Coutts & Co AG bank headquarters
Rishi Sunak fired a warning shot at “woke” banks last night by making it clear he will “take the action necessary” to protect freedom of speech.
Tory sources described it as the opening salvo in an aggressive political campaign designed to highlight clear divisions with Labor on big issues such as crime, illegal immigration and defending women’s rights.
The Prime Minister told the Sunday Express: “I will continue to focus all my efforts on doing the right thing by the country.”
He has drawn up a tough list of sanctions which will be spelled out to banks, building societies and financial services companies when they are summoned to the Treasury in the coming days.
They include everything from heavy fines to withdrawal of licenses for those who fail to obey strict new rules to strengthen customer rights.
READ MORE: Woke turning UK into tinpot-state where all must bow to political correctness
A new account holders’ charter will force banks to give a guarantee that customers will be able to express their opinions without fear of losing their accounts.
The action follows public outrage after top people’s bank Coutts closed Nigel Farage’s account because his views did not “align with our values”.
Treasury minister Andrew Griffith will write to 19 banks and financial services companies to insist the treatment of the former Ukip leader caused “significant concern in both Houses of Parliament”.
He will say: “The Government is unequivocal that banks and other payment service providers – which occupy a privileged place in society – should not be terminating contracts of payment account facilities on grounds relating to users’ exercising of their right to lawful freedom of expression.
“The Government strongly supports this fundamental right afforded to all people in British society and will take the action necessary to protect it.”
He will set out reforms requiring account providers to:
* Give “at least 90 days’ notice when choosing to terminate a contract” except in serious circumstances, such as to prevent crime.
* Provide customers with a “clear understanding why their payment account contract has been terminated”.
Mr Griffith said the aim of the regulations was to “ensure that customers can access payment accounts without fear of being de-banked for their lawful expression”.
The measures will be put into law using powers granted to Ministers by the Financial Services and Markets Act 2023.
Customers who believe banks have failed to comply can complain to the financial services ombudsman, who can order a bank to keep their account open, and the measures will ultimately be enforced by the Financial Conduct Authority, which can impose fines or even withdraw a firm’s authorization to provide financial services.
Treasury Minister Andrew Griffith to set out new reforms
Demanding that bank bosses issue personal assurances that the new rules will be obeyed, Mr Griffiths will tell them: “I am calling a roundtable at the earliest opportunity to hear your views on how you and your firms will ensure that customers can access payment accounts without fear of being de-banked for their lawful expression and necessary actions to be taken to implement the reforms announced.”
Existing rules require banks to carry out extra checks on politicians and their family members, known as politically exposed persons, to ensure they are not involved in money-laundering or corruption. But Mr Griffiths will say the Government is “aware of concerns” that these checks are being used as an excuse to close accounts.
He will say: “The Government is clear that these regulations relate to money laundering and anti-corruption and do not provide grounds for account closure on the basis of political views.”
Mr Farage last week received a personal apology from Dame Alison Rose, chief executive of Coutts owners NatWest Group, for “deeply inappropriate” comments about him in an internal bank document.
The bank’s report cited his retweet of a joke by comedian Ricky Gervais about trans women and his friendship with tennis player Novak Djokovic, who is opposed to Covid vaccinations, to flag concerns that he is “xenophobic and racist”.
But the Brexit-backing politician is now encouraging others whose accounts were closed by NatWest to demand copies of information the bank holds about them, known as subject access requests. More than 10,000 people have joined a Facebook group set up for this purpose.
He also reportedly upped the ante by lodging a formal complaint with the Information Commissioner.
He has also written to the BBC’s Director General to complain about its reporting, in relation to an article that claimed his accounts were closed over a lack of funds.
Mr Farage claims this information must have been passed from Coutts to the BBC.
His letter of complaint reportedly states: “The content of the BBC report gives rise to the inescapable conclusion that the bank was providing confidential information comprising Mr Farage’s personal data about his financial affairs to the Press, which, on the face of it would constitute a serious data breach by the bank.”
Former PM Boris Johnson shows support for Nigel Farage
The Information Commissioner has the power to issue fines of up to £17m.
Former PM Boris Johnson threw his weight behind Mr Farage, saying: “This is about far more than the bank account of one person. It is about freedom under the law, for everyone in this country.”
He said Dame Alison should lose her job if it emerged she had leaked confidential information.
Liberal Democrat peer Susan Kramer says she now also suspects her bank account was closed for political reasons.
Senior figures demanding action include former Chancellor Norman Lamont, who said: “It is not for a bank to judge whether someone’s views are out of tone with wider society and then use that as the pretext for closing an account.”
Lord Lamont described it as “a fundamental issue which ought to concern everyone of every party – left, right, center or flat earth – who might all be the next person to suffer under what is happening.”
The Government has resisted pressure to intervene directly in the way NatWest Group is managed, despite being the largest shareholder.
Conservative peer Lord Forsyth last week urged Ministers to “say to NatWest that this kind of conduct is unacceptable” but Treasury Minister Baroness Penn insisted the bank was “managed at arm’s length”. Government owns 38.6 percent of NatWest after buying shares during the 2008 banking crisis.