The Co-operative Bank | CC |

Co-operative Bank closes human rights group’s account

A pro-Palestinian organisation that opposes human rights violations in the Occupied Territories has been told by the Co-operative Bank that its account is to be closed, The Ferret can reveal.

The Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (SPSC) said the closure of its account will be “very disruptive and costly” and the NGO is now planning a series of protests outside Co-op branches across Scotland.

The SPSC claims the move is politically motivated and a result of pressure from US investors and has called for people to close their Co-op accounts if the bank does not reverse its decision.

SPSC describes itself as a human rights organization. It campaigns for Palestinian rights while opposing Israel’s occupation of disputed lands and violations of international law.

The NGO’s bank account is due to be closed by the Co-op Bank next month.

Mick Napier, national treasurer for SPSC, said the closure would badly impact the organisation’s work because its only revenue stream is donations from the public.

He added: “Withdrawal of banking facilities from a group campaigning for human rights is an attack on free speech, since our sole means of support is individual donations.”

“Disrupting receipt of these donations will impede our work, even as arms flow unimpeded from Scotland to the Israeli Army to commit what Amnesty (International) and others describe as crimes against humanity.”

“We’ve not been given specific reasons but we think this could be as a result of pressure from the bank’s investors in the USA.”

In a letter to the SPSC on 10th November 2015, the Co-op said it was changing its “risk appetite” which “determines if we are able to provide customers with banking services.”

The letter continued: “Unfortunately, your account (s) no longer fits within our risk appetite and we are no longer able to provide you with banking services”

“On 14th January 2016 any remaining credit balance in the account (s) will be returned to you and the account will be closed.”

The SPSC said it has since negotiated a one month extension but that protests against the bank would begin this weekend.

In response, the Co-op said its decision was not politically motivated, nor a statement about the causes that SPSC supports.

A spokesman for the bank continued: “We remain a committed supporter of charities which can meet the industry level requirements.”

“However, in common with all banks, we have to perform due diligence on our customers, their accounts and the payments they make to ensure the bank complies with anti-money laundering obligations and to manage the bank’s risk.”

“This is part of our normal banking processes and is an area where the bank has made some changes recently to bring it into line with the industry generally.”

The Co-op added that banks in the UK are regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority, Prudential Regulatory Authority and various pieces of banking legislation.

But the bank declined to be more specific regarding its legal obligations and change of policy.

When asked about the SPSC’s claim that American investors were influencing its policy, the Co-op replied: “This decision is about adhering to our obligations under the law and not about arbitrary decisions or any form of discrimination or inequality.”

“The primary reason for not being more specific at this stage is because of client confidentiality.”

The SPSC is the latest UK organisation supporting Palestinian causes to have had its account closed by the Co-op.

Friends of Al-Aqsa and other Palestinian-affiliated groups – including the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) based in England – also received letters recently from from Co-op Bank advising that their accounts would be closed.

The Co-op also closed the Cuba Solidarity Campaign’s account and closed or denied the accounts of another 20 organisations that support Palestinians.

These included PSC branches in Abergavenny, Bristol, Cambridge, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford, Plymouth, Sheffield, West Midlands and York.

Other groups affected include the Boycott Israel Network, International Women’s Peace Service Palestine and Yorkshire Palestine Cultural Exchange.

In October, the PSC launched a legal case against the Co-op Bank after its account was closed.

PSC said that the bank’s decision was discriminatory and contravened sections 13 and 29 of the Equality Act 2010.

Friends of Al-Aqsa told The Ferret: “Friends of Al-Aqsa (FOA) discovered whilst trying to making a transaction on 15 December 2015 that the Co-operative Bank had taken the unilateral decision to close FOA’s bank account.”

“No consultation or engagement preceded the decision.”

“The only reasons provided by the bank for the closure is a change in its ‘risk appetite’.”

“They have since than given FOA an extension to 23 February before closing the account.”

“We will ensure that we pursue every legal, social and political avenue to put pressure on the Co-op to re-open our account.”

Elsewhere, there’s been growing concern that the Co-op Bank’s much vaunted ethical policy has been diluted since most shares were sold off to private shareholders in 2013.

Following that sell-off, a group called Save Our Bank (SOB) was formed by some of the bank’s customers with a view to ensuring the Co-op Bank retains “its world-leading ethical policy”.

SOB’s campaign against the account closures is supported by nearly 7000 people that have signed a 38 Degrees petition and Ethical Consumer magazine.

A statement on SOB’s website says: “We fear that the bank will lose more than it saves because of the impact on its reputation as an ethical bank.”

The group has called on the bank to: “Remember its proud tradition of supporting human rights campaigners and to help legitimate support groups to meet the bank’s obligations instead of just closing accounts.”

In a statement to The Ferret, the Co-op explained that for customers who operate in, or send money to high risk locations throughout the world, advanced due diligence checks are required by all banks to ensure that funds do not inadvertently fund illegal or other proscribed activities.

It said: “Depending on the particular circumstances it may not be possible for us to complete these checks to our satisfaction and the decision to close a number of accounts, including the PSC and some of its affiliates, is an inevitable result of this process.”

The Co-op Bank claims to have conducted extensive research into the groups affected and has concluded that they “did not meet its requirements or allow the bank to fulfil its obligations.”

A spokesman continued: “This does not mean that we cannot or will not facilitate humanitarian, educational, medical and human rights donations to the Gaza region.”

“Many high profile organisations do excellent work in these fields in Gaza and elsewhere and we make regular donations to some of these organisations through our current account and credit cards.”

“We would like to reassure customers that we apply consistent criteria when dealing with all customers and countries and this decision is about adhering to our obligations under the law and not about arbitrary decisions or any form of discrimination or inequality.”

“We have done considerable research and this decision is based on our adherence to our legal obligations and on our assessment of risk.”

“Adhering to our obligations is clearly part of our ethics and we continue to support charities in all sorts of areas who can meet our criteria including charities as stated above which operate in Gaza.”

Photo credit: Co-operative Bank Branch | CC |

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