Co-op Group and Waitrose respond to critics over Covid rate relief repayment

The retailer says it is will make its decision on the matter at the year end

The Co-op Group and employee-owned Waitrose have been criticised over the issue of business rates relief granted by the government during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sainsbury’s, Asda, Aldi, B&M, Tesco and Morrisons are among retailers which have agreed to pay business rates. The government had granted relief on these to help businesses struggling with the impact of the pandemic but many retailers which had remained open to sell essentials such as food have enjoyed healthy trade.

Critics in the press took aim at the Co-op Group and Waitrose claiming their failure to follow suit have compromised their ethical credentials, including an opinion piece in The Times which took a swipe at their ‘egalitarian ownership models’ and accused them of a ‘protest against decency’.

“If you place yourself atop the lofty perch of moral superiority, then the least you can do is occasionally live up to your claims,” it said.

Waitrose – taking a similar line to M&S which has also not paid the rate – said the crisis had hit its wider non-grocery business: Waitrose is part of the John Lewis Partnership whose chain of department stores has been closed during lockdown.

A spokesman for Waitrose said: “We are incredibly grateful for this vital support because we have lost significant sales while our John Lewis shops have been closed, and have invested heavily to keep our partners and customers safe. We’re a business owned by our employees – our partners, not external shareholders – and we don’t intend to pay a bonus this year. Whenever we make any money, it is invested in our partners, our business and charitable giving.”

Meanwhile the Co-op Group insisted that it is not refusing to pay the rates. It says it is “simply re-iterating the point we made at half year that we will consider the position around government support at year-end and that remains the case”. 

A spokesperson said: “The Co-op response to helping to feed and care for the nation during Covid has been outstanding, and we are immensely proud of what our colleagues have achieved. We’ve clearly put the interests of people before profits and the extra costs for keeping our colleagues and customers safe have far outweighed the government support we’ve received.  

“Given the huge uncertainty we’re facing into still and the ongoing costs we are incurring, we’ll consider our approach in terms of the government support we’ve received at year-end.”

Members have debated the issue on the Facebook Co-op Members page, with opinion divided on the matter; some members have said repayment is ‘the right thing to do’ while others say the co-op model makes the Group different because shareholders are not benefiting from rate relief.

But the Group has reiterated four points on its position to Co-op News. It said: “We understood the situation that was taking place and re-iterated that our Board and Exec will consider carefully our position, but this was different and nuanced to others.

“Our Co-op has clearly delivered throughout Covid in terms of helping to feed the nation through our great food business across thousands of local communities, but also in terms of caring for nation through our equally great funeral business – the market leader which has incurred additional significant costs as a result of Covid requirements    

“The decision the Co-op takes will be the right one in terms of reflecting the interests of our stakeholders ie members, customers, colleagues and communities.

“At the same time we’ve not – because we are a Co-op – paid any dividends to institutional investors but instead supported our key Co-op stakeholders affected by this crisis, ie our colleagues, our Co-op schools and the wider community causes who’ve badly needed our help.”

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