Direct Selling Industry

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:54 pm on 13th January 2015.

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Photo of Nicholas Boles Nicholas Boles The Minister for Universities and Science, Minister of State (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) (Jointly with the Department for Education) 4:54 pm, 13th January 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. I congratulate my hon. Friend Chris Heaton-Harris on securing this debate on an industry that is not only important to his constituency—although, as he rightly pointed out, it could easily claim to be the centre of direct selling in the UK—but to communities across the whole country.

We in our profession should have a particular affinity with anyone in the direct selling industry, because what are we politicians ourselves other than direct sellers, going—particularly in the next few months—from door to door and trying to persuade people to buy a product from us? We do not do so for profit, but we often have to use many of the same skills and methods as those who succeed in the direct selling industry. We all know that, simple though it sounds, summoning up the persuasive powers and reserves of charm necessary to persuade a sceptical person on the doorstep that they should give us a little time so that they can listen to our message and understand what we are proposing is not the easiest thing in the world.

It is a huge credit to the people engaged in direct selling that they are as successful as they are and that they are able to build sustainable incomes for their families. My hon. Friend told the wonderful story of Brenda, Sally and Victoria, three generations of one family, all of whom—including Brenda, who is now 81 but still active—are direct sellers; I believe it is for Amway, which is obviously the most famous direct selling company in the world.

Those three formidable ladies provide particular lessons for us. The first lesson is that the income is sustainable. Direct selling is not just something that people do perhaps for a year or two at the start of their careers, although it could be that. It can provide a sustainable income and be a business that provides a livelihood for a family—not just for decades, but across generations.

The second lesson is that, as my hon. Friend pointed out, this is an area of business and entrepreneurial activity that is perhaps particularly attractive to young women, especially those trying to combine work and enterprise with bringing up children. That is because it has a key, innate flexibility. A direct selling business is one that they can run from home, devoting whatever hours in whatever days of the week suit them. What matters is their results, not how they achieve them.

That is why it has been so important that the Government have been focused, and remain focused, on making it easier for people to set up and run businesses from their homes. Of course, not all businesses run from homes are direct selling businesses, but a great number of them are. Previously, there were some pettifogging bureaucratic rules that made it harder for people to set up and run businesses from home—rules on tenancy agreements, meaning that people required a specific change to them, with the agreement of their landlord, before they could set up a business to run from home. We have changed the law so that landlords can agree to home business use without in any way affecting or undermining their residential tenancy agreement.

In addition, there were rules relating to business rates and planning conditions that also militated against people setting up businesses to run from home. Consequently, we have made sure that, in the majority of circumstances, home-based businesses will not attract business rates. We have published revised business rates guidance to clarify that point. That is important, because if someone is setting up a home business they probably do not have a great deal of capital to set it up; perhaps one of the attractions of the direct selling industry is that it does not require a huge amount of start-up capital. However, if they face the prospect of being charged business rates instead of council tax, that could be very off-putting. The change that we have made will help to make the prospect of setting up a home-based business more attractive to people.

Finally, we have published a guide for anyone who wants to set up a home-based business, so that they can find in one place all the information they need to ensure that they are acting properly within the law and to understand what support they get from Government as start-up businesses, as well as what opportunities there are for start-up loans and other financial support from the British Business Bank.

We believe, as a Government, that we have a good record of supporting anybody who wants to set up a business—particularly a business from home. I am sure that that record has played a role in the substantial increase in home-based businesses. The number of home businesses has increased to 2.9 million, a 500,000 increase since 2010. That increase is enabling people who previously either did not have any work or had a job that was not satisfying to them and was incompatible with their other responsibilities to take charge of their lives and provide for their families in a way that suits them.

My hon. Friend made an important point in saying that this way of working enables people to have independence and to run their lives in a way that suits them and their families. It can also suit their broader responsibilities, providing them with an opportunity to develop a business and earn an income that is flexible and fits with the pattern of their lives. I am happy to give my hon. Friend an assurance that we will continue to take into account home-based businesses—particularly direct selling businesses—in the formulation of policy.

My hon. Friend mentioned an interesting study of attitudes towards home-based businesses and direct selling businesses in different countries. He singled out Denmark as a place where attitudes were most positive. He conjectured that that might be a result of the fact that Denmark requires every young person to be offered enterprise education from the age of 16.

I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes—I am sure that he does—the work by the noble Lord Young, who has held a central and distinguished position in a series of Conservative Governments going back over many decades and who is passionate about enterprise education. Lord Young recently produced a report for the Prime Minister called “Enterprise for all”. He proposes specifically to establish a network of enterprise advisers—current or former executives with local businesses—attached to schools, whose job it would be to co-ordinate bringing people into schools who could inspire young people with the possibilities of enterprise and of setting up their own businesses.

That policy is welcome and has now been given over to the new careers company that Christine Hodgson is setting up and leading, to which the Government are committing £20 million. We hope that within a couple of years we will have a network of enterprise advisers across the country and that every school will have somebody with real business experience, embedded and implanted in the local business community, who can bring into schools speakers, programmes and work experience offers that will enable young people who think they might be interested in setting up a business to get some experience and talk to people who have done it.

I say to my hon. Friend’s constituents who are senior executives in the direct selling businesses, and to individuals running direct selling businesses and members of the Direct Selling Association, that they could make contact with their old school, go back as alumni and talk to young people about what direct selling and setting up their own business from home has done for their lives. They could say how it has enabled them to fulfil their dreams and establish financial independence for their families. That would be as powerful a message as any.

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this subject to the attention of the House. It is certainly one that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is focused on.

Question put and agreed to

Sitting adjourned.