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FCA finds no evidence of customers being debanked over political views

<span>Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

The UK’s financial regulator has found no evidence showing banks have shut or denied accounts to customers based primarily on their political beliefs, according to a preliminary review launched in the wake of the Nigel Farage debanking row.

Despite growing concerns that customers have been quietly discriminated against because of their political views, the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) said initial findings showed the primary reason for accounts being closed, suspended or denied was either that the account was inactive, or that they had concerns that the customer was involved in financial crime.

“While no bank, building society or payment firm reported to us that they had closed accounts primarily due to someone’s political views, further work is needed for us to be sure,” said the FCA chief executive, Nikhil Rathi.

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That will involve verifying the initial data gathered from 34 banks, building societies and payment companies, covering the year to June, including cases in which accounts were closed because the customers posed a “reputational risk”.

Banks have the freedom to choose who they do business with, and can legitimately refuse to business with some individuals who, for example, may under sanctions in the UK or abroad, or closely associated with such a person. However, the FCA said “we want to assure ourselves that this criteria is not being interpreted too broadly.”

It said payments companies – rather than banks or building societies – accounted for the majority of cases where accounts were denied on the basis of reputational risk.

Rathi said the “time was right” for a debate on “how we balance access to bank accounts with the threat of financial crime, as well as firms’ reasonable risk and commercial appetites. An important question for policymakers is whether all individuals, businesses and organisations should have the right to an account, as is the case in some other countries.”

While the review was launched in response to Farage’s battle with NatWest’s private bank Coutts, it is understood that the data does not cover his case, given that the bank never followed through with the closure. Farage said in July that Coutts’s new boss had offered to retain his account.

The FCA is also looking into whether politically exposed persons (PEPs) – who include MPs, peers, leaders of UK political parties and senior ranking military officers – are unfairly being denied banking services. Banks are required to more closely monitor the accounts and transactions of PEPs, since they are considered to be at a higher risk of bribery or corruption.

Both issues gained traction after Farage launched a campaign against Coutts, which had planned to shut his accounts.

The former Ukip leader originally claimed the decision to shut his accounts had been linked to his status as a PEP. While it was later revealed to have been linked to commercial considerations as well as alleged reputational risks related to his political views, the saga poured fuel on the debate about the use of discretion relating to PEPs.

The scandal eventually erupted into a freedom of speech row, and snowballed after it emerged that Alison Rose, the chief executive of Coutts’s owner, NatWest, had discussed the matter of Farage’s accounts with a BBC journalist.

Rose eventually resigned amid government pressure at the end of July, and the chief executive of Coutts, Peter Flavel, was asked to leave days later over the mishandling of the situation.

NatWest has hired lawyers for a widespread investigation, due at the end of October.

Commenting on the FCA’s report on debanking, the economic secretary to the treasury, Andrew Griffith, said: “Free speech is a fundamental human right. No ifs, no buts – everyone must be able to express their lawful opinions without fear of losing the vital access to a bank account.

“We have already acted to force banks to explain and delay any decision to close an account to protect freedom of expression – meaning customers will have a 90-day notice period and a clear explanation for any account closure.

“That will be backed up in legislation this year. We note the initial report of the FCA. Clearly there is more to be done to validate the submissions by banks and to ensure that the FCA have thoroughly followed up debanked customer perspectives.”