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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Anna Isaac

What do the allegations published by the Guardian mean for the CBI?

A Confederation of British Industry logo
The Confederation of British Industry has 190,000 members. Photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

The UK’s premier business lobbying group, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), has been rocked by allegations of misconduct by senior managers published in the Guardian. We ask what it means for the employers’ organisation.

Does the CBI have a cultural problem?

The Guardian has spoken with more than 30 current and former staff at the CBI.

More than a dozen of these people have shared claims of sexual harassment, including an allegation of rape and another of attempted assault. The Guardian has seen some evidence related to some of these claims. Others have described witnessing some of these incidents.

Senior figures at the organisation have privately acknowledged that there may be a cultural problem at the institution, founded by royal charter in 1965. The group has called off members’ events and the government has suspended engagement with it while an external investigation by the law firm Fox Williams is ongoing.

The CBI has said: “The CBI has treated and continues to treat all matters of workplace conduct with the utmost seriousness, which is why … we commissioned a thorough investigation by an independent law firm into all recent allegations that have been put to us.”

How many complaints is the independent investigation looking at?

The CBI has confirmed the inquiry is looking at all of the complaints raised by sources who spoke to the Guardian. The investigation has been split into multiple parts: with the first phase focused on finding out information about allegations related to Tony Danker, the CBI director general. Danker has said that he apologises “profusely” for any offence he caused, and that it was “completely unintentional”.

The CBI logo
The CBI has confirmed the inquiry is looking at all of the complaints raised by sources who spoke to the Guardian. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

The next phase is examining detailed allegations from more than a dozen women, which are unrelated to Danker. These allegations include a manager sending explicit images to junior female staff and a former board member touching a woman’s bottom and making what was seen as a sexualised remark to another, as well as the alleged rape and attempted sexual assault. The former board member has said they did not mean to cause offence by the remark and has denied touching anyone’s bottom.

What will happen to the Fox Williams report?

The law firm will share the first phase of the report, a statement based on evidence gathered about the alleged misconduct of Danker, before Easter with the CBI, the Guardian understands.

This will then be shared with board members before a meeting on Tuesday and followed by an announcement. Danker has been on leave since the Guardian first revealed allegations about his conduct.

The timeline for any further reports and the process for sharing their findings is unclear.

Who knew what, and when, about specific alleged incidents?

The allegations shared with the Guardian stretch from very recent – relating to events this year – to several years ago.

The CBI has admitted to knowing about some of the alleged incidents but claims no knowledge of others. In the case of the alleged rape onboard a boat party on the River Thames in 2019, the CBI claims to have “no evidence or record of this matter”.

However, with the alleged attempted sexual assault at the same party but involving different individuals, the CBI has said that it responded appropriately when it was reported, and that the alleged perpetrator left the organisation.

The Fox Williams investigation will look at whether the CBI responded appropriately to allegations, for example, by escalating them, and whether it reported them to the police and supported alleged victims.

One reason some sources decided to approach the Guardian is that they say they did try to speak to managers first, and in some instances made complaints directly to HR, but felt these had not been handled appropriately.

They believe that in some cases these alleged failures of processes meant that some individuals may have repeated their behaviour.

Has the independence of the investigation been undermined?

Some sources, including current CBI staff, have expressed concerns about the scope and management of the independent investigation.

They say that some staff have been directed by the CBI to share complaints or concerns with the lobby group directly, only then for these to then be passed on to the law firm or HR consultant who has been brought in following inquiries from the Guardian.

They believe that this means some staff, past and present, might be scared about sharing their accounts, particularly if they relate to senior management. That could mean an investigation, even if it is carried out independently of the CBI, then struggles to gather all the relevant information.

That could be difficult for an organisation eager to regain the confidence of its staff and membership.

The CBI has strongly disputed that it is mishandling the inquiry. A spokesperson said: “We have in place a fully independent system, including a dedicated external HR specialist, to hear all such concerns and will not hesitate to take whatever action is required to ensure people do not fear retribution for coming forward.”

Can it hold on to its members?

What the CBI publishes and when about its independent investigation will be key for members, as some businesses have suggested publicly.

The lobby group relies on fees from its 190,000 members for its income, which accounted for £22m of its £25m income in 2021, the latest set of published accounts. Companies pay as much as £100,000 a year for their membership.

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   

The outcome of the investigation and follow-up actions to address its findings may be an existential issue, members have suggested.

Andy Wood, the beer company Adnams’s chief executive, told BBC Radio 4 on Thursday the company had considered the possibility of leaving the lobby group: “I was discussing this with our senior management team only this week, so, yes, it is on our agenda. But we would prefer to see the CBI sort itself out. It needs to be setting the standards here. Where we are at the moment is unacceptable.”

Final preparations to the stage area ahead of the beginning of the annual CBI conference in 2018 in London, England.
Companies pay as much as £100,000 a year for their CBI membership. Photograph: Leon Neal/Getty Images

What does it mean for relations between business and government?

The CBI is granted high levels of access to government because of its influential members. If there is an exodus of members or they lose confidence in it, this could diminish its clout and reach.

However, many of its members see the need for a body that can speak on its behalf with the prime minister and the cabinet, and represent UK business on a global stage.

The CBI was instrumental during the early stage of the Covid pandemic, working with the government and trade unions to design the furlough scheme to pay wages, and recently successfully lobbied ministers to increase childcare support to get more women into work. Members could form a new body to replace the CBI if they feel it has lost legitimacy.

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