Rishi Sunak declined to say whether he had confidence in the NatWest Group’s chairman, as the banking giant continues to face pressure amid the row over the closure of Nigel Farage’s Coutts account.
The Prime Minister said that his Government was taking “tough action” to protect the free speech of banking customers as he stressed the issue was about more than just the former Ukip leader, whose campaign against Coutts and NatWest resulted this week in the resignation of chief executive Dame Alison Rose.
Her exit came after both Downing Street and the Treasury expressed their “serious concerns” about her conduct.
Dame Alison had admitted a “serious error of judgment” by discussing with a BBC journalist Mr Farage’s relationship with Coutts, owned by the NatWest Group.
Mr Farage has demanded the resignation of the entire NatWest board and for a “cultural change” within the industry.
Ministers have not so far backed those calls, with some senior opposition MPs also questioning the appropriateness of the role played by No 10 in the exit of Dame Alison.
Asked by broadcasters on Wednesday if he had confidence in the chairman Sir Howard Davies, Mr Sunak said: “What I said right at the start of this was that it wasn’t right for people to be deprived of basic services like banking because of their views.
“This isn’t about any one individual, it’s about values – do you believe in free speech and not to be discriminated against because of your legally held views?
“Do you believe in privacy, particularly on matters as sensitive as your financial information? Those are the values and questions at stake here and that’s why I said what I did.”
He insisted that ministers had moved to address the concerns raised by Mr Farage’s case.
It comes after economic secretary to the Treasury Andrew Griffith gave the bosses of Barclays, HSBC, Nationwide, Santander and NatWest a dressing down at a virtual meeting on Wednesday morning, with David Lindberg, chief executive of NatWest’s retail banking wing, filling in for Dame Alison.
Ministers also moved to introduce a number of reforms last week amid outcry at the treatment of Mr Farage.
“We have passed new laws to ensure banks do treat customers fairly and they are not discriminating against people because they are exercising their lawful right to free speech,” the Prime Minister said.
“And we’re making sure that people, if banks are going to take away their bank accounts, have an ability to challenge that and have those bank accounts reinstated through the ombudsman.
“So there’s tough action that the Government has taken to make sure that banks are behaving in the right way.”
Dame Alison’s resignation as chief executive came after an emergency board meeting was called late on Tuesday night to determine her future.
It followed days of criticism and questions for the NatWest Group, after Mr Farage presented evidence that his account at Coutts had been closed partly due to his political views conflicting with the bank’s values.
The evidence obtained from the bank through a data request contradicted a BBC News story, which initially claimed the account closure was motivated by commercial reasons only, citing Mr Farage’s failure to meet a £1 million borrowing requirement.
Dame Alison has also resigned four Government roles, including losing out on her membership of the Prime Minister’s Business Council.
The bosses of other major UK banks have insisted that their so-called de-banking policies do not need to be significantly changed.
Barclays’ chief executive CS Venkatakrishnan joined the boss of rival lender Lloyds Bank, Charlie Nunn, in assuring that it does not exclude anyone based on their political or personal beliefs.
He said: “We would only withdraw banking services from customers in exceptional circumstances. Primarily these relate to fraud, financial crime, or cost of service.
“We support the Government initiative to standardise this approach among banks, and a very important part of that is the non-exclusion on the basis of political views or beliefs… people should not be excluded from banking on the basis of political views and beliefs.”
It echoed similar remarks from Mr Nunn on Wednesday that he has “no concerns” over the Government’s plans to tighten de-banking rules and the treatment of politically exposed persons (PEPs).
Both banking chiefs also gave their support to Alison Rose as a leader and role model in the sector, particularly over issues including women’s entrepreneurship and sustainability.
Published: by Radio NewsHub