LONDON -- The chief executive of NatWest, one of Britain's biggest banks, left her job on Wednesday after discussing personal details of a client — the populist politician Nigel Farage — with a journalist amid a furor over financial institutions' power to refuse customers for their political views.
The bank said Alison Rose was leaving “by mutual consent.” The surprise early-morning statement came just hours after NatWest had expressed full confidence in the CEO, who was the first woman to head one of Britain's four big banks.
"It is a sad moment," said the bank's chairman, Howard Davies. NatWest shares fell more than 3% in trading Wednesday on the London Stock Exchange.
Rose's departure came after days of news stories sparked when Farage complained that his bank account had been shut down because the banking group didn’t agree with his political views.
Farage, a right-wing talk show presenter and former leader of the pro-Brexit U.K. Independence Party, said his account with the private bank Coutts, owned by NatWest Group, had been shut down unfairly.
The BBC ran a story, based on an anonymous source at the bank, saying the account was closed because Farage did not meet Coutts' 1 million pound ($1.3 million) borrowing requirement.
Farage then published documents he had obtained from the bank showing that officials discussed his financial affairs, but also the “reputational damage” associated with keeping him as a customer. The documents said Farage was “seen as xenophobic and racist” and “considered by many to be a disingenuous grifter.”
Farage, a skilled seeker of attention and generator of outrage, accused the bank of stomping on his freedom of speech, and some members of the Conservative government echoed his concerns.
Farage repeatedly failed to get elected to Parliament during his political career but played an outsized role in taking Britain out of the European Union, in large part by stoking concerns about immigration. Voters narrowly backed Brexit in a 2016 referendum, and the U.K. left the bloc in 2020.
On Tuesday evening, Rose apologized to Farage and acknowledged that she was the anonymous source of the inaccurate BBC report that claimed the decision to close Farage's account was purely commercial. She said speaking to a reporter had been “a serious error of judgment.”
Coutts, which has been headquartered on The Strand in central London for more than 300 years, advertises that its customers — who include Britain’s royal family — are part of “an exclusive network.”
NatWest was bailed out by the government during the 2008 global financial crisis and remains almost 40% owned by British taxpayers.
Andrew Griffith, the banking minister, met executives from Britain’s largest banks on Wednesday morning to address concerns related to customers’ “lawful freedom of expression."
He said he told participants that “it’s not the job of banks to tell us what to think or what political party we should support.”
“In a democracy that relies upon freedom of expression, freedom of thought, that isn’t a legitimate thing for a bank to remove someone’s access to a bank account, a really important building block of society today," he said.
Britain’s Treasury announced last week that U.K. banks will be subject to stricter rules over closing customers’ accounts. Under the new rules, they will have to explain why they are shutting down someone’s account and give 90 days’ notice for such account closures. They previously have not had to provide a rationale for doing so.
The changes are intended to boost transparency for customers but will not remove a banking firm’s right to close accounts of people deemed to be a reputational or political risk.
Farage welcomed Rose’s departure but said he wanted to see “a fundamental change of the banking laws" and the ouster of more members of the NatWest board.
“We bailed these people out and in return they close our branches, they close our personal and Business accounts on a huge scale,” he said. "We need real change here and I am going to go on pushing for it.”
British law requires banks to conduct extra scrutiny on “politically exposed persons” such as politicians and diplomats as protection against money-laundering, and many U.K. lawmakers say they have been turned down for bank accounts.
Policing Minister Chris Philp said the rules were designed to stop money-laundering by “members of foreign governments who had obtained their money dishonestly.” But he said they had been applied “overzealously.”
“I think the Nigel Farage case is an extreme one, but I’m afraid it’s not unique,” he said.
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