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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Richard Partington and Anna Isaac

Government suspends relationship with CBI amid Guardian allegations

CBI logo is seen on a smartphone screen.
The CBI represents some of Britain’s leading companies and campaigns on behalf of 190,000 businesses. Photograph: Pavlo Gonchar/Sopa Images/Rex/Shutterstock

The UK government has suspended its relationship with the Confederation of British Industry, as pressure mounts after the Guardian revealed multiple allegations of sexual misconduct by the lobby group’s staff.

Sources said engagement between key Whitehall departments and the CBI had been “paused” pending the outcome of an investigation by the lobby group into a range of fresh allegations, including rape and drug-taking.

The Department for Business and Trade said: “We are postponing ministerial engagement with the CBI until the legal investigation has concluded.”

It is understood that ministers and officials at the Treasury have also stopped holding meetings with the organisation, which represents some of Britain’s leading companies and campaigns on behalf of 190,000 businesses.

A government source said the serious nature of the allegations, and an
investigation by the CBI, had informed its decision to pause engagement by ministers and senior officials. Routine, technical engagement – such as responding to open government consultations – could still take place on a case-by-case basis.

The Guardian reported allegations from more than a dozen women who said they had been victims of various forms of sexual misconduct by senior figures at the CBI, including a woman who alleged she was raped at a staff party on a boat in 2019.

Separate, unrelated claims have been made about the conduct of its director general, Tony Danker, that last month prompted him to step aside while they were investigated.

Close relations with government are at the core of the CBI’s operation, holding daily meetings with senior officials and ministers as the country’s leading business group representing companies ranging from the supermarket chain Asda to the consumer goods multinational Unilever.

The CBI usually has access to the prime minister and the cabinet, and campaigns on issues ranging from funding for childcare to tax and skills. It typically has a close working relationship with government, including a pivotal role during the Covid-19 pandemic in the development of the furlough scheme.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) is the UK’s most prominent business lobbying organisation. It is a not-for-profit organisation founded by royal charter in 1965, after a merger of older employer bodies.  

It claims “unrivalled” access to government. It also claims to have the biggest number of policy specialists outside of Whitehall, the seat of the British government, in order to support its 190,000 business members, which are the chief source of its income. Its total income was £25m in 2021, of which £22m was from membership fees.

Its membership is composed of direct members and members of other trade bodies.

Its 1,500 direct members are businesses that actively hold membership, such as the supermarket Asda and the jet engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce. Fees vary significantly: top-tier businesses can pay £90,000 annually, some mid-sized companies pay half this price and smaller companies pay far less.

The bulk of its membership comes via trade bodies such as the National Farmers’ Union and the Federation of Master Builders. The CBI counts these trade bodies' memberships within its own 190,000 total.

The lobby group has access to the prime minister and cabinet, and campaigns on issues ranging from funding for childcare to tax and skills. Its relationship with the UK government was stretched severely by Brexit, with its access to Number 10 much curtailed. A remark attributed to the former prime minister  Boris Johnson – “fuck business” – was considered to be aimed at efforts by the CBI and others, to try to influence the post-Brexit UK-EU trade agreement.

Its former director general Dame Carolyn Fairbairn sought to rebuild ties with the government during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic, including working alongside trade unions and No 10 on developing the furlough scheme. 

Tony Danker took over from Fairbairn, the CBI’s first female boss, in November 2020. He continued a focus on re-engaging with the government and the opposition Labour party. He was criticised for speaking in support of Liz Truss’s disastrous mini-budget in September 2022. 

The CBI is governed by a president and an executive committee, which, in normal times, is chaired by the director general. It also has a board of non-executive directors, which the director general sits on.
Anna Isaac   

It has cancelled all forthcoming events including its annual dinner in central London on 11 May. The Bank of England governor, Andrew Bailey, had been due to speak at the event but withdrew after the Guardian’s report.

It is understood the cancellation of events also came after the Labour frontbencher Lisa Nandy pulled out of a CBI political dinner scheduled for later this month.

The recent events mark the CBI’s biggest crisis since it was founded by royal charter in 1965.

Danker stepped aside last month amid an investigation into complaints about his conduct. It comes after the Guardian approached the CBI about a formal complaint that was made in January, as well a number of alleged informal reports of concerns over his behaviour. Danker has said previously that he apologises “profusely” for any offence he caused, and that it was “completely unintentional” .

The CBI then expanded its inquiry to include separate, new allegations revealed last week. The lobby group has hired an external human resources consultant to help manage complaints, as well as the law firm Fox Williams.

Some CBI members said they were considering whether to retain their membership as result.

Rolls-Royce, the FTSE 100 jet-engine company, said it expects the CBI to “thoroughly investigate and take real action on any findings”, and that it will await the outcome of the investigation before considering its membership.

Marks and Spencer told the BBC it had written to the acting director general of the CBI to “seek reassurances” that the allegations were being “taken seriously and fully investigated”.

A spokesperson for the lobby group said: “We understand the government’s decision to pause engagement pending the outcome of the independent investigation.

“Soon after Easter, the CBI board expects to have preliminary findings and actions from the first phase of the investigation.”

The CBI has said it has no record or evidence of the alleged rape. Claims of drug-taking are being looked at by the Fox Williams inquiry.

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