Ursula Lidbetter: The road to governance reform at the Co-operative Group

The Co-operative Group’s special general meeting was a momentous day when our members united with one voice to support the need for fundamental reform of our governance. The...

The Co-operative Group’s special general meeting was a momentous day when our members united with one voice to support the need for fundamental reform of our governance.

The mistakes of the past have been well documented, and pointed very clearly to the need to strengthen our senior management and board.

I am in no doubt that our destiny is in our own hands and that we can set our society firmly on the road to long-term recovery. We have committed ourselves to a programme of renewal that reinforces and refreshes co-operation and democracy in a way that also ensures professional oversight of a large and complex business with a £10bn turnover, 90,000 colleagues and more than 4,500 trading outlets.

Ursula Lidbetter
Ursula Lidbetter

With the unanimous support of our members on the principles of reform, we are now planning the way forward. It is clear to me that there is a great deal the vast majority of us already agree upon.

We all agree that our reforms must ensure our co-operative model and our democratic accountability are safe and secure. We all want to see Group board directors with the right skills to ask the right questions, make the right decisions and hold our management to account, who have the experience to give them wise guidance and support.

At the end of May, the Group board agreed a timetable for reform. Building on the good work from the regional board conference held the day after the SGM, the timetable is ambitious – but realistic – and allows the Group to maintain the current momentum of change. It is important that we are able to demonstrate progress on governance reform to a wide range of stakeholders, including our bank lenders, pension trustees and regulators. We’ve already started to make some significant progress in the last month.

Until the end of July, the board’s focus will be on co-creating the new governance framework through engagement and consultation with area committees, regional boards and independent societies.

The board plans to issue new draft society rules in mid-August for approval at a special general meeting to be held in early September. While September seems ambitious, we need to be conscious that, to the outside world, this will still be well over a year after the crisis emerged at our Bank. It is currently anticipated that the new rules, subject to regulatory registration, will take effect as soon as possible after approval, with transitional arrangements in place where needed.

We’re delighted that Ian Snaith, well known to co-operators as an academic and commentator on co-operative governance, has agreed to bring his expertise to the table. We are absolutely committed to making sure we are moving the debate forward together so the board can produce a balanced, effective and co-operative structure that has widespread support.

The development of the framework for our future board and council is crucial. Work on this is now under way and we are already getting rich and insightful input from our regional boards, along with ideas about membership engagement across the UK. We are also continuing to work with our colleagues in the independent societies to ensure we are moving forward with our plans to strengthen the federal role of the Co-operative Group.

There is a lot to consider, from how we digitise our membership and make our democracy relevant and exciting to our members, to how the relationship between the board and the council will work in practice – and how to strengthen the framework of the Co-operative Retail Trading Group (our movement-wide food-buying operation) so it delivers for both the Group and the independent co-operative societies.

It’s an exciting time for our society and getting governance right will give us a strong platform and pave the way to our future success.

  • Is there anything you would like to ask Ursula Lidbetter about the Group’s governance reforms? Send us your questions by 30 June 2014 and she will answer them in the 15 July issue of Co-operative News.
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