By Martin Kelly
The Electoral Commission has revealed it held private meetings with the CBI twice in the months leading up to the lobbying group submitting its application to become an official campaigner on behalf of Better Together.
A Freedom of Information request has revealed that in November 2013 and January 2014 the commission held discussions with the CBI about the rules on referendum campaigning, the registration requirements and advice on registering.
Confirmation that both bodies held discussions on the requirements of registering as a referendum campaigner call into question claims by CBI Director General John Cridland that he had no knowledge that an application was to be made on behalf of his organisation.
The application was initially accepted by the commission, but nullified two weeks later after Cridland claimed the signatories had acted without the necessary authority.
Asked by Newsnet Scotland who in the CBI they had given the advice to, the Electoral Commission refused to say.
A spokesman said: “Your enquiry about who the advice was given to in the CBI is more appropriately addressed to the CBI.”
However a response to a previous Freedom of Information request suggested that Mr Cridland was aware of the advice.
On April 23rd, Electoral Commission Chair, Jenny Watson relayed details of a conversation she had held with Mr Cridland the day before the CBI boss officially requested the application be nullified.
She told colleagues Cridland believed: “..only he has the ability to sign such a form and was unaware of it; and that they [CBI] should never in any case have registered and the correct approach would have been to listen to our advice and adapt their plans accordingly in order to ensure that they were not at risk of becoming involved in activity which would cause them to be regulated.” [our emphasis]
In his submission to the Electoral Commission, Cridland insisted the CBI had received no legal advice prior to the application form being signed. However days earlier in a BBC interview the CBI Director General claimed his organisation had indeed received advice.
The CBI, a lobby group campaigning on behalf of UK businesses, registered with the EC as an official supporter of the No campaign on April 14th. The registration was initially accepted by the EC, but declared void by the commission over two weeks later after the CBI director-general John Cridland claimed it had been made in error.
The episode has proved to be one of the most controversial of the entire referendum campaign with several Scottish organisations resigning from the CBI in protest at its initial decision.
It has split broadcasters STV and BBC Scotland with the former resigning its membership within days of the CBI’s aborted registration. However controversy still surrounds the decision of the BBC to maintain its £22,000 per year membership of the pro-Union organisation.