CBI president apologises for scandal and pledges to reboot

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The CBI needs to become “sharper and more focused” to reclaim the confidence of its members and the government after “devastating” allegations of rape, sexual harassment and bullying, the organisation’s president said on Friday.

Speaking publicly for the first time after a week of bruising headlines questioning the future of the UK’s premier business lobby group, Brian McBride also apologised to more than a dozen women affected by the scandal.

“The first thing I want to say is really a deep apology on behalf of me and the CBI for what’s happened and to the people who were involved in this,” he said at the group’s City of London offices.

The CBI is fighting for its future following two waves of allegations of workplace misconduct, including an alleged rape at a staff party in 2019. It has been forced to cancel all external engagements after being cold-shouldered by the government and business leaders.

The first set of allegations, which did not include the rape, led McBride to sack the organisation’s director-general Tony Danker on Tuesday.

A second set of allegations is still under investigation by law firm Fox Williams. Three other employees have been suspended.

McBride said the probe’s results were expected “imminently” and asked CBI members, the public and the government to “judge us on what we do” following their publication.

He was speaking after Baroness Patience Wheatcroft, the former editor of Wall Street Journal Europe, became the latest senior figure to question the CBI’s purpose, telling the BBC on Friday that “its time has passed”.

McBride strongly disagreed, arguing no other organisation lobbied for all UK business collectively. But he said change would be required under its new director-general, Rain Newton-Smith.

“I think the CBI has to redefine itself, it has to be sharper, it has to be more focused,” he said, adding: “We do a huge number of things today. I think [the question is] are these the things that matter to members going forward?” 

The reports of sexual harassment, bullying, drug-taking and a rape — which is now being investigated by City of London Police — have cast the organisation into political limbo.

McBride, the former UK CEO of Amazon, said the board had unanimously backed the decision to sack Danker.

“Yes, we did act pretty hastily, but we also acted on very firm ground. We had pretty good legal advice all the way through this process,” he said.

Danker declined to comment.

McBride promised to review the “layers of management” that potential complaints needed to cut through. Ultimately, the complainants contacted the Guardian newspaper. “It wasn’t transparent enough,” he said of the CBI’s internal culture.

The CBI president acknowledged that a “handful” of smaller members had left the organisation since the scandal broke, but defended his handling of the storm, and the decision to appoint a CBI insider in Newton-Smith, who had been the organisation’s chief economist until six weeks ago.

He added it was vital that the CBI restore relations with government as quickly as possible and that since a criminal investigation into the rape allegation could take 12-18 months to complete, it would be “unfair” for government to freeze relations for that long.

“We’re looking for active engagement with the government soon, because we’ve got work to be doing with them. And we don’t want to be on hold for an indefinite period,” he said.

Government officials say no ministerial engagement will be made until the current investigation is concluded. One insider said that any police involvement would have to conclude “to really get things closer to normal.” 

McBride revealed that Newton-Smith, who is expected to become director-general by the end of May after a brief stint at Barclays, had been a candidate for the job in 2020 when Danker won the role.

He added that the CBI board had decided that “speed was of the essence” to reboot the organisation. “You can’t fix culture overnight, but we can’t spend two years doing [that] either,” he said.

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