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I beg to move,
That this House
welcomes the contribution of co-operative and mutual businesses to the UK economy;
notes that they provide substantial jobs in Britain, generate significant tax revenues and involve consumers and employees in decision making;
and calls on the Government to review what further steps it can take to help grow that sector.
It is a pleasure to move the motion in this, the first week of Co-operatives Fortnight. Co-operative and mutual businesses—from retail giants such as John Lewis, Nationwide and the Co-operative Group through to social enterprises, credit unions, energy co-ops, community banks, childcare co-ops, friendly insurers and housing co-operatives—offer a route map to a more democratic and fairer economy. Co-ops and mutuals exist already in every sector of the economy, from financial services to housing, food retailing, public services and sport, supplying affordable and sustainable services to consumers, providing rewarding work and strengthening community enterprise.
My hon. Friend has mentioned financial services. Does he agree that building societies in particular provide an excellent service on the high street? High street banks have vacated many communities en masse, but building societies are a mainstay, and are gaining more business and better understanding from consumers because they are there to support them week in, week out.
That is an extremely good point. Building societies are one part of a co-op and mutual movement that already has a combined income of more than £133 billion, with assets worth many billions more. It is a serious and significant part of our economy, yet all too often Government, regulators, policy makers and thinkers dismiss its huge potential for expansion—expansion that could help to challenge wage stagnation, widening inequality and our growing environmental crisis.
Co-ops and mutuals put economic power in the hands of ordinary people, and, remarkably, those ordinary people, supported by skilful management, can be entrepreneurial, highly productive, and visionary—who knew? There are those on the right who criticise co-ops and mutuals for being some sort of left-wing throwback to the 1970s, dangerously radical; and there are those on the hard left who think that they are not public ownership at its best, but just a front for business as usual. More generous critics take a benevolent, paternalistic approach, tolerating co-ops and mutuals until bigger, more serious players in the City or the unions enter the room.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent start to what I am sure is going to be a great speech, but may I suggest to him that co-ops are, in fact, dangerous? They undermine the existing order, and empower people to take charge of their own lives. They are dangerous, and they should be.
I was about to say something that I hope my hon. Friend will be able to support even more wholeheartedly. I have always believed that co-ops and mutuals are the future: that they spread wealth and power more fairly, that they strengthen British-owned business, that they provide competition and choice for consumers in a range of critical markets, that they create diversity and enterprise, that they take a long-term view, and that they are a counter to the short-termist, riskier business models loved by City editors. We in this great Chamber should surely be able to allow our communities to direct and influence the economies that surround them and on which they depend.
Will my hon. Friend join me in supporting agricultural co-operatives, which play an important role in trying to bring about more sustainable, locally connected food and farming systems? Does he share my disappointment that countries such as the Netherlands and France have far more of them than we currently have in the UK?
I absolutely endorse my hon. Friend’s comments. I know that fisheries co-ops are another part of the sector in which she is interested. They, too, make a huge contribution, and could do a lot more with a little more help.
The economy is not some separate space to be run only by so-called management experts on grotesque levels of pay who can continue to ignore the rest of the country. Why should our neighbours, our friends and those we see at the school gate not have a say in how businesses and services on which they depend are run? They are allowed a say in political decision making, so why should they not be allowed a say in the businesses that they work in or depend on? Co-ops and mutuals can be life-changing and transformative, and the Government and the other Opposition parties should join Labour in committing themselves to double the size of the sector from between 4% and 5% of GDP to 10%.
The Oxo Tower on London’s South Bank was redeveloped by the enterprise Coin Street Community Builders. It now contains five floors of social housing run by Redwood Housing Co-op, subject to some of the lowest rents in the capital while being in one of London’s prime spots. Armed forces credit unions are another powerful example of the difference that co-ops can make. They were established after a long campaign by the Co-operative party, and are helping to combat the problem of payday lenders who prey on our armed forces personnel. Those are two remarkable stories, in my view, but much more is possible. Access to capital, further legislative reform, better Government funding, more Whitehall efforts to raise awareness and more expertise on the sector in the civil service are the key asks of Britain’s co-op and mutual sector.
I appreciate that finance is not an issue or problem reserved to co-ops and mutuals, but because of their different ownership models they often have real difficulty in accessing finance for expansion, and indeed for getting started. Big corporations can access large investment through debt funding or, crucially, can create capital by selling shares. Co-operatives and mutuals cannot at the moment do the latter without demutualising. Clearly we need to protect this unique governance model but also allow mutuals to issue permanent investment shares— that is to say, create indivisible reserves—which cannot be distributed to members even beyond the lifetime of the mutual. The European Union states offer this already in their mutual and co-operative legal set-ups, and a further five EU states have it in a slightly different form, yet in the UK we do not offer this route to raising significant finance for co-ops and mutuals.
Such a form of co-op and mutual share capital would offer stronger protection against demutualisation and therefore maintain and enhance corporate diversity. Above all else it would allow co-ops and mutuals to compete in the marketplace with other big businesses without one hand tied behind their back. In the UK building societies have a version of this already, called core capital deferred shares, which allows them to access capital markets without risking their mutual nature, but other financial mutuals and co-ops in the UK do not have anything like that.
Outside the EU, Desjardins in Quebec has raised more than $4 billion through this route, and Australia passed legislation on
I recognise that the Minister and his officials have looked at this once already in the light of Lord Naseby’s successful Bill in the other place, and indeed my own and mutuals’ representations, but I hope he might be persuaded, particularly given that similar legislation is now on the statute book in Australia, to bring key experts in this area together with officials again to try to find a resolution to the problems that have stopped this method of raising finance being allowed in the UK. The Co-operative Group, other retail co-op societies, Co-operatives UK, friendly insurers and the Building Societies Association all support progress on this issue, and I urge the Minister, who has been sympathetic to co-operatives and mutuals in the past, to be willing to take a fresh look at this.
Britain’s co-op and mutual movement suffers from a lack of dedicated banking funds. Across Europe, dedicated mutual or co-op banks exist, are highly profitable and have been around for ages. I have long thought that the Royal Bank of Scotland could and should be converted into a mutual to help address this gap in the UK and to challenge the continuing big banking monopoly in the City. The Minister may not yet be ready to join me in making that jump, so perhaps I can ask him to explore whether the British Business Bank might begin to have a dedicated mutual growth fund to encourage the setting up of new mutuals.
Responsible Finance, an excellent organisation that champions Britain’s existing community banks, highlights the need for dedicated finance for start-up worker co-ops. There is at present an absence of patient capital or capital blended with grants to reduce investment risk for start-up worker co-ops. A dedicated fund would enable specialist co-op lenders to take a higher level of risk in this area and mean that more capital would be available.
Does my hon. Friend agree that almost all start-up businesses have difficulty in accessing finance but that, ironically, it is more difficult for co-ops, notwithstanding the fact that the survival rate of starter co-ops over five years is almost double that of other businesses? That is an anomaly that we would reasonably expect the financial services market to correct.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute to the work of programmes such as Co-op UK’s Hive programme, the resources that are available from Stir to Action, some of the local measures that we have seen in Manchester and Preston, and Social Investment Business’s mutual Reach Fund, but these are all relatively small-scale and need to be scaled up.
The Minister will not be surprised to hear me—and, I suspect, other hon. Members—urge the introduction of further legislative reform to help credit unions offer more services to their members and enable them to invest their members’ money in an expanded range of ways to generate a return for savers. Credit unions are the most active, responsible lenders to the poorest and most financially vulnerable and excluded people in the UK, but they are held back from doing more by outdated legislation and a digital approach to regulation by the Financial Conduct Authority.
I declare my interest as a former director of the Staffordshire credit union, which sadly went bump because the FCA’s misunderstanding of the difference between the capital reserves we had to hold and the sustainability of our loan book meant that we could never meet its ever increasing targets and thresholds. That has left a number of former consumers unable to access even the basic banking arrangements that we offered, and I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend’s comments about the way in which the FCA regulates. It needs to better understand what credit unions are, and how they differ from commercial high street banks.
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. There needs to be a significant culture change in the FCA’s approach to credit unions and other financial mutuals. I recognise that there has been some Government support—indeed, the Minister has been helpful in ensuring more support for credit unions—but wholesale reform of the objects and powers of credit unions through primary legislation, providing a clear basis for innovation and development in the sector, is overdue.
I do not usually stand up for the Financial Conduct Authority, but is it not in the interesting position where the rise of digital currencies, crowdfunding and all the new opportunities opening up to co-operatives mean that we are in a challenging and innovative but quite unstable situation?
My hon. Friend seems to have gone from being dangerously radical earlier to being conservative within the space of about 10 minutes. He makes a reasonable general point about the changing landscape, but I am struck by the number of credit unions that have stories to tell of their difficulties with the FCA, and I believe that the point that my hon. Friend Gareth Snell and I have made about the need for cultural change in the FCA’s approach to mutuals is justified.
As the Association of British Credit Unions Ltd and the Building Societies Association have noted, new primary legislation for credit unions could allow them the chance to offer additional services at an affordable price in areas such as house insurance, where consumers often pay a premium if they pay on a monthly basis. Under the Credit Unions Act 1979, credit unions are permitted to offer credit to their members in the form of a loan, but the Financial Conduct Authority has taken a strict and literal view of this, limiting credit unions to offering cash loans. ABCUL and credit unions such as Plane Saver and London Mutual have noted that credit unions could provide an affordable and responsible alternative to a number of other consumer credit markets, such as secured car lending. Indeed, one credit union highlighted to me that the FCA had effectively stopped it offering an alternative to the high-cost credit that BrightHouse locks its customers into when they cannot afford to pay outright for basics such as cookers and fridges.
There should be a legal right for payroll deduction to join a credit union to be available to an employee if they desire it. I hope the Minister will ask his officials to check that every branch of the Government offers payroll deduction to join a credit union if civil servants want that facility. There should also be a requirement for the Department for Work and Pensions, local authorities and housing associations to signpost those in need to credit unions to help them avoid the payday loan companies and illegal lenders who prey on our most vulnerable people. Further help to allow credit unions to invest in new technology, so that they can provide a good digital offer, is key.
Greater understanding of the needs of the co-op and mutual sector by the civil service, and across all parts of Government, is important, and the Treasury is in a good position to facilitate such an awareness-raising effort. In Homes England, for example, a dedicated group of staff could promote and help housing co-operatives. A co-operative development agency could be tasked with promoting interest in co-ops and mutual entrepreneurialism across the country. The Treasury should be able to check that Government funding announcements do not discriminate against co-operative and mutual models. Co-op schools and energy co-ops have not been helped at key moments. Finally, why oh why are the Government not doing more to promote employee ownership trusts—a move they announced in the 2014 Budget—as a way of enabling the owners of companies to get the exit they want, realising the value of their business while securing its ethos, values and employees for the future?
The Government have sought to dispose of unwanted buildings and other land, but some of that should be allocated for sale or transfer for co-operative housing. We need more community land trusts to lock down ownership of land for those who need it most, and I will give just one example, with Armed Forces Day this Saturday in mind. In the US, homeless veterans are being helped into homes built on donated Government land, subsidised by Government funding and run as housing co-operatives. That has given veterans the chance to take control of the environment, rules, regulations and rents that they live by and pay, while getting proper support to rebuild their lives.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he accept that community land trusts have a particular benefit in rural areas, where they can provide cheaper or affordable housing? Does he agree that we need to examine how planning rules can encourage, rather than disadvantage, community land trusts in such settings?
I do agree, and I hope that my hon. Friend will catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to develop that point further.
Soldier On, a US veterans charity, opened the Gordon H. Mansfield veterans community in the autumn of 2017, with 51 homeless veterans moving in. Those veterans received not just the keys to their own apartment in a housing co-operative, but the keys to a new life away from the danger and insecurity of the streets. Soldier On has 14 new units under construction and is looking to develop 100 more units in New York and a further 70 in New Jersey. That model of housing co-ops on, probably, donated Government land could work in the UK and should be happening here. I gently ask the Treasury to encourage the Ministry of Defence to stop some of the sales of the almost 50 empty properties of which it is trying to dispose.
Co-operatives and mutuals are a great British success story, but they could be an even bigger one. I urge the House and the Government to embrace the sector and to champion the doubling in size of its contribution to our economy.
It is a great pleasure and a privilege to follow the lead of Gareth Thomas. I sometimes disappoint him in other matters, but I salute his work on furthering the co-operative movement.
I will never forget the moment when I fell in love with the principles and ideas of the co-operative and mutual movement. Shortly after my election, I had been encouraged to study a book called “Working-Class Patients and the Medical Establishment” by David Green, who now runs the Civitas think-tank, and the moment that I mention came when I read this quote—I hope that Members will forgive the old-fashioned language—taken from the Oddfellows Magazine on the eve of the passage of the National Insurance Act 1911:
“Working men are awakening to the fact that this is a subtle attempt to take from the class to which they belong the administration of the great voluntary organisations which they have built up for themselves, and to hand over the future control to the paid servants of the governing class… This is not liberty;
this is not development of self-government, but a new form of autocracy and tyranny not less but the more dangerous because it is benevolent in its intentions.”
That speaks to the kind of radicalism that Mr Sheerman introduced to the debate. Perhaps it is a spirit too radical for our age, but it is pretty obvious that, in so many countries around the world, there is a crisis of political economy and a lack of faith not only in the institutions of government but in the institutions of market economy. I am grateful to see Opposition Members nodding, and in that spirit we need to recapture some of that radicalism. It is about free individuals in society standing up not only for themselves but against entrenched interests and entrenched power better to serve their families and their communities. That was the moment when I realised, as a free market Conservative, that I perhaps had something to learn from the traditions of the left.
What is it that make co-operatives different? A briefing supplied by Co-operatives UK states:
“What makes co-ops different is how they allow people to democratically own and control the things that really make a difference—like capital, organisation and scale—so that these create real value for people and planet. They are one of the best tools we have for applying social responsibility, solidarity and democracy in a market setting.”
Perhaps it is that language of solidarity and democracy in the market that frightens off some of my Conservative colleagues, which I very much regret.
The Rochdale principles of the movement’s founding pioneers talk of open membership; democratic control— one person, one vote—not based on share ownership; distribution of surplus in proportion to trade, which is economic participation; payment of limited interest on capital; political and religious neutrality; cash trading, so that people do not get into credit trouble on the basics; and the promotion of education.
Those principles have of course been refined by the International Co-operative Alliance to open and voluntary membership; democratic governance; limited return on equity; surplus belonging to members; the education of members and the public in co-operative principles—my goodness, we could do with more of that; and co-operation between co-operatives.
If we accept, and I am afraid that today it is a question of if, that prices, profit and loss are the only way to co-ordinate a global society of billions of people, and if we accept that we must live in a free market society to best serve one another, it is time to look at civil society—that great panoply of institutions between the individual and the state—and ask how that inclusive spirit of free enterprise shared by mutuals and co-operatives can help to rebuild people’s faith not only in a market economy but in government. We therefore need to recapture the Rochdale principles, and I encourage my colleagues on the Treasury Bench to think carefully about how a Conservative Government can stand for some of these principles in a market economy.
The hon. Gentleman and I are bitter opponents over the UK’s future in Europe, but we sometimes put that to one side. We are working together on a new initiative called FairLife—he knows I agree with the Rochdale principles—to open up the system so that people know they are getting a fair deal on financial services, just as they know they are buying ethical products through Fairtrade.
I always enjoy my moments of agreement with the hon. Gentleman, and of course regret those moments when we disagree. Hopefully I will persuade him one day of the correctness of my cause in that other matter.
Co-operatives and mutuals, throughout the history of society, have played a really important role in standing against tyranny and monopoly power, whether it was the Rochdale pioneers providing good-quality food for themselves, their families and their children or, as I discovered in my research, the African-American communities that used co-ops and mutuals during the despicable Jim Crow era to provide aid to one another when they were denied it by the state, whether through unjust laws or extra-legally. I am advised that the Mondragon co-operatives were founded in the Basque country partly as a response to the oppression of Franco.
More recently, Taxiapp allows drivers in London to fight back against the competition of Uber. Of course, farmers co-operate through co-operatives in a way that should be expanded.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the fantastic work of Drive, the new taxi co-operative in Cardiff? In Wales we call on Drive to take us somewhere, which is exactly what it does. The co-operative is a response to some of the practices of the private-hire sector, the influence of Uber and others. It is doing fantastic work, supported by the Wales Co-operative Centre.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that, as I was not aware of Drive—I shall certainly Google it after this debate.
We need to ask ourselves why, given all the benefits of co-operatives and mutuals, they have not advanced further. They flourish, but why have they not advanced further? I was reflecting on why the Thatcher Government of my youth did not understand the great value that could come through inclusive free market participation with co-ops. They never got as far as embracing mutuality. That language of “solidarity” and “democratic participation” perhaps frightens off Conservatives. For too long, we have been afraid of some of these ideas of the left, and a more communitarian and voluntarist Conservative party should be embracing this idea of equality and market participation, not exclusively but as an important component of our society. I once heard the term “a parastatal”, and I wonder whether the idea of an enormous “The Co-op”—that enormous group of co-operatives—frightened off Conservative Governments in the past. I am encouraged that the “Open Public Services” White Paper of the coalition years makes provision for more mutuality in public services. I very much hope that when we get past our current distractions we might return to some of those ideas.
It has been suggested to me that one reason the Thatcher Government were not very good at embracing co-operatives was the preceding Labour Government’s failed attempts in the ’70s to turn failing companies into co-ops or co-op-like entities. Although I philosophically really embrace the hon. Member for Harrow West’s ideas about turning RBS into a co-op, and he and I have previously discussed the idea of Channel 4 becoming a co-op—
I will just finish the point. Enormous sums of capital are involved, particularly in relation to banks, so I have some misgivings that we might repeat the errors of the past. With that, I, of course, accept the hon. Gentleman’s help.
Let me help the hon. Gentleman on the history, because I knew Margaret Thatcher and her attitude to co-ops. We have to remember that she was the daughter of a small shopkeeper and traditionally saw the Co-op as the great competitor. She had an old-fashioned view of co-ops and what they meant, and she would never shop in one; there was a tradition that those on the radical side did not shop in co-ops, because they were the competition. I hope that that bit of history adds to his knowledge.
Of course I did know that, but the hon. Gentleman has certainly added colour to my understanding of the idea that we are all prisoners of where we come from, and perhaps that was one of the reasons. Now is the time we can have a renewal in our understanding of what can be achieved. Today, as the hon. Member for Harrow West set out, co-operatives are extremely important. They give an opportunity for people to gain control and agency over local economies, whether in land trusts or in other areas—we have mentioned public services. I will never forget listening to a young woman talking highly entrepreneurially about how a social care co-operative was working. It was remarkable to listen to the degree of ownership that lady felt. In other circumstances, she might have been doing “just” the valuable work of practically caring for a person, but in addition she felt really engaged in the operation of the business. That is an entirely noble thing. It is part of the process of becoming what it is to be human—to be really engaged like that in how these businesses run.
I wish to bring a few matters to the Government’s attention, and again this comes from Co-operatives UK. These are a few of the barriers out there and some policy options, which I would like the Government to consider. Co-operatives UK suggests:
“Fertile conditions for co-op formation are often absent” because, for example, there is a shortage of
“social capital and limited devolution of economic power and funding to the community level.”
Going back to the 1911 Act, I wonder whether this is a part of a broader trend over 100 or more years, and whether we need to make sure that social capital and the devolution of economic power facilitate mutual and co-ops. Co-operatives UK then cites:
“Established cultures and norms of behaviour”, with people sometimes “culturally disinclined to co-operate”. We need to think of ways we can encourage people to join in co-operatives.
There is, of course, a lack of awareness, practical understanding and good advice about this, which, I am sorry to say, we can witness on my side of the House today; too few Conservatives understand the role of co-operatives and mutuals. We could do more, as a Government, to explain to people the role of mutual and co-ops in a free society. Co-op frameworks are not as user-friendly as they should be, and we have heard some examples of that.
Of course, I support what the hon. Member for Harrow West said about building societies and extending capitalisation opportunities to other co-ops. I remember opposing the demutualisation of building societies as a young man. I did not really know why at the time; it just seemed instinctively wrong not to have that plurality. Our corporate frameworks and governance arrangements should be friendlier to co-ops. Members have touched on financing challenges, and they are generally part of the operating environment.
The proposals from Co-operatives UK include:
“Rather than giving all the funding and power to LEPs”— local enterprise partnerships, in England—
“government could commit 25 per cent of the new UK Shared Prosperity Fund for community economic development”.
The Government should certainly consider that, along with encouraging LEPs to look seriously at the role of co-ops in their local communities through local industrial strategies.
Co-operatives UK proposes that there should be a social-investment tax relief, suggesting that we should:
“Use the current review of Social Investment Tax Relief to make it more supportive of Community Shares, by making community investment in land and real estate, housing development, sustainable agriculture and renewable energy eligible.”
It also suggests employee ownership tax support and help for co-ops with making tax digital, which is something of a curse on a number of small businesses.
I have reservations about the idea of dormant assets being used to support co-ops. My concern is related not to co-ops, but to the idea that dormant assets are someone’s property. We should be a little cautious there, but Co-operatives UK has made that recommendation. It also proposes legal reform to ensure that we bring things up to date and support co-ops in the law.
At this time of great political turmoil, not only in the UK but in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Greece and the USA, we need to think extremely seriously about the institutions that we have and how to make them flourish. A great and wise defender of the liberal market order once wrote:
“Society is co-operation;
it is community in action.”
I very much hope that, through the kind of collaboration we see in the House today, we might one day educate Members of Parliament and the public as to what that idea of society as co-operation really means, and through doing that reinvigorate our society and better fit it for the future.
It gives me great pleasure to follow that rather enlightened speech by my friend, Mr Baker. As I said in my earlier intervention, we work together on the FairLife initiative, which shows the children present today that sometimes we work positively across party lines; we do not just disagree over Brexit or other things.
I suppose my admission today is that as a young academic teaching at Swansea University, I got involved in learning about worker co-operatives and wrote an article about them. I got so enthused that I started to set up worker co-operatives. Eventually, someone said to me, “You’re very political and interested in co-operatives; why don’t you join the Co-operative party?”, and I said, “What is the Co-operative party?” The person said to me, “Come down to a Co-operative party meeting at the Elysium buildings”, which were by the railway station in Swansea. It was a pouring wet night—we specialise in those in Swansea—and I got down to this meeting and came out as the secretary. You will understand, Madam Deputy Speaker, how politics works in that sense. I have been a co-operator ever since.
I have also been a bit of a dissonant voice, because I have always called into question the idea of having a single view of co-operation. We all look at Google these days, and when I did I saw this definition of a co-operative:
“A farm, business, or other organization which is owned and run jointly by its members, who share the profits or benefits.”
It is a simple thing, but it is also the most liberating thing I can think of in terms of the politics that I do, because it is absolutely the kind of politics that says, “Politics is not just about general elections, referendums or the big scale; it is about ordinary people deciding that they are going to take control of their own lives and that they are not going to be manipulated.”
I do not want to go too much into the history, but we all know that the industrial revolution pulled people off the rural economy—the farms and the life they knew—and into awful conditions in the factory towns of Britain. They had to shop at the company store: the company not only employed them, but paid them in its own currency so that they could shop only at the company shop. That was called truck. The Truck Acts passed by this House banned the practice of companies having their own currency.
Co-operatives sprung up—one could see at least 50 co-operatives from Castle Hill in Huddersfield. They started as local communities saying, “We are going to be able to buy fresh, good food that isn’t overpriced, and we are going to take control of that by setting up a retail co-operative.” Members will know the old principle: people used to put in a pound and they would have a share, so they were a shareowner in that co-operative. People were then employed to run the co-operative.
I have a criticism of that model. It is a good model, and by the 1950s most people shopped in co-ops. The co-operative retail movement was so powerful that it was the major retailer in our country. Indeed, in 1917, when Lloyd George was Prime Minister and the co-operative shops were not getting their fair share of flour and sugar because the Germans were blockading Britain, people marched down to Westminster Hall and started the Co-operative party. The biggest retail movement in Britain was not getting a fair share. Very soon, the Co-operative party came to an agreement with the Labour party that we would never stand candidates against each other, which is why there is a Labour and Co-operative wing of the labour movement.
That is the history, but let me bring things up to date, because that was an important lesson. People’s lives were in turmoil: the whole social and economic nature of the country changed in the 18th century and into the 19th century. There was radical change, and radical change is now happening again in respect of the assured ways of life. People thought they were going to get a job and probably have it for life, working in the public services or at a big company. In questions this morning there was mention of someone having worked for ICI—Imperial Chemical Industries. I worked for ICI. It is long gone, but many of the people with whom I work at ICI worked there for life. It was the norm that people joined a company and, although perhaps they would change their job once or twice, by and large the structure of life was stable and secure. That stability and security has largely disappeared for many of the people we represent in this House.
We have to come to terms with things and to change. Human beings are quite good at responding and saying, “This is really difficult; let’s do something to mitigate this and take control of our lives.” What happened during the industrial revolution? Working people set up trade unions to represent them, and housing associations and mutuals—a whole range of things. They set up mutuals and co-ops to make sure that people could have a holiday with their family once a year. They set up mutuals to make sure that people had money for Christmas presents and other big occasions, when they could get their dividend. People set up co-ops for burial, and the Co-op is still today a big player in that sector. They covered holidays, funerals and all those sorts of things. What is the great cause today? It is housing. Young people, and even people on reasonable incomes, cannot get a foothold in the housing market. In the current circumstances, why are we not going back to those mutual and co-operative ideas to meet that need?
All that brings me to the second part of my speech, although I do not want to keep the House’s attention for too long. As life is changing radically, the opportunities are changing. I am a long-term social entrepreneur: since I have been in this business, I have started more than 50 different social enterprises. A lot of social enterprise is about asking people for money, and it is difficult. It is tough. As a member of the court of governors of the London School of Economics, I was befuddled, because every time we hired a fundraiser, they did not even make enough money to pay the wages of the fundraising team. Eventually, we hired a young American woman—I think she was called Sally Blair—who raised tens of millions of pounds. People gave us whole blocks of buildings around the LSC in Holborn. She was the most magnificent fundraiser. I said, “Sally, why is it that you have been so successful? She said, “I am an American. If you’re an English fundraiser, you ask someone for some money, and if they say no, you go and sulk forever. We ask seven times, and put a person on the back burner only after the seventh time.”
As a social entrepreneur and a co-operator, I was in the business of asking people for money for good causes, and it was hard. Then we had the big financial crisis. George Osborne always used to say that the Labour party had caused a worldwide breakdown in modern capitalism. I used to say to him that I wished that we were that powerful. The issue was actually something to do with international banking and the corrupt way that banking had emerged.
The point I want to make is that technology has changed the opportunities for raising money for co-operation. I chair the Westminster Crowdfunding Forum. Social media can achieve immediate results. For example, if someone has an idea for a co-operative, they could raise money worldwide. They could identify a particular need in Yorkshire, in Huddersfield, or even in your own constituency of Doncaster, Madam Deputy Speaker. The technology presents us with an amazing opportunity.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I completely agree with him about those challenges of raising money to get new social enterprises and co-operatives off the ground. In that regard, crowdfunding is a way forward, absolutely, but it also needs leadership from Government. Does he welcome what the Welsh Government have done in the past few days in announcing a new £3 million fund for the Social Business Wales New Start initiative to kick-start hundreds of new social enterprises and co-operatives across Wales? It was, in fact, launched at a restaurant called The Clink, which is next to Cardiff prison and is itself a social enterprise. Does he agree that that is exactly what the Government should be doing—kick-starting the co-operative economy in the UK?
I was amused by that intervention because, of course, my origins in co-operation are in Wales. It is a delight to hear about that initiative. There is also a Clink in London—in Pentonville I think.
The point that I am trying to make is that there are new opportunities. I got fed up talking about co-operation and how wonderful it was. I worked with John Smith, who was a passionate supporter of co-operatives and who started the Co-operative Commission with an international committee on mutuals. We had lots of debates and we set up the Co-operative Development Agency. The problem now is that the co-operative movement is too conservative these days. It clings to the old model, the basics and the values of which are right, but sometimes, I think, we miss the point.
When I went into Co-op shops, I felt that the conditions for the workers were worse than those in Woolworth’s, Asda or Morrisons, which was wrong. I made myself unpopular when I said, “Why don’t we do what John Lewis does?” John Lewis, as I am sure everyone on the Government Benches know, is a workers’ co-operative; it is owned by the workers. They call them partners, but it is a workers’ co-operative; and it works and it is successful. It is still doing relatively well even with all the pressure on the high street. So, we have to be critical about the co-operative model and we have to modify it, but, essentially, we have to energise the workers. Worker co-operation is essential if we are to make an organisation work. That blend of everyone having a share as a consumer along with measures to energise the staff is absolutely the way forward.
Finally, now that we have all these new opportunities— we have not only crowdfunding and crowdsourcing, but blockchain and digital currency—there are real possibilities for transforming the economy big time, not little time. I am not talking about a couple of small shops or a couple of little start-ups; we need massively to change the way that we do things in this country. Most international business people whom I meet believe—partly because of Brexit but not entirely so—that we are heading for another global collapse of the economy, another global meltdown, another major recession. We will need, as never before, co-operatives, new mutuals and new ways of doing business. If those new ways of doing business are rooted in empowering people as individuals and as communities, a brilliant future will lie ahead.
The flag of the co-operative movement worldwide is a rainbow of colours. The United Nations has understood the power of our co-operative ideals to transform people’s lives not only in wealthy countries such as the United Kingdom and in Europe, but across the world. If we are to do something to stop what is happening in central America—the tragic picture of that father and little girl was still in my mind this morning—and if we are to bring wealth and power to people who do not have it at the moment, co-operation must be at the very heart of what we do.
Let me finish by saying that co-operation is wonderful, it must be updated and forward looking, and it has got to be, in the best sense, empowering and revolutionary.
Over the years that I have been in business and, indeed, in this House, I have come to see more and more the importance of the co-operative and mutual movement. Perhaps some Members know this, but I wonder how many people know which bank in the world is top of global sustainability rankings. It is Rabobank, a co-operative bank from the Netherlands, which, last year, had a net income of €3 billion and a balance sheet of more than €40 billion. That shows that a co-operative can be a global player. I have had the honour of working with the Rabobank Foundation in Tanzania where they supported a shallow well drilling project, which my wife was helping to run. I also have seen its work in other countries both as a commercial entity and through its magnificent foundation. That is one thing that a co-operative bank on that scale can do; it can give back enormous sums to the communities in which it works, both through better and cheaper services, financial services in this case, and also through supporting community work.
Further afield across Europe in Switzerland, the two biggest retail groups are both co-operatives: the Co-op itself and Migros, which has more than 100,000 employees. They show how co-operatives can work on a major scale and provide great benefit to their communities and to their staff.
On the international scale, I want to draw attention to Fairtrade, which I have been involved in for many, many years. Without the co-operative movement in the United Kingdom and, indeed, across Europe, Fairtrade would simply not be where it is. We need to remember that the UK has the greatest level of sales of Fairtrade goods of any country in the world—more than £2 billion a year—and the co-operative movement deserves huge credit for that.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Is he also aware of the role that the co-operative movement and co-operative MPs have played, along with MPs from across the House in the all-party group for Fairtrade, in highlighting corporates, such as Sainsbury’s, that are trying to downgrade the role of Fairtrade products? We highlighted the fact that it was selling tea that it called “fairly traded” which was not Fairtrade tea. It is not only about boosting Fairtrade globally, but about defending its position. That is at the very heart of the co-operative principle.
I welcome what the hon. Gentleman says, and he is absolutely right. I would say that Sainsbury’s has also been a strong supporter of Fairtrade, but we do not want to see any dilution or diminution of those principles. Fairtrade is like a brand. People will pay that bit extra because they know that what they are buying has been reliably sourced from farmers or other producers who have been properly paid for their work. It is a brand like any other brand, but it is more than that; it is something that we have to have trust in, and we do not want to see any diminution of that at all.
I want to talk briefly about the role of co-operatives in financial services, in three specific areas. First, my constituency is home to the excellent Stafford Railway Building Society, which was founded in 1877. It is local and exists to provide mortgages to local people. It was set up, obviously, by the railway workers of Stafford—Stafford is one of the major railway junctions in the whole UK rail network—and it is still there, providing excellent financial services, profitably, to my constituents and the near neighbourhood. I pay tribute to all those who have made it what it is, because people give up a lot of their time to serve on the board or as staff in the building society. Particular credit goes to Mike Heenan, a friend of mine who was very much involved in the building society for many years; Susan Whiting, who took over from him as the chief executive; and the current board and management of the building society.
Stafford Railway Building Society will be around for the next decade, two decades and three decades, because it is run responsibly and its capital is built up every year as it does not have to pay dividends. Where it can help is by providing cheaper and better services to its members through the retention of that capital.
The second area I want to discuss is credit unions, which have already been mentioned by Gareth Snell. I declare an interest in that I was a member of the Staffordshire credit union and was very sad indeed when it closed. I have to give credit where it is due; it was closed in a responsible manner and people got their investments back, but it was very sad that it had to happen. I ask the Government to look at why such an important local institution has to close because of regulation. We all know that there has to be regulation, but are there ways in which regulations could be changed so that they would not have such a dramatic effect on a very important and loved local institution? I very much hope that we will see the return of a Staffordshire credit union at some point in the near future.
The third area where the co-operative and mutual movement has a very important role to play is in small business finance, but it is not able to do that enough at the moment. The Co-operative Bank clearly has an excellent record in lending and providing accounts for small business, but the co-operative and mutual movement should have a much greater role to play in the provision of loans to start-ups or equity capital for small businesses. I pay tribute to the Black Country Reinvestment Society, of which I am a member. The society provides lending to businesses in Staffordshire in my constituency and across the Black Country. It is an excellent institution, but we need more such institutions and we need them to play a greater role in the provision of the equity capital that is so often as important—particularly for modern, high-tech businesses—as the loan capital that they more traditionally provide.
I pay tribute to the role that the co-operative and mutual movement has played in the history and economy of the United Kingdom. All speakers, including my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe have mentioned the fact that it is about not just the money and the business, but the co-operation. It is about building our social fabric—goodness knows we need to bring people together more and more at the moment, in times of quite considerable division. I urge Members on both sides of the House to support mutuals and co-operatives in their constituencies, as I know many do, as much for the fact that they bring people together to work for the benefit of their community as for the undoubted financial and economic benefits that these great movements bring to our country.
What a pleasure it is to contribute to this debate. I congratulate the previous speakers, who have all, in their own particular ways, not only articulated the benefit of co-operatives, mutuals and so on, but have also played a part in promoting them during their careers. I think my hon. Friend Mr Sheerman is possibly one of the few people, certainly in the Commons Chamber, whose longevity and experience exceeds even that of my own.
I joined the Co-operative party well over 40 years ago. I spent 18 years as a political organiser in the party: first, trying to combat the process of Thatcherism and privatisation; but secondly, I have to say, trying to convince those within my own political party—the Labour party, which is the sister of the Co-operative party—of the benefits of co-operation and mutuality. It is not a fight that has had just one front.
I joined the co-operative movement all those years ago because I saw it as some sort of middle way. It was different from state ownership, which I felt lacked buy-in from both employees and consumers, and which, while it still had a role in our economy, did not satisfy all the values and aspirations that I felt were incorporated within the Labour movement. On the other side was the shareholder proprietary model, under which it seemed to me the benefits of consumers’ purchasing power and employees’ skills were inappropriately spread, with the shareholders getting a far greater benefit from that combination of organisations. Co-operatives, mutuals and employee share ownership companies were, in their own different ways and in their own different sectors, incorporating those values, and locking in the benefit of employees’ skills and consumers’ purchasing power, in a way that reinforced the quality of the businesses they were engaged in.
It is worth reflecting for a few moments on the sheer longevity of some of the businesses involved. As we all know, the co-operative movement started in Rochdale in the 1840s. Even though there is now a much reduced number of co-operative societies—the largest being the Co-operative Group—they all have histories of well over 100 years, with some in excess of 150 years. Building societies similarly started in the middle and later part of the 19th century, and although there has been a process of amalgamation and in some cases privatisation, they are still a huge player in the financial services market. They may be much changed from their origins, but they still incorporate the basic community-based values that we have discussed.
John Lewis is an employee share ownership company that started in the second half of the 19th century. It started giving its employees shares in the 1920s and is still going strong today. When I look at companies being founded nowadays, I wonder how many will still exist in the next 150 or 200 years. The fact that the basic model of co-operation, mutuality and employee share ownership has survived all the social changes and economic vicissitudes over the last 150 to 200 years is a testament to its resilience, adaptability and relevance in the current economy.
Having said all that, there is a recognition that despite the success of some of the major companies in the sector, and the proliferation within the movement of a whole range of co-operatives, we are still not living up to the potential that the model has in our economy. Ironically, the co-operative and mutual sector plays a far greater part in economies such as those of the United States and Germany, which are by no means considered socialist economies. It is reasonable to look at why that is the case and why we have underperformed in our development of this area.
Previous speakers have highlighted some of the barriers that have existed. The raising of finance is a crucial one, although I will not repeat the lucid exposition of that problem by my hon. Friend Gareth Thomas. Ironically, the economic rationale for the privatisation of the building societies in the 1980s was their inability to raise capital to expand, so we had that process and we know where it ended up. One cannot help but think that if Governments of that time had looked at providing the financial mechanism by which the building societies could have raised more money, that rationale would have been destroyed. I am not saying that human greed would not still have prevailed in some cases, but it would have been far more difficult to prosecute the case for it.
On company law, the submission by Co-operatives UK and the New Economics Foundation has made it clear that one of the obstacles is an outdated industrial and provident society legal framework. There seems to be a disparity between the way the Government approach this—which is basically not to do much about it, notwithstanding the efforts of my hon. Friend through his private Member’s Bill—and the way in which company law legislation is continually looked at and revised. If it is appropriate for that to be done for the corporate, private sector, why is it not appropriate for the co-operative sector?
Partly as a result of all this, lack of understanding is a big barrier. Ironically, co-ops, building societies and organisations like John Lewis have strong brand identities and public faith in them, yet the public do not really understand what makes those companies different from others, and how, if they wished themselves to organise within a co-operative, they might go about it. We have had a huge proliferation in the number of people going self-employed. Many of those people might well feel that if they knew more about co-operation, they would be better at working with like-minded people in a co-operative structure to deploy their skills even more effectively.
The New Economics Foundation has pointed out that there are some 120,000 family businesses with owners of an age that means that they are likely to retire. Of course, those businesses may go to management buy-outs or be passed on to younger members of the family, and so on. But there should be an opportunity for management to understand and get support for a potential co-operative model in the event of a buy-out post the retirement of the existing owners. The report by the New Economics Foundation points out that if only 5% of the businesses where owners retired went on to co-operative management, that would double the number of such companies. That is a staggering statistic.
Local economic partnerships and other bodies set up to promote business in different areas seem to be either unaware or under-aware of the potential that co-operatives will offer to businesses in their area. This comes back to thinking about a co-operative development agency that would provide a centre for advice and contacts for access to finance, and would be proactive in looking for co-operative opportunities. I am encouraged that the Mayors in Manchester, Aberdeen and South Yorkshire are now considering having co-op commissioners with a brief to look at ways in which they can work with their local regeneration agencies to regenerate under co-operative models.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on outlining the benefits of co-operatives. The Mayor of Greater Manchester has identified that about 160,000 residents of Greater Manchester are members of co-operatives. He says that that offers a huge opportunity, beyond just having a commissioner in place, and has now launched a call for evidence for the people who co-produce whatever model is developed there. That is a good example of working together.
I thank my hon. Friend for that example, which underlines the point I am making. Given that these local government structures, and the policies that they are adopting, are in their infancy, it demonstrates the potential that might be available in those areas for other local government structures to actively promote co-operation.
I should have intervened earlier, but I wanted to check something before I put it on the record. A few moments ago, the hon. Gentleman pleaded for updated legislation, pointing out that the industrial and provident society legislation is out of date. I remind the Minister, who I can see is listening very closely to his speech, that in 2010 we promised a co-operatives Bill, but then, when it came forward, it was just a consolidation Bill—a tidying up exercise. I was very disappointed by that, as I expect the hon. Gentleman was. Let me say gently to my hon. Friend the Minister that if we do promise a Bill again, we really must make sure that it is a meaningful Bill that brings the legislation up to date.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that prompt to the Minister. Hopefully it is even more effective coming from his side of the House than from mine.
I will conclude by making one or two general observations. First, we have an economy where a huge number of people feel alienated or not engaged with the world of work that is controlling so much of their life. When there is so much international investment—welcome though it is, and sometimes deployed very effectively—that means that decision making and huge swathes of our economy are often centred in offshore countries or very far removed from the control of the company’s employees.
For the past 10 years, we have suffered from low productivity. It is an issue that does not seem to get any better. In terms of taxation and public expenditure, there are still huge swathes of the economy where the companies involved are not paying an appropriate level of taxation. It is interesting to note that the co-op movement pays more in taxes to the Government than a whole range of high-tech companies, including Google and Amazon. Developing the mutual sector would at least ensure that as these companies grow, they are paying the sort of taxation returns to the Government that would more than pay for any help they had had from Government.
I do not claim that the co-operative and mutual movement is a silver bullet for all these problems, but their performance in terms of both longevity—there are far higher survival rates among new co-operatives than other businesses—and worker satisfaction means that there is a strong case for far more proactive Government involvement and support. To take up the point made by Mr Baker, I hope the Government will look at introducing a co-operatives Bill that will actively deliver on the ground.
Like many people, my first interaction with the co-operative movement was going to the local Co-op store with my gran when she was doing her weekly shopping. At the end of the walk around the supermarket, the shop assistant would put the things through the till and say, “What’s your divvy number?” and she would say, “207619”. That was her getting her slice of the dividend back. I did not really understand what that was about until I was a bit older, when she explained to me that every Christmas, she got back her dividend from how much she shopped in the Co-op.
I did not think about it much until I reached my teenage years and went to university, where I remember other people talking about it. That number has always stuck with me. I grew up in a relatively poor household, and the Co-op basically funded our Christmas, because my grandmother used the dividend she accrued throughout the year to buy the nice things we had at Christmas that we did not have for the rest of the year. I am sure I am not the only person who has memories of enjoyable Christmases because of the dividend points that their families received through Co-op shopping. That is not something we should dismiss.
There have been a lot of excellent contributions—including from my fellow west midlands Co-op MP, my hon. Friend Mr Bailey—about the huge opportunities in the co-operative movement to contribute to our economy and the greater good of the United Kingdom. We should also focus on the small co-ops and the little interactions of co-operative goodness that improve the everyday lives of individuals in our communities.
Labour has made a commitment to “at least” double the size of the co-operative sector—my hon. Friend Jonathan Reynolds on the shadow Front Bench will realise that doubling it is not the end point in itself. Our aspiration in government is to at least double it and then go even further with growth of the co-operative and mutual sector in our economy, and I am sure that, having heard the many great contributions today, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury will seek to replicate that.
There are so many great examples. Much like the one described by Jeremy Lefroy, there is a wonderful building society in Stoke-on-Trent called Hanley Economic, which was formed in 1854 and originally called the Staffordshire Potteries Economic Permanent Benefit building society. Its purpose was to enable people who worked in the pottery industry to own a home, get on the housing ladder, have savings and manage their money better. It still exists today. Much like the Stafford Railway building society, it provides affordable, low-cost, sustainable and secure financial products for a number of people in north Staffordshire who ordinarily may be viewed by high street banks as being a bit too much of a risk. Because they can access suitable finance, they are able to make a better life for themselves. By building societies’ own admission, they are not going to change the world or overturn the economic hegemony of our current banking system, but they are making a difference to my constituents every day through the way that they operate and their business model, which is sustainable, ethical and fundamentally about trying to improve individuals’ lives.
That is where I want to add my contribution. I agree with pretty much everything that has been said by Members on both sides of the House about the opportunities if we were to properly unleash the co-operative movement and harness its economic potential. There are other things that we can do with the co-operative model. Someone—I think it was my hon. Friend Jim McMahon, but I do not want to attribute it to him, in case it was not—once talked about drainpipe devolution and the idea that if a decision is made in Westminster and Whitehall by half a dozen people, and then that decision is devolved to half a dozen people in Greater Manchester, the west midlands or north Staffordshire and called devolution for the purpose of devolution, we have not really devolved anything; we have just moved the decision makers to another office. We can harness the co-operative and mutual benefit by expanding the number of people who make the decisions in the first place.
My hon. Friend is right. During the EU referendum, people were talking about feeling powerless and wanting to take back control and have more say over their lives. We need to look at public services, and the Co-operative Councils’ Innovation Network is leading on that.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, because he takes me neatly to my next point, which is about learning from good practice on a smaller scale that directly benefits our economy. The Co-operative Councils’ Innovation Network, of which he and I were both members when we were council leaders, demonstrates overwhelmingly what can be done if we put a small amount of investment into local projects. Tudor Evans, who leads the council in the constituency of my hon. Friend Luke Pollard, and Sharon Taylor in Stevenage are just a few examples of people who are pushing this agenda nationally.
If we put a small amount of investment into a group of people who want to change the way that their town works, we can get huge dividends back. If we move away from a simple contractual relationship for a new business towards profit share for rental purposes or an equity share in lieu of rent, we can suddenly start to sustain our high streets better. We can see empty units revitalised by businesses that can think about long-term business planning, rather than short-term business planning to meet next month’s rent and rates bill. We end up with a greater economic benefit to the local community.
If the Government thought about how they could help local authorities to do the sort of work that the Co-operative Councils’ Innovation Network is doing across the country, they would see an increase in potential tax take, because there would be more thriving small businesses. What do we know about thriving small businesses? We know that the people they employ spend their money in the neighbouring shops, and we have a circular economy, whereby one or two different thought processes about how we include more people in decision making in a community leads to economic benefits for not only the Treasury but local communities. That should surely be looked at by this Government or the next Government or as part of Labour’s commitment to at least double the co-operative sector.
The mutualisation argument extends to not only high streets but things such as public services for buses and trains. There is an argument for utilities to be mutualised, because these are things that we all use. If we mutualise and say that the people who use those services should have a stake in the control of them, those services can be driven to a higher quality and standard. There can be financial dividends for the users, but there can also be improvements in standards of delivery, because the people using the services are in control of how they are used. That is a fundamentally simple model that is not being exploited sufficiently by a number of Government bodies at the moment.
The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely important point, and I agree with everything he is saying. One body that is, in effect, a mutual and is growing month by month almost under the radar is the National Employment Savings Trust—NEST. It is growing by several hundred million pounds. Last I saw, it had £5 billion, and by the end of the next decade, it will probably be one of the largest financial institutions in the country. It is doing a great job in many ways, yet almost all the top 10 investments of NEST are in overseas companies, not ones in the UK. It may have operations in the UK, but they are overseas investments. Does he agree that, given that it is a mutual, or at least owned with social purpose in the mutual interest, at least some of those investments could be put into precisely the things he is talking about?
I agree entirely. The hon. Gentleman, as always, has touched on a pragmatic and simple way of fixing something that should not be a problem to start with. He talked about the Staffordshire Credit Union. The reason the Staffordshire Credit Union ended up folding was that we were unable to meet the Prudential Regulation Authority’s 3% threshold rule between capital and assets. With a very small investment that a body like NEST could have provided, we would have been able to continue helping the thousands of people who were members, offering secure, low-return financial products to people who need it the most—people in communities such as Stoke-on-Trent, where payday lenders prey because they know that people want to borrow money quickly. While credit unions do not provide an immediate alternative to payday lending, they are part of the mix that is available. I can immediately think of a number of organisations that would benefit from the sort of investment the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and then the mutual role of NEST would get to grow and become even greater.
I want to go back briefly to my point about railways and buses. I may end up falling out with my Front-Bench colleagues on this issue, as on many others. State ownership is still a monopoly, and if we are talking about ways in which we could open up public services to be democratically controlled by the public, we need to mutualise them. We should allow and facilitate worker and management buy-outs of existing companies that are looking to be sold, and enable places to allow municipal bus companies to come back into the mix. This would help to sustain the market and—again, I go back to this point—make sure that people using those services have some semblance of taking control of those services and delivering them in a way they think is appropriate for their communities and sustainable in the long term.
This goes not just for public services. We have not touched on the potential economic benefits of things such as fan-owned football clubs and how we should do more to push fan-owned stadiums. In many other countries, it is not uncommon for sporting facilities and sports clubs to be owned, operated and managed by the users of those facilities. In this country, we have not particularly got into that model, as far as I can see, with the depth and the courage that others have.
Finally—I am conscious of the time—about 18 months ago, my hon. Friend Gareth Thomas ran a very clever social media campaign pointing out that if the 5% profit of some of the largest companies in the country was shared among their employee base, each employee would receive a certain amount of money, emulating the French profit-sharing law. To turn full circle back to my first point, if we had such a law in this country—it is not necessarily a co-operative solution, but it is about profit sharing and sharing the values of co-operation—what would happen to that money? Most people who work in such companies and small-scale industries will spend that money locally: more money in their pockets means more money going into their local high streets, shops and facilities. I am sure the Government have already looked at the circular effect of an economic benefit coming from a co-operative solution, even if it is not a co-operative model, and if they have not already committed to looking at the French profit-sharing law, I would encourage the Minister to do so.
It would be wrong of me not to talk about the Co-operative Group as a whole. As has been mentioned by a number of my colleagues, it is not just about the financial products and services it offers, but the values and ethics it brings to them. The Co-operative Group is leading the way on dealing with modern slavery, food injustice and food hunger, and retail crime. It knows that, at the heart of everything it does, is its staff and its consumers, and those are the values that I am sure the Minister will have heard about in every contribution today and will want to make part of any Government strategy on co-operatives.
We have heard many times already from Members right across the House that co-operatives and employee owner companies demonstrate a radically different way of how a company does business and how it organises its resources. As the hon. Member for Harrow West said in his opening remarks, these companies and enterprises come in all shapes and sizes and cover almost every—indeed, perhaps every—sector of the economy. Of course, one of the most welcome aspects of co-operatives and employee owner companies is that they allow people to democratically own and have greater control over the things that really make a difference to their business. In addition, by sharing and fairly distributing wealth, they promote employee wellbeing far more than perhaps traditional company models do.
We on the SNP Benches will always support measures that give workers a genuine and more meaningful stake in their organisations. Any measures that enable everyone who has a stake in a company to have a say in how that business is run will find support here. The benefits to business are obvious—from increased productivity and innovation to being able to attract and, perhaps just as importantly, retain high-quality talent, which in turn can help safeguard the long-term future of businesses and bring benefit to the communities where they are based.
There is an awful lot to like about co-operatives and worker or employee-owned businesses, and I believe Governments should do whatever they can to support their voluntary expansion through both start-ups and conversions. In this, I think the UK Government should look at and perhaps learn from the success of the Scottish Government, who have been promoting employee ownership conversion as a mainstream option for ownership succession of small and medium-sized enterprises.
I am really pleased to see that, in the last five years, the number of such employee-owned companies operating in Scotland has more than trebled. That trend shows no sign of slowing down, with Scottish Enterprise reporting recently that it has been working on a deal a month over the past year. Currently, there are about 100 worker and employee-owned businesses operating in Scotland, which together create about 7,000 jobs and contribute around £1 billion to the Scottish economy. I am delighted that the Scottish Government have shown their commitment to helping more companies become employee-owned or worker-owned enterprises by announcing a programme that will seek to achieve a fivefold increase in the number of employee-owned businesses in Scotland by 2030.
At the end of last year, when the Scottish Cabinet visited the Isle of Arran, the First Minister launched Scotland for EO. It is a collaboration between the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise and business, and its ambition is to make Scotland a world leader in employee ownership and other co-operative models. Under the banner “Employees can do ownership” and backed with £75,000 of Scottish Government funding, this new leadership group has been charged with increasing the number of employee-owned and worker-owned businesses in Scotland from the current 100 to 500. Sarah Deas, a director of Scottish Enterprise and the head of Co-operative Development Scotland, who is a member of this leadership group, said:
“Promoting employee ownership helps drive growth in the economy and create greater wealth-equality in society.”
Thanks to Co-operative Development Scotland, a dedicated team working within Scottish Enterprise, any company wishing to explore employee ownership, or indeed any other co-operative-based model, will now have expert advice on tap. Any business or firm that submits an inquiry about moving to an employee ownership model is able to access up to three days of free support from the team at Scottish Enterprise. Thereafter, Scottish Enterprise will provide the company with a report, which will examine potential ownership structures, governance, management, funding and how a possible transition to employee ownership could occur. As Nicola Sturgeon said when she launched Scotland for EO, the Scottish Government
“want to make it easier for companies and workers to find out more about this model and to move towards it if it’s right for them.”
It is generally accepted that one of the biggest barriers to the development of co-operatives and employee-owned enterprises is the absence of readily available, impartial advice and support. Yet there is evidence to show that when entrepreneurs and businesses are given the right information—in the proper context, with access to expert help—they are more likely to choose the model of employee or worker ownership for a business. I urge the UK Government to look at what the Scottish Government are doing and, I hope, match the ambition being shown by the Government in Holyrood.
Despite the recent growth in the UK’s co-op economy, by international standards the UK still lags far behind most OECD countries in both the scale and the economic impact of our co-operative sector. Germany, for example, has a co-op economy four times that of the UK, while in France it is six times larger. As I have said, I believe one of the main causes of that is the lack of awareness and a paucity of good, impartial advice. All the evidence tells us that employee ownership delivers real benefits to businesses, to the people who work in them and to the communities in which they are located.
My hon. Friend is making a wonderful speech showing the potential for success in this area. I am the proud MP for the beautiful island of Arran. Does he agree with me that Auchrannie is a wonderful enterprise and that everybody would benefit from it if they had the good fortune to have an opportunity to visit it?
Probably the best reply to my hon. Friend comes not from me but from Linda Johnston, co-founder and managing director of the Auchrannie Resort on the Isle of Arran. She successfully transferred over to the employee ownership model a couple of years ago, and said:
“The staff were involved in the process from an early stage and were given the opportunity to input throughout. They are delighted that Auchrannie’s legacy will be protected and that they have the chance to play an active part in, and benefit from, Auchrannie’s future success. They also realise that what each of them does will affect the future success of the business and that this is directly linked to their own success. There is no, ‘them and us’ now, we’re all in this together.”
I commend the words of Linda Johnston and support this motion.
I pay tribute to Brendan O’Hara for his powerful speech. There is always much to learn from our colleagues north of the border, and we have much in common on this agenda. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Gareth Thomas for securing this debate, and I put on record my thanks, and that of all co-operators in this place and across the movement, for his service as chair of the Co-operative party for 19 years. He has been a passionate and loyal advocate and champion of co-operation in this country and across the world. We thank him for his service, and know he will continue to champion co-operatives in any future role. It gives me great pleasure to succeed him as the new chair of the Co-operative party. That is a huge privilege and responsibility, and I am proud to add my contribution to this debate.
This has been a fascinating debate with values shared across the Chamber between people who have taken differing positions on other issues. It is fascinating to see how co-operation has led to many shared views, and I found myself in agreement with the hon. Members for Wycombe (Mr Baker) and for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy). We may disagree on other things, but we agree about much of what drove some of the anger, frustration and despair that we have seen in our communities over the past few years, and which expressed itself in the Brexit referendum in 2016. Whatever we think about how to fix things, there has been a sense of powerlessness, and a lack of agency and control over people’s ability to influence and shape their lives and the economy in which they live and work.
In my area, SSI, a Thai company, was able to pull the plug on the steelworks, with 3,000 job losses overnight. People have the sense that their lives are being buffeted by global forces over which they have very little control. It is no surprise that the “take back control” mantra that was used by those on the other side of the debate from me held such sway, and it was a huge driving force. For me, the co-operative agenda is all about taking back control, self-responsibility, democracy, ownership, and having agency in one’s life, and it is rare that people feel that about public services or about the wider economy. I think that the co-operative values and principles we have heard so much about today are the solution, and provide many of the answers to the challenges we face in our society and across our world. I am excited to help champion that agenda as we develop our policy thinking in the House.
I wish to focus specifically on the expansion of the co-operative sector, which I believe is necessary for us as a country. Labour Members have committed to at least doubling the size of the co-operative sector, and I am proud of that commitment. The Labour party’s boilerplate is “sharing power and wealth”, which points to why I do not believe the radical growth of the co-operative sector is an end in itself, but rather the beginning of the different kind of economy we seek—an economy that puts people at its heart. To support our growth we are lucky to find strength and solidarity from our movement, values and principles, but there is more to be done. The Co-operative party, working with the co-operative movement more widely, has taken a serious look at our infrastructure needs, and at the supportive environment required to grow the co-operative sector.
I pay tribute to the fantastic report recently published by the New Economics Foundation, “Co-operatives unleashed”, and I recommend it to the Minister as a good read. It sets out a series of steps that a supportive Government could take to support the co-operative sector. We must also consider what legislation we could pass, and we have heard fantastic examples of co-operative action around the world. We must reflect on the fact that our own sector and movement is not at the scale of those inspirational examples, because of this country’s legislative environment.
In many countries across Europe and beyond there is a basic legislative duty on the Government to promote the co-operative model. That will not be a panacea or cure all our issues, but it could signal intent and be a key driver of change to stimulate the co-operative economy. The framework in which co-operatives operate is not subject to constant review and updating in the way that company law is, for example. We have already heard about the Law Commission’s tidy-up job on co-operative and community benefit society law in 2015, which brought many disparate parts of the law together. The situation needs to be corrected, and a more visionary and forward-looking legislative framework should be sought—something we have not seen in this country’s legislative process for many decades.
There are also technical deficiencies in our current arrangements. For example, company law allows companies to act in the way they see fit where the law is silent and there is no guidance. When co-operative law is silent and has no guidance, it reverts to company law, and we could liberate our co-operative movement from that basic inequality. We should take more risks, and take more control of the environment in which the movement operates.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her election as chair of the Co-operative party. It is fantastic to have her in that role. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Gareth Thomas. Does my hon. Friend recognise the issue with devolution? We heard examples from Scotland but there are also some from Wales. Scotland and Wales have wanted to lead the way on much co-operative thinking, but they have sometimes been hampered by the devolution —or not—of powers. When we considered the new rail franchise, in Wales and the borders there was a lot of appetite for putting that in a co-operative or mutual model, but we were unable to do so because those powers had not been devolved by the UK Government. With Welsh Water we have the example of at least a semi-mutual. That shows the advantages of devolution in driving forward co-operatives, but perhaps we need some changes to allow innovation to take place.
I completely concur with my hon. Friend. We see a lot of passion and commitment for the co-operative sector and its values and principles in Wales, and we should be doing everything we can to allow people the freedom to develop those ideals with a supportive and co-operative approach from the Government.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mr Bailey who has worked with Ministers to try to persuade them of the need to lift unfair and unnecessary regulatory burdens on small and medium sized co-ops—we heard a great deal of detail about that today. Such burdens should not exist in the first place, and we should endeavour to remove them. One aspect of the co-operative growth agenda that comes up repeatedly within the Co-operative party and the co-operative movement is the need for access to capital, which many other types of businesses can access in a routine way, while co-operatives cannot.
Of course there is a difference in the way the co-operative business model operates, but I encourage the Minister to listen carefully to ideas for new capital instruments as they come forward. In some countries around the world we can see that new capital instruments have been put in place relatively easily, and they are both attractive and maintain the integrity of the co-operative model. For example, I recommend that the Minister look at the developments in Australia, which is leading the way on this issue.
A second aspect of assisting the co-operative sector to grow and develop concerns the development of co-operatives themselves. We often look at small and medium-sized business development and support, and regional and local infrastructures are in place to facilitate that activity. The amount and type of bank lending is often scrutinised, which helps, and specialist support is available for entrepreneurs. It is evident, however, that such support is focused on just one type of private business. There are great co-operative development professionals around the country, but sadly there are not enough, and nor is the infrastructure in place to focus on how to grow more co-operatives around the country. It is clear that we would benefit from a more rigorous and systematic approach to co-operative development.
The wider benefit of co-operatives and mutuals to our economy is clear, and new co-operatives are more likely to last into their second and third years than private small businesses. Too often, those giving professional business advice know too little about the co-operative model, and as a first point of call for advice and mentoring they are highly unlikely to suggest a co-operative approach. All that needs to change.
One route to achieving that, which has already been mentioned today, is through a co-operative development agency for England. Such an agency could be a starting point for advice or grants, and advise Governments on the type of public policy that would help to create an enabling environment for co-operatives. I hope the Minister will take that idea from this debate and work with the co-operative movement to ascertain the best shape and form for such an organisation.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her appointment as chair of the Co-operative party; she is a fantastic choice. Is this not a win-win for Government? For a small amount of investment and energy, they could double the size of the sector. She will be aware that the Co-operative Group, the Nationwide Building Society and Co-operatives UK have recently revised up the figure for the value of co-operatives to the UK economy to £60 billion. Imagine what even a small amount of growth could do to the UK’s GDP.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute to his great history in the co-operative movement and everything he did while leader of the council. We have talked a lot about the social and values-based argument, but there is a huge economic driver here. My hon. Friend Gareth Snell mentioned the importance of keeping money in local economies, which is of huge benefit to them. We continually see it drain away, particularly in smaller towns, and co-operative economies could play a role in keeping money in local economies. There is a very important economic argument here for the Government.
Another issue I would like to raise with the Minister, which I hope he will look into further, is the shared prosperity fund. Co-operative organisations, including Co-operatives UK, Locality and the Plunkett Foundation, have a campaign called “Communities in Charge”, which calls for a shared prosperity fund to include targeted funding to ensure it is made available for people and in places that need it most; for local people to be able to scrutinise spending decisions through citizens’ panels; and for at least 25% to be controlled by local communities to spend on local priorities. This is a really welcome campaign and I hope the Minister will endeavour to look more closely at it.
In conclusion, I would like to make a point about the type of campaigning, work and activity that co-operatives add to our communities. It is in their DNA to go further than any other business type to add to, rather than take away from, the communities they serve. Their operation and their model leads them to lead campaigns on loneliness, modern slavery, food justice, fair tax, employee safety and community safety—to name just a few. Some of those areas have been championed by one of the largest consumer co-ops in the world, the Co-operative Group, which, I note, recently won the title of co-operative of the year. That is the difference co-operatives make and the wider benefit they bring. It is an inspiration for all of us here who want more. The smaller co-operatives fighting to compete in non-traditional sectors, co-operatives aimed at disrupting exploitative markets, and our larger co-operatives serving members and their communities so well are all part of the fantastic co-operative difference that we are proud to support today.
It is a great honour to follow the current chair of the Co-operative party, my hon. Friend Anna Turley. I am glad that her predecessor, my hon. Friend Gareth Thomas, was able to secure the debate. I am grateful to him for all he did, including taking the party through some quite difficult periods. The movement has also suffered, because of some of the well-known controversies that we had to face down. I thank Mr Baker, who is no longer in his place. It is good that there is at least some support from those on the Government Benches for something that some of us, as proud Labour and Co-operative party MPs, feel is very important. We feel that the co-operative message is not always heard as much as it should be, in this place or, more particularly, in wider society.
I just want to touch on three quick points, but I will just mention what has already been said, which is that we need to see the growth of co-operation. It is an alternative to capitalism and state socialism, and it is important that we see it as an answer to the problems of the 21st century, rather than as purely a historical legacy. I hope the Minister will say some nice things and respond in kind to the suggestions I will make. I am not going to talk about credit unions, but it is important we recognise that they have a part to play in financial arrangements. I was one of those who set up the Stroud co-op union, which is still flourishing. It needs to grow and we need some help to make it grow, but it is an answer for those who find it difficult to access finance in other ways.
My first substantive point is on what I have always felt is a great problem with co-operation: where to get advice to set up a co-operative. State business support organisations, whether local enterprise partnerships or their previous incarnations, have all suffered from the same problem, which is that the people offering advice have either had no experience at all of co-operation, or their experience has been limited to what they have read about it. Co-operators need to be able to advise other potential co-operators. I hope the Government will consider this issue, because too often this is a huge lacuna. There is no one to go to who knows enough about the opportunities that the co-operative movement as a whole can bring. Since the loss of co-operative development agencies, which many of us have sadly witnessed over the past few decades, this issue has become much more acute.
Secondly, co-operative housing can be a solution, particularly in rural areas where community land trusts have now come into their own, but we need a number of things to happen to make them more available than they currently are. First, we need changes to the planning system. I am pleased that the Government have now looked at small sites and made them more accessible to this form of provision, but at the moment the planning system is such that too often communities and neighbourhood planning groups who want to have a small clutch of housing either give up because it is too bureaucratic, or they get turned over and it ends up as executive housing in villages, which is just what they did not want. They want affordable units. Dare I say it, they want social units.
The great benefit of community land trusts is that the land remains held mutually in perpetuity. That is very important, because losing the land means losing control. It would therefore be very helpful if the Government looked at the planning system in that regard and at what financial help they could provide to such groups. It is expensive to go through the rigours of trying to set up a community land trust, so I hope the Government will be generous and consider ways to help such communities solve these problems. They do not want masses of housing; they want 10 to 12 units and they want them to remain affordable in perpetuity. That is why community land trusts, as a form of co-operative housing, are so important.
My final point is on the role of co-operation in farming. The Agriculture Bill will one day come back to this House, but so much of it is predicated on public moneys for public goods and none of us quite knows how that will work. We are waiting to examine the environmental land management trusts in more detail so we can know how they will work in practice, but the simple fact is that farmers are already co-operators. More than half of all farmers belong to some form of co-operative. They may not always recognise that. They may think that NFU Mutual is a pure insurance company, but it is a mutual. It is a co-operative.
My hon. Friend describes a situation that applies to many people, not just farmers, who are members of a co-operative organisation. I think of the Asian community in Stoke-on-Trent, who have a savings scheme for funding family funerals. They would not think of it as a co-operative, but that is exactly the sort of mutual and co-operative model we are talking about.
Exactly. That is partly the problem of the movement, because it is not overt enough. It does not broadcast the fact that they are mutuals and co-operatives. On farming, the changes that are going to come will, to some extent, demand upscaling. Some of us may worry about that, but the reality is that with the change in the funding mechanism there will be a drive towards larger units. The only alternative to that is some form of greater co-operation among those practise farming at the moment. We want more people to come on to the land and particularly younger people, because the average age is 59. It will hardly be a burgeoning, growth-inspired movement without younger people coming in to do the exciting things that we all know could happen to provide more of our own food.
I hope we will look at how co-operatives are not only built into the Agriculture Bill, but given encouragement. All the pressure is on selling smaller units, whether that is what is happening to the county farms estate, where they are being gradually cut away one by one—some of us worry about that—or the fact that when land comes up for sale, the big guys come in and buy it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on all his work on the Agriculture Bill and everything around that. Does he agree that with the increased awareness of climate change and environmental impact, food miles are becoming more of an issue in people’s consciousness, and that the more we can grow and produce here, the better it will be for the climate and the country?
Of course. It is really important that we provide food as locally as we can, and many people want to do that, including through the Landworkers’ Alliance and all sorts of innovative schemes. The loss of the bank was sad for many of us, but the saddest day for me was when we lost the co-operative farm estate. We lost Stoughton and Down Ampney, which were model farms that showed the way and how co-operation can work. This was the nation’s biggest farmer for generations. Sadly, all that was lost, although it has gone to the Wellcome Trust, which is welcome in its own way. However, we ought to be encouraging co-operation and seeing it as a solution to many of the problems.
I hope that the Government are listening and are further prepared to change the Agriculture Bill to make it even friendlier to co-operatives, so that different farmers can find a way of staying in the marketplace, and that may encourage younger people, who, I am sure, will be keen to be co-operators.
It is a pleasure to follow my fellow south-west MP, fellow co-operator and fellow shadow Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minister, my hon. Friend Dr Drew. As we have heard from hon. Members on both sides of the Chamber, there is a real energy and dynamism around co-operatives and the values that they stand for. We need to grasp the opportunity to stop just talking about co-operatives and mutuals as a worthy activity that happens on the periphery of our economy; we should have it as a mainstream alternative and option in nearly every single area of public and private organisation. That is what we need to look at much more and I am really glad that so many Opposition Co-operative MPs, in particular, have spoken so passionately about the opportunities that lie ahead. That is what I want to talk about today, because the time for co-operatives is now, and we must seize the nettle.
Before that, I echo the praise and thanks to my hon. Friend Gareth Thomas for serving for so long as chair of our Co-operative party—he would have got less time for murder. He has done a very good job. I also put on record my thanks to the outgoing general secretary of the Co-operative party. Claire McCarthy has served our party and movement incredibly well. We all wish her well for the next stage of her career and wish the best of luck to all the contenders who are being interviewed to replace her. As a Labour and Co-operative MP, I am very proud to have stood on a manifesto that pledged at least to double the size of the co-operative sector. As Plymouth’s voice in this debate, I will tell the House a bit about what Plymouth is aiming to do, because we have a Labour and Co-operative-run city council that has pledged to double the size of the co-operative economy in our city by 2025. The Minister will know many of these things well, as a former Conservative candidate for a Plymouth seat, and I know that he will welcome and pay special attention to my remarks.
Doubling the size of the co-operative economy is a worthy ambition of our times. To achieve that, we need not only to accelerate community wealth-building initiatives, reviewing procurement and providing support to grow the capacity of co-operatives to engage in procurement exercises, but to focus on economic development policies. For folks that are really passionate about co-operative politics, it is sometimes frustrating that co-operative politics tend to be put just in “procurement”—if only we procured differently, we could grow our economy. Yes, that is right—we should and we must—but we must also not neglect the importance of co-operative economic development policies. That is really where Plymouth city council has led the way.
In Plymouth City Council’s strategy, “Doing it Ourselves”, which was published recently, the ambition to double the size of our co-operative economy has been laid out. We want to grow from the 23 co-ops that we have in our city to 50 co-ops; from a turnover of £18.6 million to £40 million; from 9,500 members to 20,000; and from 226 employees to 500. That is a really good ambition and I want every single Member in this House to challenge their own councils—whether Labour, Labour and Co-operative, or of the blue team persuasion—by saying, “What are you doing at a local level to encourage the economic development, growth and starting up of new co-operatives?” Plymouth is rightly very proud of its focus on the wellbeing economy, community-owned infrastructure, worker-owned tech and creative industries, public-facing and cultural hubs and municipal co-operation, but that is not Devon-specific. It can work in every part of the country, and that is what many of things that I want to discuss relate to. Before I continue, I should say that I am a very proud member of the co-operatives that I am speaking about today. I hope that other hon. Members will consider joining them after they hear what I say.
I will first mention a co-operative that I have spoken about in the House before: the Plymouth Energy Community. It was set up in 2013 to provide radical and green solutions to fuel poverty, which affects 13.4% of the people who live in Plymouth. Since it started, it has done amazing things. In 2014, it invited members of the public to buy a stake in that co-operative. As my hon. Friend Gareth Snell said, crowdfunding is really important. At the time, we had the lowest buy-in level—£50—of any crowdfunding co-operative in the country. That was nearly £450 lower than any other at the time, and it made co-operative ownership and innovative projects available to more and more people.
Having raised more than £600,000 and received a £500,000 loan from Plymouth City Council, Plymouth Energy Community provided solar panels to 21 schools and community buildings. It has gone further, adding 15 primary schools to that list, and we now have new solar panels on the roof of our Olympic-quality sports centre—the Life Centre. It has also opened its first solar farm at Ernesettle, which is incredibly exciting. It has also become a real champion for insulation and energy efficiency, particularly helping communities on low incomes—not only in Devonport, in the patch that I represent, but in St Budeaux and Ham in the north of the city—to reduce the energy costs of their homes by investing in infrastructure and upgrades. It is very proud of that and it should be.
I spoke to the Plymouth Energy Community during the “The Time is Now” demonstration on Lambeth Bridge yesterday. As well as being an organisation that has excited people to invest in infrastructure, it is also exciting people to get involved in the fight against climate change, and rightly so.
Plymouth is not just about solar panels on primary schools; it is also about how we use co-operatives to challenge the big evils of our time, one of which is hunger among our schoolchildren. That is where CATERed, the co-operative owned jointly by Plymouth City Council and 67 of our primary schools, has been pioneering. It has pooled all the school catering contracts for the entire city. That includes all the different types of school, as Plymouth has one of every school that every Government since 1945 have ever thought of; diversity of provision is not our problem in Plymouth, although a lack of funding is. CATERed now provides wholesome, healthy food all year round, including over the summer. To its great credit, instead of providing meals for kids who cannot afford to feed themselves properly over the summer from empty school buildings, it does so from parks, reducing the stigma for families who really struggle for food.
I congratulate Plymouth on the work that it is doing. It is genuinely leading the way on many of these issues and the council is fantastic. Is my hon. Friend not highlighting what makes co-operatives special? Not only are they an enterprise and profitable, but they are a movement that people take part in and feel really connected to.
Absolutely. There is the opportunity to engage more people in that energy and dynamism. As a response to what we have seen with Brexit and in a globalised world, where we can call anyone around the world from our phones but very few of us know our neighbours in depth, as we once used to, we need to build community cohesion, and doing that in an environment that supports business growth, enterprise and innovation through co-operatives has to be part of the solution.
I also want to talk for a moment about Nudge Community Builders, which is one of Plymouth’s newest co-operatives and, again, I am very proud to be a member of it. From the Minister’s time in Plymouth, he may know about Union Street, a famed drinking haunt that used to have pubs from one end to the other. When the fleet came in after its manoeuvres, it used to be seen having a few cheeky beers. We are now down to one pub on Union Street. Unfortunately, Union Street echoes Stonehouse’s story of poverty and deprivation.
The fantastic team at Nudge Community Builders have used a community share scheme to take over the Clipper Inn, once one of Plymouth’s most notorious drinking haunts—I would never have been found there in my youth—and have turned it into a real hub of community regeneration. The Clipper now provides low-cost space for people to demonstrate their products, bring creative arts to the market and grow their business. For example, the No Whey! co-operative, which provides incredible gluten-free, healthy food, has taken up residence at the Clipper and, having grown and grown as a business, is doing incredible things. That regeneration was crowdfunded by £204,750 from 151 investors in just 67 days, thanks to multiplier effects. Wendy, Hannah and the rest of the Nudge team have done something incredibly special. Again, that is not specific to Plymouth; it is a great example of what can be done everywhere.
In the true spirit of the Rochdale pioneers, Plymouth is going above and beyond. Plymouth City Council is the shareholder of the South West Mutual bank—it does not just talk about financial inclusion and what happens after the decline of high street banks; it is opening its own bank to serve the four counties of the far south-west. Plymouth is leading the way in that respect.
There is a co-operative renaissance happening in our towns and cities, which is sometimes lost on policy makers in London. I therefore encourage the Minister to send his officials to Plymouth, and to other cities and towns across the country that are really leading in this respect. We often host Government officials who come to see Plymouth’s co-operative story, and more are welcome, because that success story needs to be told.
That story is also a temporary one for local government. When Labour recently lost control of Plymouth City Council, we lost our status as a co-operative council. It is a matter of great regret—Mr Baker spoke about this—that some of the same values and passions have not always been felt by the Conservative councillors who replaced the Labour ones. I am very glad that the Labour council is back, under the incredible leadership of Councillor Tudor Evans, who, alongside Councillor Chris Penberthy, is driving forward the innovative co-operative agenda.
The opportunities to double our co-operative economy at least also work for fishing, and there are around 1,000 fishing jobs in Plymouth—my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud spoke about agriculture, which is his passion, so let me speak for a moment about fishing. We already have an incredible co-operative success story in our local fishing industry, but we must now seize the opportunity to double the number of jobs that come from increased processing and catching, and from sharing opportunities and innovation, especially in tackling ghost gear and plastic pollution.
That is where I think the Minister has an opportunity to spread the narrative that doubling the size of the co-operative economy does not just mean creating another Co-op group; it means giving the tools, skills, funding and support to innovators right across our country to do interesting and innovative things alongside our communities, to innovate and change. That is certainly happening in Plymouth.
We have a real opportunity to mainstream co-operative values. I do not want my time as a Member of Parliament to be defined by an annual debate on co-operatives in which well-meaning Members on both sides of the House express their hopes and dreams about what the future could look like. I want us to put this into every single debate, whether about mutual social care provision or new mutual models for the future ownership of our public utilities, because the time for mutuals and co-operatives is now. I encourage the Minister to grasp this opportunity with both hands, because although Opposition Members share a lot of familiarity and common cause with co-operative values, I believe that he can find Conservative values in that co-operative spirit as well, so that, whoever is in government or in charge of our local councils, we can really drive that co-operative agenda forward. I encourage Members on both sides of the House, and local councils and communities, to grasp this incredible opportunity ahead of us.
It is a pleasure to speak in support of the motion standing in the names of the hon. Members for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) and for Wycombe (Mr Baker). I thank the hon. Member for Harrow West, in particular, for the massive contribution he has made, certainly over the time I have been here but also long before that, to support co-operatives and mutuals. We all appreciate that greatly. I concur completely with the sentiments set out in the motion, especially those relating to the contribution that co-operatives and mutuals play in the economy of the United Kingdom, which I believe is much under-appreciated. I therefore want to add my support to co-operatives and mutuals, with a particular focus on credit unions, which I know best, as they feature greatly in my constituency.
Recent years have witnessed an increase in the number of co-operative and mutual businesses being set up in Northern Ireland, after many years when none was established. Analysis by Co-operatives UK in the early part of this decade found that co-operative enterprises in Northern Ireland contributed £35.6 billion to the UK economy—that is over a period of time, but it is still a massive amount of money.
I want to highlight a couple of examples to showcase the growing strength and vibrancy of the co-operative and mutual sector in Northern Ireland, because sometimes society does not appreciate what co-operatives do. Dr Drew referred to agriculture. As a Member who represents a largely rural constituency, I know how crucial co-operatives have been to the size and success of our local dairy industry. One example is Lakeland Dairies, which has a factory in Newtownards, the main town in my constituency, and employs more than 220 people there. It is part of a cross-border co-operative business that processes 1.8 billion litres of milk a year. It has two factories in Northern Ireland and two in southern Ireland. The co-operative model has served the farmers, who are its members, well down through the years—they contribute to its policy and vision—providing them with an outlet for their production and, importantly, a say in the overall direction of the business. All that experience and knowledge points to the direction we need to go in.
Perhaps the single best example of the increasingly strong and vibrant co-operative and mutual sector in Northern Ireland is our credit union movement, which is massive. I will give some figures because I am not sure that all Members realise just how important credit unions are in Northern Ireland or the massive contribution they make. Credit unions are, of course, common to all parts of our United Kingdom, but they have woven themselves into the fabric of society in Northern Ireland in a way that has not happened elsewhere across our nation. Credit unions are a feature of my constituency, as we now have three or four of them. When one of the branches closed down in Greyabbey, a village just down the road from where I live—I opened accounts there for my three boys many years ago—it integrated with the branch in Newtownards.
People such as my old running mate Tommy Jeffers in Dundonald have given a lifetime of hard work to establish, run and expand credit unions across Northern Ireland. He was the instigation and strength behind that credit union, and although he is now in his mid-70s and no longer a councillor—that is how I first got to know him, as well as through party connections—he is still involved in it. The movement has been built by hundreds and hundreds of hours of work by volunteers. They have made a massive contribution.
One credit union that spoke to me ahead of the debate wants to open more branches on the high street, to help plug the gap left by mainstream bank branch closures, and it wonders aloud whether the Government might be sympathetic to the idea of extending business rates relief to credit unions seeking to open business branches. Does the hon. Gentleman think that could also help facilitate the greater spread of the credit union movement in Northern Ireland?
I thank my honourable colleague for that intervention. I am sure that the Minister is listening and hope that he will take on board that suggestion, which could be very helpful. I wholeheartedly support that suggestion. This is not the Minister’s responsibility, but I have had discussions with other Ministers about help with high street rates.
It should be borne in mind that credit unions are for their members. The members invest their money to lend their money. It is a fantastic opportunity, and a fantastic example of how lending should be looked upon. The big banks should note that example. It should not be all about dividends for shareholders; it should be about the customers—those who are involved.
The Northern Ireland movement is massive in comparison with its counterparts in Great Britain. Statistics collated by the Bank of England in each quarter show the scale of credit unions in Northern Ireland in comparison with that of their counterparts in the rest of the United Kingdom. Of the 437 registered credit unions in the UK, 145 are located in Northern Ireland. A third of all adult credit union members in the UK are in Northern Ireland, and four in 10 juvenile members are from Northern Ireland. We are encouraging our young people to open accounts early—although, to be fair, that will probably be done by their parents or, perhaps, by their grandparents, who open accounts for them to start them off. It is good to encourage young people to be part of a bank, to save money, and thereby to see the benefits of credit unions. As I have said, it is a fantastic opportunity. If Members have not had an opportunity to investigate or gain knowledge of what is happening in Northern Ireland, I suggest that they should.
I had the pleasure of being in Belfast over the weekend for a Co-operative party event organised by Tony McMullen, a fantastic advocate for co-operatives. The party has published a manifesto for co-operatives in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will read it and convey to the UK Government what we might take from Northern Ireland’s leadership in this regard.
I should be more than happy to do that. I read in the paper that the hon. Gentleman was the guest speaker at that event.
Our credit unions are clearly punching well above their weight, as so often happens in Northern Ireland. This is yet another example of what we do well there. I know from experience in virtually every corner of my constituency how vital credit unions are in helping some of the most marginalised in our society to save their money and borrow at very competitive rates. As was pointed out by the hon. Member for Harrow West, they have often filled the gap left by bank closures. They filled that gap when banks closed in Newtownards, and they filled it by opening a brand-new office in Kircubbin on the Ards peninsula—where there had previously been a branch of the Danske Bank—to supplement the branch in Portaferry.
Credit unions fill the gap on many occasions, and have a great interest in the community. A recent article in the Financial Times recognised the role that they play in our community beyond simply lending money and providing facilities for saving, explaining how they can and do help to squeeze out loan sharks, who cause a great many problems in Northern Ireland. They lend money and then take exorbitant interest rates from the backs of people. They are a scourge on society, including my Strangford constituency. They prey on the most vulnerable among us, and have ruined countless lives. I want to place on record my thanks to the credit unions throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland whose service is helping many to break away from the grip of criminal moneylenders.
Despite the apparent strength of loan sharks, however, there are still significant opportunities in credit unions in Northern Ireland. Again, I agree with the motion: we must look to Her Majesty’s Government to work with the credit union movement, and the co-operative and mutual sector as a whole, to fulfil that untapped potential. More can be done with a little help. We have heard two suggestions in interventions, and other ideas are being presented.
The regulation of Northern Ireland’s credit unions moved from Stormont to the Financial Conduct Authority in 2016. I ask the Minister to engage with the credit unions in Northern Ireland—and, indeed, throughout the United Kingdom—and to help them to, in turn, work with the FCA to help them to grow further, and, furthermore, to help us to deal with problems such as financial exclusion.
Let me say in conclusion—and I realise, Madam Deputy Speaker, when I hear that cough I must take note of it—that there is an increasing desire across our nation for a different growth model for our economy. The hon. Member for Stroud referred to an alternative. We need a good alternative that can be successful, and this is the one: one in which the interests of workers and people are not overlooked, but rather are to the fore; one in which there is a greater sense of partnership between all the actors in our economy. Co-operatives and mutuals are already an incredibly important part of our economy, and they can be greater still. Northern Ireland is an example of their importance. I join Members in all parts of the House in recognising their existing contribution, and calling on the Government—and the Minister in particular—to work with the sector and help it to grow even more and benefit more people.
As ever, it is a real pleasure to follow Jim Shannon. I congratulate the hon. Members for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas) and for Wycombe (Mr Baker) on securing this important debate, and thank all Members who have contributed to it.
I should declare an interest, as a member of a credit union, and, indeed, should declare an interest in the Auchrannie Resort, which was referred to by my hon. Friends the Members for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) and for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson). As a delighted former customer, I have to say that it is an amazing venture.
The Rochdale pioneers have been mentioned frequently this afternoon, and I feel that I would be failing in my duty if I did not point out that they were inspired by the work of Robert Owen of New Lanark, who set up the village store in 1813 for the benefit of his community, and used the profits to fund educational projects. He thus inspired the co-operative movement across Rochdale, and look where that has brought us!
There are a few Members scattered around the Chamber—or maybe not—who will be able to recite their mother’s, or their grandmother's, co-operative dividend number, such as, in my case, 4308. I must declare another interest, as my father was a milkman who worked for the Kilmarnock Equitable Co-operative Society. However, things have moved on considerably in the co-operative and mutual movement since I was but a girl. There are a number of useful and well-meaning co-operatives in my constituency, which help my constituents enormously. They include Forgewood and Garrion People’s Housing Co-operatives, Bridges Housing Association, three credit unions, Motherwell United Services Club, Clyde Supporters Trust and the Motherwell FC supporters club. I am particularly interested in the last-named, as I have just purchased my season ticket, and look forward to supporting Motherwell in a very successful season.
I am very grateful to Co-operatives UK and the Employee Ownership Association for the work that they do in raising awareness of the benefits of co-operatives and mutuals. Co-operatives UK’s 2018 annual report shows that there were 7,226 independent co-ops operating across the UK, with a combined turnover of £36.1 billion, an increase of more than £800 million on 2017. They employed 235,000 people, and there were 13.1 million members of co-operatives overall. As we all know, those numbers are increasing. The data indicates that co-ops of all shapes and sizes are thriving throughout the economy. Exciting new co-op clusters are emerging in industries such as digital and creative, in social care and in the community ownership of land, assets and enterprise, while they remain strong and continue to innovate in areas of traditional strength such as retail, wholesale, housing and agriculture.
The co-op economy in the UK is diverse, well-established and growing, but it is small by international comparisons. Globally, co-ops are a significant force, with a combined turnover of more than US$2.1 trillion and 1 billion members. The UK lags behind most OECD countries in the scale and impact of our co-op sector. Germany’s is four times the size of ours, while in France it is six times larger. According to Co-operatives UK, and as has already been mentioned, there are unnecessary barriers preventing the use and spread of this type of organisation, especially in England.
The corporate frameworks for co-ops are not as user-friendly as they should be. The registry function for co-ops, under the aegis of the FCA, can be cumbersome and is not linked into the increasingly important digital nexus between Companies House and HMRC upon which so many improvements for businesses, such as single filing and Making Tax Digital, are predicated. Also, co-op law is in need of both routine maintenance and strategic reform. That can add to negative perceptions about co-op options.
There are examples where the operating environment for co-ops is more challenging than for other models, including banks not understanding legal forms, and difficulties and unwarranted disadvantages in procurement —private and public—due diligence and credit scoring, adding to negative perceptions about co-op options. There can be some distinct challenges for co-ops in raising start-up and growth capital that go beyond those experienced by businesses generally, although that applies more to some types of co-op in some circumstances than to others.
In Scotland, with approximately 7,000 employee-owners generating a combined turnover of £940 million, the appetite for employee ownership has never been greater. As my hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute said, in the last five years the number of employee and worker-owned businesses operating in Scotland has trebled and this past year Scottish Enterprise has been working on a deal a month on average.
Employee ownership gives employees a meaningful stake in their organisation, together with a genuine say in how it is run. It roots business in Scotland, drives performance and delivers economic wellbeing. In moving to a co-operative model, owners, the business, and the employees can benefit from the following: a competitive price and guaranteed exit for the owners at their own pace, which is particularly useful for SMEs; the safeguarding of jobs and improved employee engagement; safeguarding the future of the business; ownership and leadership transfer at low risk; enhanced employee engagement, as we have heard; and increased productivity and innovation while attracting and retaining high-quality talent.
While Westminster descends further into chaos, the Scottish Government are racing ahead with support to achieve a fivefold increase in employee and worker-owned businesses by 2030. Scotland aims to become a world leader in employee ownership and other co-operative models. The Scottish Government aim to increase the number of employee-owned and worker-owned businesses to 500 by 2030 through the new Scotland for EO industry leadership group backed by the Scottish Government and co-chaired by Jamie Hepburn, Minister for Business, Fair Work and Skills. Co-operative Development Scotland, a dedicated team within Scottish Enterprise, has a practical remit to promote awareness of employee ownership and other co-operative models and provide advice to businesses considering adopting these models. Scottish Enterprise is running a series of workshops explaining employee ownership to build awareness and demand for this inclusive business model.
Any firm can submit an inquiry about moving to employee ownership and Scottish Enterprise provides up to three days of free support. Where employee ownership is identified as a potential exit solution for business owners, it will undertake an employee ownership feasibility study. Scottish Enterprise will then provide a report examining potential ownership structures, governance, management, funding and how a transition would occur.
The biggest issue facing co-operatives and mutuals in Scotland and across the UK is a Tory no-deal Brexit, which could slow down exports, lead to a hike in interest rates and cost our economy up to 100,000 jobs according to the Fraser of Allander Institute and the Bank of England. Under no deal, a Treasury analysis suggests exports would decrease by 15% and warns that disruption to cross-channel trade could lead to delays in UK food supply, 30% of which comes from the EU. The Bank of England has warned that crashing out of the EU without a deal would be worse than the 2008 financial crisis. The irresponsibility of the Tories is on full display with the claim of Boris Johnson that there could be a temporary “standstill” in the current trade arrangements with the EU while a new trade agreement is struck, and that premise being rejected by two Brexiteer Cabinet Ministers. All these things will impact negatively on co-operatives and mutuals and inhibit their productivity and contribution to our economy.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister whether he agrees that we should focus on what the UK Government can do to support the voluntary expansion of employee and worker ownership through both start-ups and conversions using worker co-ops and employee ownership trusts. Will the Minister address the biggest barriers of awareness, understanding and available advice and support, as evidence shows that when entrepreneurs and businesses are given the right information in the proper context with access to expert help, they are more likely to choose employee and worker ownership?
In this matter, the UK Government can learn a lot from the success of the Scottish Government in making employee ownership conversions a mainstream option of ownership succession among SMEs. I again urge the Minister to look at the good work being done in Scotland on this and to follow suit.
It is a pleasure to close this debate as a proud Labour and Co-operative Member of Parliament and as a member of the Opposition shadow Treasury team. What a good debate we have had to mark Co-operatives Fortnight. We have rightly heard that the co-operative and mutual tradition is one of the most significant in the economic and social history of this country. It is a tradition that was of course begun and built on the east side of Manchester in towns like mine—Stalybridge and Hyde—and Mossley, and I should also mention Ashton as my hon. Friend Angela Rayner is sitting beside me. But we have also heard that it is a tradition with much to offer for the future.
I want to be clear about what a co-operative is, because I am always conscious that while there is huge expertise in the Chamber today, there will be people listening to this debate who perhaps do not know exactly what co-operatives or the mutual sector are, and why they are different and why that is important. For the benefit of those people, let me say that co-operatives are enterprises that trade for the common good as opposed to the private benefit of their shareholders.
Legally, there are several differences between a company and a co-operative, but the most important are the following. First, the members of a co-operative are all equal and have one vote each, irrespective of the number of shares they hold. They all have the same right to participate in the affairs of the co-operative, which they democratically control. The members of a company, by contrast, of course hold their rights of control over the company in proportion to the number of shares they own. Greater power and control over the company can be acquired by buying more shares, but that cannot happen in a co-operative. Secondly, it is members, rather than shareholders, who provide the capital to a co-operative, and the distribution of profits is made by way of a dividend to those members based on their annual trade with the co-operative. In a company, profits are distributed in proportion to the shareholding a person has.
These legal differences point to a fundamental difference of purpose. A company carries on business for the private benefit of the shareholders at the time, whereas a co-operative is a trading mechanism for the benefit of its members; it is essentially a self-help mechanism enabling people collectively to meet their shared needs in a broader social context. It has a purpose that goes beyond the immediate business itself. This means looking beyond the personal, private needs of individual members and accepting the importance of collective needs, but also looking outward to wider interests including others affected by the business, wider society and, crucially, future generations—that last point is especially significant.
Parliament has long recognised these differences. In 1852, Parliament passed the first Industrial and Provident Societies Partnership Act, and this provided a formal basis for the establishment of co-operatives, many of which had already been established on the Rochdale model.
The Co-operative party exists as the political wing of the co-operative movement. Established in 1917, we took the decision in 1927 to form an electoral pact with the Labour party and, as a result, members including me and some hon. Friends are elected on ballot papers that say “Labour and Co-operative”, and we represent both parties here in Parliament.
In modern times, we advocate not only for the strict legal definition of co-operatives, but for the whole mutual sector. My hon. Friend Mr Sheerman made the point well about how widely that concept has grown. While we are on the subject, may I also formally offer my thanks to our outgoing general secretary, Claire McCarthy, for her commitment and passion and for what she has delivered for the co-operative movement? We will miss her a great deal.
I know that I speak for all of us when I say that we take great responsibility and honour in continuing to advocate the great co-operative tradition, but in my view, co-operation is a political tradition that appeals to those on all parts of the political spectrum. The thoughtful speech from Mr Baker made that point very well. In many ways, it was an intellectual case for a free market economy that goes beyond that straightforward Friedmanite definition of the concept of business, and I would welcome continuing that discussion in more detail.
Many of my hon. Friends also spoke in the debate today. My hon. Friend Gareth Thomas, who secured the debate, gave an excellent overview of the entire sector. We would expect nothing less from him, and his expertise is widely recognised and respected across the House. He made some specific asks, and I am with him on all of them, particularly on his point that we need to modernise co-operative share capital in order to fulfil the potential of this sector.
I often think of my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield as the father of the Co-operative group in Parliament. As ever, he was fizzing with co-operative passion and energy, and that is why we admire him so much. He talked about the insecurity that is a feature of so much of the modern economy and about how the co-operative movement can be an answer to that, as it was in the past. I very much agree with him on that point.
Jeremy Lefroy made the absolutely excellent point that co-operatives can operate on a significant global scale. They can be significant players. Some people feel that this can be a niche sector of the economy, and it is important to make the point that some of the biggest co-operatives are bigger than some multinational businesses.
My hon. Friend Mr Bailey, who has delivered more as a Co-operative parliamentarian than almost anyone in his time in this place, mentioned the fact that we are still not living up to the potential of the sector. I think we all agree on that. He particularly highlighted how the trend towards self-employment could create more opportunities. That is a crucial point. He also mentioned the work of the northern city Mayors and their Co-operative Commissions, which I agree is very exciting.
My hon. Friend Gareth Snell mentioned his family experience. Mine is similar, except that it was the Northern Rock building society that we used to go to on a Saturday morning. As a child, I certainly did not appreciate or understand demutualisation. It felt like everyone in County Durham was receiving free money overnight. I thought that there must surely be a catch to that, and of course there was. My hon. Friend is a fluent advocate of co-operation, and his points on public services were particularly well made and something we should all take heed of.
Brendan O’Hara talked about how the role of co-ops in Scotland continues to expand. He said that the crucial issue is the need for better advice, and that is something that has come across strongly in the debate today.
My hon. Friend Anna Turley, the newly elected chair of the Co-operative party, talked about the powerlessness and frustration that a lot of people feel as a result of their inability to get a say in the world around them when they are buffeted by such strong global economic forces. She is entirely right, and in many ways that is the biggest issue of all facing our economy. She showed why she will be such an effective chair of the Co-operative party.
My hon. Friend Dr Drew, as ever, made some very good points. It was great to hear him mention agriculture, and particularly the need to build on the parts of the mutual sector that already exist there, such as NFU Mutual. My hon. Friend Luke Pollard talked to us about the plans in Plymouth. That level of ambition sounds truly superb. I almost think I should suggest a day trip down to Plymouth for the Co-operative Members of Parliament. He did not offer us many pubs, but perhaps we can see what they have done with the former ones. What an impressive advocate he is for the work going on in Plymouth! I commend him for that.
It was great to get a UK-wide perspective from Jim Shannon, and I could not agree more with his points on credit unions. I take my children to a credit union, which is part of their school, every week, and I want every school in the country to have that kind of practical example. That is relatively easy to do. The hon. Gentleman was right to say that it is in Northern Ireland that credit unions have been most successful, and there is much that we can learn from him and from Northern Ireland.
For my own part, I have always relished my role in promoting co-operative and mutual policy in Parliament. I have tried to legislate for co-operative housing tenure, for example, and I have lobbied for greater powers and resources for credit unions. It is that enthusiasm and conviction that I bring to my work in the shadow Treasury team. I am ambitious about the co-operative sector. I believe that we should not limit the drive for a more co-operative economy to just one Department or just one aspect of public policy, because this debate shows that co-operative ideas and models would benefit a wide range of matters, from railways to housing to energy production and supply, with huge scope for everything in between.
The Labour party and the shadow Chancellor, my right hon. Friend John McDonnell, have been clear that in government Labour will work with the co-operative movement to at least double the size of the co-operative sector. That was a pledge in the Labour manifesto that I and other colleagues here helped to secure, and that ambition is not hyperbole, because the opportunity is enormous. The UK’s co-operative sector is currently worth between £35 billion and £60 billion, depending on what estimate you take. That is big, but it is far smaller than the sectors in Germany or the US.
Being a co-operative is not a magic wand. Co-operatives can still succeed or fail like any other business, but it is true to say that twice as many co-operatives survive the crucial first five years as other businesses. Worker-owned companies have a clear productivity advantage over conventional businesses, and that fact should stand out to us when we remember that productivity is the biggest problem in the UK economy today. We should be more ambitious about what can be achieved. Regardless of which side we are on, I think we all want to see more resilient, high-productivity businesses in an economy that is fairer for everyone.
Crucially, we all recognise that although co-operation is a strong bottom-up movement, it can truly thrive only in a supportive regulatory and legislative framework, backed by practical support from both local and national Government. Make no mistake, if we were in government, that support would not be lacking. I want to legislate to give credit unions the power and the regulation they need to considerably expand their activities. I want a degree of employee share ownership to be incentivised and to be the norm in every business. It is the norm for executives, and it could be the norm for every worker. Under our plans for inclusive share ownership, it will be. I also want to ensure that our plans for a national investment bank, which will be organised through a network of regional investment banks, draw on the success of banking sectors and co-operative movements such as Germany’s. There is so much that could be done, and we should welcome the diversity, vibrancy and social purpose that the co-operative sector can bring. It has been a pleasure to respond to this debate today, Madam Deputy Speaker. We are, as ever, yours in co-operation.
It is a privilege to respond to this debate today on behalf of the Government. I would like to thank Gareth Thomas and my hon. Friend Mr Baker for securing the debate, and the 11 Back-Bench Members who have spoken this afternoon about the enormous positive contributions that co-operatives and mutuals make to our economy and society.
I start by paying particular tribute to the hon. Member for Harrow West for his nearly two decades of leadership of the all-party parliamentary group for mutuals. In my rather more modest tenure of not even 18 months as Economic Secretary to the Treasury, he has lobbied effectively and constructively on these matters, and I will respond to the points he and other hon. Members have made in the course of this debate. I would also like to congratulate Anna Turley on her recent election as Co-operative party chair and thank her for her contribution today.
The House has heard some impressive figures on the economic contribution made by co-operative and mutual organisations in this country and more widely across the globe. I would like to acknowledge the experience of my hon. Friend Jeremy Lefroy, who brings great insights through his work in this country and also in Tanzania. That came over strongly in his thoughtful contribution and his suggestions.
I thank the Minister for all the work that he does. Another major co-operative that is important to my farmers is an overseas-based one called Arla. It is based in Denmark, but it is a co-operative that works across borders for the benefit of all farmers—in Britain, Denmark or wherever else.
Once again, my hon. Friend makes his knowledge clear. We should be looking to replicate the principles behind that model and to examine how we can extend it.
The all-party parliamentary group for mutuals found that mutuals generate over £130 billion of income each year but, of course, the contribution they make is about so much more than the raw numbers. Crucially, the House has also heard about the positive difference that such organisations make to people’s lives across the UK. I have been fortunate in my time as Economic Secretary to witness their impact at first hand. Last year, I visited 1st Class Credit Union in Glasgow, where I saw the effect of its work to help its members save and borrow responsibly. In my constituency, I am delighted to see my local co-operative, Chalke Valley Stores, flourishing as a community hub, providing a shop, café and post office to local people who might otherwise be underserved in this rural location. Various Members made the point about the welcome opportunities that exist, given the changes on the high street.
From fishing and school meals provision in Plymouth to funeral savings in Stoke, we have heard a large number of relevant examples this afternoon. Whether it is a young family able to buy their first home thanks to a mortgage from their local building society, a community that comes together to keep their local pub or lido running, or an individual able to pay off their debts and start building up savings with the support of their community credit union, mutuals and co-operatives bring choice and agility to our financial system and economy, ensuring that it can meet the varied needs of society.
As we have heard, mutuals are diverse organisations, found in almost every sector of the economy, meaning that the opportunities and challenges can be different. Let me first talk about building societies. Earlier this year, I was pleased to attend a reception to mark the 150th anniversary of the Building Societies Association, which has been the keeper of the flame for the building society movement since 1869. Building societies have been around since almost a century before that, with largely the same core purpose as they have now: helping people to buy their own homes. Building societies provide almost a quarter of UK retail mortgages, including one in three of new mortgages approved in the last quarter.
Although the core purpose remains unchanged, building societies have not stood still. Modern branches offer video mortgage advice and banking on iPads. They are also driving some of the most interesting innovations in the mortgage market. For example, the Saffron Building Society has launched a guarantor mortgage, while Marsden is the latest building society to offer a joint borrower, sole proprietor mortgage. Those two schemes take into account the financial circumstances of family members in order to give first-time buyers a leg up on the property ladder. Meanwhile, the Ecology Building Society offers green mortgages for self-build properties and discounted borrowing for home improvements, which is another great example of how the mortgage market can respond to the needs of society and of the generations to come.
As for retirement lending, it is hugely encouraging to see regional building societies, such as those in Leeds, Nottingham and Loughborough, offering retirement interest-only mortgages.
I was a chairing a Committee in another part of the House, so I was out of the Chamber for a little while, but I came back for the winding-up speeches. I think it would be a shame if Nationwide was not mentioned today, and Liverpool Victoria or LV=, which has an office in my constituency, is a great insurance mutual. We have talked a lot about little co-ops, but big co-ops are important, too.
As ever, the hon. Gentleman has anticipated my future remarks. I have met representatives from those institutions on several occasions recently.
The examples given today show that regulation and innovation are not mutually exclusive, and that building societies are able to adapt to serve the changing needs in our society. Members have highlighted the need for a proportional regulatory approach, so that building societies can effectively compete with the big banks. The Government are committed to ensuring that capital requirements are implemented proportionately in order to support smaller lenders, such as building societies. The recent updates to the Basel international standards are a clear positive step towards more proportional capital requirements.
The Government have a clear commitment to implementing those standards and refining capital requirements in the UK. That is demonstrated by the inclusion of the capital requirements regulation II in the Financial Services (Implementation of Legislation) Bill. Where we identify other barriers holding building societies back, we have acted to remove them. For example, one of the first pieces of legislation that I brought forward as Economic Secretary was to enable building societies to join central clearing houses.
I know how vital credit unions are for the people and communities they serve, and I am pleased to see the strength of support across the House today. Building up savings with a credit union, or having the opportunity to take out a reasonably priced loan, is one way that we can prevent people from having to turn to high-cost credit or loan sharks. The Government have acted to support credit unions by legislating to increase the common bond from 2 million to 3 million potential members and raising the cap on the interest rate credit unions can charge from 2% to 3%.
The hon. Member for Harrow West asked about insurance mediation and the provision of hire purchase, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford referred to the impact of regulation on credit unions. ABCUL, the largest credit union trade body, is currently carrying out a sector-wide consultation on the future of credit unions and will complete its work in September. The consultation will consider the legislative framework and opportunities for further change. I will consider the outcome of that consultation with interest. I visited ABCUL’s conference in March and have had an active dialogue with the organisation while in office. The co-ordination of its requests has been somewhat fragmented over multiple trade organisations, but it has been helpful in conducting the consultation, and I look forward to taking things forward.
In last year’s Budget, we announced an affordable credit package to support social and community lenders. The package included a £2 million affordable credit challenge fund designed to generate innovative FinTech solutions to address challenges faced by social and community lenders, including credit unions, as they try to match the broader innovations in financial services. It also included a measure to make it easier for registered social landlords to refer tenants to credit unions, and a two-year pilot of a new prize-linked savings scheme offered through credit unions. The package is designed to support the credit union sector through increased membership, awareness and deposits, as well as encouraging participants to build up savings to help them cope with financial shocks. We used examples from other jurisdictions —the US in this case—to inform that policy.
I am pleased to announce today that we have selected 15 credit unions from across Great Britain to take part in the prize-linked savings pilot. They are East Sussex, Lewisham Plus, London Capital, Clockwise in Leicester, Nottingham, 1st Alliance, Merthyr Tydfil Borough, Riverside in Liverpool, South Manchester, Central Liverpool, Bradford District, Westcountry in Portishead, Commsave, Police, and Plane Savers. I congratulate the successful credit unions and look forward to seeing the pilot up and running as quickly as possible.
I am sure that I must have missed it—I hope I have—but did the Minister mention whether Northern Ireland is in the pilot scheme?
I did not mention Northern Ireland in that list, but Northern Ireland obviously has a strong tradition in this area. There was a competitive process, and I would be happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman about a specific credit union.
Members from across the House have spoken of the benefits of the co-operative model and its potential to improve our public services and strengthen our communities. This Government has a strong track record of support for co-operatives. We passed the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014 to reduce legal complexity for co-operative and community benefit societies. My hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe spoke about the apparent inadequacy of that legislation, but we have introduced a range of legislative measures in addition to the consolidation Bill since 2014, including making it easier to register digitally as a co-operative.
We have also reduced red tape by equalising the audit treatment between small co-operatives and small companies. I am pleased that the Financial Conduct Authority, which runs the UK mutuals register, recently made several practical changes to support mutuals, including simplifying the forms, creating an online portal and removing the fees to access documents. Members also raised the challenges that co-operatives face when raising capital. We recognise that that can be an issue, which is why in 2014 we increased the amount of share capital that an individual member can put into a co-operative society from £20,000 to £100,000, and I am happy to consider further proposals. We have looked at some proposals before, but I am happy to re-examine them.
Some Members called for changes to social investment tax relief, which is designed to incentivise investment in social enterprises that are constituted to provide a social or community benefit. Community benefit societies, a form of mutual, may therefore be eligible, as their purpose is to benefit the wider community. Although other forms of co-operatives and mutuals may have a wider community benefit, it is not central or essential, and their primary purpose is to benefit their members.
The Government are currently conducting a comprehensive review of social investment tax relief to better understand what impact it has had on access to finance for social enterprises. The public call for evidence is currently open, and it closes on
I recently met representatives from across the mutual sector at a session hosted by Co-operatives UK and Nationwide. We discussed some of the opportunities and challenges facing mutuals, many of which have been raised by Members today. Following the session, Treasury officials will host a mutuals workshop with Co-operatives UK in July to investigate in more detail some of the barriers faced by mutuals. This will be a good opportunity to explore how the sector and the Government can work more closely together and, importantly, how mutuals can build closer links across the sector.
The latest estimates show that public service mutuals in healthcare and other sectors are delivering more than £2 billion-worth of services across England. They are driving innovation, too, with two thirds saying that they have created new products or services over the past year. Over the last three years, the Office for Civil Society has been delivering a £3.5 million programme to help new mutuals to emerge and existing ones to thrive. It has run several roundtables to create a proposal on the future definition of public service mutuals, which is planned for launch this summer.
I thank all Members for their contributions today and for their ongoing support for the co-operative and mutual sector. I am pleased to see that the sector continues to thrive, from the building societies that can trace their origins back hundreds of years to the newest entrants to the market. I recently met the executive director of South West Mutual, who is from Plymouth and is working with the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce to develop proposals for regional co-operative banks across the UK.
The demand for a new form of co-operative finance is a good sign, and the public appetite for co-operative and mutual services remains strong. This Government will continue to be a strong supporter of the mutual sector. Like hon. Members present today, I will continue to advocate for the sector’s considerable contribution to ensuring that our economy serves the needs of everyone in society.
I am grateful for the opportunity to wind up this debate and, in particular, to thank the Minister for three specific things. First, the winners of the additional funding to offer new credit union services will be delighted by his support for their work. I also welcome his interest in further proposals for the legislative reform of credit unions to help them expand, as well as his willingness to look again at finding a solution to help co-operatives and mutuals to raise new share capital.
Nobody would suggest that Mr Baker and I constitute any sort of dream team, but I am genuinely grateful for his support in making this debate happen. He, my hon. Friend Mr Sheerman and the hon. Members for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and for Motherwell and Wishaw (Marion Fellows) rightly talked about how the philosophy of co-operation could help to address the loss of faith in markets and politics, as well as re-energising employees, exciting customers and helping to rebuild or build the social fabric of our country, which we all know is under pressure.
My hon. Friend Mr Bailey rightly alluded to the considerably greater contribution made by co-ops and mutuals in America and Germany, and he also began to explore, as others did, the barriers in the UK to enabling the sector here to be as big and widespread.
My hon. Friend Gareth Snell rightly praised the Co-operative Group’s leadership on modern slavery, on preventing retail crime and on addressing the hunger in too many of our communities. It is good to hear the hon. Members for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) talk about the contribution of co-ops and mutuals in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I say in passing that I hope both Members and, indeed, the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw are able to support my plan to turn RBS into a mutual.
My south-west Co-operative party allies, my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and for Stroud (Dr Drew), along with my hon. Friend Jim McMahon, highlighted the huge potential of energy, agricultural and food co-ops.
Lastly, I welcome the contribution of my hon. Friend Anna Turley, who I have no doubt will be a star as chair of the Co-operative party in pushing a co-op development agency. Time prevents me from referencing the huge contribution of my hon. Friend Jonathan Reynolds, who is a current star of the co-op movement.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
welcomes the contribution of co-operative and mutual businesses to the UK economy;
notes that they provide substantial jobs in Britain, generate significant tax revenues and involve consumers and employees in decision making;
and calls on the Government to review what further steps it can take to help grow that sector.