HC Deb 10 June 2004 vol 422 cc401-4
19. Ms Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab)

What progress has been made on the strategic framework for women's entrepreneurship launched in May 2003; and if she will make a statement. [177773]

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Patricia Hewitt)

I am glad to say that all nine English regions and all 45 business link operators have set targets to increase the number of women starting their own businesses, and to ensure that they give them proper support to do so. In the past year, according to the labour force survey, the number of self-employed women in the UK has risen. The total number of businesses started and run by women now amounts to almost 1 million.

Ms Munn

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. The other evening I attended the launch of the British Chambers of Commerce report entitled "Achieving the Vision: Female Entrepreneurship" with my right hon. Friend the Deputy Minister for Women and Equality. I met many truly inspirational women who were being very successful in their businesses.

How do we get that enthusiasm and obvious real experience of running businesses across to other women who might want to start up a business? Secondly, what more can my right hon. Friend do—

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is only firstly.

Ms Hewitt

My hon. Friend raises an extremely interesting point. Like her and my right hon. Friend, I welcome the report that the British Chambers of Commerce, in association with the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor, published a couple of days ago. It shows that although the United Kingdom still has a lower level of business start-up among women than many other developed economies, things are improving. In 2003, women were more than twice as likely to see good opportunities for themselves to start a business compared with 2001. One of the best things that we can do is to continue supporting organisations such as Prowess—the women's entrepreneurship network—that are helping to bring together women who have already successfully started a business with other women who might have an interest in doing so. That is one of the most successful ways of inspiring other women and giving them confidence, as a result of practical support, to move into self-employment and entrepreneurship.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con)

I welcome what the Secretary of State has said and I share her praise of the British Chambers of Commerce, but does she not realise that women entrepreneurs, like all other entrepreneurs, are completely fed up with the red tape of Labour's nanny state? What they really want and need is choice, freedom and flexibility in their businesses and in their working lives, which is, of course, what a Conservative Government will give them.

Ms Hewitt

The hon. Lady knows that this Government made pioneering steps to give women in employment much greater choice and control over their working hours and introduced far better rights for both paid and unpaid maternity and parental leave—things that I recall the Conservative party opposed.

I remind the hon. Lady that according to the most recent surveys undertaken by Barclays bank, in 2003 no fewer than 465,000 new businesses were set up in Britain. That is an increase of 19 per cent. over the previous year. The Government have presided over the most successful record of economic growth, with nearly 2 million more people in employment. I am delighted to say that we are also supporting and encouraging far more people to enter into self-employment and to set up the new businesses that will generate more new jobs in future.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that in the north-west women entrepreneurs can play a vital role in improving the economy? In call centres, it has been shown that they have done extremely well in that role.

Ms Hewitt

I warmly welcome my hon. Friend's contribution to Questions to the Minister for Women. He is absolutely right—together with the regional development agency, employers and unions in the north-west, we are funding a further project to ensure that our call centres remain competitive in the north-west and continue to create good jobs for my hon. Friend's constituents and other people in the region.

Sandra Gidley (Romsey) (LD)

I welcome that improvement, but the Minister is probably aware that New Business recently pointed out that there are still significant barriers to overcome and stressed the important link with vocational training. The Equal Opportunities Commission recently highlighted the skills gap or divide and suggested that encouraging women to take up modern apprenticeships was a way forward. Has the Minister seen the Learn Direct website? The first picture one sees is a young man saying "Do you want to work with cars", followed by a chunky male chef and a hunky male fitness instructor. The unwritten question is clearly "Do you want to be a man?" Will she take a look at such sites and work with organisations to devise suitable strategies so that women are not immediately put off when they first access a website to try to find out more about the scheme?

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD)

My hon. Friend obviously enjoyed that website.

Ms Hewitt

With that encouragement, I shall go straight back to my internet connection and take a close look at the Learn Direct website. I assure the hon. Lady that we are working closely with the Equal Opportunities Commission, Learn Direct, the Learning and Skills Council and so on to encourage far more women to come into a well-paid and interesting range of jobs, including plumbing and engineering, which are not only highly paid but, unfortunately, male-dominated. By doing so not only can we make it much easier for women to take up well-paid jobs and set up extremely successful businesses but we can help to close the skills gap. I shall certainly, make sure that Learn Direct is properly on board for that project, and shows women the full range of careers and business opportunities available to them.