CBI facing an existential crisis: New chief

Companies including BMW, Jaguar Land Rover, Tesco, and Aviva quit or suspended their CBI membership in the wake of rape and drug-taking allegations

Rupert Soames, president, Confederation of British Industry

Shajil Kumar

The new president of the scandal-hit Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Rupert Soames, has admitted that he was trying to salvage the organisation from an existential crisis.

He said the Guardian’s revelations about sexual misconduct at the lobbying group were “an appalling shock” that tipped it into a “near-death experience”.

The 60-year-old group that tries to promote best practices among businesses has lost almost a third of its 300 staff after an exodus of fee-paying members last April left it desperately short of funds. CBI had to close its overseas offices and arrange for emergency financing.

Companies including BMW, Jaguar Land Rover, John Lewis, Tesco Sainsbury’s and Aviva quit or suspended their membership in the wake of allegations that spanned harassment, drug taking, and assault and rape of CBI staff by their own colleagues.

Soames, former CEO of Serco and current chair of Smith and Nephew, told the Guardian that the scandal has caused a lot of pain, and seriously harmed “an important institution in the UK” and he was working hard to persuade people to come back. He wants them to come back fast for an early recovery.

In a chat with the BBC, he claimed that of the 270 members who had resigned or paused their membership, 80% had said they would consider reengaging. Accountancy firm PwC recently decided to return as a member.

He felt the CBI still has a place in Britain and it has an important role to play as an advocate of business interests. He claimed the CBI was instrumental in securing Treasury tax breaks for businesses that invest heavily in the UK, as well as helping to sway the government into offering extra free childcare in England in the Autumn Statement.

“There are some people who are putting their shoulder to the wheel and saying we need this organisation,” he told the Guardian.

Soames admitted there were uncertainties surrounding the CBI’s finances. The organisation is surviving partly due to additional funding from a small clutch of members.

A move to merge CBI with the manufacturing body MakeUK collapsed amid a dispute over pension liabilities.

After the Guardian’s investigation, the CBI hired the law firm Fox Williams to carry out an investigation. It found evidence of a toxic culture, for which its then president, Brian McBride, publicly apologised.

CBI has had a fractious relationship with the Conservative government over the last decade. Former PM Boris Johnson had used an expletive when asked about business concerns during the Brexit negotiations.