My Lords, I feel immensely privileged to have been in the Chamber this afternoon. Since I have been here—not a huge amount of time—I cannot think of a debate I have listened to that has been better informed, more interesting and more inspiring.
I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady McGregor-Smith, on her excellent maiden speech, and to the noble Baroness, Lady Rock, on another really fascinating and interesting speech. The noble Baroness, Lady McGregor-Smith, as chairman of the Women’s Business Council, has already made an incredible contribution to the cause of women in enterprise in this country. I know that both new noble Baronesses will make wonderful additions to this House.
As other speakers have said, the potential for women’s contribution to the economy is phenomenal. We contribute much, but even so we are undervalued and our potential is underutilised. It is to one particular aspect of that underutilisation that I address my remarks today: women in enterprise. In the last coalition Government I was the Women in Enterprise champion and published a report urging the Government to do more to help women entrepreneurs by being much more inclusive in their approach and the way they help businesswomen. Some progress has been made but more needs to be done.
However, I will begin at a much earlier time, before I ever thought about a parliamentary career, when I created several small businesses. Those businesses were much more modest than those of the vast majority of contributors to this debate. Nevertheless, I can speak from experience in describing the life of a woman entrepreneur balancing the needs of family and children with growing a business, and all the challenges and uncertainties that that involves. We still succeed, but we could be even more successful if the Government did a few small things.
Only one business in five is majority-owned by a woman, but there could be many more. We have heard some awesome statistics this afternoon but my favourite is from the Women’s Business Council, which estimates that if women set up businesses at the same rate as men, there would be 1 million more businesses in Britain today.
So what can government do to encourage would-be entrepreneurs and help their businesses to grow? During the last Government, several initiatives, such as tax-free childcare, the employment allowance, shared parental leave, and others which other speakers have mentioned, were introduced. However, more needs to be done, as the noble Baroness, Lady McGregor-Smith, said.
As the Women in Enterprise champion, I pushed the Government to be more inclusive in the way they communicated with women business owners. There is much improvement since the days when some civil servants believed that to be inclusive it was enough to use “gender neutral” language. The My Business Support tool on the Great Business website is much improved, but practical help on the ground is still lacking. The coalition Government abolished regional development agencies and gave local businesses and local authorities a blank sheet of paper on which to create local enterprise partnerships. I am all for devolution, but the lack of guidance and funding has resulted in a very varied group of LEPs, in terms of not just how they function but how well they function. I believe that some LEPs still have no women on their boards, let alone focus on specific local help for women entrepreneurs. Therefore, the first thing the Government could do is ask all the LEPs what they are doing to support women entrepreneurs. That would raise the matter in their awareness, if nothing else. Before the RDAs were dissolved, they had many support schemes for women entrepreneurs. Most of those disappeared, but the more enterprising of them stayed afloat. However, coverage is patchy, to say the least. Every LEP should give some thought to what resource it has in its area, and what is needed by all the diverse people who generate wealth on its patch.
Finally, government can help enormously through having a diverse and inclusive procurement policy. The case for procuring from companies which look like the people who government serve is not only a moral imperative but an economic one. Diverse businesses bring a greater understanding of customers’ needs, services and products are more appropriate and speed to market is faster. The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, made that point very strongly.
One of the Liberal Democrat contributions to the coalition agreement was to build an aspiration that 25% of government procurement should be from small businesses. It would be a simple matter for this Government to have a similar aspiration for women-owned businesses.
So I say to the Government: please think inclusively when you are communicating with and planning help for business. Look at the performance of the LEPs and ask them, “What are you doing to encourage female entrepreneurs on your patch?”. Set an aspiration of, say, 20% of government procurement to come from women-owned businesses. The percentage figure is less important than bringing diversity of procurement on to the radar of government purchasers. While you are at it, why not appoint another champion for women in enterprise—there are plenty of excellent people in the Chamber this afternoon who could do that job—who could continue the work of bringing a cross-cutting focus from the woman’s perspective to help create greater self-fulfilment for women entrepreneurs and more wealth for Great Britain?