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NatWest boycott: an explanation

If you want to buy a KitKat at the UFO, you’re going to have a hard time. Nescafé coffee, Smarties and Aero bars are also conspicuous in their absence. In fact, all retailers owned by the Union are Nestlé-free due to a boycott of Nestlé products in force since early 2005.

Recent controversy has arisen with the announcement that this year the Union will be enforcing a boycott of the RBS-NatWest banking group. With a lot of conflicting information flying around, it seemed only fair to talk to Union directly.

The policy proposing the boycott – “Ethical Banking Motion” – is not new. It was proposed three years ago, and was passed a year later in April 2010 after concerns were raised that RBS-Natwest were investing in oil and gas extraction methods which potentially damaged the environment.

It called for the Union to cease banking with RBS-NatWest and for the Communications officer to write to both RBS-NatWest and the Chancellor of the Exchequer calling for them to cease these investments, and for the Union to boycott RBS-NatWest if the demands were not met. A date was set for August 2011 to allow RBS-NatWest time to respond. When no response was forthcoming, the Union announced the boycott would be taking place and switched their banking.

All policies come up for lapse every three years. The Ethical Banking Motion was re-passed in the second Union Council of this year. However, it was recently brought to the attention of the Union that the boycott was not being properly enforced. It is the renewed full enforcement of this boycott that his caused the recent outcry.

The Union is bound to act upon the policies that council passes. Much like the courts applying statutes passed by parliament, their only leeway comes from how they interpret those policies. According to Joe Levell, Union Finance officer, the Union can only interpret the word “boycott” in its simplest form – a total ban. The knock-on effects this ban is having has caused complaints from clubs and societies across UEA.

The biggest complaint is that societies can no longer apply for funding under the lucrative ESSA sponsorship scheme. Another complaint highlighting how ridiculously far-reaching the boycott is points out that the Union Bar will no longer be able to show RBS Six Nations rugby or NatWest cricket – and asks whether that should also extend to Andy Murray, who recently extended his sponsorship from RBS.

It is worth noting at this stage that the closing of the on-campus NatWest branch has absolutely nothing to do with the boycott. NatWest has had the branch earmarked for closure for some time due to a lack of use. The Union owns only the Paper Shop, the Post Office and the UFO and has no say whatsoever on what other retailers are present on The Street.

Levell hurried to point out that the potential financial losses suffered by societies are minimal. The ESSA is a highly competitive sponsorship programme for which only six societies were shortlisted last year for the main prize. Although societies can pay money to be entered into competitions for further funding, it is unclear exactly how many, if any, UEA societies received funding from RBS-NatWest in this way and thus how many would be losing out due to the boycott. Further to this, there are UEA-specific funds set up by the Union including the UEA Ticket Rep scheme, the “Working Together” fund and the Cultural Fund – each potentially worth just as much to clubs and societies here at UEA.

The Union is intrinsic in the day-to-day academic lives of all UEA students – often perhaps without them even realising it. Policies on aspects of their life include issues over coursework, exam feedback and registers of lecture attendance. The overarching concern amongst students, however, is that the Union and council can impose and enforce policies which aren’t necessarily vital to the running of the university and student welfare.

The question arising now is: should the Union be allowed to enforce these “social conscience” policies? Does the council have a mandate to act as a pressure group, wielding the “opinions” of 17,000 students to further a political aim? Does the Union have a right to make ethical decisions and impose its moral views on our behalf? By writing to George Osborne, the Union is walking in the grey area where a charity becomes illegally political.

This issue, however, is not one of legality but one of morality. Whether you think that boycotting RBS-NatWest and Nestlé or marching against the government’s tuition fee increases are noble aims or not, we as human beings have a right to free will and free choice. Any derogations from those rights must be proportionate and justifiable. We wish for the choice to not attend lectures if we so desire, and the Union campaigns on our behalf because the introduction of registers to increase attendance is not a justifiable and proportionate measure to achieve this.

Another point of contention raised by most is simply, why only NatWest? It seems unrealistic to believe that Natwest is the only banking institution that has been linked to unethical practices.

It has been widely, and accurately, pointed out that these social conscience policies infringe students’ right to free choice – many may not condemn Nestlé or RBS-NatWest for their practices or history, or see a boycott as an effective means of achieving change. These boycotts affect every single student on campus, yet benefit only the minority who could otherwise make the personal choice not to buy Nestlé or watch the Six Nations.

In its upcoming constitutional review the Union would do well to critically analyse what is happening at every level of the system they have in place. The general opinion is that it must realise that its primary concern as a Union is to improve the academic experience of UEA students, with the social university experience coming a close second.

One issue of concern that has been indicated includes whether or not the Union should continue furthering its own political aims on the claim they are representative of those held by UEA students, especially where furthering those aims affects every student.

The policy and its wider implications will be debated at Union Council on 27 January, where an amendment to the original motion has been posed which limits the boycott to the Union’s banking only.

22/01/2013

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Joel Taylor