28 July 2023

NatWest chairman should stay in post, says City minister

28 July 2023

It would not be “helpful” for the NatWest chairman to quit now as the bank seeks to rebound from the crisis over Nigel Farage’s Coutts bank account, the City minister has said.

Andrew Griffith, who has led the Government’s response to the row, offered his backing to Sir Howard Davies after days of pressure on the bank’s leadership.

The chairman earlier insisted that it was important for the stability of the bank that he remains on the board.

Sir Howard also said he regretted losing a “great leader” following the resignation of Dame Alison Rose.

“Alison was the chief executive responsible for the day-to-day conduct of that organisation,” Mr Griffith told BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions on Friday evening.

“Sir Howard is the chairman of the board. He’s already going, they’re looking for a new chairman. I don’t think that Sir Howard Davies going now would be helpful.

“The important thing is there’s an independent investigation. I want to find out what was going on,” he told the programme.

Sir Howard, who was already preparing to step down from his role by mid-2024 before the saga unfolded, said he intends to lead the board while the search for his successor continues.

Remaining in his position will “ensure the stability of the bank”, he insisted, despite facing calls led by Mr Farage to step down.

It comes as the firm announced an independent review on Friday, with lawyers probing the closure of the former Ukip leader’s account and other instances of de-banking by Coutts, the private bank owned by NatWest Group.

Dame Alison’s resignation in the early hours of Wednesday came shortly after the board said it had full confidence in her position as chief executive.

Explaining the turn of events, Sir Howard said: “We believe that was a rational decision to make at the time.

“However, the reaction, the political reaction to that, was such that Alison and I then concluded, and the board supported the view, that her position was then untenable.

“She would be running the bank in the face of very difficult headwinds, and therefore we made a different decision.”

The British bank had been thrust into the spotlight after Mr Farage said his account with Coutts was shut down because it disagreed with his political views.

I clearly regret the way things have turned out. We have lost a great leader as a result, but I now have to look forward

Dame Alison later admitted to being the source of a BBC report which suggested Mr Farage fell below the financial threshold to hold an account, therefore raising concerns that she breached confidentiality rules.

In the days leading up to her resignation, Dame Alison faced pressure from ministers and political figures over her future at the bank.

Sir Howard said: “The Government, in the normal way during my eight years here, has not interfered with commercial decisions in this bank, and indeed I’m grateful to them for that.

“Clearly these were very exceptional circumstances, and the Government took a view which was not the view that the board had taken.”

He added: “I clearly regret the way things have turned out. We have lost a great leader as a result, but I now have to look forward.”

The bank has appointed law firm Travers Smith to lead an independent review into how it handled the Farage case, including Coutts’ policies in relation to customer account closures.

The probe will specifically look at how Mr Farage’s account was identified for closure and the steps that led to his case being considered a reputational risk.

Meanwhile, Paul Thwaite, who stepped into Dame Alison’s shoes this week on an interim basis, said: “It’s an understatement to say that these are not ideal circumstances for anyone to take over.

“It’s clear to me that we got some things wrong.

“It will take time to address some of those challenges, but I’ve already taken action. I’m determined we learn, and start to move forward quickly.”

NatWest Group unveiled its financial results on Friday, revealing its operating pre-tax profit hit £3.6 billion in the six months to the end of June, up £1 billion from the same time a year ago.

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