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By Debbie le Quesne

Co-operatives: Is this really the way forward?

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Not to be confused with The Co-op, Co-operatives UK is a national body that campaigns for co-operation and works to promote, develop and unite enterprises.

And it’s just possible it might have come up with a trump card in these times of care funding austerity and at the same time help restore public confidence in the sector. We’ll have to see when all the cards are on the table . . .

Published in a national newspaper, Pat Conaty, a research associate at Co-operatives UK, tables this question: “Could the active membership and co-operative ownership of workers, service users, volunteers and family members rebuild public trust in services and put an end to cruelty and neglect through a socially inclusive solution where the system of care is owned by the recipients?”

This week also saw the launch of the UK and Wales co-operatives research report Social Co-operatives, a Democratic Co-Production Agenda for Care Services in the UK.

With austerity measures aplenty, the publication identifies opportunities for co-operative approaches to deliver social care across the UK. It’s a brave agenda, but the logistics of management and accountability worry me.

So many stories of bad caring have dogged the industry and more recently the Winterbourne View scandal and the Southern Cross crisis have served to erode public confidence even further.

But what if there was a democratically accountable ownership model for health and care services, asks Conaty.

In a growing number of countries, from Europe to Canada and Japan, social care co-operative models are being rolled out.

Conaty believes these approaches can develop in the UK and would directly empower the people receiving care. Personally. I’m cautious. I have spent time studying care in Europe and there is a strong embedded culture of wives giving up work to care for elderly parents of in-laws. True, things are changing, but slowly. It’s important that people don’t think the co-operative approach is the default setting in Europe.

She adds: “We have researched social co-operative approaches extensively and the Italian co-operative movement provides a good example. The movement has been at the forefront of innovation in the provision of social and health care services.

“During the fiscal crisis of the late 1970s it pioneered a social solidarity system that enabled workers, volunteers, service users, family members and providers of co-operative capital to become member stakeholders in the governance and ownership of care services.“

Pretty radical, I think, but it’s still functioning. Most Italian social co-operatives have fewer than 30 worker-owners and less than 100 other stakeholder members.

Development in the UK has been slower but some co-operatives in the UK are now delivering home care.

Conaty says that in Wales, co-operative approaches to care delivery are specifically advocated in the Social Services and Well Being (Wales) Act which received royal assent at the beginning of May. Whatever may develop in the UK, be assured I’ll be fighting the corner for the private sector to be fully engaged. I don’t believe co-operatives can be a substitute for what we already have in place, but working alongside them seems a possible way forward. Watch this space. . .

 

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