miEnterprise is an entirely new model of social enterprise: supported self employment.

It has been developed by Jon Pitts of Herefordshire Social Services working with Geof Cox, and arises directly out of their practical experience of the limitations of other approaches to employment for disabled people:

  • Jon Pitts set up and ran a successful business – still growing – but took a back seat there to take on management of a day centre for learning disabled people in Herefordshire; when he started looking at modernising the day service and especially at helping 'earning disabled' people become economically active he found there was no accessible, flexible, long-term gradation from current services to employment which did not involve risking welfare benefits, worrying family, losing old friends, or generally changing too much too quickly
  • Geof Cox has worked for years as an advisor to Social Firms UK, and has seen the social firm model working well across Europe, involving many people with physical disabilities or mental health problems, but faltering with those furthest from the labour market such as learning disabled people in the care system; his own experience with the flexibility of self-employment, including combining work with home-educating his son, convinced him that Jon's ideas might just reach the people that other approaches, such as social firms or supported employment, cannot reach.

The key problem to be addressed is that approaches such as social firms and supported employment require a sudden change from attending a day centre and getting welfare benefits to work and wages. Even with long and careful work-preparedness activities this change is too much for most learning disabled people, who therefore get stuck in care, or on a merry-go-round of training courses, or prepare indefinitely for work they will never actually achieve. This is because the operation of minimum wage, benefits and other regulations make it very hard to build up work and productivity slowly: you have to be either out of work or right in it, working regularly, productively and earning over the minimum wage.

These regulations, however, do not apply to self-employment. What miEnterprise does is take all the hassle out of self-employment – the paperwork, accounts, selling, and so on - so that 'earning disabled' people can make the products or deliver the services they like and get paid for them – whether they work 4 or 40 hours, whether they get £10 or £100 per week. Most will start slowly - and make a slow, low-stress and flexible transition from care to employment.

miEnterprise can work in or alongside an existing day centre with existing resources, so people don't have to change their routines or their friends if they don't want to. It's not at all risky in the early years – but later, if people are really getting into working and the right opportunities arise, miEnterprise can easily develop their self-employment into social firms gradually.

Here's how miEnterprise works:

  • An activist or 'miEnterprise champion' convenes a support partnership in their area – usually around a local authority or charity day service. Who's in the support partnership will vary – in the pilot it includes Herefordshire County Council, the Benefits Agency, Business Link and HMRC – in other areas disability charities or social enterprise development agencies might also get involved. All such agencies already have responsibilities to support disabled people and/or enterprise, and miEnterprise simply refocuses these existing resources.
  • miEnterprise is 'open source' – all of the information and materials miEnterprise champions will need to set up a miEnterprise project in their area will be downloaded free from the internet (there will only be charges, to cover costs, for printed materials, DVDs, or to get additional help and advice).
  • The support partnership forms a local miEnterprise Community Interest Company – the model and guidance on how to do this are already available – and interested earning disabled people join this 'club' – in fact they and their families will majority own it in the long term.
  • Working through the miEnterprise toolkit, the support partnership helps earning disabled people identify something they can make or do that can be sold. In many cases this will – at first - just be a development of existing activities such as crafts or gardening; it can become more business-like later.
  • Again using the miEnterprise toolkit and the linked clear benefits website, the support partnership organises welfare benefits reviews for everyone that is going to start earning and designs their individual optimal mix of income sources.
  • The self-employment activities are substantially self-directed, and this frees up the time of staff in the linked local authority or charity day service - with the help of the support partnership, the miEnterprise toolkit, etc – to set up and run the simple miEnterprise systems to deal with required registrations, accounts, marketing and so on. All of this paperwork – and other key tasks which might present challenges, such as selling – can be done for self-employed people if necessary – in fact it is perfectly standard practice for groups of self-employed people to work through marketing co-operatives that take on all such tasks.
  • If necessary, this support can be paid for either through 'direct payments' or, at first, through development grants. miEnterprise will work with In Control to simplify the direct payments route.
  • As numbers and economic activity increase everyone contributes back to miEnterprise: the earning disabled people experience it as an enterprise club and help each other; some earn more than they need (in respect of their optimal earnings/benefits mix) and can pay something towards the miEnterprise services; some get together to form social firms which remain part of the miEnterprise support structure but maybe give back a bit more – and so on.

For more information contact Geof Cox - or take a look at the miEnterprise website:www.mienterprise.org.uk

Lawyers and other professionals involved in social enterprise organisational structure development may want to look at and contribute to the miEnterprise organisational model at The Open Social Enterprise Organisational Structures Bank