My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to speak in your Lordships' House for the first time. I am grateful to all the staff of this House for their kindness and help, and to noble Lords from all sides who have been so welcoming. My special thanks go to my introducing Peers, my noble friends Lord Rennard and Lady Hussein-Ece, who have been extremely helpful to me.
I might be one of very few Peers who have experienced migration in the early part of their lives. I arrived in the UK with my family from Kashmir at the age of 14 to join my father who was working in Rochdale in the textile industry. One Member of this House once said that his father got on his bike to look for a job; mine got on a plane.
I left school at 16 to work to help my family. I did a variety of jobs-anything that would pay a wage to support my family. I struggled through the new way of life with everything from culture to language, and from religion to the British weather, being very different from what I left behind.
From my early days in the UK, I was engaged in many different local issues, beginning with leading a successful campaign for facilities for young people. I helped to set up a youth centre called the Kashmir Youth Project in Rochdale back in early 1980s, the first of its kind. It was officially opened by a Minister of the time, Sir David Trippier. That visit was followed by visits by many other Ministers and dignitaries, including His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. The project provided several vocational training workshops, including on office skills, childcare, sewing, carpentry, electrical work and computers, as well as recreational facilities and an advice centre.
My passion for equality and fairness led me to be involved in the Community Relations Council in Rochdale, where I served for many years. In Luton, where I made my new home in 1993, I served on the management boards of various schools, the law centre and the local trade union council. I also led campaigns for the rights of oppressed people in many parts of the world, including Palestine, East Timor and, particularly, Kashmir, which is still waiting for the right of self-determination granted to it by the United Nations in 1948.
For many years I have fought extremists of religious and/or political views emerging from many different sides. I believe extremists not only divide our society but damage the very fabric of the multicultural and multi-religious society that we all enjoy. Hence it is the duty of every one of us to challenge this behaviour in order to prevent that from happening.
In 1996 I became an elected councillor for Luton borough; I was the first in my family to become involved in public life in the UK. In 2003 it was the war in Iraq that forced me to leave the Labour Party and join the Liberal Democrats, which proved to be a turning point in my life. In the following few years, I served on the local council as a portfolio holder, a deputy leader of the council, a parliamentary candidate twice, and finally I find myself here in your Lordships' House.
In my working life I have worked in many different fields, from textile manufacturing to banking and from insurance to community work. I have also worked for myself, as a small business person, for many years. This has given me an insight into the issues and problems, as well as the freedom and benefits, of small business people. My experience has given me an understanding of the importance of small businesses to the national economy. In my home town of Luton, around half the people in employment work for small firms employing fewer than 10 people. There is no reason to believe that in this respect Luton is different from any other towns in Britain.
The vital part that small businesses play in generating and maintaining employment must not be underestimated. In the history of British businesses there are hundreds, probably thousands, of stories of small businesses that have grown into very large ones, playing their part in the general well-being of our society, employing thousands of people and paying millions to the Treasury in taxes.
Small businesses depend on the ingenuity, enthusiasm, expertise and flexibility of their owners and workers. However, to grow into large ones they also need investment. Many of the small business owners that I talk to tell me that in order to get an investment loan from the bank they first have to prove that they do not need it. It is good to see that the Government have made a promising start on the process of re-educating the banks on their responsibilities to help small businesses to grow.
The owners of some very small businesses tell me that they have extreme difficulty in running their businesses and acting as immigration officers at the same time to make sure that their employees have the right kind of paperwork to work in the United Kingdom, or they run the risk of being liable to heavy fines and/or imprisonment.
I am confident that, both in the measures that have already been announced and those under consideration, the Government recognise the critical part small businesses can play-and are eager to play-in setting our economy on the path to steady and sustainable growth.