If you want to live ethically, start with your bank account

Moving your money is an opportunity to make the banking system as a whole better, writes Co-operatives UK's Ed Mayo.

Do you have a bank account? If so, congratulations. You have a vote in what kind of economy the UK has moving forward.

This week is National Ethical Investment Week, an event which over recent years has become a great way to celebrate the mix of green and ethical funds open to those with the money to invest.

A bank account isn't usually considered as a classic investment product. But if we are going to improve the ethics of the world of finance, it is a good place to start.

To begin with, any money you have in your account is invested by your bank. It is not an investment that you see, but for every pound on deposit, your bank can lend a multiple of this in the wider economy. Taken together, as UK consumers, our bank accounts have money in credit at the end of a typical day of around £100bn.

A number of current accounts do now pay direct interest for the money you hold, even if it is still only a small proportion of conventional accounts that pay more than 0.5 per cent interest.

But there is another reason to consider where you hold your bank account, because it is the building block for the wider financial services sector. We can't complain that banks are less than fully ethical if we don't ourselves consider ethics when we choose who to bank with.

Current accounts are a cash cow for the big banks. One way or another, they make £152 out of every bank account they have. This is more than they earn from savings and credit cards put together. 

Current accounts are also something that most people have a choice over. There are 64 million bank accounts in the UK. So, where only around 15% of people are investors in the sense of putting money into stocks, shares and pooled funds, 90 per cent of us have a bank account and can have a say through our money.

The Move Your Money campaign has emerged this year as a cause célèbre. Launched in February 2012, the campaign calls on people to switch their account, current or savings, away from shareholder banks that helped to cause the economic crisis, and towards co-operative and mutual banks, such as credit unions and building societies.

Because they are not owned by external shareholders, they can put the interests of their customers first. Worldwide, customer-owned banks have been far safer than shareholder and state-owned banks over the last five years. No less importantly, your money is reinvested locally rather than going into the global carousel of bonuses and high finance. If you switch banks to an ethical bank, your money is being used for good – so it is not just fair to you but fair to others.

Since the campaign launched, around half a million people have switched accounts. The UK had long been the country with the lowest switching rate in Europe. More than the actions of any regulator, the Move Your Money campaign, in tune with the times, has changed that. And it is still early days.

Madeleine is one I know of many that have switched to the Co-operative Bank in recent months. "The online banking is different, but it all meets my needs and the switching was pretty simple." The switching process is far smoother than people may fear. You ask your new bank to set it in train and within 10 days of the application being approved, all your standing orders and arrangements should be transferred and up and running. 

Sandra has switched to Nationwide, one of fifty building societies still operating in the UK. She found that "banks are only interested if you have a lot of money and, as pensioners we don’t have a lot. But Nationwide was different. I know they want your money, I’m not saying they don’t, but they have more time for you, to explain the ins and outs."

Credit unions, which are financial co-operatives for savings and loans, are also among the providers that have benefited from switching as the larger credit unions now offer current accounts or debit cards that give access to ATM networks.

Ethical Investment should not just be about feeling good or having something to talk about at a dinner party but changing the way the financial system works. The call to move your money is a genuine and positive opportunity to make the banking system as a whole better.

Make it the one thing that you do this week.

Ed Mayo is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK

The Move Your Money campaign outside a Barclays. Photograph: Getty Images

Ed Mayo is Secretary General of Co-operatives UK

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What Charles Windsor’s garden reveals about the future of the British monarchy

As an open-minded republican, two things struck me. 

First we are told that the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, has lost his battle for a “soft” Brexit. In a joint article, he and the International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, the hardest of the ministerial Brexiteers, seem to agree that the UK will leave the European customs union in 2019. Then we get a reverse ferret. Hammond will go for a softish Brexit, after all. A government paper states that the UK will seek a “temporary customs union” in the “transition period” that, it hopes, will follow Brexit.

All this is a taste of things to come. We shall see many more instances of hard and soft Brexiteers celebrating victory or shrieking about betrayal. We shall also see UK and EU leaders storming out of talks, only to return to negotiations a few days later. My advice is to ignore it all until Friday 29 March 2019, when UK and EU leaders will emerge from all-night talks to announce a final, impenetrable fudge.

Lessons not learned

What you should not ignore is the scandal over Learndirect, the country’s largest adult training and apprenticeships provider. An Ofsted report states that a third of its apprentices receive none of the off-the-job training required. In a random sample, it found no evidence of learning plans.

Labour started Learndirect in 2000 as a charitable trust controlled by the Department for Education. It was sold to the private equity arm of Lloyds Bank in 2011 but remains largely reliant on public money (£158m in 2016-17). Since privatisation, 84 per cent of its cash has gone on management fees, interest payments and shareholder dividends. It spent £504,000 on sponsoring the Marussia Formula One team in an attempt to reach “our core customer group… in a new and exciting way”. The apprentices’ success rate fell from 67.5 per cent before privatisation to 57.8 per cent now.

This episode tells us that, however the Brexit process is going, Britain’s problems remain unchanged. Too many services are in the hands of greedy, incompetent private firms, and we are no closer to developing a skilled workforce. We only know about Learndirect’s failure because the company’s attempt to prevent Ofsted publishing its report was, after ten weeks of legal wrangling, overthrown in the courts.

A lot of hot air

Immediately after the Paris climate change accord in 2015, I expressed doubts about how each country’s emissions could be monitored and targets enforced. Now a BBC Radio 4 investigation finds that climate-warming gases emitted into the atmosphere far exceed those declared under the agreement. For example, declarations of methane emissions from livestock in India are subject to 50 per cent uncertainty, and those in Russia to 30-40 per cent uncertainty. One region in northern Italy, according to Swiss scientists, emits at least six times more climate-warming gases than are officially admitted. Remember this when you next hear politicians proclaiming that, after long and arduous negotiations, they have achieved a great victory.

Come rain or come shine

Climate change, scientists insist, is not the same thing as changes in the weather but writing about it brings me naturally to Britain’s wet August and newspaper articles headlined “Whatever happened to the sunny Augusts of our childhood?” and so on. The Daily Mail had one in which the writer recalled not a “single rainy day” from his family holidays in Folkestone. This, as he explained, is the result of what psychologists call “fading affect bias”, which causes our brains to hold positive memories longer than negative ones.

My brain is apparently atypical. I recall constant frustration as attempts to watch or play cricket were interrupted by rain. I remember sheltering indoors on family holidays with card games and books. My life, it seems, began, along with sunshine, when I left home for university at 18. Do psychologists have a name for my condition?

High and dry

Being an open-minded republican, I bought my wife, a keen gardener, an escorted tour of the gardens at Highgrove, the private residence of the man I call Charles Windsor, for her birthday. We went there this month during a break in the Cotswolds. The gardens are in parts too fussy, rather like its owner, but they are varied, colourful and hugely enjoyable. Two things struck me. First, the gardens of the elite were once designed to showcase the owner’s wealth and status, with the eye drawn to the grandeur of the mansion. Highgrove’s garden is designed for privacy, with many features intended to protect royalty from the prying public and particularly the press photographers’ long lenses. Second, our guide, pointing out what the owner had planted and designed, referred throughout to “His Royal Highness”, never “Charles”. I am pondering what these observations mean for the monarchy and its future.

Sympathy for the devil

Before leaving for the Cotswolds, we went to the Almeida Theatre in north London to see Ink, featuring Rupert Murdoch’s relaunch of the Sun in 1969. Many accounts of Murdoch  portray him as a power-crazed monster and his tabloid hacks as amoral reptiles. Ink is far more nuanced. It shows Murdoch as a mixture of diffidence, charm and menace, in love with newspapers and determined to blow apart a complacent,
paternalistic British establishment.

You may think that he and the Sun had a permanently coarsening effect on public life and culture, and I would largely agree. But he was also, in his own way, a 1960s figure and his Sun, with its demonic energy, was as typical a product of that decade as the Beatles’ songs. The play strengthened my hunch that its author, James Graham, who also wrote This House, set in the parliamentary whips’ offices during the 1970s, will eventually be ranked as the century’s first great playwright.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear