Lobbying without values – the crisis at the CBI

Photo credit: Geoff Henson/Flickr

Professor Robert Barrington looks at the crisis of values engulfing the UK’s foremost business lobbying group, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), and offers some personal reflections on encountering the CBI’s lobbying techniques.

The CBI “meet with senior politicians and officials every day” to lobby on behalf of members.  Yet we have learned from its own Chair that it has hired “culturally toxic people” who were “promoted too quickly […] to protect our cultural values” and more generally “paid more attention to competence than behaviour”. Moreover “commentators concluded that the organisation was cold-hearted and toxic”.

Not all of the CBI staff, by any means, are ‘toxic’. We do not know the scale, although in addition to other staff, the Director General himself was ‘removed’ following unspecified allegations. The discussion on the CBI’s culture and values has rightly focussed on the immediate allegations of sexual harassment and rape, but that casts a wider shadow on the CBI’s culture and values. What does it stand for as an organisation? In other words, what values underpin its vast lobbying apparatus?

This challenge to the CBI’s values will come as no surprise to anti-corruption campaigners.  After all, it was the CBI that lobbied against the UK Bribery Act in 2010/11, with the Director General at the time declaring it was “not fit for purpose”. The CBI’s argument was that, despite bribery already being illegal, the new Bribery Act would disadvantage British companies – in other words, they could happily live with the ineffective and unenforced old anti-bribery laws, but should not be expected to live with a modern law that might prevent companies paying bribes, or continuing to bribe, to win business. Of course, it was not quite phrased like that but, despite being dressed up as a technical objection, the sub-text was clear from other conversations, statements and media articles.

This argument was a) implying that the CBI’s members would be justified in not adhering to the law, not just in the UK but in multiple other countries; b) in direct contradiction to the UK’s international obligations as a signatory to the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention; c) out of line with most FTSE-100 companies’ ESG statements at the time (or CSR/sustainability statement as they were generally known in those days); d) last, but not least, what might be politely termed as free of values.

On what basis was the CBI making this case in its frequent, secret, meetings with government? We do not know. Were its member companies telling it to say this – and if so which ones? Was there a debate in the CBI with companies that might disagree? What was the evidence that it would disadvantage British business, and how was this weighed against the harm that bribery does to the societies in which the bribes are paid?

At the time, as the person at Transparency International in charge of running the campaign to try and secure the Bribery Act, I could find none of this information. The CBI  did not publish its evidence base, nor basic details like who was sitting on its internal Bribery Act group or which Minister and officials it had spoken to. I could find nothing on the CBI website. In the several meetings I held with the CBI and its working group on the Bribery Act, there was plenty of assertion but no evidence, generally put forward by the lawyers of a small group of FTSE100 companies (including BAE Systems – the very company whose own huge bribery scandal had forced the government into passing the Bribery Act in the first place). On this issue at least, the CBI was a values-free zone. Actually, it had one value: to use its frequent secret lobbying meetings with government to put forward a viewpoint that it felt was representing its members. It represented business not society, and certainly not anything like integrity or good governance.

The Open Access database tells us that in the five years between 2018 and 2022, the CBI met government Ministers 265 times. That is a lot of lobbying – and those meetings were just the ones with Ministers. By contrast, I recall meeting Ministers to discuss the Bribery Act perhaps two or three times under the Labour government, and not at all under the Coalition government. Indeed, Ken Clarke, who was the Minister responsible for implementing the Bribery Act and notionally the government’s Anti-Corruption Champion, steadfastly ignored or refused requests to meet Transparency International, while at the same time meeting industry groups and delaying the Act at their behest.

The argument in favour of lobbying being permitted in a democracy is that it is an important part of the democratic process. All viewpoints should be represented to Ministers and officials. Those Ministers and officials are better informed, and evidence-led policy-making can result. But if one group has privileged and secret access, and is far better resourced, then it is not hard to guess whose opinion is likely to prevail.

The good news is that the CBI lost the argument over the Bribery Act. The law was passed, and not repealed, and I have not heard of a single British company that went out of business as a result. Of course, if a company can only survive by breaking national laws and international conventions, a values-based assessment might be that society is better off without such companies.

So what wider lessons might be drawn from this?  First, that there is a huge inequality of arms when business is lobbying. Second, this is compounded by a lack of transparency that tips too far into secrecy. Third, that member companies are far to slow to act when a trade body acting in their name has a significant dissonance with the values they claim lie at the heart of their own businesses.

Whether the CBI is reformed and survives, or whether it is replaced by other bodies, the spotlight should be on the members to make sure that their representative bodies live up to some semblance of ESG values. That does not just mean no more sexual harassment: it means responsible lobbying and finding means to reconcile the needs of society (who also happen to be employees and customers) with the needs of business. This is a timely re-think for the CBI and its members.

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