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John Restakis’s visit to Wales: summary of issues

David Smith, Wales Progressive Co-operators

1.  John welcomed the emphasis placed in the forthcoming Social Services Bill on the need for services to be user-centred and user-directed, the need to increase service users’ access to information and the need for early intervention.

2.  John argued that to put this vision into practice it is necessary to ensure that users participate as equals in the governance of the body providing services and that this can best be achieved in a co-operative model.  This equalises access to information on finances, performance statistics, quality standards, development priorities etc. and also provides service users with a social network based on reciprocity which enhances their social capital and sense of well-being.

3.  John argued that whilst state or public services may provide a good standard of care it is difficult for such services to be tailored to the specific needs of individual users and that co-operative structures are much more adaptable and can respond more quickly to changed circumstances and to innovative ways of providing support. Where service providers are also co-op members it is easier to ensure more appropriate induction and on-going staff training and to raise the employment status of the staff.

4.  Co-operatives can take a number of forms:  customer or user co-operatives, producer or worker co-operatives or a combination of the two.  A further, multi-stakeholder, model has been developed which provides for membership by community-based supporters (individual or institutional) and this may well be the model best suited to the provision of social support services with an eye to serving wider community needs and interests - both current and future – and to ensure optimum co-operation with Local Authorities.

5.  John referred to the situation in Bologna, where 87% of social care is provided by co-operatives under contract to the municipal authority.  He said they had access to a number of additional income streams – eg by charging those members who could afford to pay for some of the services provided, by selling services to other groups or individuals and by attracting investment, particularly from relatives of user members. Individual co-ops had to bid for municipal contracts and are supported by co-op consortia that negotiate with the municipal authorities on matters such as uniform assessment criteria, quality standards and evaluation, procurement procedures etc.

6.  It was noted that the Government proposed to consult further on its proposals to promote social enterprises.  John pointed out that all co-operatives fell within this classification but that not all social enterprises – even though being not-for-profit organisations - are necessarily co-operatives. This is because not all social enterprises use a democratic governance structure.  With regard to the provision of social care, he argued that the Government should indicate a strong preference for the co-operative (especially the multi-stakeholder) model as being the best suited to realising the vision expressed in the draft Bill.

7.  John expressed reservations about the possibility of producing the culture change that was required in the delivery of social services on a cost neutral basis and emphasised that the process would have to be relatively slow and incremental.  He was currently leading a group in Canada looking at the possibility of introducing a franchising system for delivering elder care through the use of co-operative models.

8.  John also referred to the Bologna Summer Programme for Co-operative Studies which he had helped establish in Bologna some years ago.  Groups from different countries were encouraged to meet for some days to discuss their own situation before attending the Bologna Summer Programme for international interaction.  He intended reviving this venture for 2013 and said he would be happy to help facilitate representation from Wales.  There was general agreement that this could prove very useful in progressing this kind of development in Wales.

9.  Gwenda Thomas pointed out that the Welsh Government did not have complete freedom of action in this field, particularly as Wales is tied to the welfare system determined by the UK Government.  The Welsh Government intended however to introduce legislation to protect vulnerable adults.  The possibility of utilising the Direct Payments scheme to promote social co-operatives was also mentioned as a means of breaking down the isolation of individual service users and providing them with the social network and support which would enable them to reap maximum benefit from the system. The meeting ended with a suggestion that there is a need to build informed local constituencies through early intervention and by involving those in need of social care, particularly older people and disabled people. To this end, we floated the idea of a Social Co-operative ‘Neath’ Convention.

12.  John Restakis made some additional points, in particular:

a)                 One can expect to meet resistance to change from those embedded in current institutions

b)                The co-operative model is not an immediate panacea, but will take 15-20 years commitment to achieve a really significant impact.

c)                 John Restakis said the role of the state is changing in view of increasing wealth putting a greater emphasis on consumer choice, initially in products but now more on services as well.  Initially this fed the drive to privatise services, but society is beginning to recognise the shortcomings of privatised services.

d)                In Italy, for social co-ops the Government meets the overhead employment costs of marginalized people (poorly educated, ex psychiatric patients, drug addicts etc) which greatly enhances their employability.

e)                Quality of services depends on the quality of the relationship between service provider and service user.  This should be based on reciprocity (mutual benefit –but not only on a one-to-one basis) and democratic control.

f)Government bodies usually prefer to let a small number rather than a multiplicity of contracts.  In Bologna, in order to maintain local democratic control, local co-ops have formed consortia which can compete for local authority contracts but then sub-let parts of the contract to locally based co-ops.

g)                In Italy and Canada some social care co-ops have been formed by existing agencies transforming themselves into co-ops or forming co-ops with other existing agencies; in some instances, new groups of service providers and service users come together to form new co-ops.

h)                 Direct payments made to individuals can isolate them unless peer support and assistance with overhead administration tasks is available.  Co-ops are best placed to provide this supportive social network.

i) Various surveys have shown that service users within co-operative models experience higher levels of satisfaction than those in other environments:  their overall sense of well-being is increased and their need to be referred for more intensive forms of care is minimised.  Service providers report higher levels of job-satisfaction than workers in either the public or private sectors – even where wages are somewhat lower – due to their ability to influence the work environment, to relate better to service users and because of their input to education and training.

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Hilda Smith: a tribute by the Chair of the S Wales Area Committee, the Co-operative, 9 April 2013

As I’m sure you are all aware - with the death of Hilda Smith last month at the great age of 94 - Co-operation has lost a great advocate and worker. Hilda was a former member of this Committee and in such circumstances members would normally take the opportunity of a Committee meeting to pay tributes.

Our circumstances on this occasion are rather different as we have Hilda’s son David as one of our current members.

David has intimated to me that he has been very touched and moved by all the letters and cards of sympathy he has received from Co-operative colleagues expressing sadness at Hilda’s passing and for the wonderful contributions she has made.

He does not feel that he could emotionally cope with a series of tributes this evening and in these circumstances what I propose to do, as Chair, is to make a SINGLE tribute on behalf of us all, followed by a period of silence during which we can all privately reflect on Hilda as a person and a co-operator.

I have known Hilda for getting on for 20 years –not as long as some on this Committee have known her – but still a long time. When she joined the South Wales Committee of the Co-operative Group, I think in 2009, she must have been by a long stretch, its oldest “new” member, although she had been a member of many co-op committees before.

She was very active in what can now be seen as a golden age of Co-operation in the 1930’s and was particularly engaged in the campaigning illustrated in the wonderful films of the London Co-operative Society, with themes of Internationalism, Education Pacifism and Feminism. We have to remember, Hilda was not all that far behind the Pankhurst’s and she was born just after the ending of the First World War.

As many of us know, Hilda was completely passionate about what she believed in and was always a strong advocate for the same.  She was always a master of her brief and fastidious in studying her papers and making reasoned and detailed contributions.

She had a powerful intellect but was still very interested in making practical observations about what a store should stock, what services it should give to the customers/ members and how they could be engaged at shop level.

I remember her observing back in the early days of Recession, that the support work of the Co-operative Group, through such things as the Community Divided Fund would become far more vital, as Public Expenditure Cuts bite and she is being proven right.

To think when she arrived in South Wales in 1986, she did not come for a rest, because at the age of 76, she set about with vigour in a whole new co-operative and mutual scene.

 She was instrumental in establishing the Newport University of the Third Age, The Wales Food Alliance- together with David – which had a number of collaborations with the Group. She was a member of the WG Older Persons Advisory Committee and made a considerable contribution to policy formulation. Of late she has been engaged in modelling social enterprises to deliver home care.

I last saw Hilda at the Members meeting last year at St Fagan’s, when the meeting was somewhat hijacked by Disability Rights Protesters.  I will remember her contribution for a very long time. She was not prepared to sit idly by but rose to make an impassioned speech about how Co-operatives had been at the forefront of protecting and promoting the rights of the disabled for getting on for 100 years.

David, Hilda was highly principled, creative, dynamic not just a thinker and dreamer about the Co-operative Commonwealth but who has actually contributed to help make it happen over 60 or 70 years.

We are all the better for knowing her and she has left you with much to live up to!

Brian Rees

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