Gareth Thomas MP: An alternative Queen’s speech — for co-operatives

21 May 2012, 3:24pm

Queen Elizabeth sets out Parliament's agenda in her speech in the House of Lords. Photograph: Parliamentary copyright/Roger Harris

Gareth Thomas MP, Chair of the Co-operative Party, gives his alternative to the Government’s programme for the coming year – one that promised nothing for co-operatives.

This article first appeared in the Co-operative News

No one, it seems, has had a good word to say for this year’s Queen’s Speech, yet it could have been so different. If David Cameron had really bought into the Co-op idea, and if the Conservative Co-op Movement, with its 37 members, had really found some clout, Her Majesty could have been reading out a very different list of new Bills.

Centre stage could have been the Financial Mutuals and Transparency Bill that put financial co-ops and mutuals, plus banking transparency, at the heart of a Plan B to boost growth.

Embarrassed by the failure to remutualise Northern Rock, George Osborne could have brought forward a Bill to firstly force the Financial Services Authority and its replacement to promote diversity in financial services – or in other words make more effort to encourage building societies and friendly societies in the mortgage, pensions and insurance markets.

Secondly, included in this Bill would have been an expansion of credit union activity, including a greater role for local authorities and housing associations to promote credit unions and local community development finance institutions.

The final element of this Bill would have required all banks to make public details of what and where they lend, injecting much-needed transparency into the debate about how to reconnect Britain’s global banks with communities in the UK.

An Energy Co-operatives Bill to challenge the monopoly of the ‘big six’, encourage more competition to stop the endless drift upwards of energy bills and promote a modern, sustainable energy industry, owned much more by local communities, might have been next on the Royal list.

An Employee Ownership Bill could have driven a new package of measures to promote real employee-owned businesses – with workers and management alike sharing in the proceeds – and not just 1980s-style management buyouts.

A Co-operative Housing Tenure Bill would drive a new era of co-operative housing, supported by revenue from a tax on bankers bonuses. This would get new social and affordable housing under way, creating new jobs and real apprenticeship opportunities to start to tackle youth unemployment.

An International Development Bill could have been introduced to lock into law the UN demand that the world’s richest nations allocate 0.7% of their national income to help tackle poverty. The Bill would have required all aid recipients to account for how they spend the money, would champion democratic institutions in developing countries and would require the Department for International Development to report on how and how much of UK aid was being spent tackling poverty through co-operatives.

Alongside such a Bill, Her Majesty could have announced a new UK initiative to reach an international agreement on new global poverty targets for when the Millennium Development Goals come to an end in 2015.

Recognising the importance of football and sport to the national well-being and the growing effort by a small elite to take over the biggest clubs, the Government could have decided to follow the example of continental clubs Bayern Munich and Barcelona and forced rich owners to embrace a real role for fans in the ownership of clubs, with a guaranteed place on the board for a fan representative, elected by a football supporters’ trust or fans’ co-op.

With the loss of confidence in the Government’s efforts to help the third sector, and charities in particular, a new drive could have been announced to support social action with new ideas to encourage volunteering by companies winning government contracts, and new measures to create fair markets in the tendering of government work so that charities have a level playing field with the private sector.

In this International Year of Co-operatives, there could have been a Queen’s Speech which put the great co-op values of social justice, solidarity and freedom at the heart of Whitehall and Westminster decision-making over the next 12 months. Instead we have a damp squib of a Queen’s Speech that will do little to help achieve economic growth and do even less to help families cope with rising household bills and the threat of even higher unemployment.

All these measures have been championed by Co-op MPs. We have Chris Evans championing bank transparency, while Chris Leslie and Andy Love have been pushing for diversity in financial markets. Meg Hillier and Luciana Berger have pushed the Government on energy co-ops, Alun Michael champions volunteering, and Ed Balls and Cathy Jamieson are urging for a Plan B to grow the economy, tackle the housing crisis and cut youth unemployment.

Jonny Reynolds is pushing co-op housing tenure and Stella Creasy is promoting credit unions and action to tackle legal loan sharks. Others in the Co-op Group of MPs, such as Tom Greatrex, have been promoting football supporters’ trusts and fan power. And none of this touches on the excellent work in the House of Lords by the likes of Angela Smith, Tommy McAvoy, George Foulkes and other great co-operators.

Gareth Thomas is Labour & Co-operative MP for Harrow West and Chair of the Co-operative Party.