HC Deb 11 May 1978 vol 949 cc1547-50

'In this Act— co-operative principles" means the principles in Schedule (Co-operative Principles) to this Act; co-operative" means a body whose memorandum or articles of association or rules incorporate the principles in that Schedule; on a co-oprative basis" means on the basis of the principles in that Schedule'.—[Richard Wainwright.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Richard Wainwright (Colne Valley)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The purpose of this new clause and the associated schedule which is the subject of Amendment No. 23, which I understand we are also discussing is to draw attention to the fact, in the hope that the Government will move to act in this matter in another place, that this is a Bill that seeks to establish the completely new concept of a Co-operative Development Agency, without any definition whatever of what is a co-operative and what are the co-operative principles, which are referred to several times in the Bill.

The Government's omission in this respect is understandable, because Labour Members are, so to speak, insiders to co-operatives and to them it is as plain as a pikestaff what is meant by the term. If this were a domestic Labour Party affair, I should not dare to intrude, but we are here establishing a public agency, and the members of the public will be interested to know whether a project which they have in mind or on which they are working is relevant to the Agency's powers, whether they are wasting their time in approaching the Agency or whether they have a good case for assistance from it.

In this respect it is important that members of the public who have not been brought up in the atmosphere of Rochdale and the co-ops shall know what this public body is all about. To an ordinary citizen who has not had the advantage of baptism in a particular movement the word "co-operative" is simply a normal term of everyday life. We all have to co-operate in order to get through our day's life at all.

Furthermore, in the report of the working party which gave birth to the Bill, in both the majority report and the minority report, members of the working party set up by the Government felt it necessary to set out what they meant by co-operative principles. The schedule associated with the new clause is taken word for word from the working party's deliberations. So it is in no sense a Liberal invention. It comes from people who inspired the Bill.

I submit—I shall say no more, because I hope that something will be done in another place—that it would be a manifest nonsense to try to establish a new public agency without any definition at all of the principles on which it is supposed to work.

The Under-Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. Bob Cryer)

The clause was debated extensively in Committee, and I should like briefly to reiterate some of the points made there. First, under the Bill the Co-operative Development Agency has a legal obligation to review the law on co-operative organisations. I explained in Committee that we felt that it would be mistaken at this time, when we are setting up a body to look at the whole range of law regarding co-operatives, to saddle it with a definition.

The other point I made then was that the definition lacked a number of legal applications, and certainly they might well cause embarrassment. For example, paragraph 5 of the schedule says: All co-operative societies should make provision for the education of their members, officers, and employees, and of the general public, in the principles and techniques of co-operation, both economic and democratic. I pointed out in Committee that that might well be difficult to define and might well mean that every co-operative or potential co-operative to be helped by the CDA should undertake this obligation.

I recall the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) suggesting that we should welcome an obligation to educate and inform people about co-operative principles. So we do, emphatically, but there is a difference between taking a view that that is a very good thing to do and making it a legal obligation in an Act of Parliament, because there then arises the question of definition of whether an organisation has fulfilled its obligations to educate the general public in co-operative principles. Although we should like it to do it, we feel that the application of a legal definition would of necessity pose difficulties.

Therefore, we say that the CDA should be given a certain amount of flexibility. We expect it to undertake its legal obligation, which is to look at the whole range of law regarding co-operatives. If at the end of its examination it believes that a definition is necessary and should be incorporated into one or more statutes, I am convinced that it will return to the House with recommendations on which the Government and then the House can make a decision.

But, as we are starting on the Bill, and as we are starting on something new—a national agency for the promotion and development of co-operatives—we should not embark on difficulties of definition. I entirely accept that the definitions are universally understood as an expression of co-operative principles. But what is understood by co-operators and members of the general public is not always acceptable when one is applying the law. That is the difficulty that we face.

We want by all means to see co-operators and the general public gain education, but we believe that in this instance it would be better to leave the matter to the good sense and common sense of the CDA. If it feels that there is a gap here that needs filling, it has a legal obligation to come back and let us know.

Therefore, I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that in the light of my comments now and of the comments that I made previously in Committee, which he well understood, he should follow the example he so kindly undertook in Committee and withdraw New Clause No. 1.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)

As in Committee, I would point out to the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) the background to the law as it has been for decades—the Industrial Provident Society Act which covers most of the points that the hon. Gentleman is making. For the three major federations—that is, the Co-operative Union for the consumers—the provident rules go back 95 years. Co-operative housing has a similar kind of federal concept. Again, in agricultural co-operation most of the points that the hon. Gentleman has made are already there.

Mr. Richard Wainright

I cannot pretend that I am yet convinced by the Government's argument. I am sorry to have to predict that in my view there is almost bound to be a series of rows between the new Agency, which I continue to wish well, and disappointed applicants who will firmly believe that they fulfil the unspecified definitions of a co-operative but are rejected by the Agency on the ground that they do not. I hope that in the rather more leisured and contemplative atmosphere of another place, it will be possible to return to this point. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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