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Women in Business

Volume 574: debated on Thursday 23 January 2014

This Government want to see as many women as possible going into and progressing in business. We commissioned the Women’s Business Council to look at what barriers prevent women from reaching their potential and how to maximise their contribution to economic growth. We work closely with Lord Davies to increase the number of women on boards. Women now account for 20.4% of board members in FTSE 100 companies, up from 12.5% in February 2011.

Last week I met a woman called Adele who has set up a child care business. A few years ago her bank refused to lend to her because, in her view, it just did not understand her business plan. Such was her belief in her business that she remortgaged her home and her business has now expanded to look after 300 children. Given the lower levels of finance being offered to British female entrepreneurs compared with their European counterparts, does the Minister support Labour’s proposal for regional banks, which could be better placed to understand and support local small and medium-sized enterprises?

The Government are doing quite a lot to ensure that women entrepreneurs have access to finance, and it sounds as though the hon. Lady’s constituent is a very good example of that. The Government Equalities Office offers child care grants to men and women, but primarily to women, who want to set up businesses in that particular area. The Government also support the Aspire fund, which aims to get equity into businesses run by women. The Start-Up Loans Company has offered 12,500 start-up loans and well over a third of them have gone to women to help them set up businesses that I hope will be as successful as that run by the hon. Lady’s constituent.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating those women in rural businesses, primarily farms? Women are the backbone of the farming community and have taken the opportunity to diversify locally. Examples include Shepherds Purse cheese makers, Get Ahead Hats and countless other business opportunities for women.

The hon. Lady highlights some extremely important businesses, and similar examples can be found across the whole of the UK and in a lot of our rural areas. Women are extremely good at identifying new opportunities to diversify businesses in more remote areas. They are often incredibly business savvy and can make a real success of it.

17. Many women see their careers stall when they become pregnant. The Equality and Human Rights Commission is carrying out a welcome, if belated, inquiry into pregnancy discrimination, but it will be many months before we have the findings. In the meantime, is the Equality Advisory Support Service monitoring the number and nature of pregnancy and maternity-related queries so that the Minister can take early action on systemic patterns of discrimination? (902150)

As the hon. Lady undoubtedly knows, it is about 10 years since the last research was done to look properly at the rate of discrimination against women as a result of pregnancy. That 2005 report showed that about 30,000 women had lost their jobs as a result of pregnancy. As the hon. Lady has said, the Government have commissioned the EHRC to do a proper piece of research to identify what the situation is now, and we hope that will give us a good idea of what needs to be done. It is clear that discrimination against women on the basis of pregnancy is completely illegal, and it also makes terribly bad business sense for businesses across the country. This Government want to do something to ensure that we get rid of that type of discrimination.

Will the Minister join me in congratulating a constituent of mine, Jennifer Davies, who has set up a small company called Get Customised, which produces a range of customised products? She is going from strength to strength, not simply because of her determination and dedication, but because of the benefits she has received from a Government-backed start-up loan.

I am very glad to hear of the success of some of the start-up loans provided by this Government, and that the right hon. Gentleman has been able to identify an example in his constituency. Businesses across the country are going extremely well as a result of support from this Government. Another scheme that the Government are doing to help women in particular is the Get Mentoring scheme, into which we have put nearly £2 million. More than 40% of the mentors already trained are women. The scheme is designed to try to get more women to start up businesses and to be as successful as his constituent.

Will the Minister set out how, in her quest to have more women on boards, she intends to ensure that we do not just see the same women on more boards or, indeed, more women on fewer boards?

I am sure that the hon. Lady will join me in rejoicing at the fact that the FTSE 100 now has only two companies with all-male boards. A couple of years ago, the figure was 24 boards, so there has been significant progress. To increase the number of women going on to boards, we are doing everything we can to improve the pipeline, which means that more women below board level can get the support, mentoring and advice that they need to make themselves ready for and to get into board positions. We are doing what we can to increase the number of women on boards and to increase the flow of women, so that we can bring new blood on to the boards of Britain’s businesses.