James Moore: Co-op needs to stop talking and take action


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Outlook The Scene: we’re in the boardroom of Big Evil Fracking plc. The directors have just finished a meal of veal cutlets, foie gras and chocolate ice-cream, topped with flakes of gold. They are now getting down to business. The next item on the agenda? Financing. “Hey, want to hear a good joke,” says a fat, bald, white bloke with a gold watch dangling from a chain? “The Co-op Bank says it won’t lend to fracking companies any more.”

The assorted plutocrats collapse. No, they’ve not had heart attacks. They’re just laughing. Loudly. All of a sudden the lone female director pipes up (her designer suit bears the legend “token”). “Wait a minute, wait a minute,” she says. “Got it. Am I bovvered?” Cue more laughter.

The action shifts to the boardroom of Payday Rip-Off Loans for Everyone plc. And the scene is repeated. Next the camera pans across the boardroom of Tax Dodging Americtec Corp, although this time the events are slightly different. Here the geeky-looking CEO, upon being told the news, simply says: “Who?”

Yes, the Co-operative Bank, (majority) owned by US hedge funds, has announced a new ethical policy and the above three (and a few more besides) have been added to the list of companies to which it will not lend, so that it can trot their names out in the next series of ads featuring that bloke with all the tattoos.

Whether it ever did business with these sorts of companies in the first place is a moot point. Ditto for whether a crippled retail bank should be involved with any risky, big-ticket, corporate lending, having recently failed a Bank of England stress test.

But why, you might ask, am I trashing the bank, having regularly taken shots in this column at payday lenders, tax-dodging corporates and big businesses with dubious ethics. Isn’t the Co-op’s stance something I should be supporting? Wouldn’t I prefer not to have my money invested in the unlovely trio mentioned above?

Well, yes. But the posturing of the  Co-operative Bank is starting to get almost as tiresome as tattoo-spattered ads.

“Actions speak louder than words,” is what the bank piously declared, upon its announcement of the new ethical policy alongside a letter from its chief executive, Niall Booker, in which he extolled the virtues of listening to and loving customers and staff. We are told that 74,000 of them were involved in constructing the bank’s updated ethical stance.

But here’s the question I’d like answered. At the tail end of last year the Co-operative Bank suspended a vote on its executives’ richly endowed long-term incentive plan after it failed those stress tests. But it was made clear that the board was looking at alternative ways to get the cash into its top chaps’ hands. Will the 74,000 be consulted when those ways are finalised? I doubt it.

Here’s something the board might like to consider: actions speak louder than words when it comes to their own ethics as well as those of their customers.