Meeting with Philip Hampton, Chairman of RBS

30 April 2010

I’ve been campaigning for stronger corporate accountability for a fairly long time. So it should come as no surprise to me that I don’t generally see eye to eye with corporate executives. But sometimes, just sometimes, you hope the facts speak for themselves – and that those corporate executives would have a sudden attack of conscience. So when a group of us met with RBS executives in Edinburgh after their AGM, we hoped the facts would speak for themselves.

When we were invited to meet with Sir Philip Hampton, RBS Group Chairman, and several of his team in public affairs and corporate sustainability, we of course thought the meeting had an air of PR spin to it.  But we also thought that perhaps, if only because they had made a serious endeavour to move the meeting and accommodate us (Chairman don’t generally accommodate), they were prepared to move every so slightly on their position.

Canadian First Nations campaigners Eriel Deranger, and Heather Milton Lightning spoke poignantly about what was happening in their communities as a result of the tar sands mining just up river. Human, health and environmental disasters are what the tar sands are all about - an energy resource that’s six-times more carbon intensive than conventional fossil fuels, scarring an area the size of England and Wales combined, displacing local communities, causing increased cancers, poisoning the wildlife.  Many Canadian indigenous communities still continue to live traditionally, relying on hunting and trapping for their day to day sustenance.  The tar sands is virtually wiping out that way of life.

So what happens in these meetings?  Some nice coffee; croissants; polite shaking of hands.  All quite civilised.  Though beneath the veneer, I could tell many of us were shocked and dismayed by the responses we were receiving.  It was like sitting through a George Orwell meeting in Room 101, faced entirely with double speak. “Thank you for coming, this is an important part of the bank’s agenda……we are a member of the Equator Principles.”  Contrast this with: “our RBS investments are so minute in tar sands, that we don’t even known what they are.”  Sir, we say, $8 billion is hardly minute by anybody’s standards.

What is your view of the Stern report, and the need for us to rapidly shift to low-carbon investments? “We fully agree” they say. “We signed a Copenhagen communiqué”. Great, says Duncan Maclaren, from FoE Scotland. So who do you turn down for financing?  “We can’t tell you that, but plenty” they say.  And what if you offer funding, which then turns out to cause harm?   We don’t withdraw they say.  “That’s not our responsibility. We are just a provider of funds. There are limits to the extent to which banks can influence behaviour.”

Amongst their many defensive positions was to hide behind the veil of nation-state accountability.  Canada, they argued, is a lawful country, so it’s up to authorities there to deal with issues like this.  When we referred to the Vedanta case in India, where a bauxite mine has caused devastating impacts on local communities as well, they said that India, too, is lawful.  Life is full of risks that we need to take, Sir Philip went on. He even callously said that if we were all to hunt and trap like indigenous people, it had risks, and we might die too. Really. He said that.  

So whose responsibility is it, I wonder?  The “not me gov” mentality just doesn’t hold up.  Amnesty and others have been trying to clarify the role of non-state actors when it comes to human rights law.  In Canada, while it may be a lawful country on paper, there are currently 7 legal challenges against the state regarding the government’s failure to uphold the rights of indigenous people’s with regards to the tar sands.  The local communities don’t have the coffers of the big guys – at one time, when they went to challenge Shell’s behaviour, they brought one lawyer – Shell brought 23.  So they go after the government, which can take years – and it’s a federal government that is hostile to the rights of indigenous people. Meanwhile, the projects continue unabated. Emissions are emitted. People die.

The meeting wasn’t wasted, and I do believe we saw some chinks in the armour.  When I mentioned that they failed to refer to the subject of “environmental risk” in their business review – something required by law – they were overly defensive. Perhaps this was because I also pointed out that their comparable report in the US authorities did mention environmental risk.  

I asked our Canadian colleagues how this meeting compared to those they have had with banks in Canada.  Though it took longer to get the meeting in the first place, they said it felt more open, and at least the banks were willing to acknowledge that the tar sands themselves had some problems.  When they first spoke to Toronto Dominion (TD) Bank or Royal Bank of Canada, on the other hand, they were told they had no case at all.  (some of these positions have since moved).

But my experience tells me that British bankers will say nice things and seek to be polite to your face, and say something slightly less polite (a la Gordon Brown’s bigot-gate) behind your back; whereas their North American cousins will just tell it to your face in the first place. Still, I think here, or there, most executives themselves are trapped in a mindset that’s more appropriate for the cowboy days of pre-crash, pre-climate change times. I can only presume what their thinking was when faced with NGOs campaigning against RBS’ involvement in controversial tar sands – it’ll be even more bad news for the brand.  Nothing about the human element.

In the end, we agreed to follow up our meeting with a letter in more detail about the impacts of the tar sands, and some of our demands.  They also agreed to think more about disclosure about their decision-making processes. A few of the group agreed to a further meeting with the executives.

For WDM, our role must continue to keep the pressure up – both on RBS, and on UKFI, who gives them their mandate, not to enter into a long stakeholder engagement process. But if asked again to a meeting with the Chairman of a bank, I will undoubtedly say yes – it may not always shift the game, but it provides invaluable insight and reminds me what we’re up against, at the very least. 

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