Doubts cast over CBI ‘junior official’ claims as Electoral Commission publishes registration document

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  By a Newsnet Reporter

The Confederation of British Industry’s application to become a registered participant in the independence referendum was signed by two of the group’s most senior officials it has emerged.

The Electoral Commission (EC) has published the CBI’s application on its website showing that the lobby group’s request to register as an official backer of the ‘No’ campaign was sanctioned by its head of political campaigns, Richard Maughan, and senior campaigns advisor, Jon Harrison.

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.

Publication of the CBI’s application form comes after Cridland told the BBC that the application had been an “honest mistake” and one that was made after “an official in our London office signed what he thought was the regulatory compliance necessary to deal with the CBI’s expenditures on things like our events and our dinners”.

The CBI Chief claimed he had no knowledge of the matter until it was reported by the BBC and that the registration form had been signed by someone at a “junior level in London”.

In an interview with The Daily Telegraph in April, Mr Cridland reiterated that he had not approved the original request and that it was signed by “a relatively junior member of CBI staff operating in good faith”.

In a press statement on May 1 the Electoral Commission announced that the CBI’s application was “void” after initially registering the organisation as an official participant in the independence referendum; a decision that would have allowed the CBI to have spent upwards of £10,000 in the “referendum period”.

Clarifying the reasons for the application being nullified, the Electoral Commission statement read: “Any organisation can submit an application form to the Electoral Commission to be a permitted participant at the referendum. Legally, the form must be signed by the secretary of the organisation or a person who acts in a similar capacity

“The Electoral Commission removed the CBI from its register because the CBI did not ensure that the person who signed their application was authorised to do so. The Commission’s decision was taken after a review of the CBI application alongside the legal requirements set out in the Scottish Independence Referendum Act 2013.”

However the claim that only one ‘junior official’ had signed the registration document has now been proven false with two names clearly shown in the document.   The form released by the commission shows that it was signed first on April 7th by the CBi’s Senior Campaign Advisor Jon Harrison, and then a day later by Mr Maughan.

There is also bound to be questions over the description of Mr Maughan as someone at “junior level”.  Richard Maughan is Senior Political Adviser in the office of the Director-General at the CBI.  He oversees the CBI’s relationships with government and parliament and supports CBI staff on political relations and corporate projects.

In January this year Maughan represented the CBI in front of a Scottish Parliamentary Committee.

The decision taken by the CBI to register as an official ‘No’ campaigner resulted in several Scottish organisations resigning from the group, claiming their own neutrality had been compromised. The Law Society of Scotland, Skills Development Scotland, STV and a number of Scottish universities withdrew within days of the CBI announcing its move.

STV said at the time of its resignation that as a “public service broadcaster with a duty of impartiality” it had “no choice”.

The BBC initially remained silent until one of its own reporters revealed the broadcaster was itself a member of the CBI, and had been for decades.  The news, which came five days after the CBI revealed it had formally backed the No campaign, prompted BBC Chiefs to hold talks with the lobbying group before announcing it would suspend its membership on May 30th – when strict rules over broadcasting would come into force.

However, the corporation has since U-turned on this pledge and said it was “no longer necessary” due to the voiding of the CBI’s application.  The BBC said its membership was to be transferred to its commercial section, BBC Worldwide.

The National Union of Journalists in Scotland has written to the BBC demanding the corporation resign its membership of the CBI immediately.  The union has said that maintaining links to an organisation is compromising the neutrality of its members as they report on the referendum.

In its letter to BBC Director General Tony Hall, the NUJ writes: “The BBC, through licence-payers’ money, is helping to fund an organisation which is taking a strong position for the union, and against independence. That makes doing our job very difficult.”