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Small Businesses

Volume 594: debated on Thursday 26 March 2015

We have established the British Business Bank, which is supporting more than £1.8 billion of finance to 43,000 smaller businesses. More than 26,000 start-up loans have been drawn, totalling more than £136 million. The greatbusiness.gov.uk website brings together expert advice for businesses in one place, and the new Business Growth Service provides joined-up support to firms with growth potential. Some 48,000 businesses have been helped by our UKTI support—90% were small businesses.

My constituency is next door to Pendle, funnily enough. It is very similar, but we do not have and do not want an airport. What we do have are many small businesses, from the butcher to restaurants, bars, hotels and independently owned stores that tend to employ local people and source locally whenever they can. Does the Secretary of State agree that we have to bend over backwards to ensure the vibrancy of those businesses so that they continue to be the lifeblood of our communities?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and one of the success stories of this Government has been the massive expansion of small business, with hundreds of thousands of start-ups, many of them now employing people. However, I would caution against attempts to make some distinction between big and small businesses. They are interdependent through supply chains, and the excellent announcement today from Jaguar Land Rover, with its big investment in the west midlands in the new Jaguar, is an example of its confidence in the country, but it will also provide a substantial amount of business for its suppliers, small and large.

Many small engineering companies would have liked the opportunity to apply to the £10 million fund to support women engineers, but the design of the fund meant that they could not afford to do so. Unfortunately, less than £200,000 was spent of the £10 million. In his last few days in office, will the Secretary of State look again and ensure that the rest of the money is specifically designated to support women engineers, especially women returning to work, and that small businesses can afford to apply for it without the barriers that were previously put in place?

I will certainly undertake to look at that with the Minister for Skills and Equalities, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles). We are aware of the issue that has arisen. The issue the hon. Lady surfaces—the shortage of women engineers—is severe, and we underperform much of Europe in that respect, with only one in 10 of our engineers being women. We are doing a lot to try to change the trend, but a substantial deficit remains.

Small businesses in rural areas are increasingly reliant on access to the internet. In the light of the Chancellor’s announcement in the Budget on using satellites to improve broadband internet access in rural areas, can the Secretary of State set out what steps he is taking to safeguard the radio spectrum that is essential for delivering that and other satellite services?

Sadly, I am not responsible for telecommunications and related activities, but I am sure that the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has heard what my hon. Friend has said. The positive point in his question that I would emphasise is that our satellite industry is one of our most successful. We have a Catapult that invests in its activities, it is expanding rapidly and there is no reason why it should not fit alongside land connections in improving broadband speed.

The Secretary of State and I have worked on manufacturing matters and other matters quite well over these five years. I have enjoyed it and we have co-operated well. Small businesses, like big businesses, depend on finance and a good banking system. Is he as worried as I am about the takeover of TSB? The bank employs a lot of people in the area I represent, and it is a very important taxpayer investment. Are we getting value for money in this takeover, from a country and a company that has a big question mark over its economy?

I had an opportunity to discuss the TSB takeover on the day it was initially announced. One of the first questions I asked was: what would be the implications for business lending? The Spanish bank conducting the takeover has expertise in this field. This is its major area of activity in Spain. I understand that TSB will be pushed in that direction, which is surely positive. There are many other outlets now opening up through challenger banks, and the Business Bank has made a major contribution to increasing diversity, as well as the supply of finance to small businesses.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the record number of business start-ups in sunny Brighton and Hove?

There has been a record number of start-ups across the country, but Brighton is a particular growth centre. The creative industries are very much at the heart of that, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman would like me to congratulate him on his own contribution to that.

If women set up businesses at the same rate as men there would be 1 million extra entrepreneurs in this country, adding about £60 billion a year to our economy. What is stopping the Secretary of State putting into practice the Liberal Democrat Burt report recommendations on monitoring whether the Government are buying from women in their own supply chain to help to bridge that gap?

I can cite a couple of examples of where we have consciously and successfully sought to promote women in business. The start-up loans scheme has a very high proportion of women entrepreneurs—off the cuff, I think it is 40% or more. Yesterday we launched, with the Cranfield business school, the report on the successful efforts to get women on the boards of our top companies. The target was set and it is very, very close to being achieved. I am sure the hon. Lady is happy to work with us in continuing a very important campaign.