Earlier in the week you heard about community campaigner Will, who went inside the Barclays AGM to challenge the CEO and the Board about their Offshore Corporate services. I caught up with Will after the dust had settled to find out a bit more about why he got involved with the campaign to clean up Barclays.
Why is this campaign important to you?
It’s great that tax avoidance is now getting the media coverage it deserves. There are tens of trillions of pounds stashed in tax havens. Much of that could, and should, be helping poor country governments build the infrastructure and services needed to lift people out of poverty. Banks such as Barclays should not be helping businesses in some of the poorest countries in the world to set up in tax havens. Doing this deprives millions of people in poor African countries the chance of a better life. Where would we be in the UK if much of the money needed to run the services we take for granted such as hospitals and schools was simply not there, because it was sat in a bank account on a small island half way around the world? Tax havens have existed for decades. As global inequality increases it’s right that we shout about this injustice, both for ourselves in the west and for those living in poverty.
Why did you feel it was important to come to the AGM today?
Taking action is the best way to achieve change. I sign petitions and attend meetings with fellow campaigners quite often, but there is a greater sense of achievement when you get out there and do something yourself. Even only a small thing could be a step towards making change happen. Barclays have a responsibility not only to their shareholders, but also an ethical responsibility towards the citizens of the countries in which they operate. I wanted to be involved today to make sure they got that message. Encouraging and facilitating tax avoidance is something they should not be doing in any part of the world they operate.
How did you feel about asking a question?
I was anxious, would I fluff it, would I let campaigners down? I had great support on the day from the ActionAid team who made sure things went smoothly. After a slightly nerve-wracking long wait I finally got up to the podium and spoke as clearly as I could with conviction, but not so much that they could discount me as a ‘swivel-eyed loon’. The question had been carefully honed with the help of ActionAid staff. It had to be clear about its demands and was perfectly formed. I was nervous at the start, but I always feel that when you know right is on your side it’s easier to speak with conviction. Royal Festival Hall holds about 2500 people and it was fairly full, but I was only focussed on getting our important message across to the Barclays Chairman. He did respond positively, as did the CEO who gave a ‘personal commitment’ to find a way forward. I hope my small contribution does go on to bear fruit and that Barclays will work collaboratively with ActionAid to bring about a sea change in the role and use of tax havens.
How did you feel the day went?
The day went well. There was quite a lot of nervous waiting around and rehearsing my lines, I have a new huge admiration for world leaders who get up in front of the world’s media to deliver long speeches with no script. It was fantastic to see how much media coverage ActionAid's pop-up tax haven outside was getting later in the day, it seemed to be the ‘go-to’ picture for any news organisation covering the AGM. I’m sure Barclays bosses were not expecting an easy ride at the AGM, and they certainly didn’t get one. One after another, small shareholders objected to another year of poor performance, and yet still huge pay and bonuses, with a heady mix of humour and rage. Those protests didn’t change anything and those rewards were still voted through ultimately. However, our question to the board did achieve a result and we left with a good step forward in terms of a commitment. Something we didn’t have when we went in.
What would you say to others who are thinking of getting involved in this kind of campaigning?
Campaigning makes a difference, having the chance to do this kind of active, carefully conceived and thought through campaigning can be quite exciting, and you get to meet a lot of like-minded and dedicated people along the way. There are dozens of new online petitions doing the rounds every day, it’s good to sign those where you feel compelled to, but the buzz and sense of satisfaction from actually going out and doing something yourself to further a just cause can’t be beaten. It’s easy to look around and see social injustice all over the world, it’s also easy to shut it out and go back the crossword, but through getting involved with Action Aid campaigns you can do something about that injustice and have a bit of fun and new experiences along the way. Some NGOs and campaigning organisations don’t appear to involve their supporters to any significant degree in what they do. ActionAid is quite different. As an unpaid supporter I was offered a place at the centre of things for the Barclays AGM, an opportunity for which I’m grateful. I would encourage anyone who cares about international development issues to get involved with this kind of campaigning. The bigger collective voice campaigners and organisations like ActionAid can muster the more chance we have of making the world a fairer and more equitable place.