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Volume 401: debated on Thursday 20 March 2003

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What measures she is taking to encourage more women to become business entrepreneurs. [103900]

A national strategic framework for business support for women's enterprise is in the final stages of development by the Small Business Service, in conjunction with Prowess—the nationwide network of women entrepreneurs—and a cross-government policy group. This strategy will enable us to support far more women in moving into self-employment and setting up their own businesses.

Is the Minister aware of studies that have taken place in the United States that show that black women, especially, make excellent entrepreneurs when sufficient support is given? Does she believe that the issue could be considered in that context in this country?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Unfortunately, we are not doing nearly as well as other countries, including the United States, at encouraging women, including black women, into business start-ups. If women in the United Kingdom were starting up businesses at the same rate as men are, we would have about 100,000 more businesses in the United Kingdom every year. That is why we are giving such priority to this issue, and ensuring—both through Prowess and the work of the phoenix fund—that we support women from all our different communities who are interested in becoming entrepreneurs.

What is the Minister doing to encourage women to become sub—postmistresses? Have the Government implemented recommendation 18 of the performance and innovation unit report that was mentioned earlier? It states:

"The Post Office should develop a role for post offices as Government General Practitioners."
At a time when Haylands, Horsebridge Hill and Parkhurst post offices in my constituency are under threat of closure, the Government appear to have nothing to say on this matter—

Does the Minister recognise that women entrepreneurs have been greatly assisted by the innovation that was a key feature of the existing European structural funds, which has helped women in Merseyside and the north-west by supporting investment funds and training, and by giving encouragement to women to become involved in business? Will she ensure that, in any changes to structural funds, the innovation that allowed women to be supported in this way will be continued?

When I was in Merseyside just last week, I saw an example of precisely that kind of entrepreneurial spirit at Blackburn House—in this case, a social enterprise created and led by women for women. My hon. Friend makes an important point, and the consultation document that the Chancellor and I recently published on the future of the structural funds and regional policy sets out a sensible way forward to ensure that the work already being done under the structural funds and under the regional development agencies will continue, following enlargement, in what we believe will be an even more effective and efficient way.