21st November CUEB Gathering – 2:30pm
This is a short report from the 5th annual Gathering of the Save Our Bank campaign and Customer Union for Ethical Banking (CUEB). As in the last three years, we were joined by representatives of the Co-operative Bank. We also had 55 attendees at the start of the gathering; a record for any CUEB meeting so far.
Report from Maria Cearns and Lesley McPherson of the Co-operative Bank
Maria and Lesley thanked the attendees for attending the gathering and showing their interest in the bank. Lesley reported that the bank is in a much stronger financial position than in previous years, allowing the bank to navigate what has been a challenging year for us all and offer support needed to customers. She also discussed the resignation of the bank’s previous Chief Executive, Andrew Bester, and the appointment of Nick Slape, who was previously the bank’s Chief Financial Officer and a colleague of Andrew’s, as the new Chief Executive.
Maria and Lesley also talked about the bank’s support for customers through the Covid-19 pandemic so far. The bank has allowed customers to defer mortgage payments, and helped SME customers with Covid support loans. The bank also established an emergency fund for struggling customers. The bank sent an email to its customers that work for the NHS, thanking them for their work. When many responded expressing a need for telephone headsets, the bank sent spare headsets and other IT materials to those who needed them. The bank also raised funds and made donations to Refuge, NHS Charities Together, and other charity partners and services.
Maria also talked about the bank’s longs-standing relationship with Amnesty International UK. The bank has set up the an Amnesty group for colleagues, which now has 60 members and which has been involved in the Write for Rights campaign. The bank also had to make redundancies in the course of the year, which it did with as much integrity and honesty as possible. The report concluded with a commitment to always be bold on Values and Ethics and to strive to provide an excellent ethical alternative, and an extensive question and answer session followed.
CUEB chair Rob Harrison introduced the next session on ownership. The second aim of the CUEB is to return the bank to co-operative ownership. This is a difficult and complex issue, so we’re assembling a specialist panel on ownership to inform this discussion.
Sam Hale, a member of the panel, is a former employee of the Co-op Bank in the treasury function, and since then has set up treasury functions of start-up banks in Manchester and Wales, so has expertise in capital and liquidity needs of banks. The offer, reportedly from Cerberus, to buy the Co-op Bank, is rumoured to be at a very low price - as little as £200 million. If true that would be a reflection of the continuing losses being carried by the current owners. While the bank has made progress and loans are performing well, it is still making significant losses. Operating costs are high – e.g. the bank still hasn’t integrated the second mainframe after the Britannia takeover. There is also the low interest rate environment. If the current owners are prepared to accept a low offer then that may make the aim of finding a cooperative buyer more feasible.
There followed a discussion of organisations we could approach concerning any possible interest in acting as an alternative buyer or finding alternative buyers, potentially as part of a ‘concert party’ or group of buyers. We need contact details of such organisations. Given that the current owners recently put in £700 million and the bank’s losses are decreasing, it is hard to see why anything less than that would be accepted. But we have to be agile – we need to engage with large mutual and co-operative organisations, and include some crowdfunding, to act in this space.
External auditing campaign
The meeting finished with a brief presentation of our plans for a campaign on external auditing. External auditing of the bank’s Ethical Policy implementation was quietly dropped in the 2019 Values & Ethics report, which was unaudited for the first time since 1998. We received a commitment from the bank to resume auditing in 2020. This didn’t happen, and this was blamed on the pandemic. We want to pursue this again now. A three-point campaign plan for the coming months was presented.
Thank you to all Customer Union members and supporters who attended.