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[John Robertson in the Chair] — Women Entrepreneurs

– in Westminster Hall at 12:00 am on 18th March 2015.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Wallace.)

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Opposition Whip (Commons) 9:30 am, 18th March 2015

I am delighted to open this debate on the important topic of women and entrepreneurship. I grew up above my parents’ shop in Osterley, just half a mile from my constituency, and I have spent time self-employed and running my own business. I have visited women’s business centres in America and the UK and I passionately believe in the need for an ambitious strategy to support women-led enterprise. I would like to acknowledge the work Hounslow chamber of commerce does in my constituency and across Hounslow to support women-led enterprise. A number of women have set up and started their own businesses in the community, making a huge difference to the local economy.

Women’s entrepreneurship has great potential for growth, creating jobs and wealth while reducing gender inequality. Women-led small and medium-sized enterprises already add £70 billion to the UK economy, yet women are only half as likely as men to start their own business. According to the findings of the Women’s Business Council, chaired by Ruby McGregor-Smith, CEO of Mitie, it is estimated that if women were concentrated in entrepreneurial activity at the same rate as men, there could be an extra 1 million female entrepreneurs. Indeed, according to the most recent OECD data, there is a gender gap of almost 50% in entrepreneurship in the UK: total entrepreneurial activity, defined as the percentage of the working-age population either in the process of starting a business or running a new business, among working-age women was 7.5% in 2014, lagging behind the rate for men, which was 13.5%. In the US, the rate is 11.2% for women, compared with 16.5% for men.

There are real challenges, therefore, in realising the economic benefits that can come from women-led enterprise, but that should not be the case. Research published last week by the business software group Xero, for example, found that women-led start-ups tend on average to lose less money and to have more success in winning new contracts. Emerging findings from research being undertaken by the Centre for Entrepreneurs suggest that although women have entrepreneurial and growth ambitions, men seem to be better than women at realising those ambitions. Continuing to understand and to deal with the barriers to women’s entrepreneurship needs to remain a core part of our economic policy.

A review of that policy area in the UK shows a growing focus on women entrepreneurs since 1997. The then Department of Trade and Industry formed a women’s enterprise policy team in its Small Business Service, and in 2003, the then Labour Government published “A Strategic Framework for Women’s Enterprise”, which was the first policy response of any kind from a UK

Government on the potential for economic growth if women were encouraged to start their own businesses in a similar way to men. The report set out targets, and the women’s enterprise panel was formed to advise the Government.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this debate to Westminster Hall. If I did not speak in it, my wife would be very angry, because she has been an entrepreneur for many years and has been very successful. Does the hon. Lady agree that to encourage young women to start up businesses or whatever, we need to start at the very root, in further education colleges, schools and universities, to encourage them to come out and use their skills?

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Opposition Whip (Commons)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. He is absolutely right. Although the Government have made some progress on increasing enterprise education, we have a long way to go. One finding from research that I undertook last summer was that women who were starting their businesses later in life wished that they had had that education earlier. Women never know at which stage in their life they will be starting a business. It is increasingly common for both very young women and those who may have taken time out of the workplace to have children and are now returners to start enterprises, and suddenly find that they do not have the support or knowledge they need. I therefore thank the hon. Gentleman for his wise comment.

The Women’s Enterprise Task Force, established in 2006, took forward some of the work. Although not a delivery body, the WETF provided input to Government on key policy areas that affected women’s entrepreneurial uptake. The WETF produced several recommendations and directed and implemented Aspire, a £12.5 million women’s co-investment fund to support high-growth, women-owned enterprises. In 2008, policy developments taken forward included Government provision of enterprise support focused on women through the regional development agencies and Business Link.

In recent years there has been a slow-down in support for women-led enterprise. Although the Women’s Business Council was formed in 2010 and has done very important work, Prowess, the UK advocacy network for women in enterprise, has been scaled back to, in effect, a newsletter service, and the regional women’s ambassador programmes have been disbanded. For the recently published Burt report, a survey was done of local enterprise partnerships. The author wrote to ask all 39 local enterprise partnerships about their current engagement with women entrepreneurs, but only seven responded; of those, none had more than one female director for every three male directors and none had a strategy for promoting women in enterprise.

I remain extremely concerned that activity is being scaled back instead of pushed forward in the way the Government have reallocated resources for development programmes across the regions. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills small business survey in 2014 suggested that women-led businesses fare less well over time than equally led or entirely male-led businesses. In 2014, 24% of one-year-old businesses were female led and 45% were male led, but of four to five-year-old businesses, only 14% were female led and 49% were male led.

I mentioned research on women and entrepreneurship that I undertook some months ago. Through a series of seminars and public meetings, I looked at three dimensions of the gender gap in entrepreneurship in the UK: the rate of business start-up, the sustainability of enterprises, and the speed of growth of female-led versus male-led enterprise. Findings from our focus groups research suggest that there is greater support for starting up an enterprise, as well as perhaps at the top end, but a lack of support for established women entrepreneurs in the middle who are looking to grow their enterprise and are struggling to find support and advice on how to do so. Access to finance can be harder to come by, with investors and banks assessing some women’s businesses as more risky. Indeed, one woman I met, who had set up a child care business in Reading, was turned down for investment by her bank because it could not understand her business model—frankly, it did not understand the business of child care. She remortgaged her house to put her own finance into the business, and went on to increase her turnover and to employ about 20 people.

The needs of this group of women are not being met, so their economic potential is not being realised. The key question that emerges is what more needs to be done by the UK to bridge the gender gap not just in start-ups but in growth and sustainability. Closing the gap means understanding better the circumstances and gender differences in entrepreneurship, so I will spend a few minutes talking about motivations and barriers.

We know that although women have the ambition to set up businesses and grow them, different motivations make entrepreneurship attractive to them. They can include pursuing social goals, a personal passion or a niche in the market, or seeking a work-life balance, flexibility or more control over one’s life. It is positive that young mothers are leading an entrepreneurial surge in new business start-ups—the high cost of child care and the easy availability of technology that allows businesses to be started and run from home contribute to that surge—but if our current statistics are anything to go by, those businesses will need support to survive and grow. A new breed of business women, dubbed “the returners”, has made an excellent contribution to the increase in the proportion of small and medium-sized enterprises run by women from 14% a few years ago to 20% today. The number of women over the age of 30 seeking start-up finance and mentoring has increased by a third in recent years. In some measures, therefore, we see some positive trends, but the research suggests that women-led enterprises have less of a chance of surviving and growing.

Barriers to growth may be encountered by female and male entrepreneurs. According to emerging research by the Centre for Entrepreneurs, all groups express concerns about cash flow and about getting the right people and skills, but women are more likely than men to identify child care and supporting their partner’s career as barriers that affect their own enterprise. They were also more likely to want specific business education—a point made by David Simpson—face-to-face contact, and good mentors, in contrast with men, who specified that they sought advice.

That may shed some light on another gender-specific barrier: lower self-belief, as identified in research by Xero. A third of women said that a lack of self-belief had been the biggest barrier standing in the way of launching their small business, and it was the single reason most often given. In my research, I found that access to support and advice remains a problem. Women want forms of business education that are better tailored to their needs, and they raised with me the need for enterprise education in schools, so that young people can build entrepreneurial skills. We do not know who will become the entrepreneurs of the future, and that door should be open to children from a very young age.

In Liverpool, I saw an excellent example of networking and advice tailored to reach women when I visited the outstanding Women’s Organisation. Simply by moving the sessions to more family-friendly times, the organisation ensured that the number of women who attended business support events increased. The classic timing of business events and drinks right after work at 5.30 pm clashes perfectly with the time when kids are at home, or at after-school clubs, and dinner needs to be made.

Confidence can also be a significant factor in personal risk levels that may guide or limit the decisions that women make. Women may calibrate risk and confidence differently in taking tough decisions; they may also be less likely to see themselves as entrepreneurs than as business owners or founders, which may affect how they perceive and respond to marketing campaigns.

The Government have introduced some strategies, but there is still a long way to go. The Government published the Burt report, “Inclusive Support for Women in Enterprise” in February. That was helpful, but it is unfortunate that when the role was established, it was aimed at promoting and supporting female entrepreneurs, focusing on raising awareness rather than producing sound, evidence-based policy recommendations. The report recognises some initiatives such as StartUp loans, the enterprise allowance and local growth hubs, but it also suggests that there have been deficiencies in the way support has reached women, because it has been extremely patchy, rather than universal.

The report recognises the need to change some of our language around support, so that it looks and sounds more accessible and relevant to women entrepreneurs, who may search for it online. I am often struck by the huge contrast between the US Small Business Administration website, which has mainstreamed women’s business support and which feels customer-centric and targeted towards small business, and the website of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which I believes serves Ministers more than it does those who seek access to services.

I welcome the fact that Government have recognised the need to give diverse businesses diverse support. They have extended the types of support that may need to be provided to businesses set up by different people—for example, young people and those from ethnic minority backgrounds—to ensure that there is access and guidance for mentoring, networking and sources of finance. However, women have told me that they feel the Government’s support is located in a range of places and those who are looking for support find it hard to join up; they also find it difficult to identify what is really relevant and where to get the quality help they need. A page for women-led enterprise is attached to the GREAT Business website, but it feels like an add-on and a collation of bits and pieces. It could be far more integrated. I would be interested to know why the Aspire fund, a £12.5 million fund that makes equity investments of between £100,000 and £1 million on a co-investment basis, has so far invested only £4.7 million in women-led enterprises. It is certain that problems remain. As David Prosser wrote in

The Independent last week:

“There is certainly a problem to tackle here. Government statistics suggest that fewer than one in five smaller companies are led by women. That’s not enough—not just because social justice demands equality of opportunity, though of course it does, but also because there is every reason to expect women-led companies to outperform.”

I will close with a few questions for the Minister. First, what cross-Government work is going on to integrate support for women-led enterprises at start-up and growth stages, and which Departments are actively involved? Secondly, what consideration have the Government given to putting the Women’s Business Council, which has done some important work, on a statutory footing so that it remains part of our business and policy-making infrastructure? Thirdly, why has the Aspire fund, which is designed to invest in women-led enterprises, invested only a third of its intended funds? Fourthly, which Minister is accountable for closing the gender gap in entrepreneurship, and whose dashboard is it on?

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge 9:46 am, 18th March 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I am really pleased that this debate has been brought to Westminster Hall, and I congratulate Seema Malhotra on securing it. It is a shame that there are so few hon. Members here from both sides of the House. We are discussing a really important subject, and it would be good to have more participants.

I know from my constituency what a key role women entrepreneurs can play, have played and will play in our communities and economy. I have some experience in the matter, because I set up a very small biotech company with two women entrepreneurs and two other colleagues. It was extremely successful in every respect other than having a product that actually worked; as it turned out, that was quite important. One of the women with whom I worked has continued in entrepreneurial roles, and I am delighted about that.

Too often, we do not hear about women entrepreneurs. They are not the stereotype; they are too often the unsung heroes, and we must do far more about that. There has been some progress in the past five years, as the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston has described, in support for women entrepreneurs, including the appointment of an ambassador for women in enterprise, my hon. Friend Lorely Burt, who is upset that she cannot be here this morning. Far more needs to be done, however. No Government have yet got it right, and we need to go much further.

Let me pick up on some of the examples in my constituency. It being Cambridge, many of our successful women entrepreneurs are involved in the tech sector. One example is Lily Bacon, who co-founded the pioneering software company RealVNC. She worked incredibly hard to get that company up and running in perhaps one of the earliest attempts at crowdfunding. Remarkably, the initial money for the company came from selling merchandise bearing the company’s logo. It is quite impressive to be able to do that ahead of time, and that was entirely Lily’s idea. The company is now a world-leading provider of remote-access software, and it has won three Queen’s awards for enterprise in three years.

There are many others, such as Martina King, who is doing amazing work at Featurespace, Julie Barnes at Abcodia and Annie Brooking at Bactest. I particularly want to mention Emily Mackay, who is doing some nice work with Crowdsurfer. She started the company while she was having her first child, and she has turned it into something quite exceptional. Sherry Coutu is an angel investor who helps entrepreneurs in a whole range of things, and who is really committed to evidence base. She produced the “Scale-Up” report for the Government, which was excellent work. Outside technology, to pick one example, we have Julie Deane, who co-founded the Cambridge Satchel Company in 2008 with her mother. Only a couple of years later, they were making at least 3,000 bags a week in the UK and selling to 86 countries. It is an amazing company that makes very nice bags, Mr Robertson, if you ever want a satchel.

To enable women entrepreneurs to thrive, we must set the right conditions across the piece. I will talk about finance later, but much of the issue is not directly about entrepreneurs. It is about our society’s attitudes: the explicit and implicit discrimination that holds women back. We have regressive attitudes in so many areas, and one of those attitudes implies that women cannot and should not be innovators in our economy, that women should not take risks and that women should go for a safer job. I come across that attitude all too often. It is not right, and it has no place in what we are doing.

Another issue is imposter syndrome, which has been highlighted by one of my former colleagues, Professor Athene Donald. Many people, disproportionately women according to Athene and others to whom I have spoken, feel that however they are doing, they should not really be there, and that they have not really earned their position. Frankly, that feeling strikes all of us. Anyone who claims that they have never felt that they do not deserve to be where they are is probably either over-confident or not telling the truth, but the feeling is expressed disproportionately by women. I recommend some of Athene Donald’s writings and comments on the subject.

We must address, rebut and debunk all those issues to make more progress. There has been work done, and I particularly highlight the work of my hon. Friend Jo Swinson in both her roles as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities and for Business, Innovation and Skills in trying to send forceful messages about sexist dogma in the workplace and, more broadly, society. Similarly, we have seen the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull.

We have made some progress. We still have a society in which it is expected that women will do a disproportionate share of child care. We need to break that apart, and we have introduced shared parental leave, which is important not only for women but for men; parental leave should be open to everyone. Having spoken to many female and budding entrepreneurs, I know that that is an important issue for them. We have also worked to encourage parity of pay for men and women. There is no reason why men and women should be paid differentially for the same job. We have seen the gender pay gap come down, and after some internal coalition disagreements, we are now introducing measures so that large companies will have to publish the average pay of men and women. There are a number of schemes for women entrepreneurs, some of which the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston has already mentioned. There is the women and broadband challenge fund, support for women in rural areas, the road show of mentoring events and much more, so we are making some progress but not enough.

I completely agree with the hon. Lady that we are not there, and so long as we do not have more women entrepreneurs, we and our economy are missing out on a pool of talented, able people who could contribute much more. Research by Enders Analysis shows that raising women’s employment to the same level as men’s could lift GDP by 10% by 2030, which we should all want. As she said, the Women’s Business Council has said that if women had the confidence and support to start businesses at the same rate as men, the UK would be home to an extra 1 million female entrepreneurs, which we would all welcome. We are missing out, and we are doing too badly. Women majority-own only about one business in five, and they are about a third less likely than men to start a business. There is a lot to do.

We need to ensure that education is far more gender-neutral, and to encourage women to take subjects that are not seen as traditionally feminine. I recently looked at the application rates for different subjects at the university of Cambridge in my constituency, and there is huge discrepancy between the subjects for which women do not apply and the subjects for which they do. We have to change that. Computer science is at one end and education is at the other. There is no good reason for that, and we have to change it. One thing we would like to do is to change application rates in science, technology, engineering and maths. We support initiatives such as the STEM diversity programme to address gender stereotypes. We need to ensure that each school has access to a female science champion to encourage the idea that women can be successful in technology and science.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent speech. He reminds me that my sister studied engineering at Cambridge and now works with racing cars in America. He makes an important point about how we can attract more women into subjects that have not been female-led. Does he have a view on how we can build a stronger connection between schools and women who are running businesses and who have been successful in science or technology? Those women can be great role models and can encourage more women to come forward.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

The hon. Lady is right that we have to do far more. In fact, her sister could perhaps be doing some of that. Various studies have asked people to draw an engineer, and almost invariably the person they draw is a man. We have to break that stereotype. There have been some great examples and, rather embarrassingly, I have forgotten the name of the brilliant engineer who worked on the Shard project. She featured in some of the television programmes, and I have met her, but I do not remember her name. She has gone out to try to encourage people in schools, which is essential. We need to show that there is diversity and that people from all walks of life can do it, whatever their background. The hon. Lady is right to raise that issue.

Female entrepreneurs have a particular issue with obtaining finance. Even if they have the background, the idea and the confidence to go for it, access to finance can be very difficult. As the hon. Lady said, banks can be very unsupportive of women entrepreneurs. Studies in the US found that when banks changed their approach to female enterprise, there was growth in female entrepreneurship. I am not saying that we should necessarily copy exactly what was done in the US—it might not exactly work here—but we should try to change the banking culture. We should work with the British Bankers Association to find information on lending to female entrepreneurs in England so that we can see how we can change it.

There are also non-bank funding issues. At the initial stage of funding, women are apparently rather more concerned to seek the three f’s: friends, family and fools. It can be difficult to ask people for money at that stage. There are similar figures for angel and venture capital investment. Only 8% of angel and venture capital investment goes to companies that are run or co-founded by women, which is an astonishingly small fraction. One ray of light is that we are seeing crowdfunding and equity crowdfunding, and 41% of successful equity crowdfunding goes to companies that are run or co-founded by women—we are seeing much more.

Amanda Boyle, the chief executive officer of Bloom VC, has talked about how crowdfunding is opening access to women. I do not have the figures with me, but I understand that men are still more likely to ask for money but women are more likely actually to get the money, which is changing the dynamics. I support all the recommendations of the report by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull on inclusive support for women in enterprise.

I have spoken at length on some issues, and far, far more could be covered. It is good that we are having this discussion, and it is good that we are trying to make a difference. Whoever forms the next Government, and whoever is in the next Parliament, I hope that women entrepreneurs will be prioritised. So long as we have a society that stereotypes and gives the impression that women should like pink things and should be doing feminine jobs—we have no truck with those attitudes here—we will be weakening our economy and making our society less fair, which is the exact opposite of what we want. We want opportunity for everyone.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights) 9:57 am, 18th March 2015

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, which I thank Seema Malhotra for securing. I note that my party, the Democratic Unionist party, has the most Members in this debate. I am sure that is not a reflection on the other parties’ interest in this matter, and I am sure everyone would be down here if they did not have other things to do. Those of us who are here underline the importance of supporting women entrepreneurs.

I recently read an article on stating that:

“If as many women as men were thinking of setting up a business in Northern Ireland we would have over 28,000 more entrepreneurs.”

To put that in perspective, if it created 28,000 new jobs—it would probably create more—there could in theory be zero unemployment in Northern Ireland. That is a possibility, and it would have a dramatic and positive effect on the local economy. That idea is not far-fetched. We must encourage ladies in Northern Ireland to be entrepreneurs, and we must ensure that they have a chance to do so. The article continues:

“The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor (GEM) report shows that women in Northern Ireland have a very positive view of entrepreneurship as a career choice.”

Entrepreneurship is not alien to women in Northern Ireland. They do not find entrepreneurship strange; they want to sign up to it.

“The report indicates that increasing the level of entrepreneurial activity among women will make a huge contribution to the diversity and success of the local economy.”

The Library debate pack has made me aware of one negative. It refers to:

“better support structures for women—think mentorship and networking”.

On the other hand, there is a problem with such an approach. If women are not starting businesses because they lack the confidence to do so, singling them out as a group in need of special treatment risks undermining that confidence even further. So there is a negative, and there needs to be a balance. At a women’s networking event at Middlesbrough football club in 2000, one of the award winners was south Wales-based Christine Atkinson, who said:

“Lack of confidence is so pervasive.”

Again, we cannot ignore that.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I am sure my hon. Friend will agree that the retail sector in the United Kingdom is vastly run by females. Within the commercial industry, there has to be opportunity as well.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. His business expertise is good for this Chamber and for the House. He will not mind my saying this, but a part of his success is his wife. I mean that genuinely. My hon. Friend and his wife have a business partnership and they both work equally hard. The success of that business is due to the efforts of both of them. He and I know that, and his wife knows that as well.

When women take it upon themselves to launch businesses, often it is to beat the high cost of child care. Perhaps the Minister will address that issue. Child care costs are a big factor in whether ladies are able to start their businesses and move forward.

It is always good to give an example. A retired lady comes to my office. She does craft work and makes bits and bobs to help to raise money for orphan projects in Africa. I am amazed at her ingenuity at times. For example—my colleagues will know this—I am apt to give out business cards. As Members will know, they come in wee plastic boxes. Given the amount of business cards that I have given out over the past five years—and long before that—there are a lot of those wee plastic boxes. She has turned those wee boxes into memory boxes and she fills them with little cards with a poem on them or a thought for the day. She does that for her Elim church mission to raise money for Africa. She has used her skills as an entrepreneur and her skills in crafts to create a business of sorts. If that did not come under charitable purposes, I have every certainty that she could make enough money to live on with all the crafts and things that she sells. That is what an entrepreneur does—that is what it is all about—and that is a lovely example of what can happen.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP, East Londonderry

Does my hon. Friend agree that whenever there is a successful woman locally in business, quite often she is perceived and projected in the local press as achieving success against the odds in an uphill struggle? It is almost a perception that the woman is not a natural fit within a particular system, rather than giving encouragement that this is an automatic thing. It ought to be a natural phenomenon, rather than something that is the exception. It should become the rule and the norm.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It should not be something that happens against the norm, but naturally. We welcome every business start-up, and we want to ensure that women do not feel out of place by starting a business.

The reign of the internet is now allowing more women to use their skills in a way that will benefit them. It is not simply men who are now suiting themselves with their working hours and flexible businesses. One need only look at Facebook to see how people use that medium to display their abilities. We can have anything personalised and sent almost overnight by those who choose to make the best of their time on the internet. There are many possibilities and opportunities. This is entrepreneurship at its best.

I recently met a man and a woman who own a few clothing shops in my constituency and in the neighbouring constituency. They realised that the potential for online shopping was within their grasp and expanded to include that. A business that had a turnover of £3,000 in its first few months will this year have a turnover of £1 million in online sales. That gives us an idea of the possibilities that there are. We had a meeting this week with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and we want DETI and BT to ensure that better broadband is available for shops to make the work a lot easier. The fact is that those people saw an opportunity and took it, and we need to encourage more women—and men—to take such opportunities.

In Northern Ireland, the average age for a female entrepreneur is late 30s. The hon. Lady referred to that figure in her introduction, but anyone of any age can be an entrepreneur. Opportunities should be there earlier. Many women work part time while setting up a business, which gives them the chance to develop their business idea while reducing the financial risk that may be involved. Others work flexible hours in their new business to allow them to look after a home or to fulfil other commitments while getting their business off the ground. Sometimes women have to care for elderly parents or their partners or children. We need to help people who have caring responsibilities.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Opposition Whip (Commons)

The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point about older women coming into entrepreneurship. There is no age barrier and someone can start a business when younger or when circumstances are different, but then need to accelerate later. Does he support my call for a more integrated approach to supporting women’s entrepreneurship, which has the backing and support of a range of different Departments where they may have different ways of interfacing with women’s lives?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

I could not have said it better myself. I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. Clearly, we need all Government bodies to work together to encourage people at whatever age they decide to start a business, whatever the reasons for starting at the time they started, and whether they are caring for a disabled relative or have family responsibilities. Whatever time they start a business, let us encourage them.

The opportunities are endless and it is clear that help and support should be given by the Government to allow people to understand how best they can begin a new business. In Northern Ireland, Invest Northern Ireland, in partnership with the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, has help available. Indeed, it has a mentor programme. Perhaps the Minister and shadow Minister will say whether there is a mentor programme here in the UK mainland. If not, may I suggest they look at what Invest NI and DETI are doing in Northern Ireland? New starts are helped. There is a Training for Women website that has useful courses and guidance, and a lot of other help available.

Women into Business is Northern Ireland’s premier business women’s programme aimed at encouraging and supporting the progression of women hoping to enter or re-enter the workplace through employment or self-employment. Women in Business NI—WIBNI—is Northern Ireland’s largest and fastest-growing network for business women and entrepreneurs. WIBNI has more than 1,000 members and offers events aimed at helping women develop both personally and professionally, and to make connections and ultimately grow their business. WIBNI also offers a variety of free marketing benefits to all members, including publication of their news articles in a quarterly and a monthly magazine.

DETI and Invest Northern Ireland have worked out a strategy to encourage women in business and entrepreneurs in Northern Ireland. My hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann mentioned the importance of further education colleges. We see lots of good students coming through and taking up courses. The South Eastern Regional College does tremendous work in Newtownards and in my constituency, Strangford. It encourages young people when it comes to business start-ups and ideas, and helps to move them along the way. There are as many young girls and young women as there are young men involved in that college and those courses, and it is good to underline that as well.

There is an onus on Government to offer help; more help can and should be offered. Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Feltham and Heston on raising this issue today and on highlighting the great work that has been done, and the fact that there is the potential for so much more to be done, if only more support were offered.

It must be remembered that the greater the success of new businesses, the greater the benefit to the local economy and to the country as a whole. So, whether a woman wishes to create her own business at home, or open a shop, or indeed five shops or 10 shops—whatever their potential dream or wish may be—the advice and support must exist to help them do so. And the onus is on those of us in this place and in Northern Ireland, where this matter is a devolved one, to ensure that that advice and support are provided.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 10:10 am, 18th March 2015

Thank you, Mr Robertson. It is a pleasure to serve under your erudite chairmanship and beady eye this morning; you will ensure that all of us are well-served this morning.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Seema Malhotra on securing this debate. I know that this is a subject she is really passionate about. She has done a lot of research on it, which really shows in the insight she offers into it and the things that we can do about it.

I also want to put on record my interest in and support for the fact that there are a number of MPs here. May I venture to say to David Simpson, who sadly has now left Westminster Hall

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman will be back, because it is good to see male MPs supporting the idea that there is a gender gap that needs to be addressed. However, may I venture to say that that is not necessarily a concern because of his wife but because when 51% of the population are not fully utilised it is a concern for all of us that we are missing out on the contribution that they could make? Frankly, sorting this issue out would help a lot of men, because it would help our economy, and therefore it perhaps has less to do with his wife and more to do with his constituents. It is because of them that he should be concerned about why we have such a gender gap. In particular, my hon. Friend set out well the particular gender gap that we see in the UK, because the situation is not the same in other countries, which should be very telling about what we can do in this country to address these issues.

A number of Members have already pointed out that there would be many more businesses if women were starting up businesses at the same rate as men. However, it is worth considering the situation in other countries. It is not only America that has a higher level of female entrepreneurship than the UK but countries around the world. Therefore, there is something happening in the UK. It is also worth noting that we have a higher rate of churn in the UK, so even when women start up businesses here they are failing more often than in other countries. Women entrepreneurs here are also less likely than elsewhere to attribute the closure of their business to business failure and more likely to cite personal reasons as one of the reasons why their businesses were not successful.

Why does this issue matter to all of us? It is because equalising the labour market participation rates of men and women would boost the UK economy by an average 0.5 percentage points every year, with a potential gain of 10% of GDP by 2030. Given the recession that we have just gone through and given the fact that our recovery appears to be beginning to slow, getting more women into business and into leading more businesses would clearly make a tremendous difference to all of us and our future economic position. Indeed, the Royal Bank of Scotland has calculated that boosting female entrepreneurship could deliver an extra £60 billion to the UK economy.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Opposition Whip (Commons)

As always, the shadow Minister is making an excellent speech. She raised the issue of female participation in the labour force and the important contribution to the economy that could be made by boosting the number of women entrepreneurs. Does she also see this situation as an opportunity for us to see women not only as entrepreneurs but as the employers of the future, who employ others and make changes as their businesses start to grow?

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

My hon. Friend has pre-empted one of the points that I was going to make, namely that this issue is not just about women employing themselves. Indeed, all the evidence suggests that on the whole women’s businesses tend to be better at creating jobs than men’s businesses, because women’s businesses are generally more labour-intensive than men’s businesses. Again, I go back to my initial theme that it would do men, and not just women themselves, a big favour if we could get more women into business.

Therefore, it is worth asking ourselves why we are not seeing that kind of progression in the UK, given that we need it within our economy to make it more stable. My hon. Friend set out the admirable record of the previous Government in bringing forward this agenda and I am very proud of the previous Government for making women’s business a priority for all, and not just for women. However, as Dr Huppert rightly said, we have all seen that the progress on this issue has been too slow. Since 2008, the percentage of small and medium-sized enterprises run by women in this country has only gone from 14% of the total number of SMEs to 20%, which is a 6% increase in that time period. That is simply not good enough. As a result of that, women own only about one business in five in this country. When we compare that with America, where women are twice as likely to be entrepreneurially active as women in the UK, even though the rates of entrepreneurship for men are very similar for both countries, that tells us that the problem that we face here.

In that same time—the period since 2008—it is also worth reflecting on just how quickly women’s employment in and of itself has changed. Not only have women been hit disproportionately hard by the Government cuts but in terms of unemployment. Therefore, it is not a surprise that in the boom in self-employment that we have seen in this country in the last five or six years, women have accounted for much of that growth. Women account for under a third of those who are in self-employment in our country, but more than half of the increase in self-employment since 2008 has been among women. In fact, between 2008 and 2011 women accounted for an unprecedented 80% of the new self-employed people within our economy, which means about 300,000 more women going into self-employment since the economic downturn.

What sort of businesses might those new businesses be? I am sorry to see that the Members from Northern Ireland in Westminster Hall have now shrunk down to one—Jim Shannon—but I hope that it is a case of quality not quantity. The hon. Gentleman himself talked about online shopping and women using their interest in that to drive business. What we have certainly seen is a boom in the internet economy and the opportunity not so much to shop online as to sell online; we have certainly seen that women have been taking advantage of that opportunity. I would wager that that is not so much because of women’s interest in shopping but because of the reduction in barriers to entrepreneurship that online activity creates. The fact that now someone needs only a few hundred pounds to set up a business rather than several thousands pounds, because it is possible to sell online, changes our economy in substantial ways. Indeed, online businesses have accounted for almost a quarter of total UK growth in recent years, and much of that has been driven by new entrants into the market, including women benefiting from the fact that they can combine work around some of their other commitments to get into that online business.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Opposition Whip (Commons)

The shadow Minister is making an excellent point and I am reminded of the excellent phrase in the book, “A Woman’s Place is in the Boardroom”, by Peninah Thomson, in which she talked about the “customer being queen”, because of the fact that women are responsible for more than 80% of retail purchases, or decisions about them. Does my hon. Friend agree that that highlights even further the need to focus on women and what they can bring to our economy through setting up enterprises? The fact is that when women make decisions about what to purchase for themselves and their families, they understand the market so much more than men, and when they come forward and start businesses they are often filling niches and going on—just as Anita Roddick did with the Body Shop—to be hugely successful.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Again, my hon. Friend shows her experience in this area. What we are certainly seeing is that women who start businesses tend to bring forward new products, as opposed to men who start businesses, who tend to bring forward competitor products. So women are certainly driving innovation.

My point in referring to the online economy is to set on the record that Labour thinks this issue is less about women bringing their previous experience of purchasing to business so much as their ability to use the opportunity that online behaviour offers to open up markets to people. When someone is bringing a new creative product to the market, having a window that sells to millions of people rather than perhaps having a window just in their local high street opens up the potential for greater success, and it is important that we consider that and ask ourselves how, for example, we can support more women to learn skills, such as coding, to be able to sell online.

A number of Members today have obviously focused on women themselves and what might be stopping them from getting into business. Certainly, one of the issues that people have come up with is child care. So, let us be very clear that there probably is an issue around child care and helping women to be able to juggle, which suggests men are holding women back, because, after all, it takes two to have a baby. One thing that I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on is how we can make men hold up their part of the bargain in looking after children, so that their wives can be the successful entrepreneurs that they want to be.

Labour’s child care proposals will probably help a lot of women entrepreneurs. For example, there is our proposal to increase the number of hours of free child care that are available. With child care costs rising by up to 30%, there could be many parents, for example the women who want to be the next Anita Roddick or Laura Tenison, who find their ability to be entrepreneurial being hampered as a result of this Government, because they find they cannot afford the child care necessary for them to spend the time setting up a business.

Today, therefore, I will set out four areas that I would like to hear the Government’s response about. They are less to do with women and more to do with the environment that we are asking women entrepreneurs to enter.

First, hon. Members talked about finance. Clearly, finance matters. The evidence shows us that women start businesses undercapitalised, and with not just less finance, but fewer human resources and less social capital. That puts them at a disadvantage in comparison with their male counterparts. Not having the same level of resource is a factor in respect of confidence and risk-aversion among female entrepreneurs. It is important to say that it is not always a bad thing that women are risk-averse, but we should recognise it when they do not have the same resources, and so cannot take the same risks, as their male counterparts. We must consider how to ensure that they have access to more resources, rather than encouraging them to take more risks, and we should recognise that their lack of confidence may not be misplaced and that they might not have the resources to succeed.

How much of a barrier is finance? Some 10% of female entrepreneurs say that access to finance is their only barrier to entrepreneurship, and that it is a particular challenge in respect of expanding in the way they would like to. Again, that appears to be a bigger problem in the UK than in other countries, particularly in Europe. Women in Europe are much more likely to be able to access finance to start and run their businesses than their UK counterparts. Some 20% of women in the UK have tried to get money to start a business but have been turned down, compared with only 11% of European female entrepreneurs.

My hon. Friend talked about the Aspire fund, which was set up in 2008 to try to deal with this challenge and ensure that there was a dedicated pot of money to support women in business. As she said, as of last year only £4.7 million of the £12 million had been invested. It is worth comparing that with other forms of start-up finance backed by the Government to see what the difference is. For example, in the same period, the enterprise finance guarantee scheme, set up to provide assistance to small businesses with an annual turnover of less than £41 million, has offered £2.6 billion, and £2.3 billion has been drawn down. The regional growth fund, which matches private finance with public assistance, has awarded £2.6 billion, of which £1.15 billion has been drawn down. There is a differential. It would be interesting to hear the Minister’s view on why the Aspire fund has not been as successful in promoting and supporting women’s businesses as some other start-up funds.

Research by Strathclyde university states that decisions regarding women and finance are based on the interaction between women, who may lack confidence—perhaps because they recognise that they do not have the same level of resource to start a business—and those offering them finance, who may have a certain attitude and approach. There is an interesting challenge for us: if we can change the attitudes of those offering finance—for example, through the Aspire fund—will more women go into business?

Secondly, we have to acknowledge the issue of confidence. I challenge slightly the vicious circle that the hon. Member for Strangford mentioned: he said that dedicated schemes for women could undermine their confidence. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the other way of looking at that is that it recognises that they are a priority. Dedicated schemes, with mentoring and support for women, recognising that there is a gap, and bringing other women forward are helpful and supportive.

Some 38% of women in the UK, compared with just 3% of women in Europe, take advice from Government business support projects. Women are more likely to use all forms of business support than men, whether public or private, and are more likely to access support from professional services. It is important that mentoring schemes exist. It matters that other women are in business, because you cannot be what you cannot see. It is a simple principle, but seeing other women being successful in business offers a road map for women, showing them how they could be successful.

I pay tribute, as other hon. Members have, to a women’s business forum in my constituency. I venture to say that that forum, run by the amazing Jo Sealy, is more successful than our general business forum.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

I just want to go back one sentence, with the hon. Lady’s permission, and talk about confidence. I was saying that we all have different natures. I have a different nature from other gentlemen in this Chamber, and the hon. Lady is different from other ladies here. It is important, when encouraging ladies to take a job up or move forward with their idea for entrepreneurship, that it is done in such a way that their confidence is encouraged. It is not that what is happening is not right; it is right for some, but perhaps not right for all.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his clarification. My point is that he was querying whether a gendered approach to mentoring might not be counter-productive. I wanted to reassure him that such an approach is important for a lot of women, because it shows them a road map of where they could get to.

I also pay tribute to Simone Roche of Women 1st, Kate Hardcastle of Insight with Passion, Bev Hurley of Enterprising Women, Heather Jackson of An Inspirational Journey, and Margaret Wood of Opportunity Plus, who supports older women entrepreneurs. There are a number of schemes out there, and what they all have in common is that they were set up by women volunteering. Some of them have become social enterprises. I share the concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston that, over the last couple of years, the work to support women doing that work has been downgraded. My second question for the Minister is: does he share our concern and think there should be a renewed effort to support and prioritise those mentoring networks, not just in local enterprise partnerships?

My hon. Friend and colleague the Member for Feltham and Heston is a fan of the work of the national Women’s Business Council, which was set up for a year as an independent body. Does the Minister think there is a case for making that a perpetual scheme, and for considering how it could support mentoring, using and drawing on the experience there?

Thirdly, with regard to women finding it hard to see other women whom they might aspire to be, does the Minister share my disappointment and concern about the slow pace of progress in getting women into leadership positions in business across the piece? He must be disappointed with the slow pace of change, given the diversity dividend that comes from getting more women into boardrooms. He must also share the disappointment of his colleague, the Minister for Business and Enterprise, about the decisions of many businesses to appoint women to non-executive positions. The vast majority of women who have gone into leadership positions on business boards during the past couple of years have simply been appointed as non-execs and have not been in decision-making positions. I know that the Minister will be worried about that unacceptable situation, because it sends a message to women entrepreneurs that there are not women to trade with. Does he think that there is now a case for getting on with looking at what quotas could offer us, in respect of non-exec and exec positions, and the way that businesses are working with women?

My final questions to the Minister are about women to trade with. There is a slow pace of change when it comes to not just women in boardrooms and in entrepreneurship, but women to trade with. In a world economy, the way our businesses work with other businesses could provide huge opportunities for women entrepreneurs, but at the moment, women-owned businesses are winning less than 5% of corporate and public sector contracts.

The Government’s adviser has called for the Government to collect data on diversity in procurement processes, and said that the pre-qualification questionnaire should ask about women-owned business. Is the Minister concerned that the talk about removing the pre-qualification questionnaire for contracts smaller than €250,000 may mean that we will not see that level of engagement with the question of whether the Government are selling to women and doing all they can, through their own supply chain, to promote women’s business?

Although UK Trade & Investment measures women-led firms that export, we do not measure women being sold to and traded with in our economy. The Government have dismissed the idea of having a quota for tenders and the idea of measuring the number of women being sold to, although clearly that would help us understand the scale of the challenge and whether the Government are doing what they can. If the Minister wants insight into what difference that could make, he should look no further than that socialist utopia, the United States of America, where some 30% of all businesses are majority female-owned and the number of women-owned businesses continues to grow at twice the rate of all US firms. Women are increasing their economic clout and driving the American recovery. That is not happening by accident; it is being driven by the US Government’s deliberate choice. The USA Women’s Business Ownership Act 1988 put in place long-term infrastructure to support women’s enterprise development. The quotas and targets set by the US Government for women in their supply chain are changing the behaviour of companies in America.

In 1994, the federal Government established a 5% spending goal for federal agencies to encourage contracting with women-owned small businesses. That target has not yet been met, but it is almost being met and it is making a massive difference to women entrepreneurs in America. Indeed, it is changing the debate not just in the public sector in America, but in the private sector. Companies such as Walmart—again, not perhaps seen as a socialist leader, if the Minister is worried about that—have introduced “women-owned” labels since last year, allowing consumers to clearly identify products created by women-led businesses and buy accordingly. That company sees a commercial interest in this.

The Minister may be worried that I am talking straight away about bringing in a direct quota for selling to women. I recognise that first and foremost we have to ask the question, so will the Minister commit the Government to asking, in the public sector, about selling to women, and to starting to monitor just how women’s businesses are being traded with in this country? Through that, we can understand the gaps in the industry. Perhaps there is a role in that for the Women’s Business Council and that dedicated lead on women’s entrepreneurship and business that my hon. Friend the Member for Feltham and Heston set out so clearly as being required.

Ultimately, if we want to give women confidence that their businesses will be supported, that they will be successful and that we can bridge the confidence gap, we have to show that the issue is a priority. The Opposition are committed to that; I hope that the Minister will show a similar level of commitment, so that we can all benefit from the increase in economic activity and productivity that bringing more women into the UK economy would offer.

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health 10:30 am, 18th March 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson in the closing phase of this Parliament. I congratulate Seema Malhotra on introducing this debate on Budget day—an important day, when attention will be rightly focused on the Government’s initiatives to support business and entrepreneurship. As a Business Minister, it is a pleasure to be here and to be able to respond to the debate. I pay tribute to the Members who have spoken today. We heard powerfully from Jim Shannon on some of the good practice in Northern Ireland. I was there recently celebrating and supporting the Northern Ireland life sciences cluster. He made a powerful point about the importance of rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy from public to private sector and the role of women entrepreneurs in that. He also made an important point on mentoring—I would be interested to look at the scheme he mentioned—and also touched on child care.

The hon. Member for Feltham and Heston made a number of points and I will try to deal with them in my speech, as well as to answer some of her specific questions. I pay tribute to the large number of women who have contributed to the driving of the agenda outside this House. A number of pioneering entrepreneurs and women in policy have been mentioned today. It is another area where more needs to be done. I am proud of what this and the previous Government have done, but the Government agree that we need to keep our foot to the pedal and keep at it.

I particularly thank and congratulate those behind the Aspire fund, the taskforce and the Women’s Business Council for their work. The subject is close to my heart, partly because I have a 14-year-old daughter whose career I take a close interest in, and partly because I come from a 15-year career in the entrepreneurial sector in Cambridge and elsewhere around the country starting high-growth technology companies, particularly in the life sciences. In that sector, I am glad to say, there is a proud record of women achieving very highly both in both our larger companies—I recently met a delegation from GlaxoSmithKline, and Members will be delighted to know that all five representatives were women—and in the smaller companies. There are huge opportunities for women in life sciences, both at the bench and in driving small businesses.

Women and entrepreneurship is also an area of interest from a policy point of view. Through the 2020 Conservatives group, I have set out a number of measures on how, in driving the rebalanced economy and the long-term economic plan, we have to liberate the entrepreneurial talents of all our citizens, and in particular reach into those areas where we have not properly unleashed them before. It is clear from what Members of all parties have said this morning that there is a lot of latent entrepreneurial talent in our female community. In our inner cities and our black and minority ethnic communities, there are incredible rates of entrepreneurial activity that we have not recognised, properly reached into and supported. Family finance supports a lot of our small businesses in some very business-hostile environments in some of our inner cities.

In the public services—before the shadow Minister leaps to her feet, I do not mean privatisation—we should unleash the spirit of entrepreneurship and the talents of people in the public services to deliver more for less. The economy nationally needs a strong focus on unleashing that spirit of enterprise. That does not always mean for-profit or very acquisitive, venture capital-backed businesses; it means a culture of delivering more for less and innovating. We need that to modernise our public services and to continue to drive the recovery that we are leading. The subject is close to my heart, and on Budget day it is close to the Government’s mission more widely.

The truth is that small businesses are the lifeblood of our economy. Every village, town and city in Britain contains shops, garages, cafes, manufacturing firms, hairdressers and so on. We take those small businesses for granted, but they are backed by enterprising and hard-working people who are taking risks to run those businesses. Responsible society depends on the ties that bind us, and as well as the economic benefits it brings, an entrepreneurial, small business economy does something else: it builds the ties and social capital that link communities.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights)

The Minister is making a powerful response, saying what he feels he can do. One of the growth industries in my constituency and across the whole of Northern Ireland, particularly among ladies, has been the craft industry, where there are special talents and the ability to create products for sale. The Minister mentioned shops, small businesses and restaurants and so on, but the craft industry could release enormous talent and job opportunities across the whole United Kingdom. What are his thoughts on that?

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I was about to talk about the importance of small business in driving innovation if we want an innovation economy. Small businesses tend to be quicker to adopt innovation and to drive it. They are a force for insurgency in the economy. In tourism and crafts, we should not forget that small businesses are important in our theatre, media, digital and tourism sectors. A culture of empowering people and unleashing the talents of women in every walk of life is incredibly important if we are to build a diverse and strong economy and a strong and linked society.

That is why I am absolutely delighted that the UK is a truly great place to start a business. This year we have seen data confirming that 760,000 small businesses have been created in this Parliament since 2010. We are backing business every step of the way, making it easier to start, succeed and grow. We will hear about more such measures in the Budget later today, I have no doubt. I am delighted, too—but not complacent for a minute—that in 2013 there were more women-led businesses in the UK than ever before: 990,000 of our SMEs were run by women or a team that was more than 50% female, an increase of 140,000 since 2010. We know that more needs to be done, and we need to build on that positive momentum. I am also delighted that in the UK, women-led small businesses are contributing £82 billion to the gross value added of the UK economy.

Before the debate, I looked at the latest data, which are even more encouraging. The data from the Office for National Statistics for October to December 2014 show that there were 1.45 million self-employed women in the UK, which is 42,000 more than in the previous quarter and 281,000 more than in May to July 2010. Some 672,000 of those self-employed women were working full time and 778,000 were part time.

I pay tribute to the work of the Women’s Business Council and the important policy work that it has done and intends to follow up. It has rightly, as a number of Members have highlighted, pointed out that if we had women starting businesses at the same rate as men, we would have up to 1 million more entrepreneurs. That is a good reminder of the latent potential that we need to continue to drive at.

One or two Members asked about the Government’s commitment and which Minister is responsible for this. I am delighted to say that a number of Ministers are responsible. The Minister for Business and Enterprise leads on enterprise policy for the Government. The Secretary of State for Education is also the Minister for Women and Equalities. The Under-Secretary of State for Women and Equalities at the Department for Education is also an Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills. They are all working to develop joined-up policies with the Government Equalities Office. We take it seriously as part of our commitment to social justice and to the long-term economic plan.

Research by the Enterprise Research Centre has shown the challenges that confront women entrepreneurs, but in many ways they are similar to those facing men.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister has acknowledged the important work that the Government Equalities Office has been doing and the different Departments involved, but he has not been so clear on who is actually in charge of the policy area. Having many people involved is good, but who is in charge? Also, he has not mentioned what plans the Government might have for the Women’s Business Council and whether they think its role needs to be strengthened. Should it be looking at more diverse aspects of business? Should it be put on a statutory footing?

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

With eight days of this Parliament left, perhaps I could undertake to write formally to the hon. Lady to confirm the various initiatives that we have running. I assure her that if this Government are returned on 9 May, we will continue to keep our foot to the pedal and drive on this agenda. She would not expect me to commit now to what that might look like, given the uncertainties that we all face.

A number of colleagues mentioned access to finance, which is rightly regarded as a major obstacle preventing women from starting and growing a successful enterprise. It is worth pointing out that access to finance is an issue for all businesses, but although it is in many ways gender neutral, the truth is that women perceive higher financial barriers and the evidence shows that they are more likely to be discouraged, particularly by some forms of borrowing. Sources of finance for male and female-led businesses are similar, but studies show that women-owned businesses start with lower levels of overall capitalisation, use lower ratios of debt finance, and are much less likely to use private equity or venture capital.

Encouraging women to start their own business is a key part of our long-term economic plan, which his why we have put in place a range of Government initiatives to support women. Through the GREAT website, we have brought together in one place all the relevant Government advice, guidance and support, but there is more to do. I am delighted that, this week, we in the Office for Life Sciences have redone our business support portal to make navigation easier for those outside the system. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has also launched a range of new measures, including a new web page specifically aimed at potential and existing female entrepreneurs.

The Government’s “Business is GREAT Britain” campaign has been highly effective at making small businesses aware of the range of support on offer to help them to grow. Specifically for women, we have committed additional funding to understand in communications terms the particular challenges that female entrepreneurs face, and we are making sure that existing activity is widely promoted among women. We have managed to match up experienced business women with those new to enterprise and invested £1.9 million in the “Get Mentoring” project—a number of colleagues mentioned mentoring. That project has recruited and trained more than 15,000 volunteer business mentors from the small business community, 42% of whom are women, I am delighted to say; that is more than 6,000 mentors trained specifically to support female entrepreneurs. Due to the success of that project, the Government recently announced an extra £150,000 to host 12 “Meet a Mentor” roadshows throughout the UK for female entrepreneurs.

Photo of Seema Malhotra Seema Malhotra Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister mentioned the GREAT Business website, which I referred to, and said that it has been successful in raising awareness among small businesses. Has there been any formal evaluation of how successful it has been?

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

The process of evaluating the BIS portals has been taking place only in the past few months. Perhaps I could come back to the hon. Lady with the latest details of that assessment.

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

If I can just finish this section of my speech, I will happily give way.

We have invested in the women’s start-up project to provide opportunities for young women studying in the creative industries and the leisure and tourism sectors to start their own businesses. This pilot project, in partnership with Young Enterprise, will see the Government provide funding of up to £50,000 for teams of young women aged 19 to 24 studying at undergraduate level to set up and run their own businesses. We have also provided £2 million for small grants of up to £500 for those wishing to set up new child care businesses—help with child care is of course a major part of support, and I will say more about that in a moment. In the autumn statement, the Chancellor announced that that scheme would be extended until March 2016, with a further £2 million made available for next year.

As a number of colleagues have mentioned, we have provided a £1 million women and broadband challenge fund to help women to move their business online and take advantage of superfast broadband. Sixteen local authorities have been awarded a grant to support actions to encourage women’s enterprise in areas where superfast broadband is being deployed. I want to touch on the particular challenge faced by women entrepreneurs in rural areas such as my own.

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

I will just finish my point, then I will give way.

The Government are actively addressing a number of additional barriers for women in rural areas. We have provided £1.6 million to support women’s start-ups in rural areas, including improved access to transport links, virtual assistants for those in the most remote areas, online help, and local business support through mentoring, skills training and networking.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Before the Minister moves on from discussing Government support to women’s business, I want to press him on the Aspire fund—I hope that he has just received a note on it from his officials. He mentioned a number of different pots of money that are being given out to support women in business in various ways—for example, the broadband challenge. The Aspire fund was set up with £12 million to support high-growth women-owned ventures, but six years on, only £4.7 million has been invested. Will he say more about why that is the case and what the Government are doing to reduce the gap? If that money is there to support women’s business, surely we should ensure that it gets to women in business.

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

With her typical prescience, the hon. Lady anticipates the next paragraph of my speech. We recognise that the sector needs particular support, which is why we are so keen on the Aspire fund, which makes equity investments of between £100,000 and £1 million on a co-investment basis and is designed to help female-led businesses that aim to grow. The fund invested £1.3 million and supported £5.5 million of investment in 2013-14, and it has a total of £12.5 million to invest.

It is worth remembering that the fund was not intended to fund a large number of businesses; it is there as a beacon project to support women-only businesses and catalyse the sector. I am delighted that we have also made additional investment available to businesses led by women, as well as those led by men, through the £100 million business angel co-investment fund. We must not forget that although we are catalysing and driving women-only entrepreneurs, the whole range of business support mechanisms we have put in place—including the seed investment enterprise scheme and the expanded enterprise investment scheme—are all available to women entrepreneurs.

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

I just want to finish this point about funding.

Without the right funding, it would be hard for anyone to realise the potential of their ideas. The Aspire fund is one of a much larger range of measures. Women are also benefiting from the full range of start-up loans and the new enterprise allowance. More than 25,000 loans worth more than £160 million have now been made, with 37% going to women. The 25,000th loan was given to a female entrepreneur.

To help more parents to start their own business, from autumn 2015 tax-free child care will be available to nearly 2 million households to help with the cost of child care. That will enable more parents to go to work and, unlike the current scheme—employer-supported child care—it will be available to self-employed parents.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

There is a £7 million gap between the £12 million that has been made available for women’s businesses and the money that has actually been drawn down. I take the Minister’s point, and I am not suggesting that that is the only funding available for women entrepreneurs, but compared with other Government-led schemes, there is a substantial disparity. Why does he think that is? Why has the Aspire fund not been able to lend at the same rate as the other available start-up funds? Will he commit the Government to monitoring across the piece the gender of those to whom they are lending through start-up schemes? The Government have not always monitored that, but they must do so in order to truly understand what we might have to change about finance for women to ensure that they all get the support that they need.

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

It is important to realise that we do not want the investment funds that take equity stakes simply to shovel the money out of the door irrespective of the quality of the bids. The decisions have to be based on proper investment criteria, and it is not for me or the hon. Lady to second-guess such judgments. I am pleased to see that after an initial period during which the rate of investment was slower, it has picked up. We are actively monitoring and supporting the fund, and our ambition is for it to be spent and invested, but it is important that we send a signal that the money is going into high-quality business propositions.

As we have all acknowledged this morning, there is a challenge in trying to observe the wider cultural point made by my hon. Friend Dr Huppert. He said that we must promote world-class, aspirational, high start-up businesses that are capable of receiving that sort of venture capital. It is not for us to signal that the money should be pumped out of the door irrespective of the quality of the bids. It is for the fund manager to ensure that they are picking the right investments.

I have tried to be generous in giving way, but time is running out, so I want to complete my remarks. For all the reasons I have outlined, and because we agreed that we must do more, in April 2014, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State appointed my hon. Friend Lorely Burt to the role of women in enterprise champion, to promote the support available to women starting a business. In February, she presented her report on how the Government could boost support for female entrepreneurs, and we agree with much of the thinking and analysis it contains. I cannot be expected to commit the Government to agree with every single one of the recommendations, but we are actively looking at them and working on an implementation plan.

I want to pick up on some of the comments. My hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge focused in particular on science and start-up companies. I join him in paying tribute to the people in the high-tech and life sciences sector, which we both know well from Cambridge, and to entrepreneurs such as Julie Deane of the Cambridge Satchel Company. He made a number of interesting points about cultural attitudes and the need to ensure that in what can sometimes be the quite macho world of finance, the quality of women entrepreneurs and of women in science is properly recognised.

My hon. Friend also talked about the importance of getting schools better connected to businesses. We can all do something about that in our own constituencies. Tomorrow night, the Norfolk Way is launching our first innovation awards for Norfolk, linking up science teachers and students in schools with local businesses in the area. He made an important point about 8% of venture capital funding but 41% of crowdfunding going to women-led businesses. That sends a signal about the power of some of the new financing mechanisms to support women’s businesses. Although the Enterprise Research Centre has shown that there are no specific obstacles to access to finance for women, strong perceptions have a powerful effect, and that is something we need to monitor.

My hon. Friend made a particular point about STEM. Since 2009-10 the number of women starting engineering in manufacturing apprenticeships has increased threefold, which is a real success for the coalition’s apprenticeships policy in that we are getting more and more women in the STEM subjects. More action is necessary, but with the apprenticeship ambassadors STEMNET programme we are making progress. The Your Life “Call to Action”, part of the campaign launched by the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has brought together employers, educators and the professions to make concrete pledges to increase the number of women in engineering and technology. I am delighted that more than 200,000 organisations have now pledged to create in excess of 2,000 entry-level positions, including apprenticeships, graduate jobs and paid work experience posts, as well as action to support their female work force.

Photo of Julian Huppert Julian Huppert Liberal Democrat, Cambridge

Seema Malhotratalked about mentors and I could not remember a name. I hope that the Minister will join me in congratulating Roma Agrawal, who worked on the Shard and has a website,, which promotes females going into engineering.

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

I absolutely join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to another beacon project that is sending out such a powerful signal to girls and women about opportunities available to them. I am delighted, too, that we allocated a further £20 million in the engineering skills fund to help employers to tackle skills shortages in engineering, including to develop women engineers.

Finally, my hon. Friend made a point about enterprise education. I am delighted to confirm that we are working actively with schools, colleges and higher education institutions to encourage and promote entrepreneurial attitudes and skills training, as well as providing mentors and role models and improving access to finance support.

I want to deal with the questions about child care and women on boards. A number of colleagues asked about child care support. The Government have increased the number of funded hours of free child care from 12.5 to 15 hours a week for all three and four-year-olds, saving families an additional £425 a year per child. Since September 2014 we have funded an additional 15 hours a week of free child care for the 40% most disadvantaged two-year-olds, saving families £2,500 a year per child. We have also increased child tax credit well above inflation to £2,780 a year, which is £480 more a year than at the beginning of the Parliament. All families under universal credit will be able to receive 80% support for child care costs, which is up from 70% under the existing working tax credit system. The introduction of tax-free child care could also save a working family up to £2,000 a year per child. In addition, we have committed an extra £50 million to introduce a new early years pupil premium in 2015-16 to support the most disadvantaged three and four-year-olds to access Government-funded early education. That is important if we are to support our entrepreneurs and innovators in all walks of society and to ensure that entrepreneurship is not the preserve of the well-off.

Women on boards is an important subject. A lot of our entrepreneurial companies do well and go on to become substantial, significant companies quoted on the stock market. We are ensuring that, at that point, women continue in leadership roles. Following Lord Davies’s recommendations in the 2011 “Women on boards” report, the Government are committed to achieving the target he set for the end of 2015 of 25% of FTSE 100 boards being women. We also want to increase the number of women on FTSE 250 boards. The graph that I have in my hands shows a line slowly climbing from 2004 to 2011, but then turning sharply upwards, going from 12.5% of women on the boards of FTSE 100 companies to 20.7% at the end of 2014. We are making a real impact and we must continue to do so. I am delighted that now 22.8% of FTSE 100 board members are women and that women now account for 28% of FTSE 100 non-executive directorships and 8.5% of FTSE 100 executive directorships. There is much more to do, but we are making real progress.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Does the Minister share the view of his colleague, the Minister for Business and Enterprise, that it is unacceptable that boards are only appointing women to non-executive positions and that what we need therefore is a target not only for women on boards, but for women in decision-making positions? Also, will the Minister answer the questions about the Women’s Business Council and about the supply chain? It would be incredibly helpful to hear his response on those issues as well.

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

I do share the ambition and desire of my fellow BIS Minister, my right hon. Friend Matthew Hancock, to see a continuing increase in the rate of women being appointed to the boards of our top companies. The hon. Lady is right to highlight that we do not want women only to be in non-executive roles; they must be in executive roles as well. That is why I was saying that we are very much focused on that. We are pleased with the progress, but we need to go further—not, I hasten to add, because of a politically correct desire to hit some quota, but because women are talented and represent more than half of our work force. By not giving women fair representation in the leadership positions of our great companies, we deny those companies their talents. We are being hard-headed and not only concerned with social justice. It is in the interests of the country in every way. I am glad that we agree on that.

In closing, I want to return to the point with which I started. Many of the arguments used in the Chamber today relate to the economic contribution of women in entrepreneurship and start-up businesses and to the need to unleash the talents of women, because that is so important to our economy, but I want to highlight the importance of a small business and entrepreneurial economy to the wider stock of social capital and the ties that bind us. I am absolutely certain that if we are to rebalance our economy in the broadest sense, we need to create one in which small business not only contributes to economic success, but helps to bring communities together. Give me a deal between two small companies any day of the week and I will show people a deal that includes not only an economic deliverable, but a contribution to social capital and to building trust between communities. In many of our small towns, neighbourhoods, villages and inner-city communities, small businesses working together produce and deliver so much more than just economic growth. It is vital that we build women into that network as well.

For those reasons, I am delighted that, while there is not a shred of complacency in the Government, we are making real progress. We now have 1.45 million women enjoying the freedoms and flexibilities of self-employment, which is 42,000 more than in the previous quarter and 281,000 more than in 2010. We also have 900,000 SMEs run by women, more than at any time in our history. I am not complacent, but the Government are making progress.

Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Before the Minister closes, I wanted his response to two specific questions about the future of the Women’s Business Council and the supply chain. His own Government adviser on women-led businesses has suggested that the Government should monitor women in the procurement supply chain. Will he commit the Government to that, yes or no?

Photo of George Freeman George Freeman The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health

I have taken a lot of interventions and questions, but I will happily get back to the hon. Lady in detail. She made an interesting point about procurement. Through the work of the Cabinet Office, we are driving hard to ensure that we use every procurement power to support innovation throughout the economy. That is an important part of it and I will happily come back to her on it later.

The 900,000 SMEs run by women in our economy, the highest number in history, suggests that we are making real progress. I am not complacent for a moment, but we are on the right track.