Social Liberals examine the role of mutuals in providing public services

A group of Liberal Democrats that believe in social-liberal ideas dedicated part of its annual conference to co-operatives.

A group of Liberal Democrats that support social-liberal ideas dedicated part of its annual conference to co-operatives.

The Social Liberal Forum in Manchester was headlined by Business Secretary Vince Cable who said he is "a strong believer in mutuality and the co-operative movement". He talked about the current state of the British economy and outlined the differences between his party and the Conservatives. Later, he discussed how challenges at the Co-operative Bank are a step-back for co-operatives, but that he belives mutuals have a strong role to play in the financial economy.

He said: “I do believe that what we need in this country is a much more varied system of banking – is currently dominated by a handful of banks. That’s a very unhealthy system they completely monopolise business lending.

“I do welcome new banks, I welcome mutuals; building societies have a key role to play; I hope the Co-op Bank is quickly restored to health so it can get back into the market, particularly for business lending.”

In continuing the debate of mutuality playing a role in the British economy, delegates looked at the mutualisation of public services.

Clare Oakley, General Manager for Public Service Mutuals at the Co-operative Group, talked about the mutual support services programme provided by the Group. She was joined by Norman Lamb, Minister of State Care and Support, who described mutuals as a viable alternative for public services.

In opening the debate, Ms Oakley said: “We — as a co-operative — feel that if you should replace public services, mutuals are a really good option."

“What mutual and co-operative models provide for people is an opportunity for that person to have a greater say, to vote, be elected to group board and to give strategic directions to the organisations,” said Ms Oakley.

The Group's Public Services Mutuals initiative is designed to ensure those businesses that want to develop into a mutual are given the best governance structures and support. Though, Ms Oakley said there is still the risk of being associated with organisations that are called mutuals, but that are not mutuals because they do not follow through with their mutual objectives.

"With mutuals spread across various sectors, it would be beneficial to have some agreed criteria on what a mutual is, making it easier to distinguish real mutuals from false ones," said Ms Oakley.

Through its support programme, the Group enables people to find out more about mutual and to receive advice. “There are positive things that the government are doing in making sure that these organisations have strong plans. But engagement with stakeholders isn’t part of that process. When we lead a project the people there fully understand all the in-depth of the business,” said Ms Oakley.

She said the current government is focused on promoting employee ownership, but there is an argument of also including service users in that structure. 

Minister of State Care and Support, Norman Lamb said he was a keen supporter of the concept of mutualism, adding that he would like to see mutual principles applied to the NHS.

“The funding of public services becomes more difficult, not easier. I want us as a party to engage in that debate, to be radical and to think about liberal principles about how we empower those people to give a better service,” said the Minister.

He argued it was necessary to leave behind the paternalistic, “the state knows better” approach and let people give their best by getting involved. "The evidence shows that where you give people a sense of control and responsibility and stake in the organisation you get a more content workforce," he said.

Mr Lamb also encouraged liberal councils to do something different and show how services can be delivered at better value.

As the former Employment Minister, Norman Lamb was also responsible for commissioning the Nuttall Review of Employee Ownership. The review was aimed at highlighting the opportunities and identifying the main barriers to employee ownership.

“I’m always frustrated that things haven’t changed enough,” he said, explaining that the Nuttall Review had managed to come up with some practical ideas of how to facilitate employee ownership. Although employee ownership is now on the government’s agenda, there are more barriers that need to be removed to facilitate the growth of the model, added Mr Lamb.

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