The CBI cancelled all external events on Tuesday, including its prestigious annual dinner, as it battled to reassure British businesses that it was taking seriously allegations of rape, sexual harassment and other workplace misconduct at the organisation.
Several big companies said they were reviewing their membership of the UK’s leading business lobby group, while others privately distanced themselves from the CBI, pending the outcome of an investigation by the law firm Fox Williams into allegations first reported by The Guardian.
The CBI, which represents some of the biggest names in corporate Britain including Tesco, Unilever and Barclays, is under mounting pressure from business leaders to address the “deeply concerning” allegations.
The CBI said it aimed to publish “preliminary findings and actions” from the investigation it has commissioned from Fox Williams after Easter, but was suspending events “in light of the very serious allegations”.
The decision to cancel the annual dinner, which is often attended by ministers, was taken hours after shadow levelling-up secretary Lisa Nandy pulled out of a CBI event on April 25 focused on regional business.
Brian McBride, CBI president, sought to reassure members in an email that the organisation was “treating these allegations with the utmost seriousness” and that they were subject to an independent investigation by Fox Williams.
The latest claims, including of rape at a CBI summer staff party in 2019, were made after the organisation’s director-general Tony Danker stepped aside in early March when separate allegations of misconduct were made against him.
The new allegations do not relate to Danker, with the Guardian saying it had been contacted by more than a dozen women claiming to have been victims of sexual misconduct at the CBI. The allegations included sexual assault and harassment as well as widespread use of cocaine at CBI events.
The People’s Partnership, a pension provider with 6mn members and £20bn of assets under management, said the allegations were “incredibly concerning”.
It added: “As a member of the CBI, we expect an open and transparent investigation to take place and will review our membership based on the outcome of that inquiry.”
LKAB, a Swedish company that sells minerals in the UK and is a CBI member, said it was “appalled” by the allegations.
“We don’t have all the facts yet, but we are reviewing our membership and will seek to act swiftly,” it added.
Rolls-Royce said the allegations were “deeply concerning”, adding it expected real action from any findings. “We will await the outcome of the investigation before considering our membership,” it added.
Marks and Spencer said it had written to the CBI interim director-general Matthew Fell to seek assurances that the allegations were being taken seriously.
It added it was important the investigation process should be “transparent and thorough”.
Admiral, the insurer, said it was “extremely shocked and concerned by the very serious allegations”. Aon, the insurance broker, added: “These latest allegations are extremely concerning and we are following the situation very closely.”
Many big companies declined to comment prior to the results of the investigation, but some privately distanced themselves from the organisation.
A senior executive at a FTSE 100 consumer company said the business was removing CBI contributions from forthcoming reports it planned to issue, adding: “I don’t want anything to do with them [publicly] right now.”
Another person at a major company and CBI member said there was “clearly a confidence issue” among peers, adding that a “total overhaul” may be needed at the organisation. “It would be a real shame if it couldn’t re-emerge,” they said.
Accenture, the consultancy that was a lead sponsor at the CBI annual conference in November, said it agreed with the organisation’s decision to suspend events pending the outcome of the investigation.
However, a former CBI staffer said the organisation would have had little choice.
“You cancel events because people are withdrawing from them . . . If you’re the Bank of England you’re not going to be attending the big corporate do organised by the CBI,” they added.
The CBI said its decision to temporarily pause external events had not been taken lightly and was done following discussions with “multiple stakeholders”.
“Our priority right now is staff and members, and so this was taken with their best interests in mind,” it added.
One top executive at a CBI member company said the reluctance of some businesses to quit the organisation was because there was no alternative. “But if there was ever a time to create one, this would be it,” they added.
Reporting by Peter Foster, Anjli Raval, Judith Evans, Josephine Cumbo, Michael O’Dwyer, Ian Smith, Oliver Telling, Philip Georgiadis, Hannah Kuchler, David Sheppard, Kate Beioley, Oliver Barnes, Jane Croft, Chris Giles, Laura Onita, Stephen Morris, Leke Oso Alabi and Arjun Neil Alim
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