New CBI boss to face questions from MP’s over future of lobby group

CBI: New boss Rain Newton Smith doesn’t take crisis-hit group’s future ‘for granted’

The new boss of the Confederation of British Industry will be asked whether the lobbying group can still claim to speak for big businesses when she faces MPs on Tuesday.

Rain Newton-Smith, a former CBI chief economist who has rejoined as director general while it grapples with the fallout from a sexual misconduct scandal, is to take questions on the organisation’s failings and its future ambitions during an appearance before the business and trade committee.

It is understood that more than a dozen women have claimed to have been victims of various forms of sexual misconduct by senior figures at the CBI. This included an account from a woman who alleged she was raped at a staff party on a boat on the Thames and another who claimed she was raped by colleagues when she worked at a CBI office overseas.

The chair of the committee, Labour’s Darren Jones, said he wanted to establish whether the CBI could still deliver on its core lobbying objectives.

“Are they going to be able to represent the interests of bigger businesses in the UK, given the number of members who have recently left and the recent competition from other lobby groups?” Jones said. “We will also be asking what failings have they found within their organisation.”

Jones said the committee would avoid asking about individual cases of harassment and assault because of a police investigation.

Future engagement with parliament and the government will also be put in the spotlight. “Parliament and the committee used to rely a lot on the CBI for data and information about business, and part of this is checking if we’re still happy to do that,” said Jones.

The Guardian’s investigation into the CBI revealed concerns about the behaviour of senior managers and the handling of complaints about their conduct by a range of figures at the group.

Several members of staff have now left the CBI, by mutual agreement or having been dismissed, after an investigation by the law firm Fox Williams. City of London police have opened an investigation into some of the allegations.

Tuesday’s committee session will examine how the CBI handled complaints of sexual misconduct and consider what future the group – which has dominated business’ engagement with the government and parliament for almost 60 years – now faces.

The survival of the lobby group is still in doubt after it failed to win back access to the government – a critical part of its offering to its members – despite claiming victory in a confidence vote. The CBI faces questions on how many members it now has after refusing to reveal the the overall number who turned out to vote. It reported a 93% endorsement based on only 371 votes.

CBI staff have been told that the organisation will need to cut about a third of its wage bill even after last week’s vote. Bloomberg separately reported that several sponsors of its annual conference, which is likely to take place in November, had withdrawn their support.

Questions from MPs are expected to focus on why CBI staff past and present characterised the culture at the lobby group as toxic. The committee is also likely to scrutinise why insiders chose to share allegations of harassment with the press and how complaints were handled internally.

The CBI may also face questions about inconsistencies in statements by its leadership in recent weeks, according to another MP on the committee.

In an effort to relaunch itself with a prospectus last month, senior figures at the CBI sought to play down an admission in an open letter from its president, Brian McBride, in April that it had hired “culturally toxic” people and “tried to find resolution in sexual harassment cases when we should have removed those offenders from our business”.

His comments were in response to findings from the Fox Williams investigation into how the CBI handled harassment complaints.

Newton-Smith’s immediate predecessor, Tony Danker, was dismissed after separate complaints were made about his conduct. He said he felt he had been made the “fall guy” for the wider scandal at the lobby group, but also said he was “truly sorry” for making colleagues “feel uncomfortable”. He apologised “profusely” for any offence he caused, and said that it was “completely unintentional”.