Traditionally the impression has been one of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) as a lobbying organisation, lobbying for its members; there is no running away from this being one of the perceived and actual roles, of the largest and preeminent Business Representative Organisation (BRO) in the country. However, I have seen first-hand, particularly as I was President for two years during the worst global crisis since the Second World War, with the Covid-19 pandemic and the tragic war in Ukraine, what has been hugely effective is the CBI working collaboratively with the government, not just lobbying the government but being of help to the government; invariably as business, we would spot problems before the government, we would then spot the solutions often before the government had even spotted the problem and we wanted to act quickly. It was then a question of getting government on side; often there would be resistance and yet government would invariably eventually listen! I could give example after example but to take just three key examples:
Firstly, the furlough scheme was a unique and ground-breaking initiative, launched soon after the pandemic started, to save jobs and save businesses. The first ever national lockdown started on the 23rd March 2020 and yet the furlough scheme, that launched very quickly, was meant to end less than two months later in May 2020. We at the CBI warned the government that unless it was extended forty-five days before the end of May, due to notice periods, companies would start making employees redundant, there was going to be a cliff-edge. The government then listened and extended the furlough scheme until the end of June 2020. We then explained to the government, that with these rolling cliff-edges, businesses had no certainty and would not be able to plan, in what was a devastating and uncertain time for the whole world. Listening to this feedback from the CBI, the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, extended the furlough scheme and made it more flexible, it eventually ended in September 2021! In fact, in a short speech in July 2020 in the House of Commons, the Chancellor thanked the CBI twice.
Another example was, when lockdown was announced in March 2020, I was asked by the Director General of CBI, given my experience having built my business Cobra Beer, from scratch and all the ups and downs I had faced, what would businesses need? My response was simple, with many businesses completely shut down, such in the hospitality industry, businesses would run out of cash quickly and banks would be unwilling to lend to businesses in such uncertain times. I said the loans needed to be guaranteed by the government and I went one step further and argued they needed to be not 80% but 100% guaranteed, as the banks would not be willing to take risk in those times. The government initially resisted and only guaranteed loans 85%. As predicted, the money did not flow through, we persisted and eventually the government listened, especially after we provided evidence that other countries such as Germany and Switzerland were providing 100% guaranteed loans, with the money flowing to businesses rapidly. Finally, the government listened and 100% government-guaranteed Bounce Back Loans were launched and since then 1.6 million of these were taken and this saved 1000s of SMEs during the pandemic.
A third example is lateral flow testing, I learned about the cheap and fast lateral flow tests that were being developed in the United States. And, in August 2020, I began recommending to the UK Government that it should start using these to test individuals and also that it should give access to businesses – so that we could attempt to prevent mass isolation and lockdowns. I made this recommendation at every opportunity – in Parliament, in the media. I was batted away by ministers on a regular basis. So, I persisted and on 12th November 2020, I asked the question again in the House of Lords. I asked why we were not making mass lateral flow testing available and the minister responded: “Lord Bilimoria, you have totally won the argument”. It took several months, but free lateral flow tests were eventually made available to all businesses and citizens. In fact, they came to be used so widely that we ran out of them in December 2021 and January 2022. Oxford University carried out a study between April and June 2021 of 200 schools: it covered 200,000 pupils and 20,000 staff. One half of them were following the bubble rule (if you remember, at one stage there were millions of school children isolating). The other half were regularly lateral flow testing, with only those who tested positive in isolation and everyone else carrying on with school. The results showed that 98% of those isolating in bubbles didn’t need to and 98% of those using regular lateral flow testing didn’t miss a day of school. I put it to you that if the government had listened in August 2020 and acted rapidly to introduce lateral flow testing, perhaps we could have avoided lockdowns two and three. What’s more, the cost of providing these tests would have been miniscule compared to the £400bn the government spent on saving our businesses and economy. Let alone the cost on people’s mental health, children losing out on time in school, the health issues as people missed out on operations… and even lives lost. All that said, government eventually listened.
These are just three examples of how in a time of acute crisis, business and government can work closely together to the benefit of the economy and citizens, literally helping save businesses and save lives. It was not the CBI as a business organisation but rather a trusting partner to the government that made a real difference. Professor Frances Frei of Harvard Business School, describes trust as a triangle; to gain trust you have to be authentic, you have to have the logic, i.e., the capability to deliver what you are promising and you have to have empathy. I believe the CBI acted with all three of these elements, enabling the government to work with, listen to and act on the CBI’s advice as a trusted partner, not just a lobbying organisation.
Lord Bilimoria of Chelsea CBE DL is the founder of Cobra Beer, Chairman of the Cobra Beer Partnership Limited, a Joint Venture with Molson Coors, Chairman of Molson Coors Cobra India and Chancellor of the University of Birmingham. He is Founding Chairman of the UK India Business Council, a Deputy Lieutenant of Greater London, an honorary fellow of Sidney Sussex College Cambridge, Chairman of the Advisory Board of the Judge Business School, Cambridge University, a Visiting Fellow at the University of Oxfordand a Bynum Tudor Fellow at Kellogg College, Oxford. He is also an Honorary Group Captain in 601 Squadron Royal Air Force. Lord Bilimoria is a former President of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).