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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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle