(Maiden Speech) My Lords, I am incredibly honoured to stand here today as a Member of this House and make my maiden speech. From the moment of my arrival, I have been humbled by and thankful for the generous, kind and welcoming support I have received from the staff, officers and Members of the House.
In fact, the kindness of noble Lords almost got me into trouble from the first occasion I arrived in this building. I was waiting for my first meeting with my charming noble friend Lord Taylor of Holbeach when the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, came across me and suggested afternoon tea. I, however, was unaware that meeting him was not a part of my schedule. I later learned that my assigned minder sent out a search party hunting for me across the Parliamentary Estate, and 40 minutes later, I was found in the Peers’ Guest Room having tea. I was very late for the Chief Whip, but left with a strong impression of how kind and welcoming noble Lords are on all sides of the House.
I am hugely grateful to my two supporters, my noble friends Lady Verma and Lord Livingston of Parkhead, for doing me the great honour of introducing me to the House. I also thank my mentor, my noble friend Lady Noakes. This is the first time I have had a female mentor, and her wisdom, guidance and support have been invaluable. She also encouraged me to make my maiden speech today, knowing how passionate I am about this topic.
I am delighted to speak in this debate on the contribution of women to business, the economy and the future of economic growth in the UK, and I congratulate my noble friend, Lady Wheatcroft on securing this important debate. I am also pleased that my noble friend Lady Rock, who I know has a wealth of experience in this area, will be making her maiden speech later in the debate.
On the day of my introduction, surrounded by noble Lords and my family, my only regret was that my father did not live to see the occasion. My unlikely journey to this House took its greatest turn at the age of two. My parents were part of a minority, Muslim community in northern India, and felt our opportunities were limited. My father was also determined to ensure that education and financial independence would be a part of my future as a female. Believing they could build a better life, they made a brave choice to begin again in the United Kingdom. They arrived with nothing but their education and some very big aspirations. My father trained as an accountant, and he and my mother built a successful life here.
However, it was not all easy, particularly financially. I also found the differences between the two cultures very challenging and difficult. Experiencing first-hand the conflicts around race and religion shaped my passion to help make it easier for the next generations. It also cemented my belief that business must play its own role in supporting aspirational Britain by being far more diverse.
In 2007, I was appointed as chief executive of Mitie, and became the first Asian female to run a FTSE 350 business. I never thought I could be a role model, and suddenly I realised I was. We have seen great progress in recent decades but, as a business leader, I still find myself surprised at the lack of other women and mothers I meet at a senior level in business. We also know that women are still more likely than men to be in low-paying jobs.
Achieving gender equality is critical to the growth and productivity of British business and our economy. That is why, in 2012, it was my honour to be invited to serve as the chair of the Women’s Business Council, established by the Government to advise on how women’s contribution to economic growth could be improved. Our research found that, if men and women’s economic participation was equal, this could add 10% to GDP by 2030. If women were setting up and running new businesses at the same rate as men, we would have 1 million extra female entrepreneurs.
As a council, we made recommendations to address the barriers encountered at every stage of a woman’s life. We have seen really good progress and really welcome the strong actions that Government have taken. These include shared parental leave, the right to flexible working and more support with childcare. But there is still so much more to be done. Childcare in particular is still too expensive in the UK, and continues to prevent women from going back to work. I congratulate the Government on the Childcare Bill, which goes some way to addressing this.
Your Lordships will also be aware of the great strides that have been made in getting more women on boards. The noble Lord, Lord Davies of Abersoch, has made such a huge contribution to this issue. But true workplace equality comes only from having strong representation of women at every level in business. I have set aspirational, self-imposed diversity targets below board level in my own business, and I believe that all organisations, both public and private, should take this approach.
For businesses to be truly diverse, we need to look beyond what we see in people every day and really begin to tackle our unconscious bias. This is about looking for talent and taking more risks on people who do not tick every conventional box—believe in them, back them and help them to achieve their dreams. We must also celebrate more the success stories that we do have in business, and share best practice.
Britain offered unparalleled opportunity to my family and, later, to me. I was really fortunate to have parents and then mentors who believed in me and supported me to realise my dreams of having a career and a family. I genuinely believe that, if I can do it, anyone can do it. We just need to understand what the barriers are for everybody, and how they need to be overcome.
For me, it has never just been about equality, fairness or doing the right thing; it really is about securing our economic future. We should be, and really need to be, a country where every person can aspire to do any job or build any business. We are not there yet, but I know one day we can be.