Welsh Commission on Co-operatives & Mutuals Report

It’s amazing how things happen by chance. I’d organised an event on behalf of Co-operatives and Mutuals Wales at the Customs House on June 28th 2012, which finished with a panel discussion. Someone (sorry, I can’t remember who) asked the question from the floor, “Why don’t we have a commission in Wales to look at what co-operatives and mutuals can do in Wales?”

28.06.11Wales Co-opeative....Yours to Share Conference, Pierhead, Cardiff Bay

The panel, Dr Molly Scott Cato, Professor of Strategy and Sustainability at the University of Roehampton, Derek Walker, Chief Executive of Wales Co-operative Centre, Ed Mayo, Secretary General of Co-operatives UK and myself were enthusiastic. Derek answered that he was seeing Edwina Hart AM, the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, the following week and he’d pass the idea on. Well, the idea was put to the Minister who took it on-board and almost immediately made a public pronouncement to that effect. She recruited Professor Andrew Davies, the previous Minister, to chair the Commission and chose a group of commissioners from within the co-operative movement and outside it. These included Dame Pauline Green, the President of the ICA, the world governing body, Robin Murray from the LSE, Nick Bennett, Chief Executive of Community Housing Cymru, David Jenkins, Chair of the Wales Co-operative Centre and Molly Scott Cato. An advisory body was also set up which included Derek Walker and myself, so 3 of the original panellists were serving the Commission in some form!

Co-operative movement outsiders included Sir Paul Williams, former Chief Executive of NHS Wales, Dr Ben Reynolds and Andrew himself. They took evidence from almost 100 individuals and organisations in person and in writing, so the report, which was written up by Victoria Winkler of the Bevan Foundation, reflects a balanced view from a wide-ranging group of commissioners.

So what did they conclude? Well firstly their main conclusion deserves some stating:-

“The Commission concluded that conventional approaches to economic growth and development are not sufficient alone to achieve the improvement in the social and economic wellbeing of the people of Wales. Co-operatives and mutuals offer significant economic social and environmental benefits compared to ordinary businesses. Their development must be central to transforming Wales’ economic fortunes.”

The Minister has already accepted the Report’s conclusions, so this represents a significant shift in economic and social policy, and points Wales to becoming the world’s first co-operative country.

What’s relevant to us? Well in addition to the requirements in the Social Services and Well-being Bill to promote social enterprises, co-operatives, user led services and the third sector, the Commission report says something similar:-

“The Commission is pleased that the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Bill seeks to promote co-operative delivery models, which should be a further catalyst for growth.

“The Commission considers that there is a compelling case for a greater role for social care co-operatives because of the added value they can bring to social care services, including:

  • High-quality services that are based on co-operative values and principles and not on private profit;
  • Services that are responsive to people’s needs, as they are citizen directed, giving a much stronger voice and greater control to service users and carers;
  • Greater contestability in a market dominated by large, private providers.

“There is the potential for co-operative day care, social care and community centres to take over community hospitals – possibly with support from the Registered Social Landlords (RSLs).”

They concluded (my emphasis):-

“Whilst co-operatives and mutuals can be grown across the economy, the Commission believes specific action needs to be taken to realise the potential in the sectors considered.

In looking at each sector, a number of common areas for action were identified. These included the need to raise awareness of the co-operative and mutual business model; the need for expertise in co-operative and mutual development as well as sector-specific expertise; access to finance especially for early-stage development; the role of procurement; the need for supportive policies and legislation, and last, but by no means least, the critical importance of leadership, governance and innovation.”

There is a clear need here to develop this sector specific expertise to ensure that any development and support organisations for co-operatives, mutuals or social enterprises in the field of social care and social services include expertise in social care as well as third sector business. There is a real role to play here, which if we’re not careful could fall into inappropriate but well-meaning hands. In my view there is no agency currently having the range of expertise required, so somehow this service needs to be provided.

Social Co-ops, as such organisations are increasingly being called, incorporate the user led values of social firms and co-production inside a legal form that ensures they remain democratic and not-for-profit. However, as with so many things he devil is in the detail. Knowledge and experience of social care services is needed to develop the appropriate values, and locking in these values to the governance needs an experienced practitioner who understands both the law and co-operative principles. There are many models from Italy, Japan and Canada, who have been pioneers in these fields, to learn from, and experience shows these not only improve outcomes for the users, but can also save valuable resources. However, mistakes have been made there as well, from which we also need to learn. In Italy many social co-ops have developed as worker co-ops, where service users are not part of the governance. This may be appropriate in some circumstances where service user input is difficult or inappropriate. Obvious examples are hospice care and severe learning disability services, but even there other stakeholders from family and community could be built into the governance system.

Read the full Report here Welsh Co-op Commission Report

Now is the time to develop an integrated and coherent range of services appropriate to the social care field so that the very best practice can be called on. Social care specialist advisors and co-operative business experts need to get together.

Alex Bird is an experienced business advisor and long-term co-operator, having been involved in advising and running all forms of co-operative for over 4 decades, as well as having run a social care charity. He is a member of the consultancy.coop and blogs at www.alex-bird.com

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