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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Autumn Statement 2015: How should Labour respond?

The government always gets a boost out of big setpieces. But elections are won over months not days. 

Three days in the political calendar are utterly frustrating for Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition – the Queen’s Speech, the Budget and the Autumn Statement. No matter how unpopular the government is – and however good you are as an opposition - this day is theirs. The government will dominate the headlines. And played well they will carry the preceding with pre-briefed good news too. You just have to accept that, but without giving in or giving up.

It is a cliche that politics is a marathon not a sprint, but like most cliches that observation is founded in truth. So, how best to respond on the days you can’t win? Go to the fundamentals. And do the thing that oddly is far too little done in responses to budgets or autumn statements – follow the money.

No choices in politics are perfect - they are always trade offs. The art is in balancing compromises not abolishing them. The politics and the values are expressed in the choices that you make in prioritising. This is particularly true in budgets where resources are allocated across geographies - between towns, cities and regions, across time - short term or long term, and across the generations - between young and old. To govern is to choose. And the choices reveal. They show the kind of country the government want to create - and that should be the starting point for the opposition. What kind of Britain will we be in five, ten, fifteen years as these decisions have their ultimate, cumulative impact?

Well we know, we are already living in the early days of it. The Conservative government is creating a country in which there are wealthy pensioners living in large homes they won, while young people who are burdened with debts cannot afford to buy a home. One in which health spending is protected - albeit to a level a third below that of France or Germany – while social care, in an ageing society, is becoming residualised. One where under-regulated private landlords have to fill the gap in the rented market caused by the destruction of the social housing sector.

But description, though, is not sufficient. It is only the foundation of a critique - one that will succeed only if it describes not only the Britain the Tories are building but also the better one that Labour would deliver. Not prosaically in the form of a Labour programme, but inspirationally as the Labour promise.

All criticism of the government – big and little – has to return to this foundational narrative. It should connect everything. And it is on this story that you can anchor an effective response to George Osborne. Whatever the sparklers on the day or the details in the accompanying budgetary documentation, the trajectory is set. The government know where they are going. So do informed commentators. A smart opposition should too. The only people in the dark are the voters. They feel a pinch point here, a cut there, an unease and unfairness everywhere – but they can’t sum it up in words. That is the job of the party that wants to form a government – describing in crisp, consistent and understandable terms what is happening.

There are two traps on the day. The first is narrowcasting - telling the story that pleases you and your closest supporters. In that one the buzzwords are "privatisation" and "austerity". It is the opposite of persuasion aimed, as it is, at insiders. The second is to be dazzled by the big announcements of the day. Labour has fallen down here badly recently. It was obvious on Budget Day that a rise in the minimum wage could not compensate for £12bn of tax credit cuts. The IFS and the Resolution Foundation knew that. So did any adult who could do arithmetic and understood the distributional impact of the National Minimum Wage. It could and should have been Labour that led the charge, but frontbenchers and backbenchers alike were transfixed by the apparent appropriation of the Living Wage. A spot of cynicism always comes in handy. In politics as in life, if something seems to be too good to be true then … it is too good to be true.

The devil may be in the detail, but the error is in the principle – that can be nailed on the day. Not defeated or discredited immediately, but the seeds planted.  

And, if in doubt, take the government at their word. There is no fiercer metric against which to measure the Tories than their own rhetoric. How can the party of working people cut the incomes of those who have done the right thing? How can the party who promised to protect the health service deliver a decade of the lowest ever increases in spending? How can the party of home ownership banish young people to renting? The power in holding a government to account is one wielded forensically and eloquently for it is in the gap between rhetoric and reality that ordinary people’s lives fall.

The key fact for an opposition is that it can afford to lose the day if it is able to win the argument. That is Labour’s task.