers information from “publicly available sources”, such as “[i]nformation that you make public on social media”.
The banks do not refer to this in the terms and conditions for account closures.
UK Finance, the banking industry body, has admitted that lenders could run checks on customers’ social media accounts. “Banks [are] allowed to monitor social media of their clients, well to the same degree as other people,” a source told the Telegraph. “They’ve also got more obligations to monitor their customer activity than many other businesses as they’re in the regulated sector.”
Simon Gleeson, a partner at Clifford Chance, told the FT that: “Under the guise of ‘de-risking,’ banks have been dropping customers who pose reputational risk for at least a decade.”
That trend was prompted by a period of swingeing fines on banks by US and UK authorities for money-laundering failures. For instance, following the $1.9bn penalty levied on HSBC in 2012 by the US Department of Justice, the bank agreed to spend $700m on a global know-your-customer (or KYC) programme. KYC is shorthand for a range of anti-money-laundering safeguards enforced in markets around the world, and which frequently involved “adverse media checks” of precisely the kind Coutts carried out on Mr Farage.
Should a bank’s regulatory obligations include monitoring and assessment of someone’s perfectly lawful political opinions? Not according to Nikhil Rathi, the Chief Executive of the Financial Conduct Authority. In response to a question from Danny Kruger MP at a hearing by the Treasury Select Committee earlier this month, he confirmed that under the payment accounts regulations in the UK, “you are not able to discriminate on the basis of protected characteristics; you are not able to discriminate on the basis of political views either. That is in the legislation.”
As FSU Head Toby Young pointed out to Nigel Farage on GB News this week, whenever members get in touch with concerns about employers potentially monitoring their social media profiles, we always advise not only that they set their privacy settings to the highest standard possible, but that they also install apps that automatically delete social media posts after a week or so, so offence archaeologists can’t go back years to find things to be offended by. It sounds like something similar would be a good idea for anyone worried about being hauled in front of the banking sector’s new financial inquisition on a charge of ‘political wrongthink’.