Mutuals in the public sector: Supporting the Brave

Employee ownership can transform the public sector

Task Forces come and go. Some have dramatic success and others disappear into the long grass of political life.

The independent Mutuals Task Force (MTF) is no ordinary Task Force though. The remit of the MTF is to help public service entrepreneurs to spin out the services they manage into new businesses that are now commonly referred to as mutuals. As such the MTF is centrally involved in an emerging revolution in our public services – put simply, it is supporting the brave.

The MTF is, in the words of its Chairman, concerned with "unleashing the power of employee ownership and control". Its final report, published today, will be listened to right across the political spectrum.

Mutuals are officially defined as new businesses that have high degrees of employee ownership or control that have left their public sector parent body in order to manage and expand public services.

There is a wide variety of models and types of mutuals in terms of their legal form, business model, membership, stakeholders and investors, and they currently operate, or are being developed, in almost every part of the public sector.  There is now compelling evidence that public service mutuals raise the quality of the public services received by users, increase the returns on investment for commissioners and deliver many benefits for employees.

The Task Force report lauds the progress of public service mutualisation so far. But any revolution that seeks to change any ancien régime requires more and more collaboration from some key players inside that regime. And so, with clarity, the Task Force report makes a series of future demands on Government as a whole, individual departments, local councils, health bodies and also investors.

But the biggest "asks" are of Government. Hence, it advocates aggressive promotion of the Right to Provide – a key measure that gives employees the right to take over the public services they deliver.

It asks for proactive marketing of the range of information, advice, mentoring and finance that is available to employees contemplating mutualisation, and seeks an end to the current situation in which many new and existing mutuals compete for new contracts within processes that are designed for, and favour transactions with, large, long established, corporate organisations.

It encourages public service decision makers to overcome, via their pursuit of value for money, the cultural opposition of some of their colleagues to mutualisation in principle, irrespective of the evidence. And it does all this in the same breath as praising, quite rightly, the impressive work in support of public service mutualisation going on within some parts of Government.

It is a request for faster travel in the current direction. The recommendations and more are set out in detail in the Task Force report. Their implementation will need a major further injection of resource, energy and enthusiasm by and within Government and huge further changes in its operational behaviours. The implications for Government if it agrees with the recommendations are enormous.

This will only happen if diversification of public service delivery remains a priority for the Coalition.

I hope that the main recommendations in the report will be endorsed and acted on. I say that because I want to see a permanent obligation on Government, regardless of its political colour, to play a leading role in removing the barriers faced by employees who want to improve the services we depend on by setting up employee owned public service mutuals.

If the MTF report’s recommendations are implemented it will be fantastic to see even more public service entrepreneurs – the brave - as a direct result of that. If they are not implemented – the brave will remain the few.

Central Surrey Health is one of the largest public-sector mutuals in operation today

Iain Hasdell is the chief executive of the Employee Ownership Association the voice of employee owned businesses in the UK and a member of the Mutuals Task Force.

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.