Co-operative Bank signs agreement with the Customer Union for Ethical Banking

The Co-operative Bank has signed a formal recognition agreement with The Customer Union for Ethical Banking, an independent organisation representing thousands of Co-operative Bank customers concerned about the UK’s social and environmental issues (see coverage in The Guardian here).

The Customer Union for Ethical Banking, a member-owned co-operative, was established in 2016 following a successful crowd-funding campaign. It has 10,000 members and supporters who are customers of the Co-operative Bank. It exists to represent customers who are keen to ensure the Bank maintains and extends its unique customer-led Ethical Policy. As a united voice, members can join together to press for the kind of policies and products they want the Bank to consider. The Union and the Bank have been engaging informally for several years and have built a good working relationship.

Not only has the bank got a courteous and efficient customer advocate team (including Justine and Joe) but its Ethical Policy has included a commitment not to bank any business whose core activity contributes to global climate change via fossil fuel extraction or production since 1988. In 2015 it was the only UK bank to sign the Paris Pledge to end financing for the coal industry and in September 2019 the Bank gave colleagues time off to support the Global Climate Strike.

Lesley McPherson Director of Communications Co-operative Bank and Shaun Fensom Customer Union for Ethical Banking, sign the agreement

Earlier this year, the bank agreed to reinstate a special external audit of its values and ethics report after the union raised concerns. That audit – which took place every year since 1998 – is meant to independently assess whether the Coop Bank is actually implementing its policies.

Co-op Bank’s chief executive, Andrew Bester, said: “It’s fantastic that we have a group of loyal customers as committed to our ethical brand as we are – and our regular conversations with the customer union are positive and very valuable in terms of understanding what matters to them.”

 

 

 

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Landmines video: bank policy

The Customer Union for Ethical Banking, an independent organisation represents thousands of Co-operative Bank customers concerned about the UK’s social and environmental issues

Its new video presents a 1997 cinema ad from the bank about the impacts of landmines, intended to raise awareness of the bank’s policy (still going strong 23 years later) not to do business with oppressive regimes or companies that sell them weapons.

Facebook post of the video may be shared or their tweet may be retweeted. The video, which can be found on its website, can be downloaded and shared on other platforms.

 

 

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In an increasingly unstable world, Marinaleda, an Andalusian village, has developed a co-operative alternative

Following the death of General Franco the Union of Farm Workers was founded in Marinaleda and in the first local elections the Workers Unity Collective won nine of the 11 council seats. In 1979, Juan Manuel Sanchez Gordillo, who says he is a communist and communitarian, but has never been a member of the Spanish Communist Party, was elected mayor. He started campaigning for land reforms to benefit Marinaleda’s unemployed and landless labourers, more than 60% of Marinaleda’s inhabitants.

700 people were involved in a 13-day hunger strike against local landowners in 1980 under the slogan “land for those who work on it.” The Cordobilla marsh was occupied in 1984 to demand the irrigation of the El Humoso farm owned by the Duke of Infantado who left the land uncultivated for most of the year while so many were living in poverty. Eventually local activists took over the farm and by 1985 there were at least 100 local land occupations.

In 1991, the regional government awarded the farm and its 1,200 hectares of land to the village. Sean Meleady reports that the village’s agricultural cooperative, established soon afterwards, aimed to grow crops that required the greatest amount of labour, such as olives, green beans, red peppers, paprika and artichokes, in order to create as many jobs as possible. A few years later, Marinaleda built its first processing factory, to can and jar the cooperative’s produce.

Every member of the co-operative earns the same daily salary of €47 (£39.40) for six-and-a-half hours’ work – more than double the Spanish minimum wage. Decisions about the co-operative including, for example, which crops to farm, are made collectively in village general assemblies.

Right: a co-operative worker harvesting olives

For the past 24 years, the farm and the factory have provided employment to Marinaleda’s inhabitants, while all of the cooperative’s profits are invested in the creation of new jobs.

The village’s mayor and members of the local council work voluntarily at the cooperative but have other jobs. For many years, the mayor worked as a history teacher at the local high school.

The village has an amphitheatre, workers’ sports ground, house of culture, vegetable canning factory, a library, a botanical garden and the “Sindactio” trade union bar. Hagar Jobse counted 20 companies in the village: seven privately owned bars, three cafes, two pharmacies and a bridal shop. Although large franchises are not allowed to establish branches in the village, the mayor says he doesn’t want to stand in the way of entrepreneurship – “as long as their businesses do not become too large”. Multinationals are not welcome.

     Mayor Sanchez Gordillo lives in one of Marinaleda’s government-owned houses

The government provides or pays for building materials so that members of the cooperative can build their own house. Prospective residents have to donate 450 days of their own work to the construction of their new homes, getting assistance from professional builders. The hours spent by the resident on construction are then deducted from the total cost of their house — with a monthly payment of €15.52 (£13.20) to achieve ownership. More than 350 homes have been built in this co-operative fashion in a village of less than 3,000 people. Homes have three bedrooms and a patio. However in order to preserve the special character of the project residents cannot sell their homes.

Hagar Jobse reported that Marinaleda has very little crime and few police officers and a later account says there is no police presence and that misdemeanours are resolved by villagers. On ‘Red Sundays’ villagers gather at 8am outside the Sindactio in order to undertake voluntary work., including street repairs, painting and landscaping.

Life in the village is cheaper than in the rest of the region. For 15 euros a month, inhabitants can pay off their mortgage, become members of the sports centre, or have a kindergarten place for their child. The local government provides three free school meals a day and even the small number of unemployed inhabitants are able to make ends meet with the 400 euro jobseeker’s allowance provided by the Andalusian government.

Though the village has its critics, the testimonial of Vicky Shovelton, born and bred in Sheffield, who has lived in Marinaleda for years carries conviction. She has written an account of the village, ending: “The community spirit of my childhood is alive and well here in Marinaleda. This unique village is filled with a sense of togetherness often lacking in today’s society. The concept of how this village has survived through past times and how the vision of the ideal community that it has become, is certainly popular throughout the world. It has created a place that in some respects is an ideal place to be.”

 

 

 

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Independent review finds Co-operative Bank was left “relatively defenceless” by regulators

Ryan Brightwell’s April newsletter from the Customer Union for Ethical Banking, the independent union for Co-operative Bank customers, reports that Mark Zelmer, (right) a former Canadian central banker official, was hired by the UK Treasury and the BoE’s Prudential Regulation Authority to conduct an independent review into the actions of regulators in the run-up to the Co-op Bank’s near-collapse in 2013. It found that the bank’s then-regulator, the Financial Services Authority, left the bank ‘relatively defenceless’ (pages 3 & 32) during the process of the merger with Britannia, by limiting the bank’s ability to walk away from the merger.

KPMG’s audit failings

In the May newsletter it was reported that the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) fined KPMG £5 million for a “series of failings” in auditing the bank: “KPMG’s failure to identify the extent of bad loans made by Britannia in the run-up to its disastrous merger with the Co-op Bank was a major factor in the bank ending up wholly owned by private funds”.

The Customer Union for Ethical Banking welcomed the imposition of this fine but pointed out that this did not address the damage KPMG helped to cause. It proposed that the regulator could instruct KPMG to work with the bank and its customers to develop a plan to return the bank to cooperative ownership – adding “Indeed, the £5 million fine itself would be enough to buy a small but significant stake in the bank and return it to the customers”.

The review published by the Treasury also recorded that the FSA’s write down of IT expenditure over the Review Period, totalling more than £600 million was not fully identified by the stress tests and there should have been a greater and earlier focus by the FSA on reviewing the quality and valuation of the loan book and on ensuring adequate capital was in place to cover potential losses.

Patrick Hosking adds detail, reporting that Mark Zelmer found that the Financial Services Authority’s supervision team:

  • had subjected Co-op Bank’s due diligence process on Britannia to “minimal oversight”;
  • had not paid “enough attention to the refinancing risk” of Britannia’s loan book and the adequacy of its loan loss provisions;
  • had placed too much reliance on risk reviews by outside consultants from PWC, which undertook a credit review review, and on KPMG, the bank’s auditor;

Ryan Brightwell comments that the customers of the bank were let down by management, regulators and auditors alike

He asserts that the priority is to keep campaigning for the bank to be returned to cooperative ownership and to use influence (and Save our Bank’s tiny co-operatively-owned stake in the bank) to make sure customers’ voices are still heard by the bank under its current owners.

Better news

However, he adds, the Zelmer report found an improvement in the bank’s performance in the years since its crisis, noting that:

  • the bank recorded an operating profit of just under £15m in 2018, compared with a loss of £84m the previous year – the first such profit in five years.
  • Mortgage completions were at their highest level since 2010.
  • There was IT investment of £112.9m as the Bank separated its systems from the Co-operative Group.

In an upbeat summary, CEO Andrew Bester said in the Co-op News: 

“In a market that lacks distinctive challenger brands, our commitment to the values of the co-operative movement continues to set us apart and 2019 will see renewed brand investment.”

More information in the FT.

 

 

 

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Employee ownership: Turnberry Rug Works

In 2013, the eight staff at Turnberry Rug Works, which was turning over about £450,000 a year, took control of the firm. John McKerchar was drafted in as managing director after the death of the company’s founder, with a remit to take the business towards employee ownership.

An Employee Benefit Trust was created which initially acquired 49% of the shares. The full balance was purchased by the Trust out of the company profits over the next five years.

McKerchar said: “Most of our team has been with us for two decades. Employee ownership not only rewards their loyalty but gives them a real stake in the business.”

Sarah Deas, chief executive at Co-operative Development Scotland, Scottish Enterprise’s employee-ownership support unit, added: “This is a good move for Turnberry Rug Works which helps to safeguard traditional manufacturing skills. The deal keeps it grounded in its community and shows how employee ownership can sustain businesses and help them to grow”.

Turnberry Rug Works has been making carpets and wall hangings by hand from natural fibres at its converted granary in Ayrshire since 1991. Using the hand tufting technique, they’ve sent rugs as far afield as the Vatican, the Big Brother House and British Embassies all over the world.

They start by putting a canvas on a frame, designs are projected on to the rug backing and then drawn on the canvas. The best quality yarns from merino wool, linen, silk and natural fibre viscose are used and there is a constant search for new and interesting yarns

Compressed air pushes the yarn through the canvass and to lock all the tufts in place a second backing is placed on the back of the rug. Latex is brushed into the backing and allowed to cure. The rug is then taken off the frame and sheared to the required pile height and for some designs outlines can be hand carved to give an eye catching relief

After the rug has been edged and trimmed, the production manager gives it a final inspection before giving it the Turnberry stamp – a guarantee of durability

The company took part in exhibitions in Dundee (2017) & Glasgow (above, 2019)

 

 

 

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Jewels in the co-operative crown – farmland, dairy, bank and guilds – sold or disbanded

We remember with great regret the surprise sale of the profitable Birmingham Dairy in 2005, the Co-operative Group’s farmland in 2014, the closure of the Co-operative Women’s Guild in 2016, the sale of The Co-operative Travel to Thomas Cook during 2017 and the travails and eventual sale of the Co-operative Bank (2013-17).

One analysis of the bank’s failure referred to “weak corporate governance at board level in both the Bank and its then owner, the Co-operative Group. Those weaknesses, in turn, reflected too much control and influence at executive level and too little challenge at board level”.

This charge was frequently levelled at the Group by members whose protests – recorded in the News under Dave Bowman’s editorship – went unheeded, with disastrous consequences.

This year, the National Guild of Co-operators was wound up, ‘controversially’ as the News journalist put it.

Vic Parks, a member of the National Guild of Co-operators, wrote requesting the postponement of the meeting on 30 March 2019 and the consideration of alternative proposals by the National Council. The complete text may be read here. He writes:

“I, and others, are calling for postponing the SGM so that a group of us, can try and turn the NGC around like a Phoenix from the flames. Because of those involved in the National Council’s abject failure, I will go further and request that the members stand down and allow, in the interim, a “caretaker” group who will try to turn the organisation around. The fundamental aim would be to change a culture of cold and hostile to one of being warm and friendly – true co-operation! Although I am partially “retired” from politics and Public service, I am prepared to become part of the group to use my education skills and organising policy forum experience to help. As I understand it, in 2017, there was £12000 in funds, but the Treasurer has not issued any further financial statement”.

The News reported: “The guild’s executive attributed the lack of active co-operators to the demise of the previous democratic structure at the Co-op Group. Under its old structure, the Group had area committees whose members were involved in their local guild branches, which received funding from the Group” and, less diplomatically, Vic Parks comments:

“At one time, this was a thriving organisation with various branches. One by one, they dropped away. I am led to believe that an important one went en masse . . . it is my view that this was because of disillusionment with the way the organisation was run and its negative, bullying culture . . .”

 

 

 

 

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Co-op delivers by cargo bike and robot

Business Green reports that the Co-op Group is launching a home delivery service for online grocery deliveries ordered from shop.coop.co.uk. There is a standard £5 delivery charge and a £15 minimum spend.

The new service will initially be available to shoppers within a four-kilometre radius of a store on the Kings Road in Chelsea, before being rolled out to eight more London stores. Orders will be fulfilled using zero emission electric cargo bikes, from e-cargobikes.com, which provide ‘last-mile’ delivery services to grocers and retailers throughout the UK. electric cargo bikes are fast, reliable, and cost very little to run. James FitzGerald, managing director, said that their range of purpose-built e-cargo bikes can deliver the same amount as a diesel-van over an eight-hour shift but require only 0.5% of the energy.

Other innovations by the Co-operative Group are a recent trial of autonomous robot deliveries in Milton Keynes and a free service by taxi for groceries at eight other UK stores.

In November 2018, the BBC reported that a tiny self-driving robot created by Starship Technologies Milton Keynes was seen navigating the town’s roundabouts, delivering groceries ordered by consumers via a link generated by a smartphone app.

The pods were created by two of Skype’s founders to carry out a number of logistical tasks – and have the ability to travel up to two miles. They have six wheels, a secured compartment where parcels with a maximum weight of 10kg can be transported and can travel at speeds up to 4mph (6.4kmh) per hour.

If a thief attempts to tamper with the robot, or snatch it, the operator can take over – talking directly to the wrongdoer and sending police to the drone’s location. The drone’s nine cameras can also capture the criminal’s face.

The Mail, in a detailed, well-illustrated article with video, reports that these slow-moving bots have been ‘trialled’ across the world, including in Hamburg, Washington and California, delivering everything from groceries to takeaway pizza.

 

 

 

 

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