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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Anna Isaac

‘I could barely speak. I felt like a ghost inside my own skin’: the month that shook the CBI

CBI-Composite/Guardian design
The allegations reported by the Guardian have forced the CBI to widen the scope of an independent investigation by the law firm Fox Williams. Composite: Guardian Design/Getty/Alamy/NurPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

Staff at the Confederation of British Industry had been working around the clock for weeks and were in need of a break.

It was July 2019 and parliament was deadlocked. The Conservative party was trying to secure a Brexit deal that its backbenchers could accept for Northern Ireland, as well as the rest of the UK. Theresa May’s premiership was hanging by a thread, with Boris Johnson plotting to replace her with a pledge to “get Brexit done”. Amid this battle between warring Tory factions, businesses and lobby groups were desperately trying to get their voices heard.

Still, some CBI staff thrived on the long hours and gruelling negotiations: they had joined the UK’s most influential business lobbying group for the adrenaline rush of late nights crossing swords with senior figures in Whitehall and Westminster.

So the CBI’s summer staff party was a perfect chance to unwind, with more than 100 colleagues invited to the bash. It was a balmy evening and the sun had started to break through the clouds as the boat party on the River Thames got under way, accompanied by a soundtrack of traffic and fuelled by cheap prosecco.

But the events that it is claimed unfolded on that boat, including an alleged rape and attempted sexual assault, are among a string of allegations that have thrown the CBI into its deepest crisis since it was formed by royal charter in 1965. Together they form a catalogue of claims by more than a dozen women that suggest a toxic culture of misogyny and unchecked misconduct.

Since the Guardian first revealed a month ago that the CBI’s director general, Tony Danker, who joined the organisation in November 2020, had stepped aside amid separate allegations of misconduct, a chorus of current and former female staff have approached the Guardian to speak out about their experiences at the CBI. They range from claims that a former board member allegedly touched the bottom of a female employee, to a manager who it is alleged sent explicit images to several junior staff.

Some of their claims have been backed up by more than 10 other people who work at the CBI or have worked there in recent years.

The Guardian’s publication of those allegations on Monday has forced the CBI to widen the scope of an independent investigation by the law firm Fox Williams. Events, including its high-profile annual dinner in the City of London – which attracts central bankers, cabinet members and business chiefs – have been cancelled or postponed. The government has suspended its engagement with the body until the investigation is resolved. Big businesses that pay tens of thousands of pounds in fees have demanded clarity on how the investigation and any fallout it triggers are being handled.

‘Things got out of hand’

What happened that summer evening in 2019 is among the events Fox Williams is investigating. Onboard the boat, as animated chatter gave way to harder drinking, “things got out of hand”, one former CBI employee said. As with other CBI events, cocaine was the chief party drug of choice among a clutch of attenders, according to several sources who attended and witnessed it being used.

Two women would be targeted that evening, according to claims shared with the Guardian.

The allegations that follow are the account of the CBI employee who approached the Guardian claiming she was raped by a colleague on the boat.

The woman, who says she had spent the evening trying to avoid the attention of a senior figure, wanted to use the toilet before heading home. But, she claims, that manager followed her into the toilet, grabbed the back of her neck and pinned her to the wall of the toilet stall. He then lifted up her clothes and raped her. She says she froze. What might have been a few moments “felt like forever”.

The woman told the Guardian she related her claim of being raped by a colleague to a senior manager several days later, braced for what she thought would be an arduous process of internal interviews and probable police interviews.

Instead, she said she was told to seek counselling and consider the impact such a serious allegation could have on the other party. “Something fractured, broke in me, at that point,” she said.

“It took so much to go to [the manager] and tell them. I could barely speak. I felt like a ghost inside my own skin. They told me I had to consider the impact on the other person of making an allegation. Their life, their family. ‘Could I even be sure it was rape?’ That’s what devastated me most, I think.

“I thought they’d start a process, an awful one, but a process. We’d go to the police. But it wasn’t even treated as a formal complaint. I keep thinking, I still think, what if it happened to someone else?”

WhatsApp messages seen by the Guardian between the alleged rape victim and the manager at the CBI appear to substantiate their account of making a complaint.

The woman says she did not go to the police because she felt disheartened by the conversation with her manager and feared that without witnesses she would not be believed.

On the specific allegation of rape and the handling of any report, the CBI has said: “We have found no evidence or record of this matter. Given the seriousness of the issue, it is part of the independent investigation being conducted by Fox Williams.”

It declined to comment on the details of the alleged rape: “The CBI is unable to comment or take action on the WhatsApp messages and the alleged failure of a manager to report the allegation of rape, without seeing the information the Guardian says it has seen.”

That same evening, a separate attempted sexual assault is also alleged to have taken place, involving other individuals. This one, according to sources, was handled very differently.

The manager in question had been drinking and taking drugs, witnesses claimed.

But when a complaint about this incident was made, it was treated more seriously, sources believe, in part because of the direct involvement of Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, the then director general of the CBI. They say she took a hard line. The alleged perpetrator left the organisation.

The CBI has declined to say whether the woman was encouraged to make a police complaint or if it reported the incident itself.

Fairbairn has said that she took a zero-tolerance approach to misconduct allegations across the board. “Any allegations of inappropriate conduct made to me were taken incredibly seriously and swiftly addressed,” she said.

‘Toxic culture’

The party is etched in the memories of former staffers as a night that went a bit wild. But it was not the only occasion at which sexual misconduct took place, it is alleged. Present and former staff have experienced other examples of sexual harassment at other CBI official events and parties, it is claimed.

The institution’s perceived track record on handling complaints has fed a sense among some insiders that it has failed to act appropriately, and in doing so, allowed a toxic culture to fester – something it has denied.

And among the companies that make up its membership and pay fees rising to tens of thousands of pounds, there is a growing sense of frustration with how claims have been handled.

It was only after the Guardian approached the CBI last month that it was decided that there would be an independent investigation into complaints made against its director general, Danker.

A chief executive at one CBI member said that this was “irresponsible”, and that in their view Danker should have already been placed on leave given the multiple complaints of misconduct, including a formal complaint that was made in January. This involved a woman who claimed he made unwanted contact with her and considered this unwanted conduct to be sexual harassment.

“They are quite literally meant to set an example and represent business to the government. That means processes have to be stringently followed,” they said. “Instead, it looks like there’s been a sense of complacency.”

Danker, the Belfast-born former chief executive of the business lobby group Be the Business, previously worked at the Guardian’s parent company, Guardian News & Media. He has said he apologises “profusely” for any offence he caused, and that it was “completely unintentional”.

Independent investigation

Among the concerns that CBI insiders have shared with the Guardian is that the independence of the Fox Williams investigation has been undermined. Some said that since the investigation was started by Fox Williams they had still been asked by the CBI to share complaints with the organisation in the first instance rather than going straight to an independent person. They claim it is making women fearful of coming forward.

One current CBI employee said it was this lack of confidence in the process that led them to speak to the Guardian: “I would never normally speak to a journalist. It’s a last resort.”

Other staff said they were scared to speak out either via the investigation or internally.

The organisation, which has more than 300 employees, said: “This is not a culture we recognise or would tolerate.” It said it had an independent complaints system and would take “whatever action is required to ensure people do not fear retribution for coming forward”.

The CBI has had moments of crisis before, such as when it was ostracised by Boris Johnson’s government because of its anti-Brexit stance. But nothing comes close to the existential crisis that some of its members and staffers fear it now faces. The CBI exists to get its 190,000 members’ voices heard by the prime minister and his cabinet. Unless it can win back that access and the confidence of its members, its reason for being is in doubt.

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   

Some members, including the jet engines maker Rolls-Royce and the retailer Marks & Spencer, have aired concerns publicly about the full range of allegations and the process of the investigation.

A spokesperson for M&S said: “Following the allegations published in the Guardian we have written to the acting director general of the CBI to seek reassurances that these are being taken seriously and fully investigated as part of the independent investigation already established.

“We have also requested information on how CBI colleagues involved are being supported while the investigation takes place and what is being done to give them confidence in the process.”

Current staff said they did not know how the organisation could continue unless it won back the confidence of its female staff.

“This is painful for so many people who believe the CBI does good work. But it cannot stand that women continue to be failed by their employer,” one employee said.

The investigation, the CBI said, was meant to offer some initial findings after the Easter break that would be shared with its board. These findings and how they are handled will be part of a process aimed at winning back the confidence of the government, the Bank of England, its own members, and perhaps most important of all, its own staff.

But some now question whether the CBI can survive this chapter, or if a new organisation needs to emerge in its place.

“It fills a gap that has to be filled somehow,” said one chief executive of a mid-sized manufacturing firm. “So maybe a new outfit, rebrand, true mea culpa, whatever. Something has got to do the job.”

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