Money: The windfall way to 'divvying' up

Once there were thousands of co-operative societies, with most towns, and many villages, having their own co-op society, owned by its shoppers who took a dividend according to how much they spent in the shop. There are still dozens of societies, which are gradually merging, and most have abandoned the old "divi", though some have reintroduced it over the last two years.

Many of these local co-ops also offer their own savings accounts. These are separate from the bank, give a decent return and confer membership of the co-op, so potentially giving access to a future windfall should the society demutualise.

The Ilkeston Co-op Society, in Derbyshire, for instance, pays a reasonable 6.25 per cent for pounds 5,000 to pounds 20,000 on instant access. Amounts of less than pounds 500 earn 3 per cent. The Oxford, Swindon and Gloucester Co-op Society pays 6 per cent on deposits of more than pounds 200, 2 per cent for less than this amount.

United Norwest Co-op Society pays between 3.5 per cent and 5.25 per cent, again depending on your balance.

The leading society, the Co-operative Wholesale Society, owners of the Co-op Bank and the Co-operative Insurance Society, pays 3.5 per cent on deposits of up pounds 1,000; 5 per cent balances of pounds 1,000 to pounds 3,000; and 5.5 per cent on sums above that. The second largest society, the Co-operative Retail Society, pays 5.5 per cent on pounds 50 through pounds 10,000, 6 per cent above.

Societies need customer deposits to finance their businesses and investment programmes, and the interest rates paid are determined as much by a society's need for money as they are by current interest rates. Some of the smaller co-op societies are in a vulnerable financial situation, but these are normally taken over by another society rather than closed down. Savers in co-operatives affiliated to the Co-operative Union are covered by a deposit protection scheme.

Some societies also offer fixed-rate bonds, but these do not normally confer membership.

Not all societies welcome new members. There has been a major increase in the number of membership applications caused by speculation that the now abandoned bid by Andrew Regan and his company, the Lanica Trust for the CWS, could lead to a break-up of the co-op societies, and windfall payouts to members. Several societies have now instituted a more rigorous assessment procedure before new members are accepted. This will usually mean that only people who live in the vicinity of a society's shops will be allowed to join.

Some societies have a more liberal policy. A spokesman for the Oxford society said: "Applicants must be able to use the society. So people can join if they visit and shop here."

There is still an outside chance that some co-op societies could be closed down for asset stripping to finance windfall pay-outs.

Societies believe that any serious attempt at de-mutualisation would take several years, however, because of the complex democratic structures the co-ops operate, and could even be blocked by the Government.

Co-operative Wholesale Society, 0161 834 1212; Co-operative Retail Society, 01706 713000; Chelmsford Star Co-operative Society, 01245 490101; Ilkeston Consumer Co-operative Society, 0115 932 7777; Oxford, Swindon and Gloucester Co-operative Society, 01865 249241; United Norwest Co-operative Society, 01782 279222.