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UK bank CEO quits over closure of Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage’s account

<i>Simon Dawson/Reuters</i><br/>Alison Rose pictured in November 2019
Simon Dawson/Reuters
Alison Rose pictured in November 2019

By Robert North and Hanna Ziady, CNN

London (CNN) — The CEO of one of the biggest banks in the United Kingdom has resigned after admitting she leaked details about the closure of Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage’s accounts to a BBC journalist.

Alison Rose, the boss of NatWest, will step down after almost four years in the job and more than three decades at the bank as the UK government clamps down on lenders over the “unfair” closure of accounts for political reasons.

The UK government holds a stake of around 39% in NatWest, after it bailed out the bank’s then-parent Royal Bank of Scotland during the 2008 financial crisis.

“I made a serious error of judgment in discussing Mr Farage’s relationship with the bank [with the BBC],” Rose said in a statement late Tuesday.

The bank’s share price closed 3.7% lower Wednesday.

Rose’s resignation came as bank CEOs were called into the UK Treasury to address concerns they are terminating accounts because they disagree with customers’ political beliefs.

Nigel Farage

A divisive figure in British politics known for his friendship with former US President Donald Trump, Farage is the former leader of the UK Independence Party, a right-wing political party that campaigned to take Britain out of the European Union.

Now a TV host for GB News, he revealed last month he had been dropped as a customer by a major UK bank. The lender was later revealed in UK media reports to be Coutts, a bank for the rich owned by NatWest. Farage said he believed Coutts decided to close his account because of his political views.

The BBC then reported that it had been told by a senior source at the bank that Farage’s accounts had been closed for “commercial” reasons.

In her statement, Rose said she had confirmed to BBC Business Editor Simon Jack that Farage was a Coutts customer and that he had been offered a NatWest account but she did not disclose any of his personal financial details.

Rose had also pointed Jack to eligibility criteria published on the Coutts website. According to those criteria, at a minimum clients are required to maintain at least £1 million ($1.3 million) in investments or borrowing with the bank, or £3 million ($3.9 million) in savings.

“I recognize that I left Mr Jack with the impression that the decision to close Mr Farage’s accounts was solely a commercial one,” she added.

However, Farage subsequently obtained a copy of the bank’s internal report into why his accounts were closed, which, he said, confirmed that his political views had played a role in the decision.

According to a copy of the report published by UK newspapers that has not been disputed by Coutts, a committee at the bank concluded that Farage could not remain a customer “given his publicly stated views that were at odds with our position as an inclusive organization.”

The 40-page dossier documents Farage’s social and political views, referencing several adverse press reports and detailing his stance on immigration and Black Lives Matter, among other subjects.

“I have apologized to Mr Farage for the deeply inappropriate language contained in those papers,” Rose said Tuesday.

Last week, Rose said she had commissioned a “full review” into the process Coutts follows when deciding to close a bank account. “It is not our policy to exit a customer on the basis of legally held political and personal views,” she noted at the time.

On Thursday, NatWest announced that Coutts CEO Peter Flavel would also step down.

“In the handling of Mr Farage’s case we have fallen below the bank’s high standards of personal service,” Flavel said in a statement.

In a meeting Wednesday, a Treasury minister, Andrew Griffith, discussed “the importance of protecting lawful freedom of expression for customers accessing banking services” with banking chiefs, according to a statement from the UK Treasury.

Griffith said it was “right” for Rose to resign. “This would never have happened if NatWest had not taken it upon itself to withdraw a bank account due to someone’s lawful political views. That was and is always unacceptable,” he added.

The Treasury has proposed new rules that will force banks to delay account closures and spell out why they are terminating an account.

Politically exposed

In an interview with Sky News Wednesday, Farage said as many as 10 UK banks had refused to provide him with banking services. He accused lenders of taking “political stances” and wanting to be “moral arbiters.”

Under UK money laundering regulations, banks are required to perform stricter risk assessments of so-called “politically exposed persons,” which includes presidents and other high-profile political leaders.

But many members of parliament have been “caught” by these rules because they are applied “over-zealously” by banks, according to policing minister Chris Philp. “The Nigel Farage case is an extreme one but I’m afraid it’s not unique,” he told Sky News Wednesday, noting than most lawmakers or their families, including his own, had problems accessing financial services.

In her statement, Rose said she had not been part of the decision to terminate Farage’s accounts. “This decision was made by Coutts, and I was informed in April that this was for commercial reasons.”

She added: “Put simply, I was wrong to respond to any question raised by the BBC about this case. I want to extend my sincere apologies to Mr Farage for the personal hurt this has caused him and I have written to him today.”

Rose will be replaced by Paul Thwaite, the current CEO of NatWest’s commercial and institutional business, as the bank searches for a permanent replacement.

“It is a sad moment,” Howard Davies, chairman of NatWest, said in a statement. “[Rose] has dedicated all her working life so far to NatWest and will leave many colleagues who respect and admire her.”

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