By Anne-Marie O’Donnell
Newsnet Scotland has received ‘lost’ emails which show the top tier of CBI Scotland was involved in talks with the Electoral Commission before the organisation registered as a No campaigner.
The emails – which the Electoral Commission last month claimed had been deleted – show that a meeting was set up between the Commission and CBI Scotland director Iain McMillan and assistant director David Lonsdale after the Commission identified the CBI as a potential No campaigner.
The development sheds serious doubt on CBI chief John Cridland’s previous claims that the CBI’s registration with the Commission as a No campaigner was the result of an error by a lone junior official. Rather, the emails show that senior level meetings took place months before the registration was submitted.
However, despite the mounting evidence, when approached by Newsnet Scotland, CBI Scotland maintained its claim that early meetings – which it is now undisputed that CBI Scotland chief Iain McMillan attended – were at a junior level.
“The early conversations that took place between the EC and the CBI were at relatively junior official level and confined to narrow compliance issues,” a CBI spokesperson said. “None of the senior team were aware that an application to register had been made. The CBI’s registration was nullified on 1 May and we will be making no further statement on this matter.”
In the emails uncovered by Newsnet Scotland, Eddie Follan, senior referendum officer at the Electoral Commission, contacted assistant director David Lonsdale directly to say the Commission had identified the CBI as a potential independence referendum campaigner and extended the offer of a meeting to discuss it further.
The email was sent on 18 September 2013, and Lonsdale responded less than an hour later saying: “Thanks. Have asked our Director’s PA, Sandra McGurk, to get something in the diary with you for the two of us. She will be in touch.”
McGurk followed up the email just minutes later, saying: “Dear Mr Follan, Iain McMillan, Director and David Lonsdale, Assistant Director, CBI Scotland would like to arrange a meeting with you and I wondered if you could offer some suitable dates when you will be in Glasgow.”
An email exchange with the subject heading “Meeting with Iain McMillan & David Lonsdale, CBI Scotland” then ensued between McGurk, Follan and Andy O’Neill, head of the Commission’s Scotland office, who attended the eventual first meeting in November 2013.
After the meeting, Follan followed up with an email dated 7 November 2013, in which he said: “Good to meet you today and thanks for taking the time to hear about the rules around referendum campaigning. My contact details are below. Please get in touch if you need any advice or information. I’ll send you the all the link to our campaigner updates.”
CBI Scotland chief McMillan personally replied: “Many thanks, Eddie. Best, Iain.”
A second meeting took place between the CBI and the Commission in January 2014 before the registration form was submitted in April.
The registration resulted in huge controversy for the CBI and its registration was declared void by the Commission two weeks later after CBI director-general John Cridland claimed it had been made in error by a junior official.
However, the void registration came too late for many CBI members which quickly left the organisation when news of the application emerged. The Law Society of Scotland, Skills Development Scotland, STV and a number of Scottish universities left the CBI in protest at the move, prompting the involvement of CBI head Cridland and the attempted u-turn.
In the midst of the controversy, CBI Director General John Cridland told the BBC that the CBI had received legal advice which he said had led to the application being submitted to the Electoral Commission.
Mr Cridland also stated that this advice meant that the CBI, if it was to continue with its normal activities, was obliged to register as an official backer of Better Together.
He said: “We took a decision that we needed to comply with the Electoral Commission’s regulations … simply to do our normal activities, including events and public statements between now and the referendum, we were advised that we had to comply with the Electoral Commission’s rules”.
The names uncovered by Newsnet Scotland brings to six, the number of CBI officials involved in pre-registration discussions. Iain McMillan Director of CBI in Scotland, David Lonsdale Assistant Director and Laura McMahon, Policy Executive join head of political campaigns, Richard Maughan, and senior campaigns advisor, Jon Harrison.
Also included in communications was CBI figure is Martha Spearpoint, who is described as the Directorate Administrator, Campaigns at CBI. She also occasionally fields requests across the team.
The list of names calls into question claims by John Cridland that no senior figures were aware of or were involved in the discussions with the Electoral Commission prior to the application to become a recognised No campaign group, was submitted.
The decision by the CBI to register as an official campaigner on behalf of No led to controversy in Scotland with several organisations resigning from the lobbying group. Within days, broadcaster STV announced it had ended its membership.
However there was shock when it emerged the BBC had secretly been a member of the pro-Union lobbying group for years. Despite fury at the membership, which cost hundreds of thousands of pounds of licence payers’ cash, the BBC refused to resign.
The BBC has come under fire for continuing its membership which costs over £20,000 per year.
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