Electoral Commission stalls on CBI questions

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  By a Newsnet reporter
 
Questions to the Electoral Commission relating to its cancellation of the CBI’s registration as an official backer of the No campaign, have failed to elicit a single answer, Newsnet Scotland can reveal, despite two weeks having elapsed.
 
The questions relate to submissions to the commission by CBI Director General John Cridland days after the CBI had announced it had been formally recognised as an official campaign organisation on behalf of Better Together.

Documents released under Freedom of Information revealed apparent discrepancies between what Mr Cridland told the commission in his attempt to have the registration overturned, and what the CBI Chief had told the BBC only days earlier.

In his submission on April 24th, John Cridland told the commission that prior to the application from the CBI being submitted, that his organisation had not received any legal advice.
 
However, in an interview given to the BBC on Monday 21st April, Mr Cridland spoke of having 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”.

Newsnet Scotland asked the commission: “Did the Electoral Commission – prior to April 21st – communicate in any way, advice which indicated to the CBI that it would have to register with the commission if the lobbying organisation continued with its normal activities? 

“If not then have you asked, or will you ask, Mr Cridland to clarify who gave the CBI this advice he referred to and to explain his claim to yourselves in his letter dated April 24th that the CBI did not receive legal advice prior to applying?”

In his submission in support of his request to have the application nullified, Mr Cridland also claimed the CBI had only ever spoken out on the independence issue in relation to business matters.  The CBI provided several documents as evidence. 

However Newsnet Scotland has uncovered several examples when the CBI has spoken out in relation to independence, but out-with the sphere of business.  One paper, published in 2012, covered the area of broadcasting.

We asked: “What action might the Electoral Commission take against Mr Cridland (or the CBI) if he has either deliberately or inadvertently given false information in his submissions to the commission?”

Our questions, which we posed in an email on June 5th, were acknowledged by the Electoral Commission the next day.

In a reply, the commission wrote:

“Given the nature of the information you are seeking, the Commission is dealing with your request under the Freedom of Information Act.  The Commission aims to respond to requests for information promptly and within the statutory timeframe of twenty working days.
 
“You may expect to receive a reply sent from the Commission by Friday 4 July 2014.”

However two days ago the commission inexplicably backtracked on its initial email and informed Newsnet Scotland that our request would not in fact be treated as a Freedom of Information request but simply a request for advice.

The communication from an official stated:

“The Commission had originally classed your email as a request under the FOIA.  However, on closer inspection we have deemed your request as a request for advice and consequently dealt with the response outside our internal FOI procedure.  I will look at your questions below and respond in due course.”

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.

Broadcaster STV announced it had ended its membership within days of the CBI announcing it had officially sided with the No campaign.  Despite the registration having been deemed void by the commission, STV remains a non-member.

The BBC has come under fire for continuing its own membership which costs over £20,000 per year.  The CBI, although no longer an official campaigner on behalf of the No campaign, is an acknowledged opponent of Scottish independence.

Below are the questions we posed to the Electoral Commission two weeks ago, and to which we are still awaiting answers.

We would appreciate if you could clarify a number of points:
 
1. Did the Electoral Commission – prior to April 21st – communicate in any way, advice which indicated to the CBI that it would have to register with the commission if the lobbying organisation continued with its normal activities?  If not then have you asked, or will you ask, Mr Cridland to clarify who gave the CBI this advice he referred to and to explain his claim to yourselves in his letter dated April 24th that the CBI did not receive legal advice prior to applying?
 
In an email dated April 23rd, Electoral Commission Chair, Jenny Ward says of the CBI:
“In summary they believe that as a Royal Charter organisation they cannot be regulated; further that the application itself is ultra vires; only he has the ability to sign such a form and was unaware of it; and that they 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]
 
What advice was this and to whom was it given and when?
 
2. Is it the commission’s view that if the CBI continues to intervene in the independence referendum in the manner it has done previously as part of its normal activities, then it will be considered an official campaigner and be regulated?  If not, then can you explain what CBI plans Ms Ward feels have to be adapted and why?
 
3. John Cridland, in making the bid for the CBI’s application to be nullified, gave an undertaking that the CBI would adhere to a list of (self imposed?) restrictions during the official referendum monitoring period. 
 
Were these restrictions prompted in any way by advice from the commission?
These conditions appear to have been broken by Sir Mike Rake who, weeks after the application was nullified, attacked independence in a speech that was communicated in advance to the media.  Has the Electoral Commission any plans to address such interventions, or is the CBI free to continue this practice?
 
4. In his submission in support of his request to have the application nullified, Mr Cridland claimed that his organisation had only ever spoken out on the independence issue in relation to business matters.  The CBI provided several documents as evidence.  However Newsnet Scotland has uncovered several episodes when the CBI has spoken out in relation to independence, but outwith the sphere of business.
 
What action might the Electoral Commission take against Mr Cridland (or the CBI) if he has either deliberately or inadvertently given false information in his submissions to the commission?
 
Many Thanks
Newsnet Scotland