CBI under pressure over lack of consultation before joining No campaign

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  By a Newsnet reporter
 
A business lobbying group which has announced its intention to officially campaign against Scottish independence has been accused of failing to consult with its own members before making the decision.
 
The CBI is facing a crisis after it emerged the organisation had registered with the Electoral Commission as an official backer for the anti-independence campaign Better Together.  The news, which broke on Saturday, led to several companies including broadcaster STV to resign.

The move will allow the London based CBI, which has a subsidiary branch in Scotland, to spend up to £150,000 in order to campaign against a Yes vote.

However the under fire group is facing calls to explain why it failed to consult member businesses prior to taking its controversial decision. 

Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland, Tony Banks, chairman of the Balhousie Care Group which has resigned its CBI membership said the move had placed businesses, most which were neutral, in an “untenable position”.

“Most businesses in the independence debate are neutral, my business is neutral” he told Good Morning Scotland.

Commenting on the CBI decision to officially register with the Electoral Commission, he added: “The fact that they’ve actually came out and registered now means that they’ve firmly become a political organisation and put their flag in the ground behind the No campaign, and that was the final straw.”

Mr Banks claimed there were a “number of members” that were upset at the failure of the CBI to properly consult prior to deciding to back Better Together.

On claims by the CBI that the organisation had acquired a mandate through the CBI Scotland council Mr Banks said he had discussed the claim with other members, and that, “they cannot remember this being discussed or voted upon.”

Mr Banks, himself is chairman of the pro-independence group Business for Scotland, then called on the CBI to publish the minutes of the discussions it claims took place.

He said: “I would actually challenge the CBI to produce minutes in evidence of the fact that they’ve went through a democratic process to come to this decision.”

The businessman said he expected more resignations from the CBI in Scotland when business returns after the Easter break.

According to BBC Scotland the organisation refused to put forward any representative to be interviewed on Good Morning Scotland to respond to the claims.  However, despite refusing to be interviewed, listeners heard an unchallenged statement from the CBI in which the organisation’s head John Cridland was allowed to defend the decision claiming his organisation was reflecting the mood of its members.

Mr Cridland was heard claiming businesses had a “point of view” on the implications of Scottish independence and that the CBI was not trying to campaign.  He that the lobbying group would be carrying out “normal activities” and said resignations from businesses were “a regret”.

Claims by Mr Cridland that his organisation had to register with the Electoral Commission were challenged by BBC Political Editor Brian Taylor who said the CBI had interpreted referendum rules “very, very, very broadly” indeed.

A long term critic of the Scottish Government and independence, the CBI in Scotland has long faced criticism for claiming it represented Scottish businesses.  In 2011 research revealed that the organisation’s membership north of the border was no more than ninety in total.

In 2013 at its annual dinner attended by senior Unionist politicians including Nick Clegg, Michael Moore and Johann Lamont, guests heard speeches in which Scottish independence was attacked.

Despite the lack of membership north of the border, CBI Scotland has, for several years, been presented by BBC Scotland as a politically neutral representative of businesses in Scotland.  Its director, Iain McMillan has featured regularly by the broadcaster making attacks on the Scottish Government and independence.

Asked in April this year if the views expressed by CBI Scotland were the views of its members, McMillan appeared to admit they were not, but that they were the collective view of the council of CBI Scotland.

In 2012 McMillan was forced to admit claims he made suggesting businesses had called for an early independence referendum, were actually false.

The CBI Scotland spokesman had said that the issue was raised at a meeting of its members and that they were “very much at one” with his organisation’s calls for an early ballot.  However Mr McMillan was forced to admit that his claims were false after several business figures at the meeting, which was also attended by Scottish Secretary Michael Moore, issued public statements challenging his claims.

Mr McMillan denied suggestions that he had allowed his own personal views to influence his statements.

“I have no personal view on this.  I have no personal prejudices.  My business is business advocacy to represent the views of the CBI.” he said.

McMillan has faced similar accusations in the past that he is misrepresenting the views of many members of his lobbying group and that his public statements are often based more on politics than on the business needs of his organisation’s members.

In 2010, one of Scotland’s most successful businessmen, Jim McColl attacked claims by CBI Scotland and accused it of being unrepresentative not only of Scottish business opinion but also of the views of its own members.

Back in 1997 Mr McMillan was criticised after making similar exaggerated claims about business worries relating to the then devolution referendum.

McMillan had said that all 54 CBI Scotland members had expressed reservations about proposed tax raising powers for the Scottish parliament.  However it later transpired that 30 of the companies cited by the CBI Scotland chief had not even attended the meeting referred to by the CBI Scotland chief.