Page last updated at 19:46 GMT, Monday, 15 February 2010

Tory 'worker co-operatives' plan

David Cameron outlines his pledge for public sector workers

David Cameron has renewed a pledge to give public sector workers the chance to form co-operatives to run services as part of a push to woo Labour voters.

Staff of taxpayer-funded services, such as primary school teachers and nurses, would decide how they were run - within certain national standards.

Mr Cameron said it would "unleash a new culture of public sector enterprise".

Labour said it had already set up public service co-ops and Mr Cameron was just "catching up" with its ideas.

Mr Cameron re-launched the initiative, which he first announced in 2007, at a pre-election event at Battersea power station in London.

In his speech, he sought to reach out to disillusioned Labour and Lib Dem voters who had never voted Tory before, telling them: "We are not the same old Conservative Party. We are the party of the mainstream majority in our country."

Under Tory plans, employee-owned co-operatives would be able to decide on management structures, "innovate" to cut costs and improve the standard of service, and share any financial surpluses among the staff.

The issue is not whether or not you put workers in charge. We are doing that - with parents and patients too
Ed Balls, schools secretary

Mr Cameron said: "I know that there are millions of public sector workers, that work in our public services. and who frankly today feel demoralised, feel disrespected, feel a lack of recognition.

"We will not only get rid of those targets and that bureaucracy that drives you so mad, we will give you the power in a way that is as radical as the right to buy your council home."

He refused to be drawn on how many public sector workers he expected to set up co-operatives, which would be allowed to keep any surplus cash.

But he assured workers that wage rates, pensions and other benefits would be carried across from the public sector and members would be able to remain in trade unions - and he urged the unions to overcome their "scepticism" about the plan.

He said workers co-operatives had been shown to boost productivity and staff morale and reduce absenteeism.

The Tory leader also used the event to launch new election posters aimed at disaffected Labour and Lib Dem voters, saying: "I've never voted Tory before, but we've got to mend our broken society" and other slogans on a similar theme.

Mr Cameron launched the Conservative Co-operative Movement in 2007, insisting that such groups embodied core Conservative values, and it was time to reclaim them from the political Left.

'No free-for-all'

Shadow Chancellor George Osborne denied the cooperative plan would result in a "complete free-for-all".

"The check on quality here is that they would be contracting services to the local authority or the National Health Service and they would be providing a contract, for community nursing or for primary education.

David Cameron is using the language of socialism to mask a break-up of public services
Gail Cartmail, Unite union

"And we would be making sure, as taxpayers, that we were getting value for money and it was appropriately run and the standards the kids were being taught to were at the right level and the like."

Standards such as the national curriculum would remain, he said.

"But the essential principle that people in the public sector, whether they are community nursing teams, primary schools, job centres, would be able to take ownership of their own enterprise and run it as a non-for-profit social enterprise or co-operative providing state services is exactly what we are talking about."

It would mean teachers could effectively force out a head, he agreed.


Ministers said Labour had supported co-operatives for many years and were extending the idea into frontline health and education services with plans for 200 Co-operative Trust schools by the end of 2010.

Schools Secretary Ed Balls described the Tory plans as a "gimmick" designed to "divert attention" from the party's reluctance to fund frontline public services.

"The issue is not whether or not you put workers in charge. We are doing that - with parents and patients too," he said.

"The issue is whether you will fund those public services. We will and the Conservatives are not not matching those guarantees."

The Tory plan also received a hostile reception from the biggest public sector trade union Unite.

Gail Cartmail, assistant general secretary for the public sector, said the Tory leader was "using the language of socialism to mask a break-up of public services" and "mangling the English language to advance his anti-state ideology".

Michael Stephenson, general secretary of the Co-operative Party, which counts 30 Labour MPs including Mr Balls among its members, said the Tories were "completely clueless on co-operatives."

But the John Lewis Partnership, the UK's largest employee-owned company, welcomed moves towards employee ownership in public service.

Chairman Charlie Mayfield said: "We believe that co-ownership can empower front line workers to achieve a high level of customer service."

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