NatWest has been plunged into a row over transgender rights and the role of big companies in political debates.
Baroness Sheila Noakes – a former Shadow Treasury Minister and ex-director at NatWest and the Bank of England – has blasted the bank for intervening in a debate about the laws around people transitioning from one gender to another. She said it was not the role of large corporations like NatWest to spread 'woke nonsense'.
Baroness Noakes reacted after NatWest replied to a Government inquiry into the Gender Recognition Act. NatWest told the inquiry it would be 'supportive' of removing the need for married people to have a spouse's consent to be legally recognised as their preferred gender.
A sign of the times: Baroness Noakes reacted after NatWest replied to a Government inquiry into the Gender Recognition Act
The bank's intervention sparked a backlash. One group called Trans Widows' Voices tweeted: 'Why on earth is it the place of NatWest to have a position on how trans widows are able to exit our marriages.'
The feminist campaign group -– which represents women who have split or want to split from transitioning partners – also questioned whether NatWest had consulted customers, shareholders and staff 'to arrive at this very political stance'. NatWest is still 62 per cent owned by the taxpayer after being bailed out in the financial crisis.
Baroness Noakes, who served as a non-executive director of NatWest until last year, tweeted in response: 'I hope NatWest Group will answer this valid question. There is too much woke nonsense circulating in major corporates.'
The debate started after Parliament's Women and Equalities Committee launched an inquiry in October into reforming the Gender Recognition Act. The Government had revealed reforms to the act the previous month that cut the cost of applying for a gender recognition certificate. But it stopped short of allowing people to officially identify as their chosen gender without a medical diagnosis of gender dysphoria and without a spouse's consent.
Nancy Kelley, head of Stonewall, an LGBT charity, said: 'We've urged the Government to remove the need for spousal consent. It's deeply unfair and potentially harmful to give a partner the power to block trans people from having their gender legally recognised.'
But Trans Widows' Voices said it was 'horrified' that a bank would take a position in the debate 'as it is entirely outside their remit'.
'We think it unlikely that NatWest has consulted its customers, share holders or employees on this matter, and members of all these groups are just as likely to be trans widows as they are to be transgender,' the group said in a statement.
'We fear NatWest can no longer be relied on to act impartially in disputes between trans widows and their husbands. If your bank thinks you have no right to exit a marriage, how can you be confident it'll treat you fairly if you divorce?'
The group said spousal consent was important in allowing marriages to be annulled before their partners officially change gender.
'This is an essential safeguard for women who cannot get divorced, for religious or cultural reasons. It also prevents heterosexual women being trapped in legally same-sex marriages they did not sign up to.'
NatWest said it recognised that any change to the act 'may indirectly impact others' and asked the inquiry to consider how changes 'could be balanced against the need to protect the rights of others'.
Other corporations have waded into the debate. The City of London Corporation, the governing body of the City, said in 2019 that transgender women could use the women-only pond on Hampstead Heath. It is the custodian of the park.