NatWest keeps political records on customers

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The Independent Online
NATIONAL Westminster, Britain's biggest high street bank, is secretly recording the political opinions and affiliations of some of its 6.5 million customers.

The practice of keeping personal information, including political data, is 'commonplace' among high street banks, according to a source at NatWest. However, its three leading competitors said last night that personal information was never passed to a third party without the customer's permission. And two denied making a note of clients' political interests.

A NatWest spokesman said yesterday the confidential information was never passed outside the bank but it could be between branches and subsidiaries of the company, with the permission of the customer. Information, some of it obtained during customers' conversations with their bank managers, has been collected by NatWest for years.

Civil liberty campaigners are concerned that the data could be illegally obtained by private detectives. Personal financial details about people, including Stella Rimington, MI5's director- general, and Norman Lamont, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, has been made public in the past through this method.

Last week, Sir Bryan Carsberg, director-general of the Office of Fair Trading, complained that some high street banks were flouting their code of practice by passing on customers' details, such as names and addresses, to third parties.

NatWest is registered to hold computerised records for marketing purposes. Under the Data Protection Act, it can hold information about customers in more than 50 categories, including religious beliefs.

A spokesman said: 'Records are kept, but not for any sinister reason. It's for customer profiles to help to know the customer better. We don't go out of our way to get political affiliations, but it might be noted during a conversation with a manager.'

A Midland spokesman said: 'It might be recorded if a person was in a local political committee, but this would only be so that a new manager could quickly know a little about a customer.'

Lloyds' said it passed on information about customers within the bank and to subsidiaries such as an insurance company, but only with the customers' permission. A spokeswoman said: 'As far as I'm aware, we don't take down people's political views. What use would it be?'

A spokesman for Barclays said he was unable to find out, during the weekend, whether it kept political records, but thought it extremely unlikely.

John Wadham, legal director of Liberty, the civil liberties group, said it would be a 'fundamental breach' of banks' relationship with the customer if information was recorded secretly.