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Don't bank on HSBC, says Dotun Adebayo

TARGETED: Henry Bonsu’s has been involved in a five-year battle with HSBC’s lawyers

I DON’T KNOW what HSBC are playing at. I really don’t. Of all the banks that you would have expected to be conscious (or ‘woke’, even), I would have thought that this would be the one – especially when you consider their ongoing ‘We Are Not An Island’ campaign.

But the way, they are pursuing one of the most prominent members of the black community over a debt that they claim he owes and he insists he doesn’t, is at the very least insensitive, if not downright dismissive, of the very people they claim to support.

I’m talking about Henry Bonsu, the renowned journalist and commentator, and his five-year battle with the bank and its aggressive lawyers.

Any black person who has ever started a business knows just how difficult it is to get banks to listen. They may describe themselves as prepared to hear what you’ve got to say, but the experience of most black entrepreneurs is otherwise. And that goes from the start-up stage to the end game. Which banks really want to listen to your idea when you’re starting up? Particularly if it is a ‘black’ idea?

Oh, they’ll pay lip service because of the targets they need to reach, but when it comes down to it, let’s face it, a lot of banks have got a lot to do before we’ll be convinced about their commitment to real diversity. You see, real diversity means not bringing any stereotypical baggage or lazy assumptions into the conversation. But it also means being sensitive to the real issues that, if not define, feature heavily in the conversation that you are engaged in with people of colour.

So, for example, when a black person goes to borrow money from the bank; nowadays, it’s all apparently down to algorithms, which are supposedly colour-blind and yet, anecdotally, black people are as likely today to get a loan from a bank to start up a business as we were 20 years ago when it was all down to a bank manager, most of whom could not see the colour of our skin and the notion of ‘successful business’ going together. They could see that with the Asian “community of corner shopkeepers”, but they refused to see it with the nation of African Caribbean newspapers, book publishers, hair salons, music moguls and more.

My experience when I launched Britain’s most successful book publisher, The X Press, was of a deputy bank manager at Barclays in Brixton, literally falling asleep on the other side of the desk from me, in his office, as I told him of my ingenious idea of publishing books for black people. He didn’t say, ‘Black people don’t read books’, but he may as well have done. Many other people do.

That was, as I say, back in the day. Now it’s the algorithms that are doing the ‘sleeping’. They add up the points in favour and the points against you and they conclude who to lend money to or not.

Of course, it goes without saying, algorithms carry the bias of the people who create them. And, it seems, they continue to be race-specific when it comes to banks.

Otherwise, how can anybody explain how I, a prominent and successful member of the British community with an MBE, can have been refused a contactless bank card from the very same bank? It’s bonkers. The only way it makes sense is to ask the algorithm, ‘Is it because I is black?’ But it seems that even when certain banks do lend us money, they’re still not completely glasnost.

Witness Bonsu’s struggle, which goes back to his days as a junior director of Colourful Radio. If you recall, he joined the digital station after being axed from BBC Radio London for being “too intellectual”.

Although a broadcaster rather than a businessman, Bonsu so believed in community ownership he, rather naively, backed the struggling enterprise with his own money and was made a director in lieu of those payments.

But shortly afterwards, he says, during the credit crunch of 2008, he was asked to sign a personal guarantee to HSBC for an existing overdraft operated by the station’s founder. Bonsu claims the bank used the founder of Colourful to get him to agree the financial undertaking, instead of dealing openly and directly with him and an independent legal adviser of his choosing. If that is the case, it’s concerning. It questionably contravenes his moral and legal rights which safeguards undo influence in company matters.

This is critical when dealing with small and medium enterprises (SMEs), particularly in our community where financial stability is much weaker and scope for pressure from kin (whether blood relations or not) is so much greater. I know the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Fairness in Banking has already got its plate full with existing inquiries, but this would surely be another for its in-tray.

My question to the APPG would be, would the bank have behaved in this way if it was, say, Chris Evans rather than Bonsu? If the algorithms are behind this decision to pursue Bonsu for a banking facility that it drew up with another party without consulting him, then those algorithms are not fit for purpose.

If it is a human being that is behind it, then the HSBC management should hang its collective head in shame.

Please bring back the bloke who gives us Xtra (yeah, I know, different bank, but you get the drift), because something has clearly gone so wrong with the processes at this bank that it is now prepared to spend double the sum of the original contract to pursue Bonsu through the courts later this month. If that happens, how will the community respond? With its feet or with its wallet?

There aren’t enough people like Bonsu prepared to back small businesses in our community. And if he gets stung for the mistakes of others there will be even fewer to support the next generation of black entrepreneurs when the banks pull the rug from under their feet.

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