There “shouldn't be beef” between trade unions and social enterprise, says SEUK CEO

Social enterprises and trade unions should work “much more closely together” said Peter Holbrook CBE in London yesterday.

The CEO of membership body Social Enterprise UK (SEUK) made the comments when put on the spot during the opening panel discussion at the University of Greenwich’s five day Social Enterprise Festival.

When a member of the audience asked, “What should the relationship between social enterprise and the wider trade union movement be?”, the panel called on Holbrook, sitting in the audience, for a response.

He said: “There are very, very complex issues at stake here… There have been times when Unite staff have been wearing t-shirts that say ‘No to social enterprise’ and ‘No to privatisation’.

“There have also been times when there have been some really useful observations by the trade union movement about the implications of bringing in a market of providers into what was traditionally provided by the state.”

Peter HolbrookPeter Holbrook CBE, CEO of SEUK. Photo credit: SEUK

Tensions exist between the social enterprise movement and the trade unionists, who argue that social enterprise is a carefully constructed way for government to privatise core public services without causing alarm.

In September 2010, Unite’s assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail wrote in Social Enterprise magazine (now Pioneers Post) that social enterprise was central to a privatisation agenda that uses “warm words” to disguise “open sesame to private companies wishing to grab more lucrative NHS contracts”.

On his blog Beanbags and Bullsh!t in January 2011, CEO of Social Spider CIC David Floyd, wrote: “One thing that most trade unions and most social enterprises in the UK share is being fundamentally pragmatic in their approach to social action.”

Referring specifically to public sector spin-outs, he wrote: “The big mistake on the social enterprise side is to avoid considering the possibility that replacing a publicly-delivered service with a social enterprise won’t necessarily be a good thing for the workforce of that service.”

And that on the union side, “the big mistake is to fail to see that genuine social enterprises, working productively in partnership with unions, might be the best option on the table for their members”.

I believe in localism, the role of the state and in communities taking control of public services

In Greenwich Holbrook said: “Many of the fears and concerns articulated by the unions are actually well founded.

“Some of this (social enterprise) agenda has been usurped by politicians seeking to marketise and privatise parts of our public services. We have had to recognise that as a sector and we have to have a coherent response to it.”

He recalled being asked by government two years ago to support an initiative that aimed to make a local fire service a social enterprise. The implications of such a transformation would mean that a market is created in which any provider can compete against any other provider, whether it’s a social enterprise or not, to get the contract to put out fires.

Holbook said: “The fire service are in a very privileged position in that they can enter your house without your permission if they expect that there is a fire.” Most people are more than happy for this to be the case, however the idea of a private company like Serco having this power is not something which he – and most likely the majority of others – would be comfortable with.

Holbrook concluded by saying that he believes it is essential for both the social enterprise and trade union movements to acknowledge that both movements originate from the same sources: “I believe in localism, the role of the state and in communities taking control of public services and assets and local infrastructure.

“As long as there is accountability and transparency both from local government and within social enterprises themselves, then I think we should be able to navigate these inherent tensions.”


Photo credit: Roger Blackwell

Pioneers Post is thrilled to be media partnering the Greenwich University Social Enterprise Festival between 11th and 15th of May. There are a few places left for some of the main events during the week including, the Big Social Enterprise Debate.

To find out more, click here and to follow the latest Festival announcements on Twitter, check out and #SEFestival2015