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Debanking: a corporate war on the unwoke

This year, we must defeat the scourge of corporate censorship.

Toby Young

Topics Free Speech Politics UK

A headline in the Telegraph in November read: ‘Nigel Farage helps get new word into the dictionary.’ That word, of course, is ‘debanking’. Though I’m pretty sure it was me who coined it when my PayPal accounts were closed in 2022. Nevertheless, Farage has certainly played his part in popularising it after he was kicked out of Coutts last summer. Thanks to his masterful handling of that dispute, the CEOs of both Coutts and its parent bank, NatWest, had to resign. And now everyone knows what debanking means.

Everyone, that is, apart from the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). The UK’s banking watchdog launched an inquiry into the phenomenon and concluded there was no evidence of anyone being debanked. In other words, ‘Move along, gentlemen, nothing to see here’. We later learned that the FCA’s ‘investigation’ consisted of asking the banks whether they had closed anyone’s accounts for political reasons and then taking their blanket denials at face value. Incredibly, the FCA didn’t even consider the Farage / Coutts case.

Happily, Andrew Griffith, the then economic secretary to the Treasury, took debanking more seriously. Following PayPal’s closure of my accounts, the Free Speech Union (FSU), which I founded, arranged a meeting with Griffith at the end of 2022 with the help of Conservative MP Miriam Cates. He advised us to respond to a consultation HM Treasury was due to hold about whether to tighten up the Payment Services Regulations 2017.

When that consultation was launched last January, we submitted reams of evidence, leaving no room for doubt that debanking was both real and widespread. The upshot was the regulations were changed to make it a bit more difficult for banks and payment processors like PayPal to close customer accounts.

Under the old regulations, payment-services providers had to give customers two months’ notice if they intended to close their accounts – now it’s 90 days. In addition, they have to provide customers with clear reasons why their accounts have been closed. They can’t just fob them off with stock phrases like ‘breach of acceptable-use policy’, which is what PayPal told me.

Would the new rules have stopped Coutts trying to debank Nigel Farage? Interestingly, the discrimination he experienced is already prohibited by the Payment Accounts Regulations 2015, which say payment-services providers must not discriminate against customers on the basis of their ‘political or any other opinion’. The reason financial institutions have been getting away with it for years is because they’ve been pretending to take people’s accounts away for different reasons. In Farage’s case, Coutts initially claimed to have closed his accounts for vague ‘commercial’ reasons. So, in theory, the fact that banks now have to be more candid about their reasons for debanking people should make them less likely to do it. The longer notice period will also give customers more time to appeal those decisions and pull together evidence via subject-access requests and the like. (We’ve published some FAQs on the website of the FSU advising people who’ve lost their accounts how to fight back.)

One thing I’ve learnt in the past year is that debanking is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to withdrawing services from people on political grounds. At the FSU, we often go to bat for people who’ve been kicked out of professional associations for wrongthink. One recent case involved a man threatened with suspension from British Cycling for objecting to a racially segregated event.

Another FSU case concerns a Newcastle United fan who has been banned from St James’s Park for two seasons because of gender-critical opinions she expressed on social media. We’re currently helping her appeal that decision, but we think hundreds – possibly thousands – of football fans have been blacklisted by the Premier League for expressing unfashionable but perfectly lawful views. My hope is that ‘destadiumed’ will be one of the words of the year one day.

The most serious example we’ve come across is that of Teresa Steele, a former solicitor who had her life-saving operation cancelled by a private hospital after she complained about a transgender nurse and asked for assurance that only biological women would be involved in her intimate care.

Discriminating against people because of their beliefs – provided they’re deemed ‘worthy of respect in a democratic society’ – is unlawful under the Equality Act 2010. But one of the reasons services are being withdrawn from so many people whose views fall outside the Overton window is because equalities law is being misapplied, often at the behest of activist lobby groups. The Premier League, which proudly boasts of its relationship with Stonewall, appears to believe it is legally obliged to stop trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) from buying tickets to football games, when the exact opposite is true.

2024 may be our last chance to stamp out this kind of discrimination, given that Labour is likely to win the next election. The threat of living under a Chinese-style social credit system looms ever-larger.

Toby Young is the general secretary of the Free Speech Union.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Free Speech Politics UK

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