Previous SectionIndexHome Page

12.4 pm

Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) on introducing the Bill. It has at its heart the values of the co-operative movement that were established by the 28 weavers more than 150 years ago. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs. Ellman) talked about that cold December night when the weavers opened their half-empty warehouse, selling only four items—flour, oatmeal, sugar and butter. Who would have thought then what a movement they were unleashing?

The Bill is about safeguarding and refreshing the values that led to the establishment of those early co-operatives. Hon. Members have highlighted the fact that many organisations in our constituencies remain true to those principles and are looking to Parliament to provide them with a modern framework within which they can thrive for the benefit of future generations. It is a classic example of traditional values in a modern setting.

The co-operative movement is on the brink of a renaissance. If my hon. Friend's Bill does one thing, it puts the co-operative movement and mutuals firmly on the political agenda, at the heart of debate in this country. I must pay tribute to Peter Hunt and his team at the Co-operative party, who have done so much to ensure that co-operators have an amplified voice not just in the Chamber, but in the newspaper columns.

The Rochdale pioneers were committed to economic democracy—to operate their co-operatives collectively. They ensured that each member had only one share and one vote. Every member family had a say in the decisions that they made for the business. It is no surprise that all such organisations support the Bill. I pay tribute in particular to the members of social clubs—the Labour,

25 Jan 2002 : Column 1135

Liberal and Conservative clubs. This morning I talked to the treasurer of the National Union of Labour and Socialist Clubs, Mr. Bill Thomas, who told me to let hon. Members know that clubs up and down the land and their thousands of members will drink a toast to Parliament if we pass the Bill. I apologise to the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir), but I do not know whether there are any Scottish nationalist clubs. If there are, I am sure that they will drink a wee dram, too.

Co-operatives are not only economic entities, but community entities. They foster a great social awareness and build communities. John Williams, the president of my club, West Bromwich Labour club, is an electrician by trade. He leads a band of artisans who have been maintaining the club for many years. They are Pete Lowbridge the plumber, John the glazier and Geoff the builder—[Hon. Members: "Bob the builder?"] No, Geoff the builder. In their own time they not only enjoy the club's provisions, but maintain it—notably, they have rewired the entire second floor on Sunday mornings over the past six months.

Co-operatives also foster a cultural spirit in a community. There are many youth music groups and arts groups. I am not sure whether members of the band Hear'Say formed a co-operative when they won the television show, but—this is hot off the press—one of its singers, Kym, has left it, and I am sure that the House will want to wish her all the best with her solo career.

I am sure that Kym would agree that the attack on mutuals and co-operatives has a corrosive effect on community building. The Mirror encapsulated it best when it said in 1999 that carpetbaggers were

By increasing the threshold of votes needed for demutualisation and by giving societies the opportunity to change their rules so that any assets from demutualisation will transfer to a charity or another society that works on behalf of the community, those greedy windfall hunters will be deterred.

As hon. Members have said, the Co-operative Wholesale Society recently fought off a carpetbagging attempt. When Andrew Regan was defeated, a co-operator said:

The Bill is part of that revival.

That threat has helped to rally co-op members throughout the country to a degree not seen for generations. The Co-op is now well prepared to fight any future carpetbaggers, but it is incumbent on us to protect others who are less fortunate, so I am pleased that we are aiming to give all co-operatives the same degree of protection that we gave building societies in 1997.

West Bromwich, East is home to one of the best examples of a mutual, which works for the long-term benefit of its members and the surrounding community. West Bromwich building society is one of the largest employers in my constituency, and works at the heart of the community. Some 200 of my constituents who are employed by the society have written to me, urging me to

25 Jan 2002 : Column 1136

support the Bill, which I enthusiastically do today. They know that the benefits of membership of a mutual such as the West Bromwich are clear.

Last year, the society was able to pass on to its members its biggest ever mutuality benefit, which was worth £15 million, and its mortgage rates were 0.8 per cent. lower than those of most high street banks. In a constituency such as mine, affordable mortgages are particularly important because they give people who may not ordinarily have the opportunity the option of reaching the first rung on the property ladder.

The society is more than just a financial institution; it plays a leading role in the social life of my community. It sponsors the West Bromwich Albion football club and the Duke of Edinburgh award programme. By looking after its staff, the society has won the business in the community award, the black business in Birmingham corporate responsibility award and, last year, the equal opportunities employer of the year award. It also delivers £500,000 of investment every year through its community programme, to the benefit of more than 500 charities in the midlands and beyond.

Phil Hope: My hon. Friend is talking about the importance of local community trusts. That new form of organisation, which is growing and is supported by the Government through the community network fund, provides new opportunities for local communities to have an endowment that generates interest, which is spent in the interests of those communities. That is another example of a way in which the industrial, provident and co-operative society movement is contributing to the regeneration of communities.

Mr. Watson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and the West Bromwich building society is a classic example of that. In the past six months, in partnership with the new deal, the building society has had discussions with the police and allowed them to open a local community headquarters on its site. That is a perfect example of a mutual putting something back into the community. Crime figures are already falling in that area because the police are now right on top of a crime hotspot.

The House should do all that it can to promote and protect the invaluable role played by mutuals. We must establish a new and secure environment for the development of new mutualism and existing societies. The Bill will safeguard the very values that led to the establishment of the early co-operatives. Today, many organisations remain true to those principles, but they now need us to provide them with a modern framework within which they can thrive for the benefit of future generations. The Bill will do that, and I hope that all hon. Members will unite in supporting it today.

12.14 pm

Andy Burnham (Leigh): Even someone as new to the House as I am is old enough to know that no ideas are new, not even the third way. In 1844, just a few miles from my constituency and, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) may be interested to hear, not far from Wigan, where Kym from Hear'Say grew up, the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers realised that to protect the interests of its people, it needed an alternative to the sterile choice of state control versus

25 Jan 2002 : Column 1137

private ownership, to paraphrase a Member of the House. One hundred and fifty-eight years later, and following two decades during which we were told there was no such thing as society, those concepts are re-emerging as the solution to the inheritance of individualism from the 1980s and 1990s—the decline in civic participation and the deterioration of the fabric of public life.

The Bill will help that process and create a stronger legal framework for mutualism and community ownership that will enable them to continue to flourish in Britain. I offer my warm congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas) on a speech full of knowledge, humour and conviction and on his choice of subject for his private Member's Bill. The benefits of community benefit societies are clear; they provide for the wider public good, rather than narrow private interest; they are democratically controlled by their members; and their proceeds are ploughed back into extending their activities, as contributors to our debate have made clear.

As my hon. Friend said, the free market works and serves parts of society well, but that is not true across the board. In some areas, including, as we have all experienced in our local constituencies, train and bus services, it fails communities. It is in areas where we have a common interest in comprehensive and responsive services that mutualism can have a growing role.

Next Section

IndexHome Page