Before we begin, I remind Members that they are expected to wear face coverings when they are not speaking in the debate. This is in line with current Government and House of Commons Commission guidance. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. This can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Colleagues may wish to know that I have just had a negative one, so I think I, at least, am safe for now. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the contribution of co-operatives and mutual societies to the economy and public life.
I am delighted to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Angela, and I am very grateful to everybody who has attended. I am slightly conscious that today’s other business might have distracted some of my Conservative colleagues who signed up to the application. I lament the fact that they are not here, but there we are—I cannot think what else is going on at the moment. I am very grateful to Co-operatives UK for inspiring this debate and for providing an excellent brief, on which I will rely closely.
A free society—one based on a market economy—really must have within it a place for co-operatives, and the Conservative party might not always have embraced that idea as tightly as I might have liked. Given the length of time for which we have been in power, and given how long we will have been in power by the next general election, I hope that the Conservative party can champion and not merely embrace co-operatives as a really important part of a free society. Co-operatives can be harnessed as tools to expand opportunity, wealth, liberty, pride and aspiration more fairly in the UK, both geographically and socially. They are a powerful tool for funding and implementing the UK’s new net zero strategy.
The co-operative economy is diverse, resilient and growing. There are now more than 7,000 independent co-operative businesses in the UK, with a combined annual turnover of almost £40 billion and more than 250,000 employees. They trade in sectors as diverse as agriculture, renewable energy, retrofitting, the creative industries, manufacturing, distribution, wholesale, retail and finance. In 2020, the turnover of the co-operative economy grew by £1.1 billion, and twice as many co-operatives were created as dissolved. Most co-operatives in the UK are consumer-owned, but in recent years we have seen a marked growth in community ownership, worker co-operatives and freelancer co-operatives. Many of the UK’s largest co-operatives comprise other businesses, such as farmers co-operatives.
By international comparison, though, the UK co-operative economy is small and growing slowly. Less than 1% of businesses in the UK are co-operatives. Germany’s co-operative economy is four times bigger than the UK’s, and France’s is six times larger. That might well derive from history, but I say to the Government that now is a moment when we can choose positively to take a path that makes it more possible for co-operatives in the UK to grow. The UK’s co-operative start-up rate is also comparatively low. In recent years, South Koreans have created 12 times more co-operatives per head of population than we in the UK have. Perhaps the co-operative model is underused and is something of a best-kept secret in our society and economy.
Co-operatives are great vehicles for creating and sustaining decent, rewarding and empowering livelihoods. For example, after five years of trading, the average worker co-operative in the UK supports six times more livelihoods and is almost twice as likely still to be trading as start-ups generally. According to a multi-country study, although they are currently far fewer in number than businesses generally, worker co-operatives are on average larger and employ more people. There are examples of co-operative entrepreneurship, for example the taxi drivers in Cardiff who clubbed together to set up their taxi-hailing co-operative, and of participation in existing freelancer co-operatives, such as the new co-operative mutual aid platform, We-Guild, or the creatives’ co-operative Chapel Street Studio.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the taxi co-operative in Cardiff. I was delighted to work with a number of local drivers who were dissatisfied with their working conditions in other firms and who got together, worked with the Wales Co-operative Centre—to whom I pay tribute—and set up the remarkable co-operative, Drive, which references the Welsh phrase “Thank you, Drive!” at the end of a journey. I wholeheartedly agree with what the hon. Gentleman said.
Marvellous. I am looking forward to the hon. Gentleman’s contribution later, when I hope he will tell us all about that. It is wonderful to have cross-party agreement on some of these subjects, and I hope we can drive forward the agenda.
Large co-operative employers are at the forefront of good business behaviour when it comes to investing in people. I think that follows directly from the ethos of the co-operative movement—the idea of valuing everybody equally and having open and inclusive membership, for example. I will not go through all the details, because we will be here for an hour, but co-operative models can be used as tools for community-led economic development. There is a wide range of examples from right across the country—I hope Members will share some—which show how co-operatives can be at the heart of bringing people together.
What can co-operatives achieve? They can expand wealth and well-being. The efficacy of the model can lead to a proliferation of co-operatives that can help to strengthen the private sector, including in places that need it the most. That is because co-operatives are distributive by design. Value, wealth and well-being are shared more broadly through day-to-day activity.
A growing body of data shows that co-operatives are especially resilient businesses. At a time like this, resilience could not be more important. Official data in our country shows that co-operative start-ups are twice as likely as start-ups generally to survive the first five years of trading, for example, with similar findings in other countries. Separate research shows that co-operatives in the UK that raise equity via community shares—a crowdfunding model unique to co-operatives—are more resilient still, with a 92% survival rate.
Official data also shows that co-operatives were four times less likely to permanently close in 2020 than UK businesses generally. Research published by Scottish Enterprise shows resilience among employee-owned businesses in Scotland throughout the pandemic. The fact that twice as many co-operatives were created as dissolved in the UK in 2020, when there was a net reduction in the number of businesses in the UK overall, suggests that co-operative entrepreneurship was a comparatively resilient force during the economic and psychological shocks of the pandemic.
Why are co-operatives so resilient? They have purpose, and their ownership and governance dictate long-termism. In an economic shock, it is the members making the tough decisions in their collective, long-term interests; it is not investors demanding lay-offs to protect short-term returns. Co-operatives also patiently build up and re-invest reserves and use members’ capital wherever possible, rather than piling on debt to achieve faster growth. My hon. Friend the Minister knows some of my views about excess debt creation.
I am conscious of time, and I want to give way to other Members, but I will say that at a time like this, when we need to recover to from coronavirus, co-operatives can be an ever more important part of our society in bringing people together and giving them a shared purpose and an equal stake in the business in which they work.
The hon. Gentleman is speaking about co-operatives now, but I am sure he will come on to mutuals, which are also included in the heading of the debate. Does he agree that it has been remarkable and refreshing to see the members of the mutual society LV= use their power in the past few weeks to demonstrate exactly what he has referred to? They wanted power to go to the membership, as opposed to going to shareholders for a fast buck.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I hope to make a few remarks about mutuals, but I am focusing first on co-operatives. I have been involved in the inquiry into LV= by the all-party parliamentary group for mutuals. LV= made quite a compelling case, but the point is that, as he said, it is up to the members what they do. In a free society, we make progress through trial and error. It might well be that that members have made a mistake in rejecting the bid, but it is their right to do so; it is their right to choose.
I am a huge fan of mutuals, because I can see that they are bound to create a set of incentives that support the people whom the business serves. I remember in my youth being very disappointed that so much carpetbagging was going on, with people taking £500 in exchange for demutualising. I was very disappointed at the time, and even as a teenager I could see that it was not a good idea. In the case of LV=, I fear that things are not going where they should. I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will ensure there is a good quality inquiry into what is going on, and into how regulation can better support people’s desire to support the mutual spirit in the future. I think he would agree that we cannot afford to be romantic and exempt co-operatives and mutuals from the realities of commercial life, or the exigencies of things such as competition law.
I turn to performance and efficacy. The principle of mutual purpose and democratic governance is found in all co-operatives, and it has significant advantages. It is a proven way for people with a shared interest to collaborate effectively, achieving things together that they could not on their own. That is a great way to expand liberty.
Liberty is something that should be exercised in community. One of my favourite scholars said:
“Society is cooperation; it is community in action.”
We should remember that entrepreneurship is a great search to help other people; that is what entrepreneurs seek to do. If people make a profit justly, without breaking the rules or exploiting others, that is a good thing. It shows that those people have served others, according to their assessment of what has been produced. I believe that that combination of mutual interest and service to others through a market means that co-operatives should be a crucial part of our society.
I am conscious of time, so I will wrap up. The Co-operatives UK brief makes a number of suggestions to the Government, including that there could be more co-operatives, and some particular policy suggestions. There are three themes: to have better tailored business support and enterprise finance for existing co-operatives, co-operative entrepreneurs and the conversion of existing businesses to become co-operatives; to have legislative and non-legislative action to provide a more enabling corporate framework, through law, regulation and processes; and to have tax support for investment in co-operatives and co-operative development. I will not go through the full brief, but Co-operatives UK intends to publish it after the debate.
I appreciate this opportunity to hear from Members from all parts of the House about co-operatives. We can all enthuse about co-operatives, even as we remain, as I am sure the Treasury will do, robustly pragmatic rather than romantic. As the Conservative party softens and become more inclusive and society minded in the 21st century, we ought to say that co-operatives and mutual societies are an important part of our society that should be fostered in everyone’s interests, particularly as we come back from coronavirus. We need to build up the mutual relations of interdependence on which we all rely.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Dame Angela. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) on securing this important debate at such a critical time, when the economy and society should be in the throes of recovery from the covid-19 pandemic.
It has been 177 years since the since the pioneers successfully launched the co-operative movement in 1844 in Rochdale, Lancashire, which is not too far from my own Lancashire constituency of Preston. The movement has gone from strength to strength, and it has changed remarkably since then. As a Co-operative party MP, I have always believed that co-operatives and mutual societies are the future, not the past, and they are instrumental in creating a successful, democratic economy.
Co-operatives and mutuals contribute significantly to social integration, job creation, employment sustainability and the reduction of poverty, which makes them a serious player in the UK’s recovery from the pandemic. A key component in the make-up of co-operatives is the democratic ethos of fairness and inclusivity, where wealth and power are shared. Whether it is co-operative shops, funeral services, credit unions or, as has been mentioned, taxi firms, co-ops are owned and operated by the people closest to the business and are centred around their members and the community, rather than distant investors and shareholders focused solely on monetary returns.
When considering the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on our society, it is impossible not to acknowledge the glaring inequalities that have been exposed in our social and economic fabric. The poor of this country have borne the brunt of the devastation. The stark geographical and social divide is a clear indication that the current economic model is broken and not viable for the future.
If we are serious about levelling up the country and building back better, working people must be at the heart of economic recovery. Co-operatives and mutual societies provide a template for achieving success, where the principles of human and social capital are at the core of policy. There is no doubt in my mind that to achieve a stronger, sustainable and more resilient recovery from the covid-19 crisis, the Government must take steps to expand the co-operative sector. The evidence tells us that co-operatives are resilient; 76% of co-ops survive the first five years of business, compared with only 42% of other types of business in the UK.
I was interested to hear the points made by the hon. Member for Wycombe about whether LV= members should have gone with Bain Capital. Only time will tell whether that would have been a good move, but many of the building societies that demutualised and turned into banks were extremely vulnerable in the financial crisis some 15 or 20 years ago. I was a member of Leeds Building Society, and I tried to vote against demutualisation. In the end, I was given £2,000 and ended up with a bank I did not particularly want.
As has been mentioned, the trade body Co-operatives UK notes that about 1.5% of co-ops were dissolved in 2020, compared with 6.5% of businesses in general. Despite the pandemic, the number of independent co-ops has grown by 1.2% in 2020.
On the contributions of co-operatives to public life, the valuable and diverse sector has demonstrated its worth in meeting community need in the face of adversity, which it has done up and down the country in the last 21 months. I proudly note the co-operatives in my constituency of Preston, which led by example and contributed to the collective welfare of the local community during a time of great need. By investing in people from the start, co-operatives were able to defend workers’ wellbeing and livelihoods during the pandemic, while understanding the hardships that people faced and serving the community around them. Studies show that economies with a larger co-operative sector are more equitable, productive and accountable, with a narrower gap between rich and poor.
With all this evidence on the benefits of co-operatives, both before and during the pandemic, I wonder why there are not more of them. As the hon. Member for Wycombe said, in 2020 less than 1% of businesses were co-ops. Despite the evidence that they are nearly twice as likely as other types of businesses to survive their first five years, not nearly enough of them are being started. In the UK, more than 7,000 co-ops contribute roughly £40 billion to the economy, in spite of numerous financial and social barriers that hinder their ability to reach their full potential.
My hon. Friend is making powerful points. I want to share another example of success that we can learn from. The Welsh Labour and Co-operative councillors in Vale of Glamorgan Council in my constituency have done remarkable work with Big Fresh Catering Company, a local authority trading company built on co-operative principles. In its first year, it has turned a £350,000 deficit into a £500,000 surplus, which is now being reinvested in our schools. That is an example of co-operative principles making a difference, led by Welsh Labour and Co-operative councillors.
I commend my hon. Friend on his involvement and the success that he outlines.
In developed countries such as our own, co-operatives play a much bigger role in GDP and cultural make-up, by design. As the hon. Member for Wycombe said, in Germany, the co-operative sector is four times bigger than in the UK. In France, 18% of GDP comes from its co-operative economy, which is six times larger than the UK’s. Unlike in those countries, our economy is tailored to the interests of private business, despite the overwhelming evidence of the co-operative sector’s success and resilience.
I believe that a strong and growing co-operative sector is key to creating a post-covid economy where wealth and power are shared, particularly in efforts to level up the regions of the country that have been worst hit by the pandemic. We cannot create such an economy by maintaining the status quo and hoping that more co-operatives and mutual societies will carry on as they have done—instead, co-operatives and mutual societies need the support that other business models receive, which is why the Government must urgently commit to bringing forward practical business support aimed at significantly growing the UK’s co-operative sector as part of our economic recovery. In their policy, the Government must enable a corporate framework that recognises and champions the success of co-operatives and mutual societies, and understands the value and mutual benefits of achieving that success.
As we rebuild today and for the future, we have an opportunity to create an economy of ambitious growth, wellbeing and social protection for all. That is why I believe that co-operatives and mutual societies are one answer to the problems raised by the current pandemic.
It is always a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Dame Angela.
Robert Owen is regarded as the founder of our co-operative movement. He believed that character is formed by environmental influences such as educational opportunities on the one hand and by poor working conditions on the other. His vision was for villages of co-operation, a new world order of mutual help and social equality, and his followers were called co-operators or socialists. I am very proud that Robert Owen was born on 14 May 1771 in Newtown, Powys, in my beautiful country of Wales.
The Co-op group traces its roots back to the start of modern co-operation in Rochdale in 1844, and 177 years later the Co-op group continues to put its members and their passions at the centre of its business, with a focus on working with others—co-operating. Since its launch in 2016, the Co-op group’s local community fund has provided approaching £100 million to more than 20,000 local good causes, making it one of the largest funding mechanisms for charities in the UK.
UK co-operators believe that too much power and wealth rests with a small number of investors, shareholders and executives. Decisions are often made for the benefit of the powerful and the wealthy and not for the benefit of communities, workers, consumers and the environment. I believe the answer lies in the Marcora law. I was fortunate to secure a Westminster Hall debate on 8 September about the co-operative purchase of companies. I urge the UK Government to learn from Italy, where the former Industry Minister, Giovanni Marcora, established the worker buy-out system more than 30 years ago.
The Marcora law was established in a period of economic crisis in the 1980s to encourage workers to become entrepreneurs, saving their jobs by taking their entitlements plus three years’ projected social security payments in a lump sum to invest in a new company, supported by Government loans and advice. Specifically, the Marcora law established a rotation fund for the promotion and development of co-operation, and a special fund for the protection of employment levels. It gives workers the pre-emption right to purchase their companies and, more importantly, the financial support to buy out all or parts of an at-risk business and to establish it as a worker-owned co-operative.
The Cooperazione Finanza Impresa—CFI—operates the Marcora law on behalf of the Ministry of Economic Development of the Italian Government. The CFI is an institutional investor and has been implementing the Marcora law since 1986. The Ministry holds a 98.6% share of the capital investment and has an overseeing role on the CFI board. The CFI has made investments of more than €300 million in 560 companies, saving the jobs of 25,000 workers and retaining the skills and experience of the Italian workforce. Hundreds of Italian businesses at risk of closure have been preserved as worker co-operatives, with a return of more than six times the capital invested by the CFI funding mechanism. Our UK Co-operative party public polling shows that 64% believe that the economy would benefit if workers could buy their businesses when they were at risk of closure.
During my debate, I urged the UK Government to introduce legislation that would give workers an adequate opportunity to request ownership during business succession and to provide an early-warning system to warn workers in advance of insolvency or when viable businesses are at risk of disposal. That would give workers the time and ability to assess the scope of acquisition and prepare a co-operative business model, and it would provide an opportunity to bid for a business at risk of shrinking or closure. A UK Marcora law would sustain businesses and help the UK shift to a fair and democratic economy through our co-operative values.
I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully), whether he would introduce a UK Marcora law and he told me that there were no plans but that the Government were open to proposals. Mark Drakeford, the First Minister of Wales, and his Welsh Labour Government were overwhelmingly re-elected last May on a Senedd election manifesto that pledged to provide greater support for worker buy-outs. Mark has stated many times that he will work with the co-operative sector and the Wales Co-operative Centre to double the number of worker-owned businesses in Wales, and he appointed Vaughan Gething, the Minister for Economy, with specific responsibilities for the co-operative sector in Wales.
In Wales, we are proud to have the Wales Co-operative Centre, set up by the Wales Trades Union Congress in 1982 to provide business support to co-operatives in Wales. The centre’s research shows a business succession timebomb. Small and medium-sized enterprises make up 99% of businesses and 62% of private sector employment in Wales, but 43% do not have a succession plan and only 12% of family firms make it to the third generation. One in five SMEs faces the prospect of closure or succession in the next five years, with 29% under the same ownership for the past 21 years. So 15,000 business owners may be leaving their businesses. That is one of the reasons a UK Marcora law is so important: to save family businesses.
My friend Huw Irranca-Davies, MS for Ogmore and a former MP, who is chair of the Senedd co-operative group, introduced an employee ownership Bill to the Welsh Parliament to give workers support to buy out their workplace if it is at risk of failure. It received cross-party support in principle in the Senedd from Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats. Huw will now meet Welsh Government Ministers to see how to progress his Bill.
While I was disappointed with the response from the Under-Secretary of State to my debate of 8 September, a few days later I had a lovely surprise. I received a letter from Camillo De Berardinis, the CEO of the CFI, saying that he had watched my speech in the Westminster Hall debate and that he was inviting me to be the guest speaker at the 35th anniversary of the CFI on 16 November to celebrate the commitment of all the Italian workers who had bravely tackled the crisis of the company they worked for and successfully recovered it. I was honoured to accept that invitation. It was virtual, by the way; I did not manage to get to Italy, but there we go.
The Minister will be pleased to know that I will not be giving up campaigning to have a UK Marcora law. On 11 January, I will introduce a ten-minute rule Bill entitled the co-operatives employee company ownership Bill. I know the Minister is very magnanimous and he does listen, so, to conclude, does he now have any plans to introduce a UK Marcora law?
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I have spoken in these debates in the Chamber and in Westminster Hall as well. First, I thank the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) for setting the scene so well. He brought the issue to Westminster Hall some time ago and I spoke then, and I mean it honestly when I say that his presentation has been absolutely on the button.
I have often said that co-operatives, mutual societies and indeed credit unions are a phenomenal help to so many families throughout Northern Ireland—I obviously want to give a Northern Ireland perspective to the issue. I want to speak about the co-operatives in my constituency and the Newtonards Credit Union branch, which has been the salvation of many people I know in a difficult time.
I commend my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and concur with his comments on LV= mutual, which the hon. Member for Wycombe also referred to. It is really important that those at the ground level of the co-operatives, mutuals and credit unions have some say in where they go. My local credit union has mentioned that it would do more for people if it was given the opportunity to do so.
I was happy read an article last week on affordable social housing in Northern Ireland that gave examples of how things can progress. In it the Northern Ireland Communities Minister indicated that the role that credit unions and others can play should be further explored. She said:
“If we are to achieve our objectives it is likely that a wider range of sources for financing will be needed such as charitable trusts and foundations, credit union loans, capital markets: from the sale of long-term bonds and developer contributions.”
The benefits of housing co-operatives, community-led housing and self-build initiatives
“will also need to be explored further”.
She is absolutely on the button, and she is right in what she says.
In a debate on affordable housing we had in this Chamber last week, I mentioned the good work of community-led housing and self-build initiatives. The good that could be done must be more widely investigated throughout the United Kingdom, and I urge the Minister—he always responds in a constructive way to our requests—to work collaboratively with the devolved Administrations to unlock further the best-kept secrets of credit unions. He has spoken about credit unions before, and we have had conversations about them both outside and inside the Chamber.
A lovely article in the Financial Times succinctly sums up what co-operatives, mutuals and credit unions are really about:
“The history of non-profit lenders has been intertwined with civil rights movements in the UK and abroad since the second half of the 20th century, as campaigners, religious groups and philanthropists sought to help marginalised groups gain greater access to financial services… Credit unions act like community-focused banks, using deposits from members’ savings accounts to fund low-cost loans with interest rates capped at 1 per cent per month in Northern Ireland and 3 per cent per month in the rest of the UK—about 43 per cent APR.”
In the past, I was fortunate to have one of the Minister’s colleagues—he was then a Minister but he is not now—visit Northern Ireland and particularly the credit unions. His input on that visit was incredibly helpful. We visited the credit union in Newtownards and met the man in charge, George Proctor. He has built up the membership—both adults and young people—phenomenally and it has become a major go-to when it comes to being a voting member and being able to borrow money whenever people need it.
The credit union sector is large and has grown in recent years. There was about £1.6 billion in outstanding loans at the end of 2020—up 19% since 2016—but the sector also faces challenges in keeping up with regulations and changing customer expectations of services such as online banking. The number of UK credit unions fell by more than a fifth in the same period, as smaller unions closed and were taken over by larger groups. Although the numbers are down, the clientele has kept steady and has risen. Credit unions are an essential component in any rural area and town, as they offer people the ability to save money, to borrow money, when needed, at a small interest rate, and to repay that money at an affordable rate, with no stress. Suddenly, the boiler breaking down three weeks before Christmas does not result in a nightmare but can be quickly and efficiently dealt with by using local credit unions.
I am fortunate to have 13 registered credit unions and co-operatives in my constituency, and I will name each one for the purposes of Hansard: Downpatrick Co-operative Marketing Ltd, Northern Ireland Fish Producers’ Organisation Ltd, the Ballynahinch Credit Union Ltd, Portaferry Credit Union Ltd, Newtownards Credit Union Ltd, Newtownards Royal British Legion Club Ltd, BDS Credit Union Ltd, Ards Saturday Market Traders’ Co-operative Limited, Comber Community Credit Union Ltd, Strangford Down Ltd, Northern Ireland Horse Board Co-operative Society Limited, North Eastern Lobster Fishermen’s Co-operative Society Limited, Ballywalter Youth and Community Co-operative, and Comber Earlies Growers Co-Operative Society Limited. All of those, at different levels and with different financial resources, represent a large number of people.
My hon. Friend is itemising the co-operatives in his local area, which can be replicated across the United Kingdom. Does he agree that as long as these groups, whether they are mutuals, co-operatives or credit unions, can demonstrate their professionalism and their adaptability in the modern marketplace, are to be supported? They need to see the wider community rally behind them and get involved with them for the better future of all of our communities going forward.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. Yes, I do agree. When we look at the breadth of the market, and who these organisations represent, it indicates support that goes above and beyond. There are cattle market co-operatives, farmers’ co-operatives, fishermen’s co-operatives, plus a few reasonably sized credit unions. The agricultural co-operatives, the credit unions and the market traders co-operative—bringing all those people together, as my hon. Friend said—are examples of co-ops that help to sustain an independent rural community and a way of life. They are an essential component of these communities and a lifeline for them.
These organisations are undoubtedly able to do more, when we consider that the Financial Conduct Authority estimates that 28 million people—more than half of UK adults—have some element of financial vulnerability. In February 2020, up to a third of adults had less than £1,000 in savings, and one in 10—about 5.6 million people—had been paying a high-cost loan with an annual interest rate above 100% at some point in the preceding 12 months. What co-operatives, mutuals and credit unions do is enable their members to borrow at rates that they can afford to pay back. It is not like going to a payday loan company or others in the community who take advantage of people in their time of vulnerability. What these organisations offer is critical for the future.
Perhaps the Minister can give us some indication of any discussions he may have had with credit unions or co-operatives in Northern Ireland. I know I asked that earlier on, but it is always good to get a perspective here, in Westminster, where we are all under the great Union flag of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland together—we are all part of that.
There is an issue with lending, and it is my firm belief that credit unions could be a way of dealing with this issue. Further, more investment and help should be given to allow credit unions to push their products and abilities into more communities as a viable savings and loans option. With that, I will conclude by thanking the hon. Member for Wycombe for introducing this debate, and I look forward to the comments from the shadow Ministers and the contribution from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard).
Thank you, Dame Angela. You will be pleased to hear that I will not inflict 20 minutes of Plymouth co-operatives on everyone. However, I would like to thank the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) for introducing this debate. It is really important that co-operatives and mutuals have a voice in Parliament; that is why, for the past many decades, we have had a Labour and Co-operative group of MPs that has been making the case for co-operatives. I am proud to be a Co-operative party MP; those are not just some extra syllables in my job title. Being a Co-operative MP is not just a label; it is an instruction to campaign for mutuals, fairness, co-operation, doing business in a fairer way and sharing wealth and power. Those of us in the Co-operative party take every opportunity to put forward the huge advantages of co-operative and mutual business models.
We have seen huge changes and progress in recent years, both under the last Labour Government and, where campaigns have been successful, under the current Government. However, we are seeing the context change; we are seeing a hollowing out of our communities and a more precarious environment for businesses. However, we are seeing no less entrepreneurism and no less drive and creativity from our businesses. People are now looking at alternative models to organise their business to make a difference.
When businesses fail, it is often because those in charge have become removed from the realities of the shop floor. That is where mutuals and co-operatives have an advantage over other business models. When workers have a stake in their own business, they can contribute to the decisions that are made; they can see that businesses can be better run, more sustainable and better focused on not only the product and service they offer to their customers, but the people who work in that business to make it better every day.
Co-operatives provide an opportunity to renew our high streets and villages and to give everyday people a say in how their local community works. The opportunity to expand the co-operative and mutual sector is immense. I would like to see the Government adopt Labour’s policy of doubling the size of the co-operative sector. It is a bold, challenging ambition; however, if Ministers put in place the right conditions to make it happen, it is also achievable.
Doubling the size of the co-operative sector would lead to more sustainable, greener and better jobs in all our communities, more people having a stake in the businesses they work for and, as we heard from the hon. Member for Wycombe, better productivity and better outcomes at the end of it. It is a win-win-win situation. There are only two things that hold it back: a view that the market will provide for itself—in which case, let us remove the legislative blocks that sometimes discriminate against co-operative and mutual businesses—or a view that it will not provide the type of future we need. I do not see a future that does not include more mutual and co-operative businesses. That is what we heard from the hon. Member for Wycombe, and I hope that is what we will hear from the Minister when he gets to his feet.
In the south-west, we have long believed in the power of co-operatives to strengthen our economy. In Plymouth, we have co-operatives such as Nudge Community Builders, which works to transform life chances in one of our poorest communities—not just in Plymouth, but in Britain—by rebuilding and refurbishing buildings along Union Street and Stonehouse. It is transforming that community by not only improving the buildings, but creating spaces for start-ups, social enterprises and community services. It is helping to restore pride in something by allowing people to invest in their own community through that effort.
I bought shares in Nudge’s co-operative share issue to help reopen the notorious pub The Clipper, on Union Street, taking it from a 24-hour boozer to an amazing community space. It has transformed that community just by changing one pub. I have also bought shares in its latest effort, to reopen the Millennium building—a former nightclub and cinema, and the scene of far too many antics to discuss in polite company—as a new hub for live music, with a brewery, a shop and restaurants, and a place for people to come together. That building has stood derelict for decades, and it is a co-operative and community venture that is bringing it back to life. That share issue is still open, if the hon. Member for Wycombe wants to show his support. I know that Nudge would welcome a final push to help get it over the line.
However, it is not just Nudge that has done brilliant things using co-operative share issues. I also praise Plymouth Energy Community.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his enthusiasm. I am really passionate about this issue, and people in Plymouth that have invested are passionate too. It is not just about investing. Co-operative share issues have not had the press they deserve, because it is not just that putting that 50 quid in a co-operative share issue or a mutual will return more financial benefit than leaving it in a bank where interest rates are low. It is about the social purpose—the social multiplier—and the economic multiplier that will come from that investment. It is taking place not only in Plymouth, but right around the country.
Plymouth Energy Community has funded solar panels on the roofs of our city’s primary schools and our largest leisure centre, as well as on the top floor of all our car parks. It has opened Plymouth’s first solar farm in Ernesettle and it is about to apply for planning permission for a second solar farm at Chelson Meadow—next to Saltram House—which is the scene of Plymouth’s largest landfill. I will support that share issue when it opens, too.
CATERed is another superb example of a co-operative in Plymouth. Faced with the challenge of poor school food, the Labour council brought together food provision into a co-operative, which our primary schools and some secondary schools have now bought into. That provides not only healthy, nutritious food but an investment in the staff who provide that food—in the kitchen and serving—which is unbelievable. What is important is that those staff feel valued, the food is healthier, the profits are reinvested and there is not a turkey twizzler in sight. It really is a model for others to follow.
My hon. Friend’s example sounds very much like the Big Fresh Catering Company in the Vale of Glamorgan, which I mentioned. Does he agree that co-operative councils, such as in Cardiff—Plymouth sounds like a co-operative paradise; I assure him that Cardiff is too—are also making differences in other areas of public services by using co-operative principles? I think of our music strategy and the Cardiff Music Board, Cardiff Commitment, which is supporting young people back into education or training, and our race equality plan. All have co-operative principles at their heart, investing in that social capital in our communities.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. There is an energy around this policy area not only because it returns good outcomes but because it is the scene of so many good ideas and so much innovation. That innovation is often at the periphery, because co-operatives and mutual are not mainstreamed in the way that they really need to be. There is not an accelerator that moves those ideas into the mainstream. As co-operators, many of us are quite nice, decent people, and mutualism has a reputation of being nice and caring for and lovely, which often means that we are quite comfortable sitting in a corner. As an economy, we often say, “We have got a fair mutual side; it’s over there in the corner.” We know it is important because we put it in the corner where we put all our important things. It is time now to move mutual and co-operative policies into the mainstream, not only as niche providers but as an alternative to mainstream provision that would give those mainstream business models a run for their money. To do that, some of those legislative and, in particular, financial resourcing barriers need to be removed. There is an opportunity to go through them progressively and remove them, to make sure that we are getting there.
Creating a co-operative development agency in England, following the lead of Wales, would make a big difference. We could put new duties on Governments to promote the growth of co-operatives, not just of businesses. We could look at new capital instruments, such as a national co-operative-held investment bank, which would allow better investment in UK co-operatives. We could consider a new duty on banks to encourage greater lending to co-operatives and to ensure banks are held to account over the types of businesses they support. There is sometimes discrimination in funding to co-operatives because their corporate structures can be a little bit different, a little bit challenging. However, the social benefit and opportunities that come from that investment can be even bigger than investing in the usual type of business models. There is an opportunity there to make that happen.
My hon. Friend is giving a passionate and comprehensive speech. The number of co-operatives is low. Perhaps there is a case for a business model in which a co-operative’s share of a private or public enterprise could be incorporated into the model, so that we raise awareness of the advantages of being part of a shared ownership scheme.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. Long before I had grey hair and was elected to this place, I wrote an article for the Co-operative party about co-operative insurgency—the idea that a harder, bolder form of co-operation could also come out of a purposeful building out of a co-operative shareholding in business models. To follow my hon. Friend’s idea, it is not only about creating a co-operative or mutual from day one; it can be about mutualising a business model. Even a small, co-operatively held component of a big publicly listed company could help drive and direct an ethos and culture change within that business, which could produce better outcomes for staff and the overall business model.
However, I am afraid that not all is well in our co-operative sector in Plymouth. Our Plymouth credit union is on the verge of closure, which I worry will deny access to finance for people on the margins of finance and society in particular. The City of Plymouth Credit Union’s office is opposite my office, on Frankfort Gate, and at the end of the week, the queues that come out of that credit union show a number of individuals who always face challenges—not only economic and financial challenges but challenges elsewhere. We must also be aware of the closure of credit unions. I do not know what will replace the provision the Plymouth credit union gives to some of those most marginalised people, but we need to find an alternative. The basic bank accounts that the Treasury has been promoting via businesses will not be enough to replace the service provided by Plymouth credit union, and I encourage the Minister to look at what happens when credit unions fail.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I hope that it will be, but I fear it may not. The challenge is that the future is very uncertain, especially for smaller credit unions that do not have the financial backing of a larger credit union. The social benefit that they provide is considerable, and it is worth the Treasury looking at that.
My final point is a challenge to those people who speak about co-operatives and mutuals, like myself and everyone in this place. Often the debate around co-operatives and mutuals is an urban-themed one; as an MP for a city, most of my examples have been urban themed. However, there is enormous potential in telling the story of the success of the mutuals and co-operatives in our rural and coastal communities. In our rural communities, we see an amazing penetration of successful co-operative businesses, providing support at scale not only for rural housing and, in particular, agriculture, as we heard from the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), but for fishing. Greenhook Fishing in Plymouth is our brand-new co-operative. It is pioneering sail-powered fishing in Plymouth, and is bringing back the Plymouth Hooker, a fantastic old-style fishing boat. It also provides opportunities for people who have left prison and veterans to be re-trained in new skills, not only in boat construction but in fishing.
Greenhook Fishing is following a model that is present in many other coastal communities and rural communities —of co-operatives being successful, getting on with it and never identifying as a co-operative. My challenge to those who speak about co-operatives is that we should talk up rural and coastal co-operatives as well. I am very pleased that the Co-operative party has started a new commission around rural co-operatives, to feed into Labour’s rural review, that will make the case for further investment in rural co-operatives as distinct from urban co-operatives and the challenges that they face. The future is bright for mutuals and co-operatives, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Dame Angela. I thank the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) for leading the debate. I want to touch on the importance of the co-operative sector in Scotland, particularly in community energy, and the key role co-operatives will have in ensuring that we meet our net zero targets. I am keen to speak about that later.
First, I should declare my membership of Glasgow Credit Union, which is the largest and most successful credit union in the UK, with over 50,000 members. It was formed in 1989 by workers at what was then Glasgow District Council, and it has moved on and flourished from there. I thank the Greater Govan Credit Union, Pollok Credit Union, Vale of Leven Credit Union and Penilee Credit Union for their work on behalf of Glasgow South West constituents. Joining a credit union was by far and away one of the best financial decisions that I have ever made, and I know that many constituents and many people across the UK feel the same way.
The Minister will know that I have championed the credit union sector cause. To help it grow, I hope that he will join me in pushing the Prudential Regulation Authority to consider changing the capital requirements for credit unions. Successful credit unions appear to be getting punished if their assets rise above £10 million. I know that the Minister has some sympathy with that point, and I look forward to some positive comments about the credit union sector.
Co-operatives and mutuals can help develop communities and the economy. Co-operatives are a form of business owned and run by members. In the UK, co-operatives operate under various governance models and legal forms, including workers co-operatives, multi-stakeholder co-operatives, community benefit societies, community interest companies. It is interesting that they have existed in the modern form since 1844, when cotton mill workers in Rochdale formed the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers to buy goods at lower prices. That example lives on in Glasgow South West, with the creation of the Threehills community supermarket, which is now starting to operate. That has become a very successful model.
The Financial Conduct Authority, of course, holds a public register of major societies, and Co-operatives UK publishes a report each year about the scale of the sector; the 2021 report is quite interesting reading. It noted that there were 7,200 co-ops, employing 250,000 people, with a combined turnover of £39.7 billion, and ranging in size from large retailers, such as the Co-op, to credit unions, farmers’ associations, and, of course, community pubs—what a fantastic idea they are, too. Interestingly, the report argues that co-ops appear to be much more resilient to the challenges brought by covid-19 and, indeed, their coming out in support of their members was a factor in that achievement. Perhaps more interestingly, the report also notes more ambitions and optimism about the future from co-ops than among other small businesses.
In Scotland, Scottish Enterprise, through Co-operative Development Scotland, supports company growth through co-operative models, which can protect community services that bring benefits to the local economy. It helps businesses and community enterprises grow by offering advice and services, including free masterclasses and one-to-one support. A community co-operative is a democratic values-led business model, in which community members come together to buy and run an asset for the benefit of local residents. Typical assets in Scotland include wind turbines, hydro schemes, shops, and pubs, among other things.
The Scottish Government have made strong progress towards community energy, including through co-operatives. They recognise that local energy cannot be delivered in isolation; it must develop alongside, and within, a vibrant national energy network. Both are crucial to ensuring that we transition to a net zero future by 2045 in a way that delivers secure, affordable and clean energy for ususb all.
The Scottish Government established their flagship community and renewable energy scheme—or CARES—with the aim of supporting and growing community and local energy projects throughout Scotland, as well as aiming for a considerable increase in the number of shared-ownership energy installations across the country. The scheme is open to a host of different groups and organisations, including bencoms and co-operatives, community groups, faith groups, housing associations, local authorities, national and regional non-profit organisations and rural small businesses.
The Scottish Government had a target for 500 MW of community and locally-owned energy by 2020, which was exceeded, so they increased it to 1 GW by 2020 and 2 GW by 2030. Progress towards that target has been positive, but changes in UK Government subsidies—for example, the closure of the feed-in tariff scheme—have undermined that progress. However, we continue to encourage shared ownership models as a means of increasing community-led involvement in commercial projects.
We are committed to helping island communities—a point was also made by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) about rural and island communities—and we must ensure that they also become carbon neutral. Supporting those carbon neutral islands should be in the vanguard of reaching the net zero emissions targets by 2045.
As we move towards recovery from the pandemic, greater focus and priority must be given to decarbonisation as a driver for community-led action. New opportunities for communities will arise in the shift towards more localised energy solutions, giving more influence and choice and, in doing so, improving the quality of life for those living here.
It is a pleasure to serve under you, Dame Angela. I am standing in today for the shadow Minister, who has other business in the House. I thank the shadow Secretary of State for Business and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), for his help in advance of this debate.
I am delighted to have this opportunity to make the case for co-operatives and mutual societies, which give us a greater say and stake in the institutions that affect our lives and play such an important role in improving equality and productivity at work. I thank the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) for bringing forward this debate. I think it is fair to say that I have not always seen eye to eye with him on every debate in this House, but I am pleased to say that in this debate I wholeheartedly agree with him on the importance of mutuals and co-operatives in our economy.
The principles of co-operation and mutual support have roots in small “c” conservative and socialist traditions. The histories of the co-operative movement and the Labour party in this country are closely entwined. Our shared history was referenced several times by people from both sides of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Christina Rees) talked about Robert Owen, who was born in her local area. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Sir Mark Hendrick) talked about the roots of the modern co-operative movement, which can be traced back to 1844 and the Rochdale Pioneers.
It is no coincidence that the co-operative movement emerged when it did. It was at a time of great industrial upheaval, and people recognised the common bonds that united them and their shared interests. We are approaching a different type of industrial revolution as we decarbonise our economy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) said, more co-operative ideas and practices are needed to make the best use of our resources, which will be crucial for the green transition.
As many people will know, the Labour party was founded in 1900 at a time of profound change. The Co-operative party was established 17 years later in 1917. In 1924, the two parties entered an electoral agreement to stand joint candidates in elections. We recognise our shared values and commitments to building a society in which power and wealth are fairly shared. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport—I always mention the full title of the constituency because I get annoyed when people call me just “the Member for Hampstead”—talked about the fact that the Members here represent both parties. They are not just extra words on the electoral ballot; it is an instruction for fairness and equality, and I know that a lot of the Members who have made the effort to be here represent both parties in Parliament.
In 2021, our two parties advocate not only for co-operative shops owned by the customers, but for the whole mutual sector. Co-operatives and mutual societies have never been more important for the UK’s economy and public life. The hon. Member for Wycombe talked about more than 7,000 co-operatives operating across the UK with a combined turnover of almost £40 billion. Almost 235,000 people earn their livelihoods directly through co-operatives. Again, the hon. Member talked about the sectors that they trade in, which are as diverse as agriculture, renewable energy, the creative industries, manufacturing, distribution, wholesale, retail and finance.
However, we have seen a decade of rising inequality, low growth and productivity, which has left many businesses poorly prepared for covid-19 hitting us. However, we have seen how co-operatives have proved resilient in the face of hardship. The sector grew by £1.1 billion in 2020, despite the economic challenges resulting from the pandemic.
The resilience of co-operatives is rooted in the higher levels of productivity that can result from employee ownership. In the United States, the National Centre for Employee Ownership tracked the performance of over 57,000 firms and found that employee ownership could greatly improve a business’s productivity and chances of success. This resilience and strength allowed the mutual sector to play such a heroic role during the pandemic by plugging gaps in the Government’s support for communities across the country.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport, in his whirlwind tour of his constituency, pointed out some of the co-operative ventures in his patch, including Nudge, Plymouth Solar Farm and CATERed—my personal favourite because of my previous role in education—which provides healthy food for children. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) talked about Cardiff Co-operative Council, which seems to be carrying out an astonishing number of administrative tasks but also trying to promote more equality in his patch.
I looked up some examples before this speech, including Arla Farmers, which contributed £900,000 litres of long-life milk to the Government’s grocery packs for vulnerable people during lockdown. The Little Pioneers nurseries—again, a personal interest of mine because of my previous role—run by Midcounties Co-operative, kept nurseries near hospitals open and affordable for children of key workers. They also offered additional temporary places for key workers who were unable to rely on their usual childcare arrangements and developed a frontline hero support fund to subsidise fees for key workers’ families.
However, despite the fantastic contribution that co-operatives and mutual societies make to society and the economy, not everyone in the Government has been a friend to the sector. Less than 1% of businesses in the UK are co-operatives. My hon. Friend the Member for Preston and the hon. Member for Wycombe both pointed to Germany’s co-operative economy, which is four times the size of the UK’s. My hon. Friend the Member for Neath talked at great length about Emilia-Romagna in Italy and said that we could learn a lot from that region. Co-operative enterprises generate close to 40% of GDP in that region, and the province has the lowest socio- economic inequality of any region in Europe. I hope to look further at my hon. Friend’s ten-minute rule Bill, which sounds very interesting. I hope that the Minister will pay attention to the details as well.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Preston that if the Government were really serious about levelling up and building back better, they would be looking to learn from other countries about how to expand the sector. Instead, the growth of co-operatives in this country is being held back by a legislative and regulatory framework that is not designed for co-operative businesses. Given their unique structure, co-operatives are often excluded from traditional investments. I hope that the Minister will look at that closely.
I am pleased that the sector has some powerful advocates on the Government Benches, such as the hon. Member for Wycombe, who secured this debate and has spoken on this topic many times, but I wish more Conservatives Members would support him and champion this cause. Under this Government, the number of mutual credit unions has plummeted by more than 20% since 2016—something that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) referenced in his speech. It is ordinary customers who have paid the price, with many forced into the arms of unethical lenders.
I was delighted last week to see members vote to reject the controversial takeover of the insurer LV= by the private equity firm Bain Capital. I want to spend a moment to recognise the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas), who cannot be here today because of a family emergency. I was in correspondence with him yesterday, and I know how hard he worked to protect the mutual status of this historic firm. I thought it would be remiss of me not to mention him, even though he could not be here. We all know that LV= was founded to ensure that even the poorest people in Victorian Liverpool could afford the dignity of a proper funeral. While we can celebrate the incredible campaign to prevent the sale of this historic mutual institution, the Government must now ensure that it is much harder for organisations to lose their mutual status at the expense of the members they serve.
The sector does so much to boost productivity, fairness and equality, but with the right support I believe it could contribute even more to the UK economy and public life. While the strength of co-operatives and mutual societies rests with their members, the sector will reach its full potential only with a supportive regulatory and legislative framework put in place by the Government. Labour is proud of the achievements of the co-operative movement, and in government we would be even more ambitious about its future. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport talked about how Labour has pledged to double the size of the co-operative and mutual sector. As my hon. Friend the Member for Neath pointed out, the Welsh Labour Government have already made progress on that front.
I will finish by asking the Minister about the vision going forward. The sector has been neglected for a decade. Our great mutual and co-operative institutions have been put at risk of takeover by foreign equity firms, so will he outline his plans to reassure Members who care passionately about this cause that the Government can be trusted with the future of this important sector?
It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Dame Angela.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) for calling today’s debate. As we have heard, he is a strong believer in the transformative capabilities of the co-operative and mutuals sector. He opened the debate with a very reasonable challenge on the drivers and enablers of growth across the different parts of the sector. I will reflect carefully on what he said and examine further the proposals that underlay some of the contributions this morning, but I will also think about what we can do to work with regulators to address those drivers.
I also thank the other Members who have contributed this morning. It has been a fascinating debate, and we have heard about a number of enterprises, across a number of constituencies, that are making a real difference to communities up and down the country. The Government strongly support the co-operative and mutuals sector—not just financial mutuals, which offer mortgages, affordable credit and insurance, but the whole sector across the country. We see it as making a special contribution to society and the economy due to, as Members have said, the focus on the interests of their members in the long term, the democratic nature of those institutions, and their local focus and commitment.
The evidence for that is clear. For example, a recent report from the Association of Financial Mutuals highlighted that mutual insurers serve over 30 million people across the UK, and that contribution deserves recognition. I have recently engaged a number of times with the hon. Member for Harrow West (Gareth Thomas), who is unable to join us this morning, and I recognise that he has brought forward a set of proposals and written to the Chancellor. We will be reflecting on that very carefully. I have received correspondence from LV= subsequent to the vote, and I will continue to update the House on that.
I am a big believer in the power of co-operative institutions of all sizes, from the giant Co-operative Group to High Wycombe Rugby Club and the Chalke Valley Community Hub in my own constituency. It was interesting to hear from the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) about his prolific investments, from the Clipper pub to sail-powered fishing; I am pleased that this forum has perhaps offered him further investment opportunities from my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe.
The variety of businesses embracing the co-operative model founded by the Rochdale Pioneers almost 200 years ago is something to be championed, and there is much that other sectors can learn from the guiding principles of co-operatives and mutuals. Those organisations can contribute to a new era of responsible capitalism in which financial services, firms and businesses do not just focus on their bottom line, but also on their societal impact. The hon. Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty) highlighted a number of examples in his constituency, such as the taxi drivers and the work going on to improve the quality and resilience of the supply of food in schools.
I agree that there is potential for the sector to generate even more prosperity, opportunity and liberty by helping people to take greater control of their lives and finances. Clearly, though, co-operatives and mutuals need strong foundations. In recent years, we have made some significant advances on that front. We have cut the red tape facing the sector through measures such as the Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies Act 2014. We made it easier for such organisations to attract capital, and that supportive approach continued during the pandemic. Co-operatives and other mutuals were not only given access to our financial assistance schemes, but we also took legislative action through the Corporate Insolvency and Governance Act 2020.
Beyond the pandemic, we have reaffirmed our commitment to the co-operative model and the values that underpin it through our £150 million community ownership fund, which supports co-operatives and community-owned businesses to level up the UK by enabling them to take over valuable and viable local assets at risk of closure. The first set of announcements on that were in the recent Budget, and that is across the whole of the United Kingdom. That will mean a minimum of £12.3 million in Scotland, £7.1 million in Wales, and £4.3 million in Northern Ireland. We have announced 21 projects receiving the first tranche of that funding, which I hope will be a significant intervention. Another issue I would like to focus on—to reference the points made by the hon. Member for Neath (Christina Rees) on the Marcora law and her wider engagement with the experience in Italy—was discussed in a previous debate. I am sorry that she was disappointed with the Under Secretary’s response and I look forward to her ten-minute rule Bill in the new year.
However, we need to recognise the difference between the UK and Italian economies, which I think will make the Marcora law less effective here. We cannot subsidise businesses that are predisposed to fail. I remain open to discuss any constructive proposals with her, but Italy has a much higher rate of long-term unemployment than the UK has currently, so it is not clear if providing an advance sum of unemployment benefit would generate savings on welfare spending in the UK, as it may do in Italy. I am sincere in my call to bring forward constructive proposals, appropriate for the UK economy, perhaps drawing on the experience we have seen in Italy.
Absolutely. I sincerely look forward to that and we will engage with the substance of the information.
In my role as Economic Secretary, I would like to focus on the role of mutuals as providers of financial services, because they can play a significant role there. I see these organisations as key to providing people with greater financial stability and therefore greater choice. Indeed, I believe this is levelling up in action.
Credit unions are at the core of this. A few weeks ago, I visited the Glasgow Credit Union that the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Chris Stephens) mentioned, and a few years ago I visited 1st Class Credit Union in Glasgow. They are two of the largest and most successful credit unions of the 402 that exist across the United Kingdom. The Glasgow Credit Union even offers mortgages, consequential of the deep relationships and bonds it has with its members and its understanding of their financial position. That demonstrates the potential that well-organised, well-supported credit unions can provide in communities.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) listed the 13 credit unions in his constituency and talked about the distinct tradition that exists in Northern Ireland with respect to credit unions, across multiple sectors. Credit union and co-operative legislation is devolved in Northern Ireland, but I continue to listen carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has to say on this matter.
Affordable finance is key to generating opportunity, wealth and liberty for people around the country.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and I both raised the point about the Prudential Regulation Authority, the work it does and the capital requirements it places on credit unions. Does the Minister have anything to say about that? Can he encourage the PRA to make some changes to help successful credit unions?
I am extremely grateful for the prompt; one of my kind officials passed me a note on this matter and reminded me that there has been progress in this area. We saw some changes in the way that was delivered last year. In 2020, the PRA implemented a simplified capital regime for credit unions to remove barriers to growth. This created a graduated rate approach, removing the 2% capital buffer and the link between capital requirements, activities and memberships. These changes were broadly welcomed by the sector, but I have committed to continuing to work with the sector further. I hope I will be allowed to introduce legislation next year to address some outstanding concerns that exist within the sector as a whole. I am grateful for the prompt and to the hon. Member for Glasgow South West for raising that matter.
As I said, affordable finance is key to generating opportunity, wealth and liberty for people around the country. We provided £3.8 million to fund the pilot for the no-interest loans scheme, which I have championed over a number of years. The scheme is run by Fair4All Finance, which encourages credit unions and other non-profit lenders to offer these loans. I believe that when this gets through the “proof of concept” phase imminently, it stands to be able to expand significantly. A number of individuals have approached me wanting to support this work, and I look forward to campaigning to broaden that pool on a sound foundation of how it would operate.
We have introduced other changes to help credit unions to generate greater opportunity and wealth for communities. For instance, we introduced and ran a pilot prize-linked savings scheme for credit unions until March this year, which was a real success. Independent research found that it helped to increase positive awareness of credit unions, enabled individual savers to build financial resilience and demonstrated that prize-linked savings be an effective tool in encouraging people to build a nest egg. We have 13 credit unions around the country and the Association of British Credit Unions Ltd currently involved in continuing the scheme, and I hope more will join them in future.
We have also released £96 million of dormant asset funds to Fair4All Finance, to support access to affordable credit products, including those from credit unions. Last Monday, on Second Reading of the Dormant Assets Bill, we introduced the extension of the pool of moneys that will be available from an extended range of financial instruments—£880 million over the next 10 years—which will be for Fair4All Finance to allocate.[Official Report, 5 January 2022, Vol. 706, c. 1MC.] We will bring forward legislation when parliamentary time allows. That phrase is used a lot, but I am working hard to generate that opportunity in the next Session. It would allow credit unions to offer a wide range of products and services.
I want to spend a moment on building societies, because they are key to unlocking opportunity and driving positive change across the country. For example, in mortgages, Yorkshire and Skipton building societies are among the first institutions to bring back a 95% loan, when there was a problem in the spring, and 95% loan to value mortgages after the lockdown. That obviously brings first-time buyers on to the housing ladder. In addition, the sector is pioneering new products that will decarbonise the UK housing stock. For instance, Nationwide offers a green additional borrowing mortgage, and the Leeds building society has launched two new mortgages for the most energy-efficient homes.
To help building societies continue to flourish, we want to ensure they benefit from an appropriate legislative framework. That is why last week we published a consultation proposing several changes to the Building Societies Act 1986, working with their representatives, to try to provide them with greater flexibility in their funding model, and maintain their key mutual status, which is so important. The consultation also includes proposals to update their corporate framework in line with companies.
The Minister has waxed lyrical on the good work that the Government are doing on credit unions and is now touching on building societies. Is he considering changing some of the regulations on demutualisation? As I mentioned earlier to the hon. Member for Wycombe, if we cast our minds back, we will remember that the demutualisations of the past gave a number of those building societies, which were more dependent on mortgage lending, a lot of leverage that made them very vulnerable during the financial crisis. Will the Minister comment on that, and on how he will be proactive in developing the co-operative sector, as well as building societies, through his work on mutuals?
I mentioned the response we are considering when I talked about the hon. Member for Harrow West and LV=. The reason I am waxing lyrical is that we have genuinely put in place specific interventions across a number of dimensions of the broader sector to ensure that building societies can continue to operate more effectively, offering services that their customers want, and retain their current status. I mentioned the community ownership fund as a source of support for individuals and community groups, encouraging them to form new business models that might be more effective in dealing with their long-term community interest.
I am conscious of the time, but I hope I have illustrated that the Government are committed to supporting mutuals and co-operatives and the unique qualities they provide. Just as those organisations provided opportunity, wealth and liberty to those Rochdale pioneers, we see them as key to strengthening communities, expanding possibilities and increasing prosperity for people today. I look forward to continuing the conversation on specific interventions. As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe as I entered the Chamber this morning, it is important that we strike the right balance between hearty aspirations for a healthy sector receiving appropriate consideration of reasonable changes to the rules and regulations underpinning them, and a doe-eyed romanticism about things that are not financially secure in the medium and long term. My job is to interrogate those opportunities and take legislative action where I can, but also to be clear that we have to take a clear, economically valid and reasonable approach to this issue if we are going to have a secure and thriving sector, which I sincerely hope we will.
I have immensely enjoyed this debate and everybody’s contributions to it. It is an honour to be the person who happened to have their name on the top of the application, so it is with some humility that I speak last. I particularly want to say how much I enjoyed the remarks of my hon. Friend—and on this issue, he certainly is my hon. Friend—the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). The sheer enthusiasm he has for the contribution of co-operatives to his community said more than any number of statistics that any of us might have cited. That is the reality of co-operatives and mutuals in our society. They are deeply loved institutions, precisely because their members feel part of them: “It is my mutual. It is my co-operative. I am part of it.” I only hope that all of us might aspire to the degree of earnest and heartfelt support for those institutions that the hon. Gentleman has put on record, and I hope he will not mind me embarrassing him by expressing such gushing support.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for what he has said. He has been very clear that the Government want to support mutuals and co-operatives. I will write to him later today with the Co-operatives UK brief, which is quite extensive, and will specifically draw its recommendations to his attention, in the hope that he might be able to take up some that do not conflict with his justified pragmatism and his desire not to be too romantic. I know that my hon. Friend would not want to be accused of an excess of romanticism.
I am extremely grateful for this opportunity to sum up the debate, and to all hon. Members who have spoken. On a day like today, it is a treat to have spoken in unity rather than in division.