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My Lords, I entered your Lordships' House with some trepidation, knowing that it was full of experts on every subject. For someone who had spent their entire career outside politics, it was a daunting prospect. I thank noble Lords for allaying my fears and for making me so welcome. I thank in particular those who introduced me to this House: the noble Lords, Lord Marland and Lord Howard of Lympne. I also thank the staff who have made it very easy for me to adjust. They have helped to resolve my IT issues, facilitated my introduction and directed me around a maze of corridors.
I am the sponsor of three city academies in the Midlands, with around 3,000 pupils. The schools are each called Grace Academy, and all of them have passed the benchmark of the national challenge since they were opened. They include one that passed the benchmark within nine months of our taking it over, despite the fact that it was in special measures prior to that. Some may point to new buildings and facilities as a reason for their success, but these improvements were made before the school had a new building-in fact it is still waiting to go into its new building. I have found that when you have the right people and they are empowered and motivated, you get the right result. I have a great and dedicated team who have made this happen, and I am extremely grateful to them.
The academies are based on a Christian ethos and have a business and enterprise specialism. It is ironic that I should be an academy sponsor as I played truant from school for six months and was held down for a year. Therefore, I have some understanding of the mind of youngsters who are mischievous and disengaged from education. I left school with a few O-levels and had to study until I was 27 at night school and day release to qualify as an accountant, which made me realise the value of education and wish I had been a little more diligent at school.
The business and enterprise specialism stems from my own experience as a businessman over the past 35 years. I believe that young people need to be prepared for the workplace. I started my first business at the age of 11 when I cut flowers from the roundabouts in Kenya, where I lived for five years, and sold them door to door in aid of the non-existent Kenya Hospital Bedding Fund. This business had the benefit of a 100 per cent gross margin, but came to a sudden and painful end when I knocked on the door of a doctor who knew that no such fund existed. This reinforces the need to train our young people in ethical business practices.
I learnt also from this that closing a business is a very hard and unpleasant affair, and is to be avoided if at all possible. The foundation of my existing business came from the bankruptcy of the Jensen Motors Ltd and my £6,000 redundancy pay. This happened during the oil crisis of 1974. Those were very difficult days, in some ways not dissimilar to those of recent years. It is said that it is not the length of experience that counts but the intensity, and for me that was a huge learning experience. Jensen had a great product but at the wrong time. Building cars with seven-litre engines during an oil crisis was not sustainable. I learnt that timing, strategy and the right product were fundamental to success, and I was able to put that experience to good use in my subsequent business career. Today my businesses include being the sole importer of various Japanese brands-and later this year, some Chinese brands-to the UK and certain northern European countries. I acquired a publicly quoted property company in 1993 that has interests in the UK, USA and mainland Europe. I also have a small finance company.
There is no substitute for the school of life and working alongside very bright people who know their subject. I have been privileged to do that in my business career, and I know that I will similarly learn much in this House, and perhaps have a little to contribute. The reason my academies are based on a Christian ethos is because I believe in Christian values and that young people need a sound moral compass in their lives. I should add they are not faith schools, although I myself have a Christian faith; they are open to pupils of all faiths or none.
I do not restrict our aspirations for these young people to merely academic achievement. Our mission statement is:
"Developing well educated, considerate and caring citizens, with a strong sense of values, who will succeed in and contribute to modern society".
We have five core values: grace, respect, integrity, potential and excellence. I take a personal pride in their achievements, as if they were my own children. They are, in the main, wonderful young people and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity of being a small part of their lives.
Through donations from my business, I have been able to support a charity that my wife and I founded in 1988. We consider ourselves blessed to be in a position to help some of those less fortunate than ourselves. The charity is involved in a number of schools and Christian projects overseas and we still spend a great deal of time visiting these projects as often as we can. Also, each year we send groups of young people from the academies overseas to visit some of these projects, primarily in Africa-probably to repay my previous transgressions. It has had a transformational effect on the lives of these young people, who think they are deprived until they see others who are in much worse condition. They then start to appreciate the opportunities they have.
While I am in your Lordships' House, I will wish to speak from time to time on business-related issues, but my real passion is based around charitable activities. I thank your Lordships again for the welcome you have extended to me and hope, in time, to get to know some of your Lordships better.