By a Newsnet reporter
CBI Director General John Cridland may have given inaccurate information to the Electoral Commission when he sought to have his organisation’s registration as an official No campaign backer nullified.
New documents obtained by Newsnet Scotland under Freedom of Information legislation reveal that Mr Cridland told the commission that the CBI had not received legal advice prior to the signing of the registration application form.
It has also emerged that Mr Cridland, who initially claimed to have learned of his company’s registration on April 18th when it was reported by the BBC, told the commission he had learned about the registration on social media.
In a submission to the commission, on April 24th, Cridland wrote: “In good faith, and following discussions with the Electoral Commission, a junior employee of the CBI completed an application form. This required him to indicate whether the application supported a Yes or No position. This was done without ensuring executive approval, and without receiving legal advice.”
However the claim that the CBI had received no legal advice prior to the registration application being submitted contradicts comments made by Cridland himself days after the CBI announced it had registered as a formal backer of No.
In an interview on the Today programme three days earlier (Monday 21st April) Mr Cridland defended the initial decision and told the BBC that the CBI had received legal advice on the matter prior to the registration form being signed.
He said: “Clearly like any other organisation, we are an independent organisation, but like any other organisation, we have to operate within the law, and the decision we took is that simply to do our normal activities … between now and the referendum, we were advised we needed to comply with the Electoral Commission’s rules because we have a position on the issues.”
The explanation that legal advice had been central to the original registration was reported by BBC Scotland Political Editor Brian Taylor on the same day.
This was supported by an official CBI statement on April 18th which also indicated the decision was based on legal advice, which read: “The CBI has clearly stated its position in the Scottish referendum debate, that Scotland and the rest of the UK are stronger together as part of the union
“We have registered this with the Electoral Commission in accordance with the law.”
Further proof that the CBI did indeed receive legal advice prior to the registration, came from Reuters Economics correspondent David Milliken, who in an article on April 25th, reported a CBI source confirming advice had been received.
Mr Milliken wrote: “The source said the CBI believed that initial legal advice that the group should register as an official campaigner was flawed.”
However, questioned on Mr Cridland’s submission to the Electoral Commission, the CBI refused to explain why its Director General told the Electoral Commission that no legal advice had been received and why he waited six days before contacting the commission.
In a short statement to Newsnet Scotland, a CBI spokesperson said:
“On 1 May the Electoral Commission declared the CBI’s application to register under the Scottish Referendum Act 2013 void because the form was not signed by the secretary of the organisation or a person who acts in a similar capacity.
“The CBI has no further comment to make on this matter.”
Newsnet Scotland can also reveal that a third CBI official was included in communications between the CBI and the Electoral Commission prior to confirmation of the initial registration.
The individual is described as the Directorate Administrator, Campaigns at CBI. The person, who Newsnet Scotland will not name, services the Economic Affairs Committee, SME Council and the Inter-Company Academic Relations Group. She also occasionally fields requests across the team.
This person was included in an email communication between Jon Harrison, who was one of two to initially sign the registration form, and the Electoral Commission on April 15th after the EC requested “evidence of your address as registered at companies house and the activities you carry out.”
Who ultimately supplied the additional information, which included copies of letters to the European Commisison and a document relating to the CBI’s Royal Charter, is not revealed in the FOI documents supplied by the EC.
However it suggests that others within the CBI were aware of the application to register with the Electoral Commission as a backer of the No campaign. The third individual was included in an email on April 16th which confirmed the application has been accepted.
Null and Void
Mr Cridland’s attempt to have the registration declared void began with a private phone call to Chair of the Electoral Commission, Jenny Watson. Ms Watson received a call from Cridland on April 23rd, one day before the CBI Director General officially requested the organisation’s registration be nullified.
In an email to EC colleagues at 22:23 that evening, Ms Watson told colleagues that Cridland had called her privately requesting the registration be nullified.
She wrote: “I spoke to John Cridland this evening. Since we have worked together before he wanted to contact me personally to explain recent events and express his regret that we (EC) have become involved in this difficult situation.
“It appears that there has been a process breakdown at their end (my summary, not his words) to the extent that he was unaware an application had been made to us.”
She adds: “I understand that there is a time pressure at their end which may lead to this becoming a more significant issue than it already is and for that reason, he is keen to try and deal with this swiftly – ideally by close tomorrow.”
Ms Watson explains that should the commission itself seek legal advice on de-registering the CBI, then this could create delays. She also tells colleagues: “We will not be saying anything publicly about this (obvious point).”
The decision to de-register the CBI was made public seven days later on May 1st. As part of an agreement with th Electoral Commisison, the CBI has pledged to adhere to strict conditions leading up to the independence referendum. These are shown in the image below.
In a final twist Newsnet Scotland can reveal that one of the individuals – Richard Maughan – who signed the initial registration form, and was described by Mr Cridland as “amongst the most junior levels in the CBI”, is on the same level as CBI Scotland Chief Iain McMillan.