“You can’t just talk, like people have in the past, about wanting more mutuals and co-ops and hope somebody, somewhere gradually gropes towards making it happen. You really need to push it.”
That was the message from Cabinet Office minister, Francis Maude, last August as he launched the government’s Pathfinder scheme of (12) public sector mutuals. As Social Enterprise Coalition (SEC) chief executive, Peter Holbrook, hinted on this blog last week, there’s no area of activity where the social enterprise movement is more likely to find itself hoist by its own innovative petard than this.
While sceptics may have other suggestions about their motivations, taken at face value the current government’s enthusiasm for mutuals is based on an eminently sensible desire to enable the provision of more flexible, more responsive public services in a situation where there’s not much money to pay for them. So, while Jesse Norman MP, author of The Big Society, is an honourable exception, the current support for mutuals should not be regarded as a sign that most Conservative politicians have specifically decided that co-operative structures are a good thing in themselves.
That makes it interesting to read the views of those who do support mutual approaches as a matter of principle. One leading voice is Jonathan Bland, Holbrook’s predecessor as SEC Chief Executive and now an independent consultant. Last week, Co-Operatives UK published Time to get serious, a paper in which Bland considers existing examples of co-operative public service delivery from around Europe: schools in Spain, social care in Italy and nurseries in Sweden.
Bland explains that Italian social co-operatives, which employ 244,223 people primarily in delivering local social care, benefit from a clearly defined legal structure (established in law in 1991), tax breaks and the active support of local authorities – both as purchasers of their services and investors: “The social co-operatives have strong and positive partnership relations with local authorities. They are often involved in joint planning of services with local authorities. When the law (establishing the social co-operative legal structure) was passed, it gave the co-operatives a status as preferred providers in the procurement of local authority contracts.”
- political support
- the ability to raise cash
- and specialist business advice