Women: Businesses — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 21st January 2016.

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Photo of Lord Lansley Lord Lansley Conservative 5:15 pm, 21st January 2016

My Lords, it is a great privilege to take part in this debate; I am glad to do so. I thank my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft for initiating it. The purpose of our debates is often to decide how we should spend the wealth of this country; it is great to have a debate in which one of the central purposes is to show how we can maximise wealth creation in this country. We have heard in the debate, not least from my noble friend Lady McGregor-Smith, about the availability of productive potential. If women were as entrepreneurially active as men in our economy by 2030, something like £60 billion could be added. That is fantastic, dramatic potential.

We have heard two really impressive maiden speeches, each demonstrating the contribution that the respective speaker has made already to business, the economy and public life in this country—and, if I may say so, what a tremendous contribution they will make to this House. We very much look forward to that.

Why should I say something in this debate? I declare an interest: those who look at the register of interests will find that I am cited as an associate of Low Associates, the company founded in 2009 by my wife, Sally Low. I wanted to bring to this debate a number of illustrations from her experience. The first is that, as my noble friend Lady Wheatcroft said, we cannot ignore but have to live with the characteristics of the challenges that women often face. In 2009, my wife was trying to maintain a long-hours job as director of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce; at the same time, we had two children reaching school age, we lived in Cambridge in my constituency, and I was shadow Secretary of State for Health. The combination of all these things was frankly unsustainable, especially with the high cost of childcare, which has been cited by a number of contributors. So setting up their own business, using their own expertise and doing so from home is the experience of many women. The question is: can they overcome the obstacles?

One might ask my wife, “What are those obstacles?”. Actually, I have never heard her say that they were the consequence of being a woman; if anything, being a woman was an opportunity, bonus and benefit in trying to establish her business, especially since it was all about creating imaginative, high-quality conferences and events principally in Europe; I was occupying Britain, as it were, so she decided to occupy the rest of Europe. Running those kind of events in other countries is all about teamwork and, as has been cited, women are often excellent at creating that kind of teamwork—and that is what she has done. Seven years later, she has 16 associates and staff and runs major conferences, but the obstacles were ones that Members of this House will recognise face many small businesses—cash-flow management and trying to win tenders. Particularly in the European context as well as in British public procurement, sometimes those who issue tenders unwittingly discriminate against small businesses and very much favour large businesses, because they put arbitrary size criteria or cash-flow requirements on businesses—whereas, in my experience, often they get better service from small businesses than they do from larger businesses. But we shall leave that aside.

One of the conferences that Low Associates was responsible for managing was the Small and Medium Enterprises Assembly in Luxembourg last year. That was the fourth year they did it and they won the contract to do it again this year and in 2017, bringing that assembly—the leading SME assembly in Europe—to this country when we have the presidency of the European Union. I hope that we will then be looking forward to the continuing benefit of EU membership in a reformed Union.

The focus last November was in part on women entrepreneurs. It illustrated, right across Europe, that much of this is cultural. The data show that women are less likely to start up a business, very often because they see obstacles to being able to launch out on their own, for reasons of financial and other security. They are more likely to close a business for personal reasons. The statistics say that more than 25% of the reasons why women say that they close down a business is for personal reasons; it is about only 14% for men. So women are less likely to start up a business and less likely to grow it, seeing the challenges of personal and family life as impeding that. We should not do that. The cost of childcare should be as much an issue for men as for women. The sharing of parental leave should be the starting point of a cultural shift that says that men and women in partnerships who have caring responsibilities for children or for older people should absolutely share them. They should be no more an obstacle to women’s entrepreneurship than to men’s.

Government cannot legislate for changes in culture. As has been said, sometimes attitudes change slowly. But, just as the gender pay gap is so much smaller among young people, we can hope that there is a generational shift we can push forward on entrepreneurship as well. It will need role models. We have seen some fantastic role models for women here this afternoon and there are many others. If you believe the media and look at the statistics, three years ago, 16 to 21 year-olds asked about who their role models were for entrepreneurship talked about the noble Lord, Lord Sugar, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson and, I fear, Donald Trump. We want women role models to be out there in the media. We want women mentors and that mentorship has, quite rightly, been illustrated here.

We want entrepreneurial aspiration. I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Lane-Fox, that one of the speakers in the assembly last November was Amy Millman from Springboard Enterprises. It is an American organisation, but it is about putting money behind women-run and women-owned businesses—since 2000, 599 such businesses, 11 of which have gone to initial public offering, with investment of $7 billion. It is a rational investment because we know that women-owned businesses, when you adjust for every other factor, perform better. That is the economic potential that this country could realise if we push this agenda forward.