A TRIPLE tonic of retail society progress, legislative success and increased Government backing has put the UK Co-operative Movement back on the map, believes 2003 Congress President Gareth Thomas.
The Co-op Party chairman and MP for Harrow West said in his Presidential Address at the opening of Congress 2003 in Manchester that the last 12 months have been excellent for the Movement with several landmarks achieved.
`The Movement's share of the retail market rose for the first time in my generation; serious reform of co-operative law finally got through the Houses of Parliament and we now have a Government advocating the benefit of our values,` said Mr Thomas.
However the MP, at 35 the youngest Congress President ever, said the biggest challenge facing the Movement was the need to bring on future generations of committed co-operative leaders.
He said: `We need to find the young co-operators bold enough to challenge conventional thinking – not to see them as a threat but to welcome their innovation. We need to consider, as some societies have begun to do, how we can encourage women and those from ethnic minorities, in particular, to run for election and succeed.
`We need to find people with the right mix of technical competence and commitment to the co-operative purpose. We need a vision of a thriving democracy, where people feel able to influence their organisations.`
The President highlighted the commercial success of several retail societies over the past year and pointed out that recruiting members into a successful organisation is always easier than into a failing one.
He welcomed increased co-operation between co-operatives and cited the example of the new Co-operative Travel Trading Group as the type of initiative that can benefit both consumers and the Movement.
The President said he supported moves to bring all sections of the Movement closer together, declaring: `This offers the opportunity to develop new synergies between old and new forms of co-operation.
`Increasingly though, we're creeping back into view. Success in business has been the first significant cause of this, but increasingly too there is a growing sense that there is a real co-operative difference.
`We need to continue to develop the sense of the co-operative difference; to continue to prove that being socially and environmentally responsible is both good business and fundamental to our sense of mission, improving our reporting in these areas will be crucial to promoting that sense of difference.`
Mr Thomas also highlighted progress in the political arena saying: `Ever since I became active in the Co-op Party the desire for a new Co-ops Act has been a Holy Grail to be worshipped at, at each and every co-operative political seminar.
`I want to place on record my thanks to each and every society, and each and every author of a letter to their MP about the three Bills the Co-op Party has championed over the last 18 months.`
But he says there is still more to be done. `We need to be honest with ourselves. Modernising co-operative legislation so that we have a fair and level playing field with our competitors in the private sector is still not complete.`
According to Mr Thomas, the most pressing problem concerns the publication of interim accounts. `Currently, societies wishing to publish interim accounts must undertake a full audit (with associated costs). Companies can simply publish interim accounts and declare that they are un-audited. This is a major anomaly.
`Another problem is exemption from audit requirements for societies with a small turnover. Currently under £ 90,000 they are exempt from audit, between £ 90,000 and £ 350,000 they have to have an accountant's report short of a full audit and over £ 350,000 they need a full audit. Since 2000, companies under £ 1 million turnover can gain exemption from the costs of any audit or accountant's report.
`This is unfair and unnecessary. Today I am launching a new campaign to seek to change this.` He urged co-operators to write to their MPs and a suggested letter was distributed to delegates.
`It is not a coincidence that Government should be sympathetic to our legislation last year at the same time that social enterprise was being actively promoted by the Treasury and the Department of Trade and Industry as one key solution to the problem of social and financial exclusion,` he added.
`If we want further legislative progress to help our sector we need to recognise that we need to campaign for mutual solutions in other areas. We need to work with our friends and allies in the building and friendly society sector and to spread the examples of co-operation driving reform in other parts of our public services.`
`We have a role to play, an argument to make for mutuality to be part of the principles driving reform of our great public services. We are not advocating privatisation we are championing mutuality. We are not trying to shift public services towards a right wing minimalist public realm. Instead we are seeking to take the traditional Co-op Movement principles of democracy and co-operation and use them to put the public back into public ownership.`
`Now is the time to explore too how we recruit younger people to our Boards, improve the diversity and gender mix of our Directors. It is also time to renew our demand for legislative reform and to challenge the out of date and lazy thinking that co-operation has nothing to offer the great public service reform agenda government faces.`