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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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Co-operative and Community Benefit Societies and Credit Unions Bill

Friday, April 24, 2009

During a debate in the House of Commons on the above private Members Bill introduced by Malcolm Wicks, Meg made the following remarks.


I welcome the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks). I, too, think that the ideas and practice of co-operation and mutuality have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years. As he has said, they have an even greater significance during this difficult economic period. I supported a number of the private Members’ Bills, to which he has referred, to modernise the law with regard to co-operatives and social enterprises, and I am pleased to do so again in this case. It is always good to meet fellow co-operators on a Friday morning to update and improve our legislation in this area.


In my contribution, which will be a little briefer than that of my right hon. Friend, I want to illustrate how the co-operative movement of today is important, as he did. It is important not just as an idea of history, including our personal history - how many of us remember our parents’ divi number? - but because the ideals of co-operation and mutuality are relevant today and for the future. The Bill will help greatly in that regard. Although it may appear quite technical, my right hon. Friend has explained extremely well how its provisions will make a real difference.


Co-operatives are based on the values of self-help, social-responsibility, democracy and equality. In the tradition of the movement’s founders, co-operative members believe in the ethical values of honesty, openness, and caring for others. Co-operatives invariably have strong and special relationships with the communities to which their members belong, and they strive to be socially responsible in their activities. Many co-operatives show this responsibility by making significant human and financial contributions to those communities, both at home and abroad. A good example is the Co-operative Bank. In 1992 it became the first UK high street bank to launch a customer-led ethical policy - a policy that sets out where it will and will not invest members’ money. It has carved out a niche as the ethical banker.


Co-operatives, contrary to the image sometimes presented, can also be a moving force in innovation, as the Co-operative Bank showed by being the first to offer telephone and internet banking. It is also at the forefront of tackling climate change - almost all the electricity used by the Co-operative Bank is sourced from renewable wind and water. It is good to report that in recent times, there has been an increase in people wanting to move to the Co-operative Bank because of its ethical nature.


David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend agree that the co-operative movement generally, and the Co-operative Bank in particular, was a decisive factor in the lobbying among the public that led to the Climate Change Act 2008?


Meg Munn: My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The reason why the co-operative movement and organisations such as the Co-operative Bank are so strong in helping to achieve such outcomes is that they do not just talk about the issues, but put what they say into practice. So my hon. Friend is right to identify the importance of this aspect of the co-operative movement.


Another feature with which we are now all familiar, but which was not always the case, is that the co-operative movement is a leading champion of fair trade. It was the first major retailer to sell Fairtrade products in its stores back in 1994, and it was the first UK supermarket to launch its own brand of fair trade products in 2000. As a co-operator, I am pleased that the co-operative retail movement is still the leading British retailer for Fairtrade products.


I know how co-operatives go out of their way to promote equality. Succeeding within a co-operative business is a win-win situation—it is great for the individual, for the business and for society as a whole. There is no doubt in my mind about what co-operatives offer to communities. Having seen people in my constituency setting up their own social enterprises, it is clear to me that the co-operative model gives them more than they would get from just setting up a company.


There is no doubt in my mind that the co-operative business model offers a great deal to women. To exploit the potential of co-operative and mutual enterprises, women need access to information on the various business models available. Organisations such as Co-operativesUK have unique expertise in this field. As well as being part of the co-operative world and wanting to see it grow and succeed, they know the issues that have held women back from starting and growing businesses. During my time in what was then the Department of Trade and Industry, alongside my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North, I recall that Co-operativesUK did a great deal of work promoting women in business, particularly through that model, and I was proud to have worked on that.


My right hon. Friend mentioned a large retail society, the Co-operative Group, but there are, of course, retail societies around the country that may be somewhat bigger than when they started out but that are regional in nature. I have great admiration for the Lincolnshire Co-operative Society, and I recall some years ago meeting a number of women employees from its range of businesses. The society was one of the top 50 places where women want to work in this country. At that meeting were women from pharmacy, accountancy and bakery, and a funeral service manager. They told me how working in a co-operative helped them with their work-life balance, and how they were encouraged to build on their work experiences for the mutual benefit of themselves and the co-operative.


Working for the benefit of those around you forms part of the ethos of that other co-operative institution about which my right hon. Friend spoke, the credit union. I am pleased to tell him that I, too, am a member of a credit union and have so far managed to stay on the saving side. Credit unions are not-for-profit organisations, set up for the benefit of their members. The regular process of saving every month or every week, as is the practice in some credit unions, means that members receive loans related to what they can afford, which promotes good practice.

My right hon. Friend rightly mentioned the low rates of interest, and the help and support that enables people who would otherwise struggle to get loans to manage their financial affairs sensibly. Credit unions are essential local institutions, and although they have not received as much attention as I would like on the financial pages, they are as relevant today as they have ever been.


We need our co-operative and mutual sectors to compete more effectively in the future than they have done up to now. They will be able to fulfil their valuable social role, protect their members’ assets and provide socially responsible growth. The principal purpose of the Bill helps them to do that by ending all artificial legislative obstacles, thereby levelling the playing field. It has tremendous significance for the mutual sector and the wider economy.


I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for his work and to the co-operative movement, particularly the Co-operative party, for its help. Putting co-operatives on an equal footing with proprietary companies in a number of respects must be an essential step, moving us forward in the 21st century. I am pleased to support the Bill, and I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North for bringing it to the House.


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