Employee ownership finally gets the backing of the Government

After the "shares for rights" false start, will the Government get it right this time?

The current profile and success of employee ownership is unprecedented. Employee ownership is now being embraced as the most prominent alternative to the over-dominant PLC model.

Employee owned businesses are largely or fully owned by their workforces either through direct employee share holdings or shares held in Trust on behalf of and for the benefit of employees. Their workforces are very actively engaged in the management and development of their businesses. And economic competitiveness and high performance are a central part of the DNA of employee owned companies. The compelling success stories of employee owned businesses such as Clansman, Unipart and Arup demonstrate the very special nature of employee ownership.

More and more politicians, businesses and service commissioners are realising the contribution that employee ownership is making and can make to the growth agenda and to the delivery of world class public services. It is a realisation that employee owned organisations tend to achieve higher productivity, greater levels of innovation, better resilience to economic turbulence and have more fulfilled workers who are less stressed than colleagues in conventionally owned organisations. It is also a recognition that employee ownership works financially as over the last decade and more, investments in shares in employee owned businesses have considerably outperformed those in conventionally owned businesses.

This current interest in employee ownership has been reflected over recent weeks in two important initiatives.

Firstly the Treasury has completed its review into the taxation of employee ownership in the UK. Its conclusions, announced as part of the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement, are significant. The Autumn Statement argues that employee ownership is an important part of the UK growth agenda and explicitly confirms it as a business model that the Government supports. This is a powerful and unique endorsement of a part of the economy that contributes more than £30bn to UK GDP each year.

The Statement also undertakes to bring to the table the resources and expertise of the Treasury to work with other parts of Government to increase the number of employee owned businesses, to implement a package of simplifications to existing employee share schemes and to keep under review the possibility of introducing at the time of the next Budget further tax incentives to promote employee ownership.

Secondly, Government has accepted in full all of the recommendations for how to grow employee ownership in the UK that are contained in the recently completed Nuttall Review into the barriers to such growth.

The inaugural meeting of the group that is now accountable for the implementation of these recommendations, chaired by the relevant Minister Jo Swinson MP, has just taken place. This development brings a realistic prospect that a new future for employee ownership that many of us have been driving for will arrive. A future in which there is far greater awareness of employee ownership options, there is a simplification of those options and there is better access to finance and advice for businesses that want to implement and or fund employee ownership.

These two reviews, the Treasury and Nuttall Reviews, are ones that the Employee Ownership Association successfully pushed very hard for.

Their outcomes and the attendant commitments mark another important step along the way towards employee ownership becoming a central part of industrial policy, part of the mainstream.

Employee ownership is currently growing at an annual rate of around 10 per cent. Interest in it within business communities and amongst public service commissioners is increasing daily. The number of funders and advisors competent to engage in employee ownership is on the rise. These are exciting times.  The challenge ahead is to build on this momentum in pursuit of the big picture – 10 per cent of UK GDP delivered by employee ownership by 2020. With the right will and skill this is perfectly possible.

The Co-operative society circa 1929. Photograph: Getty Images

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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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.