Tory public sector workers plan announced

The Tories kept up an explicit push to woo Labour supporters today by renewing a pledge to give public sector workers the chance to form co-operatives to run services.

Shadow chancellor George Osborne hailed the policy as the biggest shift of power to workers since Margaret Thatcher introduced the right to buy council houses in the 1980s.

Under the proposals, the staff of taxpayer-funded services such as primary schools, job centres and nursing teams would enjoy freedom to decide how they were run - within certain national standards.

Opposition leader David 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.

Over the weekend he launched a naked appeal for Labour supporters to keep an "open mind" about backing his party at the general election, and declared that the Tories were very much on the "centre ground".

Mr Osborne told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the move was "pretty radical".

"This is as big a transfer of power to working people since the sale of council house homes in the 1980s.

"We are saying to public sector workers: 'if you want to, and only if you want to, you can create employee-led co-operatives and you can run state services, paid for by the taxpayer'.

"This is a power shift to public sector workers so that they take control of their own working environment and they get away from these top-down bureaucracies which have made life a misery for so many people in the public sector."

He denied that it would result in a "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.

"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. So it is not a complete free for all."

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.

"One would hope that in any organisation where the bosses had completely lost the confidence of the staff then one would look at the future of those bosses," he told the programme.

The Co-operative Party, Labour's sister party, branded Mr Osborne "clueless".

General secretary Michael Stephenson said: "George Osborne's comments show the Tories are completely clueless on co-operatives.

"Mutuality is about giving communities a say in how services are run - not just public sector workers.

"The Tories don't understand co-operative values. Just as Cameron's Conservative Co-operative movement turned out to be neither a co-operative, nor a movement, George Osborne's plan for employee-run public services fails to balance the needs of consumers, the public, with the interests of the public-sector workers themselves."

Cabinet Office Minister Tessa Jowell said: "While we are seeking to learn lessons from mutual companies like the Co-operative and John Lewis - owned, respectively, by their customers and their staff, Tory local authorities - which Cameron offers as a model for how the Tories would govern - have decided that their model of public service delivery is the budget airline.

"Under the Tories the principle this appears to encapsulate is that ability to pay should determine the level and quality of the service."