Big hitters turn their backs on CBI annual conference

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The Independent Online

The top echelons of British business have snubbed the Confederation of British Industry's annual conference, which begins in London today.

Although the CBI describes itself as "the voice of business", just three chief executives of FTSE 100 companies are attending the event as delegates while only 19 companies in the FTSE 350 will be represented, mostly by public relations executives or middle-ranking managers.

The three FTSE 100 chief executives attending the two-day conference as delegates are Gareth Davis of Imperial Tobacco, Gerry Murphy of Kingfisher, the owner of the B&Q DIY chain, and Mike Clasper of the airports operator BAA, although he only plans to turn up for one session tomorrow morning when Tony Blair addresses the conference.

The CBI moved the event to London this year for the first time in a deliberate attempt to make it a "drop-in" conference which busy chief executives of major companies could call into for a morning or an afternoon.

The CBI's website boasts: "Which other event gives you the opportunity to take part in lively discussions and meet and network with the most senior thinkers, doers and business decision-makers from all sectors of industry?"

Despite this, most bosses of Britain's biggest companies seem to have decided they have better ways to spend their time.

The Department of Trade and Industry is turning out in force however. There are 38 DTI ministers and officials registered to attend the conference. A spokeswoman said 14 of these were there to man a DTI stand in the adjoining exhibition while about 20 officials were attending as delegates at a cost to the taxpayer of £14,000. The fee for the two-day conference is £699. A DTI spokeswoman defended the department's attendance in strength, saying: "It is entirely appropriate given the relationship between the CBI and the DTI. They are there to listen, learn and discuss."

Of the remaining 800 or so delegates attending the conference at the Business Design Centre in north London, the vast majority are from small private companies, trade bodies, regional development agencies and the like. There is also a smattering of executives from overseas companies such as BMW, which is sending half a dozen delegates, Nokia and Siemens. State-owned UK companies are also represented with Adam Crozier, the chief executive of Royal Mail, scheduled to attend.

In addition to the three FTSE 100 chief executives attending as delegates, two chairmen of FTSE 100 companies are due to be present. Sir John Egan, the chairman of Severn Trent and himself a former CBI president, plans to turn up but only for today and Dick Olver, chairman of BAE Systems is also scheduled to attend, according to his office.

In addition to the Prime Minister, the Chancellor Gordon Brown and the Secretary of State for Transport, Alistair Darling, will address delegates.

Sir Digby Jones, director general of the CBI, is hoping to make transport a key theme of the conference, and is calling for £300bn of investment in the country's transport system over the next decade. He says a CBI-commissioned poll has found that the poor state of the road and rail networks is harming corporate profitability and deterring companies from investing in Britain.

His figure is £60bn more than national and local government are projected to spend on transport in the next 10 years but the employers' organisation said it was necessary because the condition of the rail network particularly was worse than previously thought.

Sir Digby said that the private sector could foot a third of the cost with two-thirds or £200bn coming from the taxpayer.

The CBI polled 500 employers and 500 employees, finding that transport problems were hitting profits in nearly half of all companies, accounting on average for 5 per cent of turnover. Although the CBI is a strong supporter of road pricing, only a fifth of those polled backed the measure. Two-thirds said the answer lay in building more roads.

"The Government must not bury its head in the sand," Sir Digby said. "We are not spending enough. We must do something about it and quickly or our reputation internationally is at stake."