Co-op poll bid to restore reputation

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THE Co-operative Group yesterday admitted it had lost touch with customers and communities as it “asked the nation” to help shape its future.

It has launched an online nationwide poll in the biggest ever piece of research carried out
by the group, as it seeks to move on from a dismal 2013. The mutual’s reputation has been hit by financial troubles at its banking arm, and the scandal involving former bank chairman Paul Flowers.

Group chief executive Euan Sutherland pledged to listen and act on the views of those who take part in the survey, including customers, members, staff and the wider public.

He said: “In recent years The Co-operative Group has lost touch with its customers and members and with the communities in which it operates – we haven’t been listening.”

He added: “We will be asking people up and down the country what they believe The Co-operative should really stand for.

“This is an unprecedented move for an organisation of the size and the scale of The Co-operative, and the results will feed directly into our wider review of strategy and purpose.”

The survey – available at www.haveyoursay.coop – asks a broad range of questions, from how to improve goods and services, to more thorny issues, such as whether the Co-op should make political donations.

Lord Myners, the former City Minister who is leading a review of the Co-op’s governance structure, revealed last month that the group’s £1m annual donation to the Labour Party was to be cut as it looks to save money.

There have been questions over Labour’s links to former Co-op Bank chairman Mr Flowers, who was a Labour councillor, and was arrested as part of a drugs investigation.

Mr Sutherland said the group would consider axing political donations completely if the vast majority of those quizzed in the survey said it should.

He said: “We are genuinely opening ourselves up to listen.

“If we get an overwhelming response that says customers don’t see the link between funding a political party, it will be impossible for us not to take action and ignore it.”

The survey will be open until March 24 and the results will be published at the group’s annual meeting in May.

The food-to-funerals group is preparing to reveal results for 2013 at the end of next month – figures that will be “pretty ugly” due to the rescue of its bank arm, according to Mr Sutherland.

Its banking business has fallen under the control of bondholders, including US hedge funds, as part of a refinancing effort to fill a £1.5bn hole in its balance sheet.

The group now faces a raft of inquiries into what went wrong at the bank. Regulators recently launching formal investigations that could see former senior managers fined or banned from working in the industry.

But there have been bright spots for the group, with its 2,800-strong food chain recording “strong” Christmas trading after like-for-like sales rose one per cent in the 13 weeks to January 4 despite a very tough wider market.

The Co-operative Group has strong historic links with Yorkshire, where it employs around 7,600 people.

The Co-operative Group was created from the merger of the Co-operative Group and United Co-operatives in 2007. United Co-operatives was formed in 2002 through the merger of Yorkshire Co-operatives and United Norwest Co-operatives. Two of Yorkshire’s oldest co-operative societies – Sheffield and Leeds – merged with United in early 2007.

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