Second Reading

Part of Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill – in the House of Lords at 4:50 pm on 2nd December 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Harding of Winscombe Baroness Harding of Winscombe Conservative 4:50 pm, 2nd December 2014

Maiden Speech: My Lords, I first visited this House when I was eight years old with my grandfather, the then noble and gallant Lord, Lord Harding of Petherton. I sat in the Gallery with my grandmother and my brothers looking down at my father sitting on the steps of the Throne, as he is today. Then, I was struck with awe at the wisdom and history that is this place. As the eldest daughter of a hereditary Peer, I knew with certainty of course that I would never sit on these Benches myself, so it is with deep respect, considerable trepidation and a deep sense that this is an honour that I do not deserve that I address your Lordships today.

One of my grandfather’s sayings when I was a child was, “You can’t be brave unless you are afraid. It’s not the fear that matters; it’s what you choose to do with it that counts”. I used to whisper this to myself every time I circled at the start of a steeplechase. I could almost hear him murmuring his sage advice to me as I walked up the stairs from the Peers’ Cloakroom this afternoon and passed his coat of arms. As an aside, a maiden speech takes about the same amount of time as a three-mile steeplechase, and—for me, at least—it is quite debatable which is the more terrifying.

Of course, my first few weeks here have been made so much easier by the tremendous help and support that I have received from all the staff and from your Lordships on all sides of this House. I thank everyone who has made such kind comments in this debate, and I particularly thank my two supporters, my noble friends Lord King of Bridgwater and Lady Lane-Fox. I also thank my noble friend Lord Henley—my mentor—whose advice in the procedures of this House has been completely invaluable, although please forgive me when I trip, as I undoubtedly will do, on a procedural hurdle.

My life to date has been made up of three things: my career in business; my love of steeplechasing and horseracing, itself an industry with many small businesses, employing some 85,000 people; and my still young family. I find all three represented in the Bill today.

I must declare an interest in that I am the chief executive of a publicly quoted company, TalkTalk Telecom Group. By most standards TalkTalk is a large company, but when compared with our large competitors, such as BT and Sky, we are in fact quite small and clearly affected by many of the provisions in the Bill. The business that I run went from no customers in 2006 to serving more than 4 million households today across the UK. As a result, I have great empathy with the many thousands of small businesses across the UK that are looking to grow.

I myself am proof that sometimes the little guy—or, in my case, the small blonde girl—wins big. I learnt this when I was 30, when my horse, Cool Dawn, won the Cheltenham Gold Cup as a long-odds outsider. I learnt then that sometimes dreams do come true. If a one-horse amateur can win the Cheltenham Gold Cup against the odds, entrepreneurs with big dreams can surely succeed as well, provided that we give them the space and encouragement to try.

I commend this Government for all the great work done over the last four years to make it easier for entrepreneurs to start and grow businesses. I would encourage the Minister, my noble friend Lady Neville-Rolfe, to stay true to the principles of this Bill to reduce unnecessary bureaucracy and burdens on businesses. It is so much easier to add regulation than it is to take it away, and the more complicated and complex the regulation, the harder it is for small businesses to compete. Whether it is greater transparency, easier access to finance, modernised and simplified insolvency procedures, or simpler procedures for childcare providers—all these measures will make it easier for all British businesses to thrive, but they will have a disproportionately positive effect on much smaller businesses. If we aspire to create the conditions to give birth to a British Google, Alibaba, or maybe the next generation Dyson or Rolls-Royce, by definition today they are at best very small businesses—maybe not even yet a business plan. This Bill will make it easier for them to join the FTSE 100 over the next 10 years.

I would also like to speak very briefly about one specific element of the Bill—zero-hours contracts. I suspect that I am alone in this House in having previously run a supermarket—not a chain of supermarkets, just one—Tesco Extra in Yeovil in Somerset. I spent one year out of my 10 in the supermarket sector as a trainee store manager for Tesco. I appreciate that many Members of this House are concerned about the impact of zero-hours contracts, especially when combined with exclusivity clauses. I totally agree with the Bill’s proposals to prevent such abuses. But I can tell you that, with Christmas fast approaching, with stores heaving with people filling their trolleys ready for the festivities and huge queues at the checkouts, zero-hours contracts are not all bad—for employers, for employees and for another critical constituency: customers.

I have been that store manager, walking down the bank of checkouts, staring at a sea of customers all impatient to get on with their Christmas celebrations and I have racked my brains on where to find extra people to man the tills. The ability to call on employees on zero-hours contracts to work at very short notice is something that not only every store manager in Britain would want to be able to do at this time of year, it is something that their customers would thank them for. Zero-hours contracts, when well managed, can be good for employees, too. Thesecontracts work well for people juggling busy lives—from students to working mums to the recently retired—and I have found that they all get great value from them.

I completely support the provisions in this Bill to ban the use of exclusivity clauses in zero-hours contracts, but I would also ask my noble friend the Minister to ensure we remember that maintaining flexibility in our working practices is an essential ingredient to the success of British businesses, and it is an increasingly essential ingredient to many modern lifestyles. Flexible working practices help businesses, big and small, to deliver better customer service, which makes customers happy, and which in turn makes for happier and better rewarded employees. It is something that this Bill will help more businesses to deliver.