Unions rail against Tory plan for public sector co-operatives

Social workers could be given the right to form co-operatives to take over delivery of services under Conservative plans to transform the public sector.

As part of a Tory pre-election appeal, shadow chancellor George Osborne said co-operatives would “cut waste and deliver better services for everyone” by giving power back to public sector workers.

Under the proposals, any public sector team delivering a function that could be paid according to a simple results-based contract drawn up with central government could form a co-operative. These include JobCentre Plus offices, primary schools and social work teams.

A policy statement from the Conservatives said the employee-owned co-operatives “will be able to decide on management structures, innovate to cut costs and improve the quality of service, and share any financial surpluses amongst the staff”.

Osborne said: “This is the biggest shift of power from government to people since the right to buy your council house in the 1980s.”

Unions Unite and Unison responded by accusing the Tories of wanting to “break up” the public sector.

Gail Cartmail, Unite’s assistant general secretary for the public sector, said the plans would “erode the joined-up working that exists between health, social work and educational professionals”.

And Unison chief Dave Prentis said: “This is just another Tory plan to break up public services, plunge them into confusion and then let the private sector pick over their bones.”

A type of social work co-operative is already being tested by the government as a way to deliver better outcomes for children in England.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families has launched social work practice pilots in five local authorities over the past three months.

Social work practices are social worker-led organisations that are commissioned by, but independent of, local authorities. Partners have cited improving professional autonomy as a key motivator for joining.

When asked if the party would support the social work practice model if it won the next election, expected to be on 6 May, a spokesperson for the Conservatives said they were consulting on how co-operatives would work in local government.

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