Businesses and SMEs - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:06 pm on 6th July 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde Labour 12:06 pm, 6th July 2017

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Leigh of Hurley, for the opportunity to have this debate. Business and the economy had little showing during the general election. I hope that this debate will give us an opportunity to address that.

The noble Lord mentioned the 1970s. It was almost a walk down memory lane for me, because the impression I was given was that private is good and public is bad. I do not see life like that, nor do I think that it is like that in business today. The title of the debate refers to business—not to private business. I want to talk about two areas which are very important to the British economy. Both have to make a surplus to succeed, because no one will subsidise them, but not for distribution to shareholders or individual management.

The first area is social housing, a sector which is receiving a lot of publicity at the moment because of the tragic events at Grenfell Tower. The other area is universities, which are so often local and regional powerhouses of ideas and innovation and provide the entrepreneurs that the noble Lord referred to. I declare my interests as declared in the House of Lords register.

On social housing, Places for People, of whose board I am a member, is a leading place-making company—it is not a housebuilding company; it is concerned with communities. We have 186,000 homes in ownership or management and provide services to some 500,000 people. Yes, we are in the business of providing homes: 1,300 last year, with 16,000 more to come.

However, homes without the accompanying infrastructure of new schools, shops and leisure facilities do not create communities where people want to live. Even then, that is not enough; we need job opportunities, access to learning and training. Housing associations have done that over many years. They are businesses; they contribute to our community. That is why the housing association sector is essential in place-making. I was on the board of a private housing developer. We built houses, we sold them and we moved on. Housing associations do not do that; they have always done much more.

Local authorities today are not able to regenerate communities as they have done in the past. Now, housing associations are often the largest organisation in the area. Last year, Places for People was named Residential Company of the Year and Housebuilder of the Year—both awards won in the face of strong competition from the private sector.

However, it is really in its local community work that the company delivers what brings real value to residents and is at the core of this debate: 700 people were supported into employment last year, with more than 3,000 in education and training, and just under 4,000 young people in 76 local projects. A company work experience programme provides six months’ paid work placement for 18 to 24 year-olds. I do not know many small businesses that could afford to do that. Those youngsters are not in employment, education or training—they need help, and they get it.

Enterprise growth programmes in Yorkshire are at the heart of this, creating 80 new businesses with 215 jobs and 29 social enterprises. There are 400 community activities and more than 100 training opportunities, including green space apprenticeships. There is support for the Passmores Academy in Harlow. Redevelopment of the Olympic Park here in London includes 7% of all construction staff having apprenticeships, scholarships and the Futures Fund to support local entrepreneurs, and 80 days a year of time-bank mentoring. There are many other examples.

This is an exceptional contribution to local communities and, by creating and spreading wealth widely, it improves the life chances of many who would otherwise be left to fend for themselves. The work of many housing associations also contributes to the overall good and supports their localities. When the Minister winds up today, could he confirm that the Government agree that housing associations need to be able to work in the wider community and should not be pushed down this funnel of just producing houses and apartments? Will the Government ensure that their policies do not get in the way of this?

The other area that meets the criteria of this debate is the university sector. We have been slow in the UK, in many areas and cities, to realise how much power can be given to the local and regional community, to the benefit of the individuals in it as a whole. Education can and does transform lives and, in turn, communities, and has a national impact. Our universities are key to that.

On the council of Nottingham University, I have seen how much can be achieved when a university puts diversity at the heart of what it does day by day. First, it goes into the local community and works with young people from very disadvantaged backgrounds who never thought university was for them—it was something beyond them. For 20 years, the Young Entrepreneurs Scheme has seen real benefits. The Nottingham Ingenuity Fund again helps and works with young entrepreneurs. It is an equity-based investment fund, which last year alone donated £800,000 to fledgling businesses in the Nottingham and east Midlands area. I am sure the Minister responding to the debate will be pleased about that. The Summer School Society, with 300 members, has a mentoring scheme with the university alumni, who work with young people, and offers a year-long work experience programme.

This is all about putting students first, not when they are at the university but beforehand, going into the community and seeking out bright young people who have potential but do not have the chances or support of many other more fortunate young people. There is involvement in two Nottingham academies. Our students are our representatives in the community and at the centre of everything we do. That pays off for the students and, this year, for the university. We got a gold standard in the recent teaching survey; we are the number one university in the country for graduate job placement when students get their degree, and in a survey just out for the first time of university graduates five years on in their careers, Nottingham students are on average on a higher salary than the group surveyed. These are real, solid contributions. Yes, it is not the private sector but it is part of our business community, like it or not. These solid contributions open the pathways to success for so many.

Members of your Lordships’ House know about the Parliament day and have been involved in it. Business needs to come to Parliament more than it does and to showcase what it does more.

The success of our university sector is insufficiently recognised. I agree with tuition fees. If we remove them, we will bring back capping in universities. The removal of the cap helped lower-income families. I do not agree with the removal of maintenance grants, and I certainly do not agree with the interest rates at the moment. So many of us are perplexed by the Prime Minister’s attitude to international students. They come here because of the quality and standard of our university education. I plead with the Minister to feed back to the Prime Minister that it is essential that she discusses that and removes what is to me a dogma.