Hi everyone, there has recently been a large amount of interest in the Union’s Ethical Banking Policy. There have been a lot of questions asked about this policy, mainly over social media, and a lot of misinformation and rumours flying, so we’re going to try and clear up a few of your queries.
“What is the boycott? What does it mean?”
In 2010, Union Council passed an “Ethical Banking Policy” which stated that RBS, and its subsidiary NatWest, must respond to requests for improvements in their ethical practices. The policy then goes on to state that the Union intends, “To boycott RBS-NatWest if they do not meet these demands by August 2011.”
In its current form, the boycott applies to all Union activities on campus. Previously this applied primarily to the Union’s banking (the Union moved its money from NatWest to the Co-op in 2011, check out their ethical policy here), but it has recently been brought to the Student Officer Committee‘s attention that the RBS-ESSA scheme and screening RBS-NatWest sponsored events is in contravention of this policy. This means that the Union’s clubs and societies, if they were to take part in this scheme, would be breaking Union policy. It also means that RBS-NatWest sponsored events will not be shown in the Union’s bars.
“Why weren’t students asked about any of this?”
The Union is a democracy and every policy is voted on by Union council. Union council is made up of students who volunteer their time to help decide how the Union is run. Every club, society and peer support group have a Union Council Representative. So does each year of every degree at the university. This means that you are either able to become a union councillor, or you are already being represented by a councillor.
This policy was first voted on in 2010, and then students this year voted to keep the policy.
As much as the students officers would like to consult each student individually over every policy, this isn’t possible. The Union currently has over 100 policies, and more are brought up at each Council and some of these policies have several factors. The way you can become informed about Union Council is by attending (all students are able to attend even if you’re not a councillor) or by reading the agendas and minutes which are published on our website.
“Why RBS-NatWest? What’s so bad about them?”
RBS, and its subsidiary NatWest, have been singled out particularly for boycott, on specifically environmental grounds in contradiction with the Union’s stated environmental policy, and since the Union banked with NatWest previously. With global assets of over $1,120 billion, RBS-NatWest is determining our energy future, and as the self-described ‘oil and gas bank’, RBS-NatWest are implicated more than any other financial institution in funding fossil fuels and climate change.
RBS-NatWest is the biggest UK investor in the Canadian tar sands, having raised £5.6 billion in corporate finance for what has been described as “the most destructive project in the world.” The tar sands produce oil 2-3 times more polluting, in terms of CO2, than conventional sources, have destroyed 400,000km of ancient Boreal forest and violate thousands of indigenous First Nations treaty rights, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
RBS-NatWest has provided £116 million in finance to oil company Cairn Energy for exploratory oil drilling in the Arctic, despite concerns over the sensitivity of Arctic ecosystems and inadequate response plans in case of an oil spill.
In addition, in the period 2008-10, nearly £7 billion was lent to international coal projects. Whilst RBS-NatWest has also invested in renewables, this does not absolve its continued financing of dirty development that jeopardise our future, especially with public money. Despite being bailed out in 2008 by the taxpayer, RBS-NatWest provided nearly £13 billion of finance to the oil and gas industry in only two years. Check out the info about all of this at the Move Your Money site.
“What does this policy mean for me? Am I being forced to change my bank?”
No, of course not. This policy doesn’t mean that you have to change your bank, or that you can’t watch the rugby or the cricket. All it means is that the Union won’t be showing these events, as by doing so it would be breaking its own policy.
To the person who asked online if you’d be allowed to wear an RBS shirt on campus. Yes. Of course you can.
“What is the boycott supposed to achieve? Will it be effective?”
The boycott is intended to send a clear signal indicating student opposition to RBS-NatWest’s behaviour in continuing to finance such projects, and initiate a change in practice.
Students are a particularly important constituency for RBS-NatWest; university is when many people open accounts that they keep for life, so student activism can be particularly influential. RBS-NatWest has been targeted not in isolation, but in conjunction with other civil society campaigns against RBS-NatWest and the tar sands in particular. Boycotts are also in place at other university unions, including the University of Manchester and St. Andrews.
“Don’t other banks have unethical policies?”
It’s true that most banks are implicated in unethical activities, including financing arms companies, resource extraction on indigenous lands and commodities speculation, artificially inflating food and land prices and adversely affecting the poor. However, RBS-NatWest was targeted as part of a nationwide campaign against its links to the tar sands, and for its existing connections with the Union and students at UEA.
More ethical financial institutions do exist as viable alternatives, including banks with explicit ethical policy commitments such as the Cooperative and Triodos, and building societies such as Norwich and Peterborough Building Society or Nationwide, who only invest in their members. More information on ethical banking is available from the Move Your Money campaign.
“What about the NatWest on campus? Loads of students use it!”
The Union has no control over the building that currently holds the NatWest branch. It never has. That building has always been owned by the university. NatWest has chose to leave campus as that particular branch was underused and unprofitable.
There are no definite plans about what’s going to replace NatWest. We don’t know where the rumour about a Co-op bank taking over the space came from. Neither does the university. Someone made that rumour up.
“The policy wasn’t published very well”
Like all Union policies, this policy has been on the website since it was passed at council. When the Student Officer Committee realised the boycott would also affect the RBS-ESSA and RBS sponsored events, we alerted council, let all clubs and societies know at the presidents’ meetings and then we published a blog post explaining it all which was published on our Facebook and Twitter pages. The matter was also printed in the first issue of Concrete since this all came to light.
“I still don’t agree, I think the Union should change its policy”
That’s fine. If you are a student at UEA, you are a member of the Union and you can change how the Union is run. Everything the Union does is thought up and decided on by students. If you want to change it all you have to do is become a Union councillor, or you can start a referendum without being a councillor. If you come to the Student Officer Centre, one of the officers will tell you exactly how to do that.
If you don’t like something at the Union you can change it. It is entirely within your power as a member of the Union.
I hope this has cleared up some people’s concerns. If you have any more questions you can come speak to the Student Officers or you can email Sam Clark, the Community & Student Rights Officer, at firstname.lastname@example.org or Benj Brown, the Environment Officer at email@example.com