Senior figures at Co-operatives UK heralded the organisation’s work in tackling the difficult issues facing the co-operative sector after a difficult year in 2013.
Secretary general Ed Mayo told the organisation’s annual general meeting that its role has been to ensure that the wider movement continued to work together and respond to the challenges faced by the Co-operative Group.
He said Co-operatives UK had focused on engaging with members while continuing to champion the co-operative sector. “Our role could even be cast of that of a silver lining because the clouds were pretty dark,” he said.
He told delegates the organisation has been doing the work of a goalkeeper, trying to save things, and that part of that was being in contact with the regulator and making sure regulation for co-ops was in hand.
“We’ve been consistent in putting together our message that the co-operative model is a different model,” he said.
One important achievement for Co-operatives UK has been protecting the term “co-operative”, he explained. The organisation has lobbied against government plans that would have allowed rogue companies to use the term “co-operative” or “mutual”, whatever their form of ownership.
One of the delegates, Martin Meteyard of Co-operative Business Consultants, expressed his concerns over the fact that entities that were not co-operatives in terms of organisation or ownership, such as the Co-operative Bank, were using the name “co-operative”.
Mr Mayo replied that Co-operatives UK was chasing down examples of bad practice, particularly among large commercial businesses, but that there was a need for a regulatory function that would enable this.
The organisation also lobbied the government for the introduction of new Co-operatives Bill into Parliament last December. The Bill will consolidate legislation and simplify 17 acts into one modern framework. This is expected to cut costs and give certainty to co-operative societies.
Asked what other legislative changes Co-operatives UK would like, head of legal services Helen Barber said that although the consolidation act had updated co-operative legislation from 1956 to current day, a lot more needed to be done.
“Some of the legislation is limited,” she said, adding that Co-operatives UK wanted to make legislation accessible to all types of co-operatives, including sectors such as housing.
Mr Mayo said another measure championed by Co-operatives UK and adopted by the government was raising the limit five-fold on how much members can invest in a co-operative society, from £20,000 to £100,000. This will be benefiting the sector by a minimum of £13m.
Last year, community energy projects were given boost in the Energy Bill tabled by the government, and projects between 5MW and 10MW will be able to fund their schemes through fixed feed-in-tariffs. The Community Energy Coalition, which includes Co-operatives UK, welcomed the amendment.
Co-operatives UK has also persuaded the government to ensure that co-operatives are given, at no extra costs, the same protection as companies in relation to pensions, when businesses fail.
This came about as a result of the new insolvency procedure open to co-operatives and community benefit societies, which can now enter administration rather than being wound up, which is a prerequisite for pay-out by the Pension Protection Scheme. Not being covered by the scheme was one example of the often unintended consequences of IPS legislation being marginalised.
“We argued that co-ops are companies – this was overlooked when pension protection rules were passed. We exposed the fact that our members were putting millions of pounds each day into protection funds but did not have the guarantee should they failed – this was a loophole that needed to be changed and was changed,” said Mr Mayo.
He added that Co-operatives UK had achieved twice the level of positive coverage in the media, with a record audience reached in August last year.
To assess their work, Co-operatives UK commissioned an independent evaluation, which was conducted by Centre for Brand Analysis. The evaluation concluded that Co-ops UK was an “essential unifier of the co-operative movement, pivotal in the future success of co-operatives”, said Mr Mayo.
Delegates also approved the annual accounts, which show that Co-operatives UK ended the year ended 2013 with a small surplus £4,500. Presenting the financial statement and annual report, Phil Holmes, head of finance and shared services, revealed that the organisation has also been faced with a reduction of over £65,000 in subscription income. The organisation had an income of £2,733,399 while its expenditure reached £2,758,202.
Throughout 2013 Co-operatives UK has helped to register 192 and provided advice to 359 co-operative and mutual enterprises.