My Lords, it is a pleasure to open the debate on the Bill. This is a consolidation Bill which brings together and modernises the law relating to co-operatives and community benefit societies, and other societies registered or treated as registered under the Industrial and Provident Societies Act 1965, with amendments to give effect to recommendations of the Law Commission and the Scottish Law Commission.
As a consolidation Bill, the Bill aims to remove ambiguities but does not seek to introduce any new policy or make substantial changes to law. It is still, however, an important step in reducing legal complexity for new and existing societies. In January 2012, the Prime Minister announced that, in support of the co-operative movement, the legislation dealing with co-operatives and other mutual societies would be consolidated into one co-operatives Bill. This Bill represents the Government’s delivery of that commitment.
The industrial and provident society sector forms a major part of the mutuals landscape, with a diverse mix of over 7,000 independent societies in the UK. Given their clear importance to the diversity and strength of the UK economy, the Government are keen to continue their support for the sector. This consolidation Bill is one element of the key reforms we are making to help ensure that industrial and provident societies are well placed to play a central role in the UK economy for years to come.
As part of the Government’s continued efforts to simplify and modernise legislation, the Law Commissions made a number of recommendations for modifications which have been incorporated into the Bill. For example, the language regarding the conditions for registration as a community benefit society has proved problematic. The Bill now clarifies this position and provides that a society may be registered as a community benefit society only if it is shown to the Financial Conduct Authority’s satisfaction that the society’s business is being, or is intended to be, conducted for the benefit of the community.
The Law Commissions also identified areas where some of the language used in the legislation was unnecessarily complicated. For example, there is no reason to distinguish between documents in electronic format and those in other forms. The approach has been harmonised in the Bill, with relevant sections applying to all of a society’s business correspondence and other business documentation in any form. The Bill has been warmly welcomed by sector trade bodies, particularly Co-operatives UK.
In addition to the consolidation Bill, we are taking further steps to modernise industrial and provident society legislation by commencing various sections of the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies and Credit Unions Act 2010. The Government are also introducing a package of measures in support of co-operative societies through secondary legislation, and the consolidation Bill takes account of these measures. These are due to come into force in August 2014 and are: first, increasing the cap on the amount of withdrawable share capital that an individual can put into a society, which will increase from £20,000 to £100,000; secondly, allowing for troubled societies to enter insolvency rescue proceedings; thirdly, giving the FCA additional powers to investigate societies; and, fourthly, making electronic submission of registration documents simpler.
Following a public consultation earlier last year, all of these measures have been warmly welcomed by sector representatives. Co-operatives UK, the main industry trade body, has welcomed the changes, saying that:
“The appetite and commitment to do business the co-operative way has not waned”,
and that this is,
“a massive vote of confidence in the strength of the co-operative sector and recognises the movement’s ambitions for growth and development”.
This is a useful and overdue Bill.