Co-operatives UK has welcomed a new Bill that has passed through its final stage in the Northern Ireland Assembly, with Royal Assent due at the end of April.
The Credit Unions, Co-operatives and Community Benefit Societies Bill includes a series of updates around investment and accounting that will help put co-operatives on a more equal footing with other forms of business. The Bill also gives credit unions in Northern Ireland freedom to provide new products and services, including opening membership to corporate bodies.
Co-operatives UK, the network for the UK’s thousands of co-operatives, has worked with members of the Northern Ireland Assembly to help get the Bill through. The trade body's Secretary General Ed Mayo said: “The reforms in this Bill are very welcome.
"They cover crucial updates that will make it easier for people running co-operatives and credit unions in Northern Ireland. The sector turns over £1.1 billion a year in Northern Ireland, but has been hampered by archaic limits on investment and has been playing catch-up with company law in a few key areas. The reforms will make the legal form more user-friendly and provide new opportunities for innovation and growth.
“There is, as always, more to do, such as insolvency provisions and measures to ensure society law is maintained on an equal footing with company law. But there is no doubt that this will prove a welcome boost to an already thriving co-operative sector.”
Co-operatives UK lobbied for these reforms over many years and in the last six months has kept a keen eye on the progress of the Bill to ensure it includes appropriate measures.
The reforms will make the legal form more user-friendly and provide new opportunities for innovation and growth. Ed Mayo, Co-operatives UK
A briefing document alongside correspondence with the Northern Ireland Assembly and Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment have assured legislators this Bill has support among co-operatives while also securing ministerial recognition of the need for continued government action in this area.
Speaking after the debate in Stormont, Jonathan Bell, the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, said: "The sectors benefiting from these reforms play a key role in the Northern Ireland economy. Credit unions provide vital financial services to communities across Northern Ireland, and some of our largest and most successful businesses are registered as industrial and provident societies. Both will see positive changes."
"Societies will also find it more straight forward to engage with younger people, and to choose their own year of account. The Bill will relax the rules on the number of shares members can hold, making it simpler for our societies to secure the investment they need."
"It is important credit unions and registered societies can carry on growing and work will continue to ensure both sectors operate within a legislative framework that supports this."
The Bill also includes reforms to allow credit unions to have organistions as members as well as individuals. Ed Mayo adds that this "reform has enormous potential, enabling credit unions to invest in co-operatives and the wider social economy. It offers another avenue for the growth of the sector.”