Social Firms UK Annual Conference

Social Firms UK is to be congratulated on another excellent annual conference this week. I am however unsure about one aspect: the decision to lobby for a waiver of PAYE and NI for any company that employs more than 25% disabled staff. Clearly this would be of enormous help to Social Firms, while at the same time could surely not be seen as special treatment since it would be open to any business. There is, however, always a price to pay for tax concessions – for example in greater regulation – somebody else deciding what 'disabled' means, and maybe changing their mind every other year.

Moreover, there is a danger here that goes right to the heart of the Social Firms movement, and for me this was reinforced by the emphasis several of the conference speakers placed on 'getting to scale'.

Running a Social Firm now is really hard. The essence of the business problem is that Social Firms have higher staff support and supervision costs than their competitors – they must have, or their disabled staff could in fact work in open employment with its often minimal levels of support. It's an extreme version of the old problem: how does the good employer compete with the bad? The rather crazy Social Firm business proposition is to go into the market place with automatically higher costs and try to compete! In fact, of course, Social Firms have all kinds of ingenious ways of solving this fundamental business problem, such as running 2 businesses, say a travel agency and a training provider, which can cross subsidise each other within the shell of a larger enterprise. Tax concessions would make life so much easier - except that it is the very difficulty of the business model, the commitment to both people and to business, and the humanity and imagination and creativity that it requires, that make Social Firms such unique and fulfilling workplaces.

Social Firms are, you see, not just about creating jobs for disabled and disadvantaged people; they're not even just about the whole list of very laudable values and achievements around enterprise and empowerment that all good Social Firms strive for. They are also, crucially, experiments in a whole new way of doing business, of people relating to each other in the workplace; of challenging the alienation that is still what work means to most people.

The danger is that tax concessions will, precisely, focus exclusively on the creation of poor quality jobs; that exploitative commercial operators will move in, or, more likely, those big empire-building charities that can be just as... well... corporate.

Perhaps it's because I've just read Paul Kingsnorth's book Real England – an elegy for the individualistic and local and quirky – including many businesses rooted in alternative values and lifestyles - that are fast disappearing under the bland and multinational and corporate. Perhaps it is better to have any job – even if it's not much fun – than no job at all. Perhaps it's just because I like all those crazy characters you meet at Social Firms conferences (like the guy who's recruitment strategy was to phone his local job centre and ask them to send down all the people they thought would never find a job – they sent 16 - he hired them all).

But to me, these individualistic and radical alternatives to normal business practice are at the very heart of the Social Firms movement. Of course we should try to reach and help more people, but I wonder if tax concessions and 'getting to scale' will really mean quantity at the expense of some of the very human qualities of the wonderful Social Firms we have now.



I glimpsed an alternative growth opportunity, I think, in the Individualised Budgets workshop – an opportunity precisely for thousands of small, local, people-centred micro-providers – but more of that later...