She said: “I’m proud to be a member of the Co-operative Party and have always thought of myself as a co-operator. So it was a dream come true to be handed the opportunity on a plate to do something about it.
“This is a sector that has, for me, always stood out and not just because of its long history, but also because mutuals have some unique qualities.
“Without shareholders, the benefits of efficiency and innovation can be passed directly to members — and mutuals’ financial products are consistently in the ‘best buy’ tables.”
Ms Ussher, Labour MP for Burnley, said that the mutuals’ values of honesty and social responsibility mean that they inspire a sense of trust and loyalty.
They also create a sense of community and helped prove that social justice and economic efficiency can go hand in hand.
“Of course, co-operatives represent a major part of the mutual sector and make a major contribution to our economy and to our society.
“There are now over 4,300 co-ops in the UK, owned by 11 million people — one in five of the British population,” she said.
“This is a sector that is doing a huge amount of good and making a huge difference — but there’s even more potential to be unleashed and that co-ops can achieve even more if they’re given the chance.
“My vision is of a thriving, dynamic mutual sector existing alongside and providing a real alternative to traditional forms of company ownership.”
Ms Ussher said that, over the last ten years, the Government had tried to help by removing artificial restrictions and by trying to create a level playing field, though it had become clear that legislation needed to be updated as part of this process.
Following on from the launch of the Treasury’s review by Labour/Co-op MP Ed Balls a year ago, a document was published in December which set out some options in more detail.
Added Ms Ussher: “The aim has always been clear: to free co-operatives and credit unions from the outdated, overly restrictive legislative framework that they’ve suffered from for too long and to liberate them to compete fairly and effectively with companies.
“Much of what we need to achieve can be done by a so-called Legislative Reform Order. These Orders can be used to remove legislative burdens and, because they can amend primary legislation, they are capable of achieving large-scale reforms.
“And, combined with other secondary legislation that we plan to bring forward, we think that we will be able to address around three-quarters of the issues the Movement identified as being important to allow the sector to flourish.
“The remainder can be packaged into a relatively small Bill that can either be ready to go when parliamentary time allows, or be added into a wider piece of legislation, if an appropriate vehicle can be found.”
Ms Ussher told delegates that the legislation needed to achieve three things:
• To enable the sector to grow in economic terms
• To help increase efficiency and competitiveness by removing red tape
• To level the playing field with companies, so that the choice of different forms is driven by principle, not by regulation.
The Minister said there would be consultation on the legislative reform order in the next few weeks with a view to introduction early next year.
She concluded: “By this time next year, the vast bulk of what you have told us we need to do will either be law or be about to be law. I hope you feel this is progress. We in government can say without hesitation that we want to empower your sector and see it grow.
“We are committed to freeing the mutual sector from some of the frankly nonsensical, outdated restrictions that you face and we can do that. We want to give you the chance to compete more fairly and freely with companies so that common ownership becomes a genuine alternative to the company form, which has been one of my main objectives over the past year.”