Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies (Environmentally Sustainable Investment) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:31 pm on 11th September 2020.

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Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington 12:31 pm, 11th September 2020

It is a pleasure to follow my neighbour and dear friend, my hon. Friend Paul Howell.

I am grateful to be given the chance to speak in this debate. I share the passion of Anna McMorrin and her commitment to ensuring that our green development is beneficial to our society, communities and constituents. Redeemable green shares to external investors are certainly an interesting prospect. In principle, I share the hon. Lady’s desire to support the mutual sector in the development of new green finance initiatives.

However, I remain unpersuaded about the merits of redeemable shares, and I am concerned that this Bill could open up risks for consumer protection and the integrity of the co-operative model. As we have heard from many on the Conservative Benches, green bonds have a tried and tested track record, and I pay tribute to the excellent insight provided my hon. Friend Gareth Davies. I cannot in good conscience support a Bill that risks undermining the phenomenal work that co-operatives and mutuals do in my constituency and in the north-east.

I want to reassure the House that I support the work of the co-operatives, which have a strong track record on delivering across the UK. I understand the all-party parliamentary group on mutuals has found that they generate over £130 billion of income each year, supporting community-owned pubs, high street retail and fan-owned football clubs, which is a truly phenomenal achievement.

If you will allow me, Mr Deputy Speaker, I will first focus on the financial aspects of the Bill, before moving on to its environmental concerns. It is wholly necessary for companies and co-operatives to have access to capital and credit as the lifeblood of their entity, but green bonds would provide a much better model. In my constituency of Darlington, many co-operatives are run on a mutual ethos that in part came through the town’s Quaker heritage. From the Harrogate Club in the north to the Hummersknott Allotment Association in the south, the benefits of local co-operatives are clear locally.

Recently, I have engaged with many of my constituents from Darlington FC supporters’ group, who have lobbied me on behalf of their much-loved fan-owned mutual club. I am glad that in that case I was able to work constructively on their behalf with the National League to assist the club with the uncertainty ahead of the new season, and I wish them well for this Saturday’s friendly away game in Scarborough.

Across the north-east, clubs and pubs remain at the heart of communities. With the unprecedented challenges the hospitality sector has faced over the past few months, I am all too aware that co-operative clubs in Darlington need support now more than ever. The phenomenal eat out to help out scheme and the unprecedented level of government support have allowed many of these clubs and pubs in Darlington to bounce back from the impact of the lockdown. It is vital that the Government do not take drastic action at this point that risks undermining the position of these clubs at the heart of my Darlington community.

I am concerned that, if the Bill were to pass, businesses in the mutual sector might unwittingly enter into a situation where they are exploited as investment businesses. Beyond this, many co-operatives might be lured into exploitative schemes where they are put at great risk because of the ethical implications attached to these complex shares. I am aware that the Bill intends to include safeguards to prevent such issues by amending the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014; by introducing limits on the voting rights of investors in the event of liquidation; by limiting the ability to vote for demutualisation; and by enabling societies to remove the right to vote for conversion into a company. While I acknowledge these safeguards, introduced following the hon. Lady’s work with Co-operatives UK, I believe that the risk remains too high.

I am confident that the Government have already provided a firm, pragmatic approach to tackling climate change while protecting businesses, jobs and communities, as outlined in the Government’s green finance strategy 2019. In my short time in Parliament, I have had the privilege to support this Government as they have taken steps to support sustainable, community-led green economic growth, including by granting greater power to local authorities in this matter.