Policy Blog #7 is a whistle stop round-up of four recent developments. We demonstrate that it is possible to make progress for co-ops in Westminster, Brexit or not, whichever party is in power (told you we wouldn’t give up on the place just yet). Meanwhile we’re learning the limits of the Scottish Government’s willingness to embrace co-ops.
If we want the co-op option to be more accessible and mainstream, we need incorporation as a society to be simpler, faster, cheaper, less cumbersome and more responsive to the needs of cutting edge co-operation.
UK government agrees to review regulation of societies
More than a year of lobbying in Whitehall about problems with the co-op policy environment may be starting to pay off. Thanks in no small part to valuable relationships we've built in the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), government announced in June that it will explore non-legislative ways to enhance ‘regulatory clarity’ for co-operative and community benefit societies, while keeping under review the possibility of legislative options in future.
If we want the co-op option to be more accessible and mainstream, we need incorporation as a society to be simpler, faster, cheaper, less cumbersome and more responsive to the needs of cutting edge co-operation. Among other things, this requires better official information and advice on co-op options, significant reform of society law through primary legislation and investment in a fully digitised and fully integrated registry service. For a quick overview of all this, read our new briefing on ‘Policy support for co-operative start-ups’.
Government’s choice of wording - “explore ways in which greater regularity clarity might be achieved” - is open ended, which is both good and bad. Regulatory ‘clarity’ is one of a number of issues we would like to see resolved. But many of the problems here are caused by silent, vague or dysfunctional statute. And we are concerned as much with service provision as with policy. For example, while someone can register a standard ‘off-the-shelf’ company simply in 24 hours for just £12, the process for registering a society is much less straightforward, takes longer and costs more. This is less about regulatory clarity and more about the illogical and dysfunctional institutional arrangements for societies. But significant changes here would also require primary legislation. This has formed the basis of our work with BEIS over the past year. While government has stopped short of addressing this issue specifically, we are confident that behind the scenes we’re at least gaining traction in the right places.
Face time with Prime Minister boosts co-op profile
Ever since the Prime Minister started talking about an inclusive economy in July 2016, we’ve complained about the lack of recognition her government gives to co-ops in that agenda. Social enterprise, charities, mission-led business - yes. Co-ops, not so much. Our participation in a round table hosted by Theresa May in Number 10 last month looks to have broken that trend, for now at least.
We got our three minutes to speak directly to the PM about co-ops, loosely in the context of a discussion on social value in procurement. And it looks like our being at that table left an imprint, if not with the PM herself then at least with the advisers sitting behind her. For in a subsequent speech on procurement Cabinet Minister David Lidington made specific mention of co-ops. While this is little more than a stylistic tweak in government’s comms, a more substantial review of the Social Value Act, which we expect to see announced in the imminent Civil Society Strategy, could contain more meaningful opportunities to bring co-ops into the government’s inclusive economy agenda.
Scottish Government disappoints on platform co-ops
Earlier in the year we were buzzing about the potential for the Scottish Government to support the development of platform co-ops in Scotland, following a government-appointed panel’s recommendations to do just that, based on evidence we provided. Disappointingly the government has all but ignored one of the panel’s recommendations relating to platform co-ops for workers. That said, it has opened up a route to progress this further by requesting that the platform economy be given special consideration in the coming Fair Work Action Plan. We’ll seek to influence this.
More positively, Scottish Government has gone big on consumer and community platform-based collaboration, without mentioning co-ops or democratic ownership and control specifically. It has already launched a £172,000 fund via Nesta to get things going. And most impressively, it has decided to make a link between digital platforms, 'citizen-led innovation' and its plans for ‘next-generation Business Improvement Districts’. If we can get things to align properly, this could put platform co-ops into a policy agenda that initiates widespread community economic development.
How to double the co-op economy
Spurred on by Labour's manifesto pledge to 'double' the size of the co-op economy and John McDonnell's calls for the sector to come forward with proposals, the Co-operative Party hired the New Economics Foundation (NEF) to research and report on what a government would need to do. Co-operatives UK fed in ideas from our own policy paper on the matter and helped the researchers connect with other parts of the movement. The final report contains a number of big ticket policy recommendations which largely align with what we've separately submitted to John McDonnell's team.
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