Moving the mutuals discussion forward beyond the Open Public Services White Paper

By David Bicknell

Some strong words are being expressed about the ongoing development of mutuals and co-operatives by two commentators, Ed Mayo of Co-operatives UK and Craig Dearden-Philips.

Mayo’s article highlights the Foster Care Co-operative, an independent and ethical ‘not-for-private-profit’ fostering agency, based in Malvern, Worcestershire, with three regional offices, Greenwich Leisure Limited is one of London’s most successful mutual enterprises, operating more than 90 public leisure centres in the South East and West Whitlawburn Housing Co-operative is a fully mutual housing co-operative in the south east area of Glasgow which provides, manages and maintains quality affordable housing as examples of what people, working together can achieve.

But he warned, there will be challenges for public sector workers setting up new co-operatives.  “We need to ensure that we can provide real help which will guarantee that they are supported through this process, if indeed that’s what they want to do. Any new co-operatives formed need to enshrine the co-operative values and mustn’t be allowed to be ‘fake mutuals’.”

“Co-operatives can only succeed – and in the public sector success is essential – if they are independent enterprises, controlled by their members – staff and users. ”

In his article, Dearden-Philips says this, “What it (the Open Public Services White Paper) does for spin-outs can be more clearly expressed by stating what it dodges. In short, the three ‘P’s. Procurement, Pensions and People. It doesn’t tell public bodies that they can give spin-outs contracts and enjoy support from the centre in doing this. It doesn’t clear the mud about pension-rights for staff joining a spin-out or going back into the public sector afterwards. It doesn’t allow give clear rights to people who want to do this the entitlement to do it, assuming the business-case is there. Compared to the Academies Bill, which made all of the above very clear – with mass spinning out as a result – this White Paper was lightweight.

“All is not gloom. The Government’s own Mutual Support Programme opens in the Autumn and there are signs that the Department of Health’s successful Social Enterprise Investment Fund (SEIF) will also reopen for business soon. Conferences are aplenty, and some have more than just consultants in attendance, notably the Employee Ownership Association’s excellent event this month.

“Further to this, there are also signs that local authorities in particular are rising from the canvas following the knockout blow from this current year’s financial settlement. While a punishing in-year programme has needed to be put in place, absorbing all energy to date, councils are now eyeing the horizon and looking more strategically at the question of how they deal with greater demand and fewer resources long-term.

“The answer many are coming up with is that you can only really deliver more and better public services through a more fulsome engagement with citizens and communities. The public service cake used to be just made of one ingredient: public money. In future, the cake will be more complex, combining public funds, private funds, citizen effort and community endevour. The tailored, equitable services we all want will only come with all of these extra element ‘baked-in’.

“The questions most councils up and down are now grappling with is how to do this. Legacy services are expensive and ineffective but often politically incendiary because of what they represent. Public libraries are an example. The potential for libraries as community-hubs is well-documented but you need to convince people of the need for a new type of settlement for these kinds of institutions to work properly. This includes volunteers on top of paid staff, fundraising on top of public funding, paid for services on top of free ones, a business outlook on top of a social one.

“Where I am driving here is that I think the solution to the big question councils are grappling with lies in social enterprise. This defines social enterprise not in the frame of the public-private continuum, but as an entirely new approach to producing the public goods that most of us wish to see in our communities. For this reason, we should see their development as outside the usual EU procurement mindset that preoccupies most commissioners of services. Local authorities should be freed up from worrying about that and worry instead about how they are going to best combine their own resources with those of communities and citizens. ”

Meanwhile, there are more details here about a potential new source of funding for social enterprise

Mutualisation Briefing

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