Tony Danker: stepped aside
An harassment scandal at the CBI is just the latest crisis to beset the organisation, says TERRY MURDEN
When Aberdeen lawyer Jennifer Young was announced last November as the new chair of the CBI Scotland she joined director Tracy Black in forming the organisations’s first female leadership. Unless a scandal currently paralysing its UK operations is satisfactorily resolved they may become its last.
Young, managing partner at Ledingham, Chalmers, had declared “We are operating in challenging times”. She could not have predicted just how challenging the year was to become. A report into misconduct allegations involving several staff in its London HQ is published this week amid speculation that the CBI may not survive.
In the meantime, all events have been suspended, including its annual Scottish lunch and its annual dinner in London, regularly attended by the Chancellor. This year’s event on 11 May was due to host Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey.
A number of companies, including FTSE 100 heavyweights, are reviewing their membership, and the Treasury and the Department for Business and Trade paused any engagement with the organisation as its investigation into claims of sexual harassment unfolds.
Tony Danker, its director-general, was already being investigated and forced to step aside from his £376,000 a year job after a female CBI employee alleged he had made unwanted contact with her.
Mr Danker apologised for causing “offence or anxiety to any colleague” and said it was “unintentional”. [see update on Mr Danker’s departure]
Then The Guardian reported it had been approached by more than a dozen women who said they had been victims of sexual misconduct by senior figures at the lobbying group. This was not related to the claim made against Mr Danker.
One woman alleged to the newspaper that she had been raped during a staff party on a Thames riverboat in 2019 and was later told by a manager to get counselling rather than pursue the issue further.
The woman said she had not reported the incident to police, and the CBI told the newspaper it had no record of it.
The CBI, which claims to speak for 190,000 businesses, is left particularly exposed by its advocacy of diversity and women’s rights in the workplace and there are now questions over its ability to play a convincing role in influencing government policy. Its president, the Glaswegian and former Celtic director Brian McBride, is said to have been trying to soothe internal tensions at the CBI with data showing there is a 95% staff satisfaction rate.
The relationship with the current UK government is somewhat more fractious and it is unlikely to garner much support from ministers, not least because of its opposition to Brexit.
There are also those, including its members, who question its true value, given the eclectic mix of sectors and sizes of businesses which have varied and sometimes conflicting interests. Since it was formed in 1965, a time when big business was the dominant force, the economy has become more diverse and fragmented. New, more sector-specific, groups have emerged that claim to be more focused and effective at targeting campaigns.
Regular clashes between the CBI and the government have been a continuing theme, from director-general Terence Beckett demanding a “bare-knuckle fight” with the Thatcher government over high interest rates, to Boris Johnson’s famous “F*** business” remark.
In Scotland, there were regular confrontations between its director Iain McMillan and the SNP government, mostly over independence, culminating in his departure soon after it registered with the Electoral Commission as a No campaigner in the 2014 referendum.
The decision provoked a backlash, with 18 CBI members, including many of Scotland’s most prestigious universities, six Scottish government quangos and the broadcaster STV resigning to preserve their neutrality. The Law Society of Scotland also stood down.
McMillan said his decision to retire had been made months earlier and the decision by John Cridland, the director-general to reverse the registration, made it appear that McMillan was being used as a scapegoat.
Since then the CBI Scotland has been notably less combative, particularly in media statements which rarely veer from demanding “something must be done” about rising business costs or joining other business lobby groups in the safety of joint calls for action.
If the CBI was to disappear, it can be expected that rival groups will be attempting to lure them, and their membership fees. At a time when costs and value for money are top of every business’s agenda they may have their work cut out.
Daily Business revealed last year that a Global Business Dinner organised by the Scottish Chambers of Commerce for 500 company leaders and politicians to celebrate Scotland’s contribution to the world had to be cancelled. Former Deputy First Minister John Swinney was booked as a speaker. No explanation was given for calling it off, but there was talk of a lack of interest. The Chambers said a new date would be arranged but so far nothing has been booked.
If there is a growing weariness towards back-slapping events that appear to be more about self-serving organisations then it may be reflected in a trend towards bland and underwhelming statements designed not to rock the political boat.
After Humza Yousaf was elected First Minster the IOD Scotland issued a greetings card style statement wishing him “all the best”, adding that it hoped he would continue “the stability so often offered by the First Minister’s office to the Scottish business community through frequent dialogue and close consultation.”
That may come as a surprise to those businesses who regularly complain about lack of consultation and of being ignored by ministers. It also raises questions about just how effective these groups are in pressing ministers for action.