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Cath Everett

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Mixed reviews for Conservatives cooperative concept


The Conservative Party’s reiterated proposals for public sector workers to set up Lewis-style co-operatives and be given the power to remove underperforming managers have met with a mixed response.

Although the Tories first announced its policy to introduce social enterprises in 2007, the current government has offered a similar option in the form of mutual status to some public authorities since 2002 with limited success.
Such arrangements currently exist in some social care, social housing, offender management, GP surgeries, dental practices, and council leisure services functions. About 20 NHS Trusts are also piloting the idea, with Central Surrey Health being the only large organisation so far to go down this route. Its 700 district nurses and therapists chose to opt out three years ago.
But the Conservative Party is now proposing to expand such activity to Jobcentres, schools and other areas of the public sector, although the Armed Forces, police, prison officers, the courts and part of the NHS such as Accident & Emergency would be exempt.
The idea is that public sector staff would be able to negotiate a contract with relevant government departments to run their service and decide everything from who was on the payroll to how the organisation would operate.
Although the cooperatives would still be funded with public money, any financial surpluses would be both ploughed back into services and shared among staff. They would also be able to enter into joint ventures with the private sector in order to obtain access to capital.
David Cameron, the party leader, said that the plans would unleash “a new culture of public sector enterprise and innovation”, while enabling staff to share financial surpluses would amount to “the biggest shift of power from government to people since the right to buy your council house in the 1980s”.
But responses elsewhere were mixed. The Social Enterprise Coalition, which was set up in 2002 to promote the concept, welcomed the announcement. But the two big public sector unions, Unison and Unite, said that various NHS bodies had in the past withdrawn their ‘right to request’ to become social enterprises due to concerns that they would lose out to commercial companies when contracts came up for re-tender.
Michael Stephenson, the general secretary of the Co-operative party, which is affiliated to Labour, said that the proposals gave little consideration to the community in which employee-owned services would operate.


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