I went to Barclays bank today and asked them what their ethical policy was. The lady looked blank. Then a light dawned and she asked did I mean stocks and shares? Her brighter colleague came to her rescue saying that not only was no one in the branch qualified to answer that question but it was unlikely that I would even be any the wiser for looking on the internet. If I could wait for five minutes she would come out of the booth and I could write a letter to the manager in head office to see what they had to say about it and by the way No One had Ever asked about this before.
I found this hard to believe. It seemed like a fairly simple question. I have had an account with you for 20 years. I put my money in and then the bank presumably invests it. Would it be possible to know what they invest it in? Or failing that at least what their policy is regarding investment from an ethical perspective? How about if I was not into my money being invested in arms for example? What reassurance could the bank give me?
When I had written my letter dear sir madam etc. the lady, who as far as I could understand had in the meantime, ignoring her own advice, been on an as yet fruitless search for ethical policy on a chat room on the internet, asked for my phone number in case someone got back to her. I explained that my address was at the top of the letter and that if it was all the same to her I might prefer to wait for a written reply. How much money was I looking to deposit? She might be able to get me an audience with a premier account banker. I explained that likely as not my offerings would not be above their threshold for such a service. What was my account number? Did that effect the ethical policy of the bank I wondered? No no no of course not. Well. Thanks. Big smile. Not at all. Goodbye. Thanks.
Down the road at the Coop bank I asked the same question and received a quite different response. Apparently customers ask about this all the time here. Twenty sheets of ethical policy detailing five key areas; Human Rights, International Development, Ecological Impact, Animal Welfare and Social Enterprise were printed for me ‘using vegetable oil-based inks on paper which is Forest Stewardship Council certified and made in an elemental chlorine-free process.’ This is what happens when you have a customer-led ethical policy. Not great for arms dealers. Really good for vegetable oil-based inks manufacturers. How about that guy who was finance director of the Coop bank – the so called ‘crystal Methodist’ drug addict, sex pest and vicar who on close questioning knew alarmingly little about finance? Oh he’s gone. And the ethical policy is now enshrined in the constitution of the bank so it can’t happen again.
I found this reassuring. Mostly because I was getting on a whole lot better with this lady who had a kind sparkle and a slight antipodean accent and remembered that I had been in the branch with a twoyearold off school with a suspected case of chicken pox last week. And hey – even if the management of her company trying to appear ethical occasionally backfires on a catastrophic scale – at the very least she is aware of ethical policy as an idea, which is more than I can say for the George street branch of Barclays at this point. Can I open a savings account please?
I went to see the barber. She’s a canny lass. She remembered me from six months ago just by feeling my hair. I told her about my experiences at the bank and she said had I not heard about the protests last week? Apparently activists objecting to Barclays investing with Jaffa of the oranges who allegedly supply arms as well as citrus fruit had gathered outside that very branch to object. So it turned out, contrary to what I had been told, that someone had asked Barclays quite recently about their ethical policy. Well, well.
I popped across the road to get some cash to pay for my haircut. The machine swallowed my card. It expired yesterday and the bank, the Coop bank, too busy being ethical, have not got round to sending me a replacement yet. Sigh. I take 20 pounds out of my Barclays account using my other card. Does this mean that the Jaffa-mafia don’t get their hands on it? Should I feel good about myself?