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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 22 March 2011

[Martin Caton in the Chair]

Promotion of Women in Business

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

9.30 am

Mrs Helen Grant (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): Balance is the centrepiece of science; it is the fulcrum of philosophy; and it is stability in society—light and dark, hot and cold, yin and yang. We need to balance the resources at our disposal in order to exist and grow. Good business managers embrace balance in so many ways—risk and return, investment and innovation, supply and demand. However, an imbalance that is common in business, the professions and politics is the one between men and women in senior positions.

That imbalance is often labelled a gender equality issue, but actually it is a business performance issue. Men and women bring different things to the business table, which are not mutually exclusive. Women can be great at multi-tasking; men can be cool under pressure and very spontaneous. Both have different attitudes towards risk and confrontation. However, if we put the two together, it is no surprise that gender-balanced businesses are more stable, more sustainable and more profitable. Those involved with such businesses tend to make better decisions about people, risk and customers. Let us not forget that women make 80% of consumer purchase decisions in many countries.

If we can share the best of what we have as men and women, our diversity will enrich us all. There are many barriers to progress. Business is a man’s world built by men and, because people tend to recruit in their own image, male imbalance prevails. In the home, women are still the primary carers, and the struggle to juggle domestic duties and a demanding job can be a major hurdle. Silly stereotypes have been created in relation to both domains. Men are characterised as being confident, aggressive and direct, while women are characterised as being kind, warm and gentle, and therefore as perhaps not having quite what it takes to tackle tough business decisions. The truth could not be further from the myth. However, even today, some people still argue that gender difference in attainment is simply because of personal choice, aspiration and preference.

Some Governments have already taken action. Eight years ago, Norway passed legislation requiring all public and state-owned company boards to be 40% female. Spain and France are now following suit. Norway has achieved its quota, but succession is now a problem. Board members typically come from senior management in private companies. However, in Norway, only 6% of those posts are held by women. Clearly, a root-and-branch approach is still required.

Gareth Johnson (Dartford) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. I know that the issue is very important to her. I hope that she agrees

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that we are striving for a quality of fairness. Does she also agree that we need to ensure that such fairness is not patronising to women and does not replace one form of apparent discrimination with another?

Mrs Grant: My hon. Friend makes a very good point—I could not agree more. I shall cover that issue later. I am grateful for his intervention.

In Britain, we have much to do. Only 5% of FTSE 100 companies have a female chief executive, and only 12% of board directors are women. Our Government have promised to promote gender equality, and I am encouraged by coalition policies on flexible working and parental leave. Lord Davies of Abersoch is leading a review on women on boards, and his report has just been published. He has got it just about right and is seeking to accelerate glacial rates of change without causing global warming. Recommendations include encouraging head-hunters to put more women on shortlists, requiring chairmen to explain why boards lack female representation, inviting investors to take more responsibility in holding their plcs to account on matters of gender balance and, importantly, introducing voluntary targets to raise the number of female directors in Britain’s biggest companies while not ruling out quotas.

Enforced quotas worry me. I am really, really sceptical about them, because such positive discrimination can demean a woman’s real value among her peers and alienate men. Some would also say that quotas treat symptoms, not causes, and there is some truth in that. Surely our aspiration must be the creation of fair, real and equal opportunities, where meritocracy wins the day. Change is coming, and whether it comes eventually through quotas or by more gentle pressure will be a matter for serious and ongoing debate. Even without legislation, some British companies are already committed to gender balance and a variety of methods are being used. Mentoring and sponsorship, setting targets and using best practice illuminated by the light of transparency can all work very well. Part-time working arrangements can improve female retention. In fact, any family-friendly strategy that allows women just a little more flexibility, especially when their children are young, can pay big dividends—and word gets around because women talk. On an individual level, women can help themselves, too. We may need to be more assertive in our approach and not be afraid to take credit for our achievements.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): I congratulate the hon. Lady on obtaining the debate. I promised my wife that I would be here this morning, because she is a business woman—it is more than my life is worth not to be. Although we perhaps have an issue around Government policy, does she agree that dealing with the matter should start earlier in life and that our colleges and universities could help to encourage women in entrepreneurship, so that things are more equal across the boardroom table?

Mrs Grant: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important intervention—I am sure that his wife will be proud. I could not agree more. Part of dealing with the problem is considering how to ensure that our girls—our young ladies—have much brighter, bigger, bolder, ambitious career advice when they are at school and university. The sky should be the limit—I agree with him completely.

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I come back to men. Men, too, need to become better listeners. They need to learn to hear a woman’s voice and embrace the enlightenment of a broader horizon, because when courageous women and enlightened men—we have a few of those here today—come together, there is little that cannot be achieved. The non-believers should consider the following comment made by an all-male board member:

“Our board is really effective. We all think the same way. We all have the same views. Discussions are very short and we always reach the same conclusions”.

That all sounds very happy, but is that board healthy? Balanced boards are a noble aspiration, but there is a bigger picture. Boards are central in corporate life, but senior executives and managers create the wealth. That is where gender balance can be so effective. If we can recruit more women to those senior executive positions and train, nurture, promote and encourage them, then the transition to CEO and the board should be a much more natural step. In many ways, dealing with that is more difficult than dealing with quotas.

Enlightened leaders, both male and female, cast a lengthy shadow. Our Prime Minister, David Cameron, has set himself a target of one third of Ministers to be female by 2015. Likewise, a group of powerful London businessmen are aiming at one third female boards by 2015. A few weeks ago, the Financial Times published its list of the top 50 women in world business. Those women run organisations such as PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, Yahoo! and Xerox. Their success is cause for much celebration and they stand as much-needed role models. The aspirations of those leaders encourage millions. I take great heart in their initiatives, because it says to me that there is room at the top and the door is open.

In conclusion, this is an exciting time for the promotion of women in business, the professions and politics. Government have an important role to play, but legislation alone will not fix the problem. We need chairmen, chief executives, investors and head-hunters to all take action. The Davies report is a step in the right direction. I urge the Government to accept its sensible recommendations and to reconsider the whole issue of child care. Inadequate and unaffordable child care prescribes many women to the home, or to not having children. If some improvements can be made, many capable women will be released back into the working economy as taxpayers, entrepreneurs and wealth creators, which is exactly what our country needs at this difficult time.

9.42 am

Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on securing this important debate on an issue that, for me, is all about aspiration and allowing individuals—men and women—to achieve their potential. We know that many women are stopped from achieving that potential, from being the best they can be and from delivering real value at senior levels in business. We need to do something about that.

I welcome the report from Lord Davies. He has looked at the issue in detail, involved many people in the discussion and come out with a good series of suggestions. I am a strong believer—as might be imagined from me being here—in the importance of having more

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women in business at senior levels. I worked for more than 20 years in the City in different sectors and have seen the lack of women at senior levels. I fundamentally believe that that is not necessarily because women are doing something wrong—although I agree with my hon. Friend that they can promote themselves better—but because there are serious issues about how we select women and people on to the boards in the City.

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the challenge is the structuring of the career path? We are all now living longer. If we could find ways of structuring career paths, whether in the corporate or professional worlds, so that men or women could go into it at different times, that might ease the problem. In the professional and corporate worlds, we see a hub at the age of 30 where it is either make or break—the same time that many women want to have their families. That puts on undue pressure and makes that decision much harder than it would be if we had a career span that was much longer, over the many years that we are going to be working.

Mary Macleod: I agree with my hon. Friend. There is not a one-size-fits-all way of doing things. Different women will have different career paths and will do things at different stages of their lives. We want the flexibility to adapt to those different career paths and still to allow people to get to the top levels in business. I have seen the lack of opportunity and meritocracy that currently exists in business. We are not drawing from the possible range of talent that exists. That means that organisations suffer, that business and the economy generally suffer, so the country suffers. We need to do something about that, because there is a huge untapped pool of talent.

Why is this issue important? As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald has mentioned, some of the reports and studies are not only about aspiration, but performance. Studies such as one by McKinsey’s have looked at a range of statistics that show that companies with a higher proportion of women in senior management teams, in essence, outperform their rivals, with a 42% higher return on sales, a 66% higher return on invested capital and a 53% higher return on equity. There is improved decision making, as was mentioned. Such companies may also be more responsive to the market, make better decisions and have improved corporate governance.

The current position is an issue. Only 12.5% of directors of FTSE 100 companies are women and only 7.8% of directors of FTSE 250 companies are women. Some 52.4% of companies have no women on their boards at all. That is a disgrace. There are a few reasonably good examples. GlaxoSmithKline, in my constituency, has 38% of senior positions held by women. It is good that that has improved year-on-year in the past five years, and that it has improved at the different levels—whether manager, director, senior vice-president or vice-president. That is what we want to see: an ongoing improvement at all levels so that there is opportunity for all.

In so many organisations, the frustrating thing is that progress has plateaued. Contrary to the widely held myth, there is no evidence to suggest that there is a shortage of appropriately qualified women in the pipeline. There are plenty of women to take on board-level roles,

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but we need to start to change the thinking about what the requirements are. As Lord Davies said, we must promote on the basis of merit and skills. That is important if we want a true meritocracy, and to have true fairness and opportunity. Lord Davies’ report mentions getting companies to talk about and publish their figures. That is a great starting point and something that we absolutely should do.

Other measures that need to happen include the better mentoring and sponsoring of the next generation of executives. One programme that exists and works very well is the FTSE 100 cross-company mentoring programme. Many chairmen of FTSE 100 companies are trying that new mentoring approach that will help in the long term, because it aims to sponsor, nurture and mentor the next generation and help them with the skills and experience to get to the next level.

More also needs to be done with networking for senior women in business. A study by Higgs and Tyson found that almost half of the directors they surveyed had been recruited through personal friendships and contacts. That is probably something that we all recognise, so it is important to build up those networking opportunities.

We also need to fight media images and stereotypes. The more we can create, promote and highlight role models, the better it will be, because we want the younger generation of women to see that it is possible to get to the top of their business or sector, and that that will happen purely on the basis of fairness and merit.

Also, we should promote companies that have a good record on gender diversity and flexible working options, which, for some people, is important. We have to work with the chairmen of FTSE 100 and FTSE 250 companies so that, as Baroness Bottomley put it, they look through the window when recruiting boards and not in the mirror. That is something that needs to be adjusted so that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald said, people do not recruit only those who are similar to them and who are already on boards but see the value of having new and different skills on boards.

Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): My hon. Friend is doing a fantastic job of setting out many of the challenges that need to be overcome, and how we might do that. Does she agree, though, that perhaps there is another approach, which is to think about how we actually structure roles? It is inevitably the case that those of us with families end up being torn in our daily lives. I have always thought that job shares—potentially having a Cabinet position as a job share—would send a powerful signal, allow women to achieve their best and also recognise the complexity of many of our lives.

Mary Macleod: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. If there were job sharing in politics—there is no reason why the role of MP or Cabinet Minister could not involve a job share—we would show that we have made a real difference and made ground, and that there is no reason why that cannot happen in business.

The time has come to address the issue and really do something about it. It has been talked about for so long but very little has been done. The opportunities for business right now are too significant, at a time when we really need enterprise and growth, flourishing businesses,

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and more people creating their own business. We must do something about the issue. Women must be recruited to senior levels in business based on their merit and skills. Perhaps the definition and assessment of the skills that are required need closer attention, but I have no doubt that plenty of women with the right skills to take companies forward are waiting for the opportunity to do so. If we could let everyone, both men and women, aspire to be their best and achieve everything that they want, businesses across the country would flourish.

9.52 am

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): I join this debate as a head-hunter—I declare that interest—who, until recently coming into the House, worked on senior-level executive search assignments for global organisations. I am the employer in an all-women company and the proud husband of a wife who has just set up a business as part of a job-share situation. I am also a colleague of some exceptional new MPs on both sides of the House, many of whom are women. It is unfortunate that more of my Opposition colleagues are not here today.

As a small business owner, I have spoken frequently about the avalanche of regulation and red tape that hit small businesses over the 13 years of the Labour Government, and the impact of such legislation globally on Britain’s competitive position in respect of inward investment compared with Hong Kong, Asia and other international locations. As a head-hunter, I saw that people were beginning to hire in those locations rather than the UK as a result of our employment law.

Therefore, I was pleased that Lord Davies chose not to advocate legislation in his report, “Women on boards”, which came out in February. I add that I could not find a copy of it in the House of Commons yesterday when I sought one—that was not a great indication of the importance of the topic.

When I first sat on the Government Benches last May, I realised that never in my life had I been involved in something so male. When I reflected on the companies for which I had recruited as a head-hunter, I thought again about the stark differences between those that had seriously taken an interest in diversity and put it at the top of the agenda of their organisations, and those that had not. When I listened to the debate on UN Women, which I thought was one of the most productive and positive debates in this House, I resolved to try to play my part on this issue. I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on securing this debate, and on all her work in this country and internationally—recently in Malaysia, I believe—on the issue.

Things have been improving, but progress is so slow. Statistics in the Lord Davies report show that 12.2% of directors of FTSE 100 companies are women, and that 7.3% of people on the boards of FTSE 250 companies are women. That is appalling. Our economy, which is on its knees, and which needs to use all its talents to get out of the current crisis and to deal with a competitive world, needs to address that. There are moral reasons as well: in a society that aspires to be equal, such statistics are not acceptable.

The best companies I have worked with in recruiting at senior level have not focused solely on women. Their big focus has been on diversity. They have been hard-wiring

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into their organisations the approach that it is not acceptable to come up with a shortlist of white males but instead it is better to come up with a diverse list of people and then select on merit. However, the number of organisations and companies that think that way is not as large as it should be, and we need to increase it over the next few years.

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): Recently, the Monetary Policy Committee announced that it was recruiting another white man, and that it was absolutely delighted—as, indeed, we all are—with the extremely talented gentleman whom it had chosen. In small print at the end, as an afterthought, it said that only one of the 27 applicants was a woman, and that it wished that more women had applied. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be a good idea proactively to encourage more women to apply for senior roles?

Julian Smith: My hon. Friend makes an important point. There is a great deal of work to be done in the public sector as well as the private sector, but the Government now need to put significant pressure on the private sector, and not just on targets. One area I would advocate as well worth looking at is performance management generally in organisations. Can the Government do more to highlight those organisations that performance manage their staff and that look at things such as the approach that my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Claire Perry) suggested? Can we highlight, as well as company growth, those companies that manage their human resources positively?

Mary Macleod: Does my hon. Friend think that it is important to have real performance measures and that that should affect how people are remunerated? If they are not assessed on that, which might affect what they earn, people tend to forget about it. It is a nice-to-have, but there is no focus on it and nothing ever gets resolved. If people are actually measured on that and remunerated accordingly, something might change.

Julian Smith: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The client that I worked with that did best in this area had such considerations hard-wired into compensation and promotion at all levels in the organisation, not just at board level. To get a pipeline of candidates for board positions, one has to work right down the organisation, at every level of management. In that organisation, the key question at every performance review was, “What diversity hiring have you done in the past six months?”

A relentless focus is required in the House and at every level of government. I am not convinced that having a unit on women and equality is the right way to go. We need this to be driven from the highest level in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and we need to showcase with awards and in every way possible those organisations that are doing the right thing.

Mrs Grant: Could my hon. Friend say something about how head-hunters might be incentivised?

Julian Smith: The role of head-hunters is important. The reason for stressing companies is that head-hunters are driven by their fees, and if the underlying companies are pushing them, that is when there is a change in the

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approach of the head-hunters. I was pleased that Lord Davies advocated a voluntary code for head-hunters, and some are doing great work in this area, but we will probably end up having to look more closely at this unregulated part of the business world, and push hard if they do not move quickly on their voluntary code.

On parental leave, child care and other matters that have been discussed this morning, I hope that the Government, with their moratorium on regulations for small businesses, will advocate a frank conversation between employers and female employees. My best employee relationship was with someone I could talk to about her plans for child care and family development, and we interweaved her talent and desire to build her family with the business’s needs. That employee was paid more and performed better than any other person in my company.

As well as the Government’s role, there is a strong role for Parliament. There is a strong argument for setting up a new Select Committee for the lifetime of this Parliament to focus on women and diversity. It could be wrapped up at the end of this Parliament, but in the meantime it could be used as a vehicle to demonstrate that parliamentarians in the class of 2010 will ensure that we move the issue on, drag companies in and question them. We want to ensure that the matter is nailed once and for all.

My concern and my message to business, whether head-hunters, global businesses or small businesses, is that if we are still here in 2015 having these arguments about the paltry number of women in the senior echelons of our businesses, it will be very difficult for people such as me, as a great supporter of less regulation and red tape, to stand up and say that there should not be legislation and intervention. This Parliament has an opportunity, as does business, to go for it, and to make a substantial change along the lines of what Lord Davies said, but it must be done now. We must get on with it.

10.2 am

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on securing this important debate. I also echo the excellent suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) to introduce a Select Committee on women and diversity. The Minister will be listening carefully, and I shall make representations through the Liberal Democrats’ Business, Innovation and Skills parliamentary committee, which I co-chair.

We have heard excellent contributions this morning, and I need not reiterate why we must bother with women on boards. The aspiration of equal opportunities clearly does not work. It is 40 years since the Equal Employment Opportunity Act 1972, but still only 12.5% of members of FTSE 100 boards are women, and only five are run by women. Evidence shows that companies that increase the number of women in leadership positions outperform those that do not. Clearly, it is good for business to have more women.

On stereotyping, Martin Vander Weyer said in The Spectator on 26 February:

“Women are more risk-averse, less driven by raw competitive urges, and more likely to stay focused on generating steady returns; and those are precisely the qualities needed in non-executive directors to counterbalance the machismo of thrusting executives.”

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Such stereotyping is dangerous. Not all women are like that, any more than all men are testosterone-fuelled risk-takers. We all have a bit of yin and a bit of yang in us, and it is important not to accept stereotypical opportunities.

Who is calling for change? Last year, the CBI called for a comply-or-explain policy for all businesses, and Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for Justice, is considering calling for quotas. She has started a five-year strategy to achieve 30% of women on boards by 2015 and 40% by 2020.

What are the problems? Many have been discussed this morning, and they include lack of flexibility, and linear advance patterns. My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod) talked about whole-life careers. We now have many careers during our lives, and the idea that one must go from one step to another clearly does not work for women or for men.

The male culture of people of the same sex, who perhaps went to the same school or who even belong to the same club, is harmful in achieving diversity of view and opinion and opening up boards to new ideas in all sorts of ways. On nominations committees, we heard an expert speech on the position that head-hunters are in. They may be eager to please, but I welcome the voluntary code that is being promoted by Lord Davies.

There are many things we can do to help—for example, flexible working. I am delighted that the Government are committed to flexible working not just for women and not just for men with children, but for everyone, because quality of work and life makes people better contributors to the work force. We must recognise people for their contribution, not for the number of hours their coat is on the peg at work. I call that “presentism”.

Collaborative leadership styles would be much more positive and helpful in some circumstances, as would effective succession planning. Women respond really well to coaching and mentoring, and we are often our own worst enemies, because we do not recognise how good we are. I had to have a stiff talking to by a friend before I accepted that I would be good enough to become a Member of Parliament. Talent must be recognised in organisations. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald referred to the leader of the Conservative party and said how well the Conservatives have done in bringing on women. One could argue about whether that constitutes positive discrimination, but the A list has certainly introduced a new generation of women MPs, and I assure you, Mr Caton, that there are no token women in this Chamber; they are all full-on, first-class Members of Parliament.

Mary Macleod: Does my hon. Friend agree that the Conservative party increased the number of its women MPs at the last general election partly because we had a leader overseeing the matter from the top? He promoted it and ensured that it was at the top of the agenda. The same must happen on boards. Does she agree that it is important for chairmen, chief executives and board members to say, “This is really important; we must do something about it.”? If that happens, something will be done?

Lorely Burt: I could not agree more.

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I want to finish by referring again to Lord Davies. I have spoken about head-hunters and the requirement on listed companies to disclose annually the proportion of women on boards, how many are senior executives and how many are in the work force generally. That would shame a lot of companies into looking at the poor representation of women.

Lord Davies leaves formal quotas as a future possibility, but states that there is overwhelming opposition to them. Well, there would be. To require someone to comply would challenge the stereotypical grey men in grey suits. Will we need quotas? The Davies challenge is for the make-up of boards to include 25% of women within four years. I believe that we will probably need to move towards some form of quota system if boards do not comply with that. This is the last chance saloon for the grey men in grey suits.

Martin Caton (in the Chair): I will now call Andrea Leadsom, but I advise the Chamber that five hon. Members wish to speak and I want to start the winding-up speeches by 10.40 am. We need more brevity and more speakers.

10.11 am

Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on securing this important debate. I start by saying that I absolutely love men. I have two beautiful sons and a nigh-on perfect husband, and I assure the Chamber that this debate is not about bashing men; it is about trying to promote more good and fantastic women, and even—let us face it—more mediocre women. In any society not everybody can be fantastic but everyone can achieve a lot more than they currently do, and that particularly applies to women. Let us bring on more women of all shapes and sizes, whether mediocre or utterly brilliant.

I want to be a tiny bit selfish and talk about my story. I represent a classic tale of someone who has suffered from the determination of society to promote one type of structure. My parents divorced when I was very young, and for a long time it was just me, my two sisters and my mum. My mother taught us that, “The world does not owe you a living; you get on and you do it for yourself, my girl,” and that was very much the mantra with which I grew up. My sisters and I were all driven to do well in our careers, while still loving men and having a place for them in our hearts. You can rest assured, Mr Caton, that my two boys are clear that women are their equals and every bit as good as them.

I went on to jump out of my political science degree and into the City with huge enthusiasm. I worked 60 hours a week and did all the things that the men did—I worked shoulder to shoulder, neck and neck, competing with the best of them. At the age of 30, I discovered the wonderful thing that was being married and having a child. When I was eight months pregnant—nobody could accuse me of concealing the fact that I was about to have a baby—I was promoted to be the youngest senior executive that Barclays had ever had. That was a huge privilege and honour and I was thrilled. I was also, however, about to have a baby.

I went away and had about three minutes’ maternity leave. I worked until two weeks before the birth and came back after less than three months. I was desperate to get back into the job, but I was knocked for six by the

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whole experience. Within a year of trying to hold down such an enormously challenging job, I spoke to my boss about whether it would be possible to do it part time. I will not name names, but the answer was, “We’ve managed without many women directors until now, and we certainly don’t need part-time ones.” I struggled on for another year, but two miscarriages later I gave up, went away and thought, “Right, I’m just going to be a mum.” I had a second child and worked as the managing director of a hedge fund. It might seem rather ridiculous to go from working in a mainstream bank to becoming a senior person in a much smaller organisation, but somehow that worked better. It involved less process and more interpersonal relationships, and people talking to each other and understanding what was necessary to get the job done. Even though I had an important position, it was understood that I also had other priorities.

My story is indicative of what so many women go through. They start off neck and neck, fighting on equal terms, but then something happens—they start a family and their career is never the same again. The past 10 years of my career were happily spent in a funds management organisation at senior level, but with no prospects of promotion because I was working part time. I recognised that and was happy to pay the price because being a mum has always been the most important thing in my life. At the moment, however, that price must be paid, which I do not think is right. It holds women back, and many women give up altogether. A wealth of evidence suggests that women deliberately apply for more junior jobs that do not meet or challenge their skill sets, simply because they want the time and space to raise their family. That is a tragic waste of talent, and I believe that so much more could be done.

I do not plead for quotas. As my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) so eloquently said, employers should be encouraged to talk to their staff about what works for them. Such flexibility is not legislated for, but we need to get away from the situation where an employer can never ask someone if they are planning to have a baby, or whether they need to go to parents’ evening, because that is a taboo subject. Inadvertently, legislation and workers’ rights have made that an even more knotty topic, but if we could get away from that problem and arrive at a position where employers can talk to staff about their priorities and the things that they need to do, we would be in a much stronger position due to that mutual recognition.

In my office I employ a fantastic caseworker whose wife is about to have their second child. That is bearing down on us all, and we will accommodate his needs as a father. It is not just about women; it is about families. Accommodating the needs of families will go a long way towards improving the talent base in this country, and it will improve business across the board.

10.17 am

Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on securing this debate. Ever since I left university, I have worked in business, and over the past 10 years I have run a couple of businesses. I was not sure what I, as a man, could bring to the debate, but when I spoke to my hon. Friend

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yesterday, it suddenly occurred to me that for 10 years I have run a business with about 80 staff of whom more than 90% are women. That had not occurred to me in the context of this debate, because we did not go out looking to recruit women or in any specific area. I fully agree with the comments about discrimination made earlier by my hon. Friends. Discrimination is not acceptable, but equally, we do not want positive discrimination.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) that we should not seek Government legislation that makes work more difficult for small and medium-sized enterprises. It is already difficult enough to employ more people under the existing regulations, which put companies off. The Government can set an ethos, however, and perhaps I can add my experiences to the debate, and say what it is we do that means we attract more women, and why that works so well.

Dr Julian Huppert (Cambridge) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is a limited role for Government in terms of imposing rules. Does he agree that it is important to encourage mentoring? A lot of studies show that all people benefit from mentoring, and women do not get as much of that as possible. Organisations such as Enterprising Women do a lot to try to promote that aspect, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will mention it.

Brandon Lewis: The hon. Gentleman is right. People across the board benefit from mentoring, and men are sometimes afraid of saying, “Look, I need a bit of help.” Some women I have worked with do that better and have benefited from it. Women hold top positions across my business. As declared in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, my business involves a couple of schools and a nursery in which the head teachers are women. My administration team that runs the business is also made up of women. I have to say that they do a far better job now that I am not there interfering than was the case when I was. As an employer, we have appealed to women partly because primary education, on which we focus, tends to attract women. The tougher part of our job has been recruiting men into primary education, which is important because of balance.

When I was a council leader, I was always proud that I had a council group with very good balance. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald made the point that for any business or organisation, it is balance that makes it work. The balance of men and women in my council group was about 50:50. I was very proud of that and made a big point of it, because we achieved it before many authorities could get anywhere near it. We also had people from different walks of life and different business backgrounds. They ranged from a councillor of 18—the youngest councillor in the country—through to councillors in their 70s. It was the balance of members—members who agreed with one another and members who did not—that made it a more powerful team.

In my business, it is the balance that works, and flexible working also appeals. As we are an educational establishment, we have a slight advantage, in that we can advertise jobs for people who want to work only in term time to fit with their families. More men might

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consider that, too. This is a time when we are looking for more opportunities for men, and men are sometimes afraid of admitting that they want to spend more time with their families. I am sure that many of us in the Chamber would fall into that category, if we could. However, the ability to work in term time—the ability to work part-time hours—has meant that we have attracted women, which is benefiting our business. Our turnover of staff is extremely low. I think that in the 10 years that I ran the main administration team, we lost only one member of staff, who went on to a promotion elsewhere and has been very successful as a result. Business can consider those issues. This is about achieving a good balance across the board, with different types of input from people with different backgrounds, from men and women, from different age groups and from people with different professional backgrounds.

With regard to being flexible about work, the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) made the point about “coat peg hours”—a phrase that has stuck with me for many years. When I first qualified in law, I spent some time in a law firm and it always struck me as bizarre that the lawyers, particularly in the corporate law departments, seemed to feel that they had to be in the office from 8 am until 10 pm or later just to prove that they could be there. They were sitting in a square box, staring at a wall, doing work that they could easily have been doing at home, probably more productively.

Therefore, I have always taken a different view with people in my company, whether they are men or women. What interests me as a boss is that the work gets done and is of high quality. Unless there is a particular time demand, I am not interested in whether it is done at 8 am in an office or at 8 am in someone’s home. With the way communications work these days, businesses should think outside the box and be more open-minded about allowing staff, of whatever background and sex, to do their work to the best of their ability and not be so focused on “coat peg hours” and sitting in an office for the sake of being seen to be there. That in itself would be a big step forward for business.

If we can do nothing else in the next few years but encourage businesses to be more open about their working practices to allow people to be more flexible in that respect, we will see more women in business and certainly more production for business, without the need for legislation. I agree wholeheartedly with what hon. Members have said about how business has an opportunity now to make progress on this issue and to have more diversity across the board. Otherwise, we will end up having to look at more legislation, something which all of us who have been in business agree that business can do without.

10.23 am

Caroline Dinenage (Gosport) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on securing the debate, which is incredibly valuable. We have heard some excellent contributions and some interesting ideas, particularly the idea about job shares in the Cabinet.

I endorse the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom). Every mum faces huge dilemmas in her everyday working life. Productive women are those who feel that their family life is respected.

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I wanted to take part in the debate to talk about the untapped potential of women as entrepreneurs. As a business owner myself, I have experienced at first hand the challenges that women face in starting their own companies. It is a world dominated by men. I have experienced for myself the days of walking into a trade show or a builders merchant and it being a bit like the saloon in the wild west where everyone stops what they are doing and turns round to look at the strange being that is among them. When four of the five dragons from “Dragons’ Den” are male and men such as Richard Branson and Alan Sugar fly the flag for UK entrepreneurship, it is not surprising that less than half of businesses are started by women. The stereotype of the ambitious, ruthless male entrepreneur needs to change.

Women can bring a huge amount to business and the economy. Worldwide, women have been shown to be successful and conscientious business leaders. In microfinance initiatives in Africa, 90% of female entrepreneurs plough the profit from their businesses back into the community, compared with only 50% of the men. In the UK, we have inspirational women such as Deborah Meaden and Tamara Mellon, who prove that it is possible for women to succeed in starting their own business. With women making more than 70% of household purchasing decisions, they surely know what the market wants. So why are those inspiring business women so few and far between?

Anyone starting a business will face daunting tasks. They must win over potential investors, persuade their family that it is worth it and, perhaps more importantly, persuade themselves that they are capable of succeeding. That is often the most insurmountable hurdle for women—summoning the self-confidence to take on that task and that risk.

I am involved in a fantastic project in my constituency of Gosport. It is called AWESOME—all women entrepreneurs supporting opportunity and motivating their expertise. It brings budding female entrepreneurs together to provide a network of support. Despite having brilliant ideas, they tend to hold themselves back, perhaps due to a fear of rejection. It is almost as though they regard their business idea being rejected by a potential customer as a rejection of themselves. They have difficulty separating themselves from their business idea.

Mrs Grant: My hon. Friend makes a very important point about confidence. I agree that there is a fundamental confidence issue for us, which has come from years of sexism. Does my hon. Friend agree that if there were more female role models, that might help to correct the situation?

Caroline Dinenage: Absolutely. That is exactly right and it is the point that I was going to make and probably will in a second. Even when a woman succeeds, the challenges posed by approaching a bank or taking on greater responsibility sometimes prevent her from taking those steps and expanding the business to its full potential. I have seen so many women who have got to a certain stage and thought, “I don’t know whether I can take that final step,” and have then just stopped where they are. It is tragic to see that amazing potential go to waste, especially when our economy desperately needs the passion, hard work and vision of all entrepreneurs, but particularly female entrepreneurs. We just need to find a way of unlocking that talent.

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By bringing female entrepreneurs together, as we have in Gosport, a network of moral support is created that allows a woman’s true passion for her business to shine though. Women say that they cannot do the hard sell. They say that that is the one thing they cannot do. They say, “I can’t do the hard sell. I can’t go into business.” However, when they are asked to talk about their businesses, their passion and enthusiasm for their product sells it for them. I could tell hon. Members about the number of times that I have walked out of a meeting, having subscribed to things that I did not even believe I needed—including a cat sitter when I do not even have a cat. They are incredible saleswomen, but they do not know that they are doing it.

Successful business women get involved in the group to which I am referring. They inspire confidence in those starting out and help to overcome the little barriers and difficulties that hold people back. We need to develop a network of such groups throughout the UK. They are self-started; they are not funded; and they are just self-help groups. We need to develop a network of such groups throughout the UK to ensure that in every constituency women are getting the support that they need.

Most importantly, we need to foster a culture of female leadership. We need to inspire and build self-confidence in people from a young age, whether that is done through debating clubs or programmes such as Young Enterprise. I did Young Enterprise at school. The business that we had was called Big Time and designed clocks—given my reputation for timekeeping, people find that quite surprising.

We also need to tap into the potential of the media and popular culture in promoting entrepreneurship. I visit many schools in my constituency, and nearly every time I ask the kids what they want to do when they leave school. Very rarely does a girl say to me either that she wants to start a business or that she has an entrepreneurial idea, yet so many want to be actresses, models and performers, which always staggers me. We need some more positive business role models in the media. After all, why should only Alan Sugar have an apprentice?

There will be great benefits for women and for the economy in promoting female-led business. It will bring fresh ideas and different qualities to the business world, while allowing women to set their own hours and agendas, which is what we are talking about. Entrepreneurship is not the preserve of men. It is our responsibility to ensure that women have the support and confidence to be entrepreneurs.

10.29 am

Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot) (Con): Many of the points that I might have made have been made already, given that I am speaking towards the end of the debate, but perhaps I can dwell on a couple of them and give them a little more thought.

In an intervention earlier, I raised the idea of flexibility over career timing. The ability to start a career later—perhaps after having children—is often not open to those of us who work in the City or the professions. I agree with other speakers that that is perhaps not something that can be legislated for; rather, it is about creating the

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right environment. We need to look at the issue, however, because we will all live longer and need to work longer. This is not, therefore, just a women’s issue, but a cross-gender issue.

Brandon Lewis: I am sorry to delay my hon. Friend, but having had two children, my wife has gone back into work and successfully set up her own business, in exactly the way my hon. Friend has described. Does my hon. Friend agree that part of the issue is the need for us all to highlight the fact that such things can be done? More women, and indeed men, would then realise that being a certain age does not mean that they cannot achieve something and do something new. Highlighting such things would raise the profile of this issue in the way that my hon. Friend has.

Anne Marie Morris: I absolutely agree. That is absolutely right. However, the real challenge is changing that culture.

My second point builds on the idea of confidence and experience. I welcome the idea of a Select Committee, which would be a first-class way of encouraging more thought on this issue. I was delighted to hear about the FTSE 100 mentoring programme, which sounds like a first-class initiative. The challenge is to have more role models and better mentoring programmes—I agree that they should be for men and women—and to help rebalance individuals, so that they have the broad suite of skills that we all need.

In that respect, perhaps I can dwell on men for a minute. If we look at what is happening in schools, we see the reverse of that. Boys’ results are not as good as girls’. Girls are tenacious and exam focused, and they are good at the process involved in passing exams. More and more women are going into the professions, and more women than men are going into the junior level—not the top level—of medicine and law. Leaving aside the leadership issue, we therefore also have a problem with the gender balance in those professions. We need to help men to go into those professions and to compete, just as we need to help women to go into the corporate world and compete there. The gender balance in the professions and corporate life is completely different.

One of the challenges facing us is that the skills that make people successful in the corporate world are not embedded at school, and I suspect that that may be an issue for the Secretary of State for Education. The issue is which skills we need people to gain at school to help us right the imbalance that I have described. Another challenge is to ensure that we have better integration between school and the workplace. One of my frustrations is that the children we talk to about the requirement to do work experience talk about it as if it were a tick-box exercise; there is no real sense of the role they will have in the workplace. Indeed, there is still a bit of a sense that the expected option is to stay at home.

Mrs Grant: Does my hon. Friend agree that embedding enterprise awareness in school education would be helpful?

Anne Marie Morris: That would be very helpful. In the same way that we have looked at the intellectual aspects of education, including issues such as the English baccalaureate, we are now looking at the skills aspects of education through the Wolf report. I agree that we

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need to develop a fundamental understanding of these issues among boys and girls at school. I do not have an answer as to how we can more effectively integrate business into education, but the issue absolutely needs to be resolved.

My third point relates to child support, which is a real issue. Partly, it is about money, but is also partly about culture, expectation and provision. A number of organisations are looking at crèches, part-time working and job sharing. However, it is one thing to look at introducing such provisions and to recognise that they are the right thing to do, but another thing to work out how to make them really effective. There is a bit of a tick-box approach, with people thinking that they have ticked the box because they have a crèche. In that respect, I was really struck by the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith). What is important is the ability to sit down and have a meaningful conversation about how we can work together and take on board the fact that, biologically speaking—certainly in our lifetimes—only women will have children. The question is how we make a different outlook more of a reality, and a Select Committee could probably sensibly spend some time looking at the issue.

When I was thinking about today’s debate, I remembered that we had a married man’s allowance in the old days, and I wonder whether a working mother’s allowance might be appropriate in the modern world. I put that out as a thought, and I appreciate that the piggy bank is a little empty at the minute, but such a proposal might be food for thought. We need a holistic approach to the fact that women have the babies. We need to integrate that and enable women to contribute in the workplace, which is crucial.

My final point relates to the corporate issue. I was impressed by what I read in the report to which a number of contributors have alluded. Diversity is certainly key. I agree that it would make a lot of sense to ensure that the numbers of women coming through an organisation are published in the accounts. Although I agree that we do not want more bureaucracy, such a process would not be a big issue for the top FTSE companies. We have information about the very senior women, because of the reports to Companies House, but we need to see the progression planning, and we will not get it without information about the women coming through the organisation. That is what I would describe as a nudge, rather than a push. I agree that legislation is not the answer, because we need to shape and encourage. Once organisations begin to see that there is a spotlight on the issue, it will begin to make a difference.

The real difference in corporate life will come, however, with the review of the governance code, which is important. How do we ensure that we are really talking about diversity, not trying to right the gender balance? We have to acknowledge that women want to be recognised for the different skills that we bring. I would almost like to see job descriptions that show that companies have thought through the different skills that they need and how roles might work slightly differently to encompass the broader range of skills that are available through employing women. When we look at the governance code, we could try to give some guidance on what might go into it. We are not talking just about men and women, but about the qualities of good management. If

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we can articulate that, it would be a good way forward. However, I am conscious of the time, so, on that note, I will conclude my contribution.

10.39 am

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on her excellent opening speech and on securing the debate. I thank the many Members who have contributed in a positive way. There is much that we can agree on in terms of the need for encouragement, mentoring, sponsorship, role models and enterprise awareness, and those are very much the steps we need to take.

Ensuring that women can participate as fully as possible in business and enjoy full recognition of their abilities and potential is vital not only to promote a more equal and just society, but to make the best possible use of their skills to increase wealth creation and make a more prosperous society. Women are, of course, involved in many different types of business, from the self-employed woman who works just a few hours a week to the woman with the busy corner shop or the woman working in the very largest of companies. Many of the difficulties they face are not necessarily specific to women. Generalisations over the huge diversity of business can be misleading, and there are, of course, many excellent examples of good practice and success stories.

Over the past 30 years, women’s employment has significantly increased and women are making a greater financial contribution than ever to family incomes. Therefore, it is not surprising that more women’s jobs, particularly jobs in the service sector, have been affected in the current economic crisis than in previous recessions. With the expected job losses in the public sector likely to affect women disproportionately due to the high concentration of women in the public sector, it is important that the Government do more than simply hope that the private sector will grow. There needs to be a clear strategy for growth and encouragement for women to take up jobs in the private sector, particularly those who have not worked there previously.

During Labour’s time in office, we introduced measures that have supported women. We extended maternity leave and introduced paternity leave. We also introduced the right for parents and carers to request flexible working, and many speakers today have mentioned its importance. There is more to do to ensure that employees and employers are aware of the right to request flexible working. It can be daunting to be the first in a workplace to make the request. Many women are worried that such a request might harm their career prospects or make them look half-hearted about work. Properly managed, flexible working, such as changes in working hours to allow a parent to drop off children at school in the morning, can result in the mum or dad feeling much less stressed and better able to concentrate on their work. For some women, it can make the difference between continuing in work and having to leave a job.

Lorely Burt: I agree with all the points that the hon. Lady has made. Is it not good that the Government are introducing flexible working for everyone, because that deals with the stigma of asking? Anyone can ask for flexible working, whether they are picking up their children or going to the golf course, so it is seen as part

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of the norm and not a condescension for someone because they happen to be a parent.

Nia Griffith: Indeed, the opportunity to have flexible working is extremely important. That is why it is particularly perturbing that news is coming through of an exemption for microbusinesses. That effectively denies employees in businesses with fewer than 10 employees the right to request flexible working. I question the Government’s rationale for making that exemption. They seem to be saying that denying employees that right will somehow stimulate growth in the economy.

If we cast our minds back a few years, we will remember that the Prime Minister, in his speech to the 2007 Conservative party conference, spoke about flexible working:

“Companies that have adopted this have found that they are able to grant the request in the vast majority of cases, they have actually found that productivity has gone up, profits have gone up, staff morale has gone up and keeping staff is easier.”

So what exactly has changed? Will the Minister explain what sort of analysis his Government have done that suggests that flexible working hampers growth? What economic impact assessment did his Government do before deciding the exemption for microbusinesses? How will this move impact on women in business? How is it compatible with the Prime Minister’s promise when he was in opposition that a Government whom he led would be the “most family friendly ever”?

The loss of the right to request flexible working will affect both men and women, but at the moment, it is likely to affect women far more widely than men. It will be yet another obstacle to women being able to combine work and family responsibilities. It might mean some women giving up work altogether, or it might deter women from seeking promotion. Was an equalities impact assessment undertaken on the exemption decision, and if not, why not? We are getting used to the Government breaking promises, and that action is usually accompanied by some sort of lame explanation, so I am curious to learn how denying employees the right to request flexible working will stimulate growth in the economy. To most people, it just looks like a backwards step.

When in office, the Labour Government introduced the Equality Act 2010, which not only streamlined the law by replacing nine major pieces of legislation and around 100 statutory instruments with a single Act, but introduced measures to create a more level playing field and make life fairer for women. Those measures include requiring gender pay reports, using public procurement to improve equality, extending the use of positive action in the workplace, and protecting carers from discrimination—although that, of course, applies equally to men and women, the reality is that women are more likely to be carers. Can the Minister confirm that his Government will implement in full all the measures in the 2010 Act?

We, on the Opposition Benches, welcome the work undertaken by Lord Davies of Abersoch in producing the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills report, “Women on Boards”. In particular, we welcome his recommendations that UK-listed companies in the FTSE 100 aim for a minimum of 25% female board member representation by 2015, that FTSE 350 companies

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set their own challenging targets to ensure that more talented and gifted women can get into top jobs in companies across the UK, and that those targets be set in the next six months and chief executives review the percentage of women they aim to have on their executive committees in 2013 and 2015.

The question is how we ensure that companies really make progress. The lesson from Norway, which is often quoted as having 40% women on boards, is that it does not happen simply by exhortation. That was tried first, but it took quotas to achieve the 40%. It is not nice to be accused of being on a board solely to make up a quota or to be used as a symbol that a company is addressing gender equality, but companies need to ask themselves exactly how appointments to boards are made. Does the process stand up to scrutiny? Is the best person for the post appointed? It may be that the best person for the post may not even be encouraged to apply. I hope that the recommendations in the report will make companies look very carefully at the whole pattern of promotion within the organisation, as many hon. Members have suggested, and identify whether there are factors, such as particular types of socialising after work, which tend to exclude women. It may be that much more subtle forces are at work, which amount more or less to that well documented tendency to select people like oneself.

What exactly will the Government do to ensure that the recommendations in Lord Davies’s report are fully implemented? Will the Government require companies to disclose each year the proportion of women on boards and in senior executive positions, and the proportion of female employees in the whole organisation, as recommended by Lord Davies? Will the Government insist on the disclosure of meaningful information about the company’s appointment process, as recommend by Lord Davies? How will the Government take forward the recommendation that a

“combination of entrepreneurs, existing providers and individuals needs to come together to consolidate and improve the provision of training and development for potential board members”?

The situation of part-timers needs particular attention. Some women find that they need to go part-time to combine work and a family. Other women would like to work part time, but are afraid of the consequences of doing so, knowing that too often going part time will set them back a long way in the pecking order. I have employed women part-timers, and have always found that their attitude to work is anything but part time. They invariably give over and above what is required for the hours they work. We need companies to take a serious look at how they deal with employees, largely women, who are working fewer hours than the full working week. Are they included in decision-making meetings? Are they encouraged to further their careers and seek promotion while remaining part time? Are they given training opportunities? Are they allowed to work part time only if they can find a person with whom to job share to replicate the exact pattern of a full-time post? Is part-time working considered appropriate only in the lower ranks of the company?

What is happening in other countries? In Spain, gender equity laws passed in 2007 obliged IBEX 35 firms to get a minimum of 40% women on boards in eight years. France passed a Bill applying a 40% quota for female directors by 2016. In Germany, the Justice Minister has threatened legislation if boards do not

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achieve a better balance in the next 12 months. Can the UK also move forward and can that be done without introducing quotas? Will the Government give companies sufficient encouragement to make the necessary changes voluntarily or will we find ourselves back here in two, three or four years’ time ruing the lack of progress?

10.49 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Edward Davey): This has been an excellent debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Mrs Grant) on securing it. We heard some powerful speeches, in which Members showed their experience and knowledge of the matter.

One of the key things mentioned by my hon. Friend, which was picked up by others, is that it is not only about equality but about business performance. I shall stress that aspect because I believe that the issue is about growth. We have the Chancellor’s Budget tomorrow. I believe that the Budget and other such measures are aimed at improving corporate performance and thus the performance of the wider economy.

My hon. Friend spoke of the extra benefits and skills that women bring to the boards of our great companies—their attitude to risk, how they manage employees and how they think about customers. She was right to say that the studies cited in Lord Davies of Abersoch’s report and elsewhere are unequivocal on the subject. The evidence is unambiguous that having more women on boards improves corporate performance.

The debate focused on the leadership of women on boards, following Lord Davies’ report. It was good to see such widespread welcome for his report. We also heard about practical support for women and families in the workplace and about supporting women entrepreneurs. I shall try to cover all those aspects. Before doing so, however, I make two further comments on my hon. Friend’s speech.

First, my hon. Friend reminded us of the Prime Minister’s aspiration for a third of Ministers to be female by 2015. Her speech may be an early suggestion that she is heading for promotion. Secondly, she made the important point that men need to listen to women in this debate. One of my favourite books when reading on the subject at university was a book about men and women in conversation called “You just don’t understand me” by Deborah Tannen, a socio-linguist. Listening to each other, particularly across sectors, is most important. We need to understand each other.

It is not only about listening in this debate, as we try to improve business and Government performance on the matter, but about putting that message across in the workplace, with employers and employees listening to each other and having grown-up, adult conversations. Indeed, many of the concerns that lie behind what was said this morning can be addressed in a way that does not require legislation or regulation. My hon. Friend spoke well and to the point.

Many Members spoke of legislation and non-legislation, and it is important that we realise the power of the nudge—the power of the non-legislative approach. That is one reason why I was keen to publish what has been called the employers charter. It sets out what employers can do under current legislation, and gives examples of

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the sort of conversation that employers are allowed to have with their employees—for example, about maternity leave and workers’ plans. It is important that we change some people’s perceptions about employers. Actually, employers have rights if they behave reasonably, and they can therefore work productively with their employees.

Right-to-request legislation, which was mentioned today, is a sort of nudge. It is about enabling employers and employees to have a conversation about flexible working. I have some concerns about the way in which the previous Government implemented right-to-request legislation. They took a prescriptive approach, and some employers find it rather regulatory and over the top. However, the Government are committed to right-to-request legislation. We will consult on it in due course. As I made clear in a written statement—

Nia Griffith: Will the Minister give way?

Mr Davey: In a moment, but first I want to reply to my hon. Friend. The hon. Lady may want to intervene if she does not like my answer.

When we consult on extending the right-to-request legislation to all employees, we will also consult on whether there should be an exemption for micro-businesses. That may be appropriate because conversations are more easily had in small businesses. As my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) said, by and large smaller firms are better at having such conversations than larger companies. We will listen to people when we consult; the hon. Lady may believe too much of what she reads in the papers.

Nia Griffith: The question is whether people have the right to request flexible working. As everyone who has spoken today has been very much in favour of the right to request it, and as no one is obliging anybody to grant it, what is the difficulty with insisting that micro-businesses do the same as every other business?

Mr Davey: The hon. Lady anticipates our consultation document. I believe that we will get the balance right, and better than the previous Government did; their approach was over-prescriptive. Indeed, that points out one of the differences between the two parties. I regret to say that for the vast majority of this debate, the hon. Lady was the only Labour Member here, but the Labour Government seemed often to think that the only way to secure progress in this area was through regulation and legislation. Sometimes that is needed, but it is often not necessary. For example, the employee engagement taskforce led by David MacLeod and Nita Clarke, which is business-led and is trying to promote best practice in employee engagement, and the employers charter that I mentioned earlier both take a non-legislative approach, and that can have a big impact.

Other questions raised this morning relate to the wider debate, particularly on how to take forward Lord Davies’ report. That report focuses not only on Government but on companies, their chairmen and chief executives and on the head-hunting industry. However, it recommends how the Government should ask quoted companies to report on their performance on this matter. We will be publishing proposals on improving narrative reporting following our consultation—the document was published in July 2010—and that issue will be included. I assure

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hon. Members that the Government strongly welcome the report, which paves the way to massive improvements in this important matter, on which the previous Government did little.

The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) asked whether the Government were taking forward measures in the Equality Act 2010, but she may have missed the fact that most of its provisions were brought into force on 1 October 2010. We have concerns about one or two areas, particularly to do with section 78, which provides for mandatory reporting on gender equality, and we are working with business to see whether we can take a voluntary approach, which we think is right. While we engage with business on that matter and try for a voluntary approach, we will not commence, amend or repeal section 78.

Another matter raised by the hon. Lady was that child care is inadequate and often unaffordable. I am proud to say that, in the spending review, the Government did not merely maintain spending on that but increased the opportunity for child care, particularly for the young of deprived families. Our commitment in that area is strong.

That brings me to the debate about maternity leave, paternity leave and parental leave. We will be consulting on that later this year. We already have a lot of legislation on the matter, but it does not work terribly well. It is inflexible, gender-biased and it does not work with the grain of many companies. Our consultation paper will take forward the coalition agreement, and I believe that we can achieve a win-win by making things more flexible for employees and employers. We want them to work better together to ensure that we have more family-friendly workplaces, but that it does not come at a cost for employers.

It has been an excellent debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald. I believe that the House could play a critical role. I do not know whether we could go for the Select Committee option put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon, but I am sure that he will want to raise the matter with the Leader of the House. It certainly received support this morning.

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Regional Development (North-East)

11 am

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): At the risk of making this Adjournment debate appear like the alternative Budget for the north-east—or of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland—I warn the Minister that the breadth of coverage of this speech will be large. However, I am sure, as I know my hon. Friends are, that such a diverse speech can only partially cover the wide sectoral diversity that has been achieved in 13 years of patient investment in the region by the previous Labour Government.

Let me give the Minister a brief overview of some of the issues of concern that face my region. I hope I speak for all parliamentary representatives of the north-east region when I say that a north-south divide still exists in England; it is deep, long term, continuing and persistently separates a nation on the basis of where an individual is born and raised, without due regard to the exceptional talent at hand within the boundaries of the Tees and the Tweed. Indeed, the current economic gap—which is perpetuated by the current economic climate—between the north-east and the rest of England is likely to widen, with the serious economic and social consequences that that entails.

PricewaterhouseCoopers’ analysis of the comprehensive spending review indicates that the north-east will be disproportionately hit by spending cuts and job losses. Unfortunately, the coalition Government’s hope that private sector growth alone will fully compensate for such consequences ignores broad economics and, therefore, looks highly unlikely. Indeed, with the Government doing less—or rather, intervening less—in the north-east in particular, the economic position of the region will be made far worse, not better. The coalition Government are not supporting with adequate institutional arrangements or money their declared aim of rebalancing. Rebalancing without the support of adequate resources is a recipe for failure.

Ministers have consistently disputed the need for proactive regional policy or strong Government intervention. That stands in stark contrast to what happened this time last year, when the parties in the current coalition, unaware of the then Labour Government’s actions behind closed doors, called for direct state intervention in Teesside Cast Products. They disingenuously confuse and coalesce the logic of the “crowded-out private sector” with a laissez-faire, sideline observing position, away from the crucial brokering of integral business deals necessary for a burgeoning and diverse manufacturing sector.

For my sub-region within the north-east, “primers”, or large industrial foreign and domestic investments, still dictate the pace of a regional economy outside a city. They historically work in our region, and our region, more than most in England, wants them. The new orthodoxy, rooted to agglomeration, relies on the purely local—almost parochial—delivery of economic planning. I do not decry that in its entirety, but for local partnerships with very limited resources, manpower, expertise, clout, cash and perspective, to deliver will be difficult and will only get more difficult.

Localism and equity are not the same thing. If the objective is to ensure that northern authorities have the resources both to support their local economies and to

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provide local public services, the greater the extent to which the business rate is devolved, the more extensive the equalisation scheme that would be needed. Such a policy approach remains spatially blind, with absolute priority given to the destruction of existing regional economic structural drivers, such as the regional development agencies, which is simultaneously delivered cap-in-hand with grossly exaggerated local government budgetary cutbacks in the north-east. It is evident that, for this Government, deficit reduction takes primacy over economic rebalancing and any notion of localism.

RDAs were emasculated before any local enterprise partnership was fully set up, allowed to root itself or to be fully financed in and around the expectations of the present Government. That is not the fault of the LEPs—in my case the Tees Valley LEP—because the structures, finance and guidance were delivered to them by the Government. A plan to allow LEPs organically to transform themselves and direct themselves—or perhaps that is the lack of a plan—has been the Government’s prevailing philosophical hobby, rather than occupation. However, that is a smokescreen. It only proves again that deficit reduction takes primacy over any economic rebalancing, and trumps any new trumpeted localism for this Government.

If we are to make LEPs work, they must be properly funded and have access to funds. They should not have to bid with raffle tickets for funds from a regional growth fund—such a fund is less than the total budget for a still non-defined mutualisation model for post offices—that is suffering under the gross weight of demands. LEPs need a proper funding apparatus, whether localised or national in source.

The rush to condemn the RDA within the crucible of the coalition’s gaze has been pursued with a vigour that borders on an almost McCarthyite zealotry. On 12 October 2010, the Minister said:

“The economic divide between the Greater South East and the rest of England is as wide today as when the RDAs began their work. That by any measure is a failed policy.”

The case against One NorthEast totally and utterly reduced it to a list of failings, without due or proportionate regard to its obvious successes, which, unfortunately, did not come to light until after it had effectively been dismantled. Many of the coalition’s policies, including the new homes bonus and impending reforms to the business rate, are likely to favour the south over the north, and the north-east in particular. Recent spending decisions in key areas such as science and technology largely favour a strong southern bias.

The bias in research and development towards the south is cumulatively increased when areas that produce traditional industrial products, such as Teesside, require further state investment, such as grants for business investment schemes, job creation programmes, and public sector relocation. If that investment is not forthcoming, the north-east will remain behind the curve in comparison with its sister regions in England.

James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): The hon. Gentleman speaks very passionately on the subject; none the less, I find it hard to agree with some of his comments. He says that the north-east is falling behind, but since mid-August there have been announced almost 26,000 new private sector jobs, investment worth some £9 billion and private sector contracts worth £1.5 billion.

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The north-east economy is booming in some areas, and that should be welcomed. Far from falling behind the rest of the country, we are showing all the signs of powering ahead, rebalancing our regional economy and getting the private sector up and running again.

Tom Blenkinsop: The hon. Gentleman is a strong advocate for Stockton South and a worthy adversary indeed. He is right: Teesside has a fantastic industrial economy and many new projects have opened up across the region, in his own patch as well as my own. However, those jobs will be created over a certain time period. Many of those were to have been announced before the general election, but for a number of reasons the announcement was halted until after the election was called. It would be false to say that One NorthEast did not have a prime role in bringing those businesses to our region. As a former union official in the steel industry, I know how much One NorthEast has worked with both Governments in trying to get Sahaviriya Steel Industries into the region. What I am trying to say is that a list of failings was produced but there was never an equitable list of positives and negatives when we were assessing RDAs.

We strongly require support for the emergence of a range of different financial sources for infrastructure development, including the green bank, and a greater localised and decentralised source of capital explicitly held for manufacturing entrepreneurship. That will allow risk-takers to take those industrial strides around the existing capital and skills inherent in the cultural demographics of our region. I hope that, unlike the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the Minister will consider a manufacturing green bank that works with the agencies to deliver the technology and product design that will give us green technologies—working and operating out of Edinburgh, the Secretary of State’s preferred location—rather than holding debates on “green” ISAs or other financial products that simply have the term “green” before them. That green finance must be aimed at manufacturing and not solely at financial high-street products if the Government’s own agglomeration policy is to be pursued for manufacturing.

However, I understand where the Government are coming from on industry. Agglomeration is fine, but industrialised clustering works even better, as we have seen in Germany and the Netherlands, when industry has its own access to funding to implement its own decisions, or when financiers are educated in industry and are located nearby, as documented in yesterday’s Financial T imes. However, that connection between finance and industry is still vague and I very much doubt that Ministers at DECC and the Treasury are concerned about it at present, as both Departments appear to have a more obvious preoccupation with carbon floor pricing than with industrial finance. Carbon floor pricing, which I will discuss later, is perhaps the most important issue for Teesside.

I also challenge the Government’s huge assumptions about another topic that I will discuss later: export-led growth. It is obvious to any man and woman in the street that all Governments at any point in time want export-led growth. A healthy balance of trade is integral to a modern industrialised economy. However, we have to be vigilant about the economic mood music emanating from Asia at present.

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Enterprise zones—an issue particular to my area—are the Thatcherite reprise of this Government. The enterprise zones policy is not wholly bad, but previous examples have shown that they are best used in certain sectors such as retail and finance. Our financial capitals are established overwhelmingly in London, although Leeds has developed in that regard in recent years. A previous example of enterprise zone growth in the north-east is evident at Gateshead’s Metro centre. However, what we do best on Teesside is not best suited to enterprise zones, and they ignore the broader view of industrialists in the port and chemical sectors.

I also want to look at particular areas in my constituency, such as our local high streets in Middlesbrough, Guisborough and East Cleveland.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): I promise not to intervene often, as many Members are here for this debate. My hon. Friend mentioned my home town of Gateshead, and the Metro centre, which was viewed as a tremendous success in the 1980s, when it was initiated. However, did not the Metro centre have a profoundly negative effect on Gateshead town centre? That is the real danger that exists with any introduction of enterprise zones. They might assist a very small geographical area, but they might also create what is almost a wasteland outside their boundaries.

Tom Blenkinsop: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention and I have to agree with him. Obviously, there are benefits from enterprise zones. They bring a certain percentage of business in, but they also displace existing business. I will go into that issue in more detail later.

What can we do for small and medium-sized businesses and the self-employed? I have already talked to the Minister about that, and I believe my comments were received very positively. Ultimately, however, the direction of the north-east must be viewed from the perspective of the north-east. Until our region has more command of its economic destiny, it will continually have to bid against other English regions and Scotland and Wales for attention and investment.

Economic development in the north-east is a subject of deep concern to my constituents and the people of the wider region. Indeed, it should also be of concern to all the people of the UK, because without shared growth our country can never travel the road to prosperity. In the coalition agreement last year, the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister said:

“We both want to build a new economy from the rubble of the old. We will support sustainable growth and enterprise, balanced across all regions and all industries”.

That was and is an admirable pursuit, but my constituents are not seeing words being translated into action. In contrast, despite the north-east having the highest proportion of workers in the public sector of any English region, the Conservative-led Government have vague plans for growth in the north-east’s private sector, while simultaneously attacking its public sector base and the businesses—small and medium-sized, as well as self-employed—that thrive as a result of that public spending. The Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister may have likened the economy under the last Government to “rubble”, but the last Government understood the regions and gave real teeth to regional development.

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For example, the north-east regional development agency—One NorthEast—was one of those rarest of things: a public body with almost unanimous support that attracted praise from public and private sectors alike. However, a subtle criticism I have of the agency is that the region should have capitalised on the opportunity that it provided to take strides on its own. With a regional assembly that is democratically legitimate, our region would certainly be in a stronger position to attract business as well as to retain it, rather than witnessing what we are seeing in some areas: a partial and gradual leakage of industry from our region.

Praise for One NorthEast is well deserved. An independent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers showed that regional development agencies return £4.50 to regional gross value added for every £1 spent, if allowance is made for the expected persistence of economic benefits. Furthermore, the National Audit Office’s independent performance assessment concluded that One NorthEast was performing strongly. So why has it been abolished, especially after the Business Secretary said that the regions could decide what best suits their area? The only answer can be that the Conservative-led Government’s business policy is dictated from an informed position, but one that looks from London. It is a policy that will work, but not for all, and is ultimately submerged in an ideological fervour. It is formed not by regional or local opinion but Whitehall dogma. However, I reiterate that I do not believe that Ministers are stupid or ignorant of economics; they are simply applying a view that does not have a kernel within my region, and which does not redistribute wealth.

One NorthEast is the body that helped to set up and support the North East of England Process Industry Cluster, which made £1 billion gross value added in six years with just £3 million of public support. However, in addition to the scrapping of One NorthEast, we have now seen the abrupt end to the emergency package devised for Teesside in the wake of steel job losses. That fund targeted jobs growth in the chemicals sector, particularly in the growth area of agri-chemicals, as an alternative to lost steel jobs. Obviously, we have had the excellent news of the investment by SSI at Teesside Cast Products. However, that emergency jobs scheme has been axed, even though it is still allocating work and has £18 million in uncommitted funds that could have been used to support and enhance the objectives of NEPIC members’ companies.

Now we hear that a long-standing and successful job creation fund, which in the past decade has helped to create many hundreds of thousands of jobs in areas such as the north-east, is to be axed by stealth. That fund—the grants for business investment scheme, under the name regional selective assistance—has been responsible in the north-east for pumping £112 million into poorer parts of the region, helping to create 25,000 jobs. In various forms and under successive Governments, the scheme has been in place since the late 1960s. It survived the Heath years, the 1970s Labour Governments and even the Thatcher and Major years, as well as the following Blair and Brown Governments. Despite differences of economic policy, all those Administrations recognised the value of regional selective assistance. Throughout that whole post-second world war period, that element of consensual “Butskellism” remained and only now has it been totally dismantled.

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The Chancellor has announced the creation of at least 10 enterprise zones across Britain, in a scaled-down revival of Margaret Thatcher’s flagship urban renewal programme of the 1980s. The Chancellor hopes that those zones, which will offer simpler planning rules and corporate tax breaks, will accelerate development in areas that already have high growth potential. They will not simply be created in areas of physical decline. However, sceptics believe that they could be ineffective and that the appeal of the tax breaks will be limited by the fact that only £100 million of Government subsidy will be available, spread over four years.

The Chancellor’s announcement is part of a wave of initiatives to be unveiled by Ministers before the Budget tomorrow, all of which are intended to prove that the Government have a coherent strategy for growth. He will announce at least 10 zones, which are expected to be chosen by Ministers on the basis of submissions by councils and business leaders. To address fears that this is a top-down initiative that might sideline town halls and local enterprise partnerships, the Chancellor will say that local authorities will be able to keep all of the business rates that they raise in the new zones.

However, retention of the business rates will almost certainly benefit a number of London and south-east areas. In fact, the special interest group of municipal authorities, or SIGOMA, analysis of 2009-10 settlement-based grants showed that the top 10 councils to benefit are Westminster, City of London, Surrey, Hertfordshire, Hillingdon, Hampshire, Camden, West Sussex, Kent and Essex. The London boroughs of Westminster, Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, and the City of London will gain £1.6 billion in total in local spending, whereas the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire will lose out by £760 million in total.

The Chancellor insists that the coalition’s initiative will shift growth from London and the south-east to other regions, and he says that it contrasts with what he claims was Labour’s attempt to micro-manage the economy. He told his party’s spring conference in Cardiff:

“Our approach is different: tax breaks and less bureaucracy, not quangos and more regulation.”

James Wharton: As I sense that the hon. Gentleman might be moving on in his speech, it is important to put very clearly on the record that, although he and I disagree about enterprise zones, there is a great deal of support right across Teesside for the campaign to get an enterprise zone in our local area. That support comes from not only me and the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) as local MPs but Ray Mallon, the mayor of Middlesbrough, and business people such as Steve Gibson, who is the chairman of Middlesbrough football club, as the hon. Gentleman knows. Moreover, the local enterprise partnership is extremely keen to secure an enterprise zone. It is important that the Minister hears those comments, which should be on the record. We really want an economic zone, although I acknowledge that the hon. Gentleman, who represents a neighbouring constituency, has a different view of the success of such zones from me.

Tom Blenkinsop: Yes, I know Steve Gibson—I am a season ticket holder at Middlesbrough FC. I partially agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said. Local authorities, business leaders and LEPs have to work

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within the frameworks and structures that they are given, and they have to make those frameworks and structures work. However, this is a broad debate about the policy, and if I did not talk about the economic implications of the policy, I would not be doing a proper service to my constituents.

Reviving enterprise zones will prove ineffective, even if that aim is achieved at less cost than that of the 1980s model and the zones are redesigned for today’s circumstances. The Work Foundation and the Centre for Cities think-tanks argue in recently published reports that zones created under the now Lady Thatcher and Sir John Major created too few jobs and were too expensive. The Work Foundation has said that such zones typically created only a three-year boost before areas lapsed into depression, and that up to four fifths of jobs were simply displaced from other areas, often within the same town.

London’s Isle of Dogs—now Canary Wharf—was among the most successful of 38 enterprise zones created between 1981 and 1996, but others in places such as Middlesbrough, Speke, Hartlepool and Swansea left a less impressive legacy. The EEF manufacturing association has said that the policy sounds like a return to the past. The rhetoric deployed by the Government indeed sounds attractive, but I signal real caution and suggest to them and to supporters of enterprise zones that they reacquaint themselves with Teesside’s history in the 1980s. Enterprise zones offer potential relief on local business rates, reductions in corporation tax or national insurance contributions, tax credits or capital gains allowances on investment in premises, and the relaxation or fast-tracking of planning processes and capital expenditure subsidies. Did that work in the ’80s throughout the north-east, and throughout all sectors and, more importantly, will it work now in 2011? I had a look at my old economics notes from Teesside university, and all the evidence from the past suggests that enterprise zones did not work, and possibly will not again.

Locally, Middlesbrough’s Riverside Park, which has since been very successful, was designated as an enterprise zone, but all that happened was a rush to get speculative office development off the ground with no tenants and no businesses to fill the new buildings. That, of course, did not worry the developers, who simply benefited from the tax perks from building in an enterprise zone and allowed the empty buildings to be used to make artificial losses, which reduced the total taxation on their developments elsewhere. Such experiences, bar perhaps the Metro centre and Black and Decker in Durham and the London Docklands, were admitted as a failure at the time by the Thatcher Government. In their official evaluation, the Government admitted that between 1981 and 1986 they poured £300 million into the scheme but created only 13,000 new jobs nationally, which equates to £45,000 of public cash per job at the mid-1980s value of sterling. The same study also stated that enterprise zones mainly encouraged job displacement rather than real new jobs, and it showed that 25% of new jobs in enterprise zones were displaced from within the same town.

Repeated today, that type of local displacement risks seriously destabilising our local economy, as it involves artificially enticing businesses into what could be seen as less competitive areas within the same town. On the face of it, it might seem obvious that lower taxes boost

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business, but that was not borne out by experience. It quickly became clear for the majority of small businesses that their biggest concern was about making a profit in the first place, and about the risks associated with achieving that, rather than about tax on revenue or profit. Questions of rent, skilled workers and access to markets were more significant than a temporary lifting of a tax burden in a specific area rather than across the board.

The only people who benefited in the 1980s were the developers, not wealth-creating manufacturing businesses. We should not dismiss out of hand any proposals to encourage job creation and, for the sake of my area, if the plan goes ahead I will wish it every success, but the evidence of actual gain is thin indeed. Some already established businesses and their owners might see it as a helpful tax avoidance scheme, but that only benefits the already rich by possibly multiplying their wealth and does not create any added value.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, because it is a very helpful process. I have listened for 23 minutes now, and there is a great deal of criticism of what is being tried by the Government but no alternative being put forward. I look forward with great interest to hearing what the alternative will be—

Ian Lucas: Labour.

Guy Opperman: The hon. Gentleman says that, but someone has to pay back the £120 million-a-day debt. Speaking as the son of manufacturers who have been in the industry for many years, what the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) describes is not necessarily how my family have found it.

Tom Blenkinsop: I will come on to discuss the alternatives. We have seen borrowing increase by £2 billion, and certain policies, which I will come on to later, have economic effects on the national economy, and more profoundly on that of the north-east. Those effects will be part and parcel of the package due to inflation, and the retail prices index is currently running at a 20-year high. Such national policies are being put in place to deal with the deficit, but they seem to do only that, rather than presenting a progressive or prospective economic plan.

Turning to industry, chemical firms with major operations on Teesside, as well as our local steel producers Tata, have grave and well-founded concerns about industrial growth policy. I am, of course, talking about carbon floor prices. A consortium of firms, including SABIC, Lucite International and GrowHow, has recently criticised the Government’s energy strategy, justly claiming that it hinders the competitiveness of UK manufacturers more than any employment regulation or tribunal. The implementation of a minimum price for carbon will add a minimum of 20% to energy-intensive users’ energy bills. If the policy is implemented, our nearby EU competitors will no doubt exploit the situation, as will competition further afield. The policy will hinder further inward investment, and might lead to the departure

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from our region of good companies that provide long-term, well-paid, skilled work. EU competitors have attempted and then pulled away from equivalent policies. Changes to the carbon reduction commitment scheme, which amount to a £1 billion tax, will also delay green investment and hurt small downstream industry that aids steel production in the UK. Ultimately, potential and existing investors will move abroad to less efficient and less green arrangements, which will not benefit our economy either nationally or regionally.

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): Yesterday evening, some other MPs and I met some of the major companies in the energy-intensive industries, many of which are in our constituencies in the north-east. The Government plan to have carbon capture programmes, but none of them takes into account the specific needs of those industries. Does my hon. Friend believe that the Government should think again, and instead of just concentrating on energy plans concentrate on the needs of industries as well?

Tom Blenkinsop: My hon. Friend hits the nail right on the head. Whatever policy we have—an agglomeration policy, or a slightly different industrial policy—the energy factor, which I will go into in more detail later, will have a more and more profound impact on industry’s ability to retain and maintain its current position as well as to invest. Teesside is potentially one of the key areas in the country, never mind the region, for that investment, particularly in the chemical and steel sectors. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point.

Of anything that I say today, I beg the Minister to take that message about carbon floor pricing back to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Treasury and the Department of Energy and Climate Change, to block any moves that will hurt our north-east in general, and Teesside’s industrial core in particular. The announcement of a supposed regional growth strategy for the north-east as part of the comprehensive spending review is at best misleading and at worst a smokescreen to hide the deep cuts that will stunt economic growth in our region. The regional growth fund will also have to finance bids for housing and transport plans, so it is obvious that even a successful LEP bid to the fund will mean only a small slice of a very small cake. The fund was designed to redress the regional imbalance in the economy, so surely providing funds to companies in the affluent south-east will undermine its objectives.

I am also extremely concerned that the Government may well be turning away millions of pounds of EC funding for new economic initiatives and infrastructure projects, because their blunders over the winding-up of the regional development agencies means that they do not have the match funding for those job-creating schemes. On Teesside that is made worse, as the back-up service for a Tees valley LEP will rely on the existing Tees Valley Unlimited agency and its staff. However, that too has had £7 million of its £9 million budget slashed. There will also be a real terms cut of 9% to the science budget, which threatens to leave the UK behind international competitors such as the US and Germany, which are still increasing their science spending despite the economic climate. Even the Minister for Universities and Science said recently that scientific research contributes

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to long-term growth. If the Chancellor agrees with that, why are we not increasing the science budget like other countries?

The Government announced in the CSR that £1 billion would be provided to fund carbon capture and storage. According to Jeff Chapman, chief executive of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association, that will fund one project,

“but it’s not enough for four”.

I argue that the Wilton site, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Redcar (Ian Swales), is ideal for the project in many respects.

We must be able to capitalise on foreign export opportunities, yet we must not rely wholly on them. As I have said, this Government have given absolute economic primacy to deficit reduction. That has massive implications for a sector-led agglomeration anywhere in England, but it will particularly affect how potential foreign export purchasers view England, especially the north-east.

Chemicals are a major player nationally as well as locally on Teesside, and they make up more than 30% of UK economic exports. Teesside has massive potential, with projects such as Chain Reaction by PD Ports at Teesport and Hartlepool, agrichemicals as a new growth sector, petrochemical developments, SSI and Tata at Teesside Cast Products and many more.

US ambassador Louis Susman has questioned the wisdom of the Chancellor’s massive spending cuts, warning that they risk plunging Britain into a double-dip recession. His remarks echo those of leading economists at the International Monetary Fund, who said last week that the US and EU economies remain too fragile to absorb major deficit cuts, concluding that additional spending and tax breaks would be a much more sensible strategy. In an interview with The Daily Telegraph, Susman praised the Chancellor’s determination to eliminate the deficit within a single Parliament as “very admirable”, but warned:

“But the question is, is it too much, too fast? We worry about double-dip recession and the lack of growth.”

So do I.

China reported a trade deficit in February of £4.5 billion. Exports from China grew by 2.4%, which was less than expected, mainly due to the appreciation in value of China’s currency. However, growth in imports also decreased from an expected 30% to 19.4%. We must remember that under Labour, between January and August 2010, exports to China from the UK rose by 44%, which especially helped manufacturers. Between January and April 2010, manufacturers boosted UK exports by £21.3 billion. The demonstrable reduction in Chinese demand is having huge effects on other international economies that export or rely on exports.

The coalition Government must understand that an export-led growth strategy alone will not suffice. Besides the obvious structural unemployment issues—the skills of redundant public service workers in the north-east will not match the growing sectors, if any grow—manufacturing sector credit squeezes in China, the terrible floods in Australia that have limited coke exports, desperate earthquakes and tsunamis in Japan and ongoing events in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the wider middle east and north Africa will affect an overly optimistic and wholly reliant British exports policy. Iron ore, steel, cotton and other commodities are peaking at extraordinarily

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high levels. More importantly, coal, gas and oil markets are peaking as Japan, China, and Germany re-evaluate their nuclear policies, which is already affecting our access to fossil fuels and their domestic and industrial usage and price. That will undoubtedly affect not just our north-eastern industry but our national export capability.

By betting the house solely on exports, we expose ourselves to a potential backfire. However, public sector investment and an export policy need not be mutually exclusive. Obviously, we can pursue an export policy while retaining our levels of public sector investment in the north-east. Again, however, an export policy with no real investment and no public sector expenditure belies the coalition’s policy of giving economic primacy to deficit reduction. We should not reduce the deficit at the price of our public sector and, in turn, of the small and medium-sized businesses in the north-east that rely on it.

The planned changes implemented so far include a rise in VAT to 20%, which will affect consumer spend. Businesses such as leisure, hotels, restaurants and retail will bear the brunt. Indeed, figures from the Office for Budget Responsibility stated today that the consumer prices index was at 4.4%, double the Tory-led Government’s estimates. I am a traditionalist, and as a former union officer I never dealt in CPI, but always in RPI. The OBR says that the retail prices index has risen from 5.1% to 5.5%, the highest in 20 years. Funnily enough, that was the last time there was a Tory Government. We have had the wrong kind of snow from this Chancellor, and now he claims, as he did on the front page of the Financial Times, that we have the wrong kind of inflation, causing him to have to borrow £11.8 billion, up from £9.5 billion last year. I thought that we were making cuts in order to reduce loans.

The effects of the Government’s policies resonate hugely, and nowhere more than in the north-east. R3, the association of business recovery professionals, regularly contacts me regarding time-to-pay arrangements for small and medium-sized businesses, especially given the impact of oncoming public sector cuts. Time to pay is crucial in the north-east to help the self-employed and small businesses currently in trouble to avoid insolvency and prevent the further private sector redundancies that will be inevitable after public sector cuts.

R3 surveyed 300 small businesses and found that one third relied wholly on public sector spending in one form or another. The survey was nationwide, and things will undoubtedly be more severe in the north-east. The situation will be more acute, of course, if interest rates increase on top of the inflationary figures estimated today by the OBR.

On behalf of small businesses, I welcome the Government’s potential simplification of tax, especially if national insurance and income tax are combined. However, the Government could go further for the north-east and its small businesses. High streets in ancient market towns such as Guisborough, Brotton, Loftus, Skelton, Saltburn and other East Cleveland villages need help. Some great small businesses are developing in my constituency. Coastal View, for example, is a new free monthly paper that advertises other local businesses. In south Middlesbrough, retail is also key at

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shopping areas such as the Parkway in Coulby Newham, Easterside, Marton, Marton Manor, Hemlington and Park End.

Self-employed women and men in my region need quick assistance. On behalf of small businesses, I ask the Minister this: rather than enterprise zones, could the north-east as a whole pilot a 5% VAT rate for construction? Evidence in France has shown it to have turnover benefits of 7%. The Government must act on VAT and fuel duty, and the consensus on that is cross-party, especially on fuel. The 5% VAT rate could be extended in turn to public houses, restaurants and food service in general, helping struggling small businesses while aiding our region’s burgeoning activity tourism economy. Similarly, VAT exemption rates could be lifted from £60,000 to £90,000 for small businesses and the self-employed, bringing in broadly the same revenues for the Treasury while giving small business a break. Again, that could be piloted in the north-east.

I give the Government credit for relaxing planning regulations to allow some commercial properties to be changed to housing accommodation. It might prove a more viable solution in rural areas of my constituency, particularly on certain high streets in East Cleveland. Even so, small businesses will become increasingly key in the fine economic blend of the north-east region.

I understand that I have raised many sectoral topics and a diverse array of issues, but I look forward to any response that the Minister can give.

11.37 am

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow a fine, long and detailed speech that took us on a lovely journey through your constituency and touched on many local areas, but not on many others. I waited—I probably waited too long to intervene—for you to acknowledge that the £120 million-a-day debt with which the Chancellor must deal is something that you caused. It did not arise out of nowhere. I hope that it is accepted that whoever was in power—this applies just as much to your good selves as it does to us—would have had to deal with that debt. To ignore the huge debt that we must deal with when addressing the economics of the situation is unacceptable.

If I counted correctly, there were few things of which you were in favour: simplification of tax, a possible VAT cut to 5% and the relaxation of some planning regulations. In 35 minutes, almost no description of anything that we are doing did not chime with McCarthyite zealotry, which is the most eloquent and powerful description of what you were trying to do—

Martin Caton (in the Chair): Order. Mr Opperman, you keep saying “you” and “your”. You are supposed to be addressing me, and you are ascribing to me views that perhaps I do not hold.

Guy Opperman: I apologise. That is entirely true, Mr Caton. I could not possibly comment on whether anybody had McCarthyite zealotry.

I have listened to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland and hope that he will advance the issue. It is wrong, however, to describe enterprise

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zones as a bad thing and to say that policies should be implemented in a way that ignores tremendous benefits. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Ian Swales) would describe the great benefits of Corus, and we should not ignore the fact that the North East of England Process Industry Cluster has come forward. All of those are good things.

Frankly, it is important, at this moment in time, to deal with deficit reduction. If there is a manifest difference between the proposals of the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland and ours, it is about whether the deficit is the key or not. I suggest that, at a time in which we are in so much debt, the deficit is always the key, because if we do not address it, we will disappear into a situation akin to that of Greece or Portugal.

Tom Blenkinsop: I do not deny that the Government’s plans are sensible, have a point and a logic, and that they might work. The point is about who they will benefit. Is this yet more trickle-down economics, or are we genuinely talking about redistributive economics? Redistributive economics favours the north-east, but I am afraid that trickle-down economics favours the south-east. The Chancellor’s plans may indeed work, but to whose benefit?

Guy Opperman: The dispute between us is fairly stark in terms of the extent to which we have the potential to repay. My view is that the Chancellor is trying—this is not something he wanted to inherit—to address the £120 million-a-day debt and to be in a position to do that. I believe that he will take the issue forward and that there are real opportunities in the way ahead. I speak as the representative of a fundamentally rural constituency, but jobs are up and the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton South (James Wharton) are fair. It will be difficult, but I am absolutely certain that the Chancellor has the right policy.

11.42 am

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing this timely and important debate, and on his excellent overview of the north-east economy. Given the particular challenges faced in a region such as ours, and the already felt and anticipated impact of this Conservative-led Government’s policies, I could touch on so many issues in this debate. However, given that Newcastle airport is based in my constituency, I think it appropriate to address the important role played by aviation in the development of the north-east economy.

With about 3,000 people on site, the airport is the largest employer in Newcastle upon Tyne North. It contributes about £400 million to the north-east economy annually, and it handles more than 5 million passengers a year. The excellent service provided by Newcastle airport to domestic and international passengers has been nationally recognised by its peers, having been voted the best UK airport by the British Air Transport Association for two years running.

Indeed, the service provided by Newcastle airport has become increasingly important to the region’s economy over the years, with the growth of the tourism industry in the past decade or so being one of the real success

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stories for the north-east. Tourism is now worth nearly £4 billion to the region’s economy and employs more than 65,000 people, while the increase in visitor numbers to north-east England has been outstripped only by London in recent years. To give just one example of the airport’s impact on the north-east economy, the new Emirates route that launched in 2007 saw the region’s first ever scheduled long-haul route. It flies daily from Newcastle to Dubai, and it has opened up onward connections to more than 50 destinations around the world. It has also opened up a whole new tourism market for north-east England, leading to One NorthEast’s award-winning “Passionate People, Passionate Places” campaign heading as far afield as Australia and New Zealand to target those people who were then within easier reach of our region.

The Conservative-led Government’s cuts, however, and their decision to abolish our regional development agency, mean that north-east England no longer has the capacity to promote itself as a tourism destination either nationally or internationally. This situation and the abrupt end to the “Passionate People, Passionate Places” campaign have been rightly and roundly criticised in the region.

As the Minister should be aware, north-east England is also one of the few regions in the UK with a positive balance of payments—recently published figures indicate that the total value of north-east exports was £11.91 billion in 2010. At the same time, inward investment has played an increasingly important role in the north-east economy, creating or safeguarding more than 6,500 jobs in our region in 2009-10 alone, and levering in £720 million in capital. About 82% of the inward investment came as a direct result of One NorthEast. I hope that the Minister will reflect on that serious point.

Newcastle airport plays an important role in supporting the strength of the north-east export market and our foreign trading links, providing the region’s businesses with easy access to key international markets. Direct flights from Newcastle to Stavanger in Norway, for example, have proved crucial in supporting the development of the north-east’s offshore and subsea industries. Moreover, the Emirates link to Dubai, which I have mentioned, now provides easier access to commercial opportunities in China, the far east and India, as well as the middle east.

Another key area vital to the growth of the region’s economy is ensuring that we have the skilled work force of the future. I am a passionate supporter of vocational education and apprenticeships, which is why I tabled my Apprenticeships and Skills (Public Procurement Contracts) Bill. Recently, it was a pleasure to go to the airport and meet one current and one former motor technician apprentice—one at the start of their career, the other at the end—who have both trained and worked at the airport. I also pay tribute to the £3.3million Newcastle Aviation Academy, which was officially launched in 2009 having received investment from Newcastle college, One NorthEast and the Learning and Skills Council. This top-of-the-range facility, based at Newcastle airport, provides a wide range of training in all aspects of the aviation industry, including aircraft engineering, aeronautical engineering, and airport and airline management. It is exactly the sort of thing that the previous Labour Government invested in to support young people, rather than write them off, which is what some of the Government’s policies are doing.

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Newcastle airport has, therefore, played an integral part in the north-east’s economic past, and will continue to do so in the future. However, a key, ongoing issue for the airport and north-east businesses has been the impact of air passenger duty and the Government’s proposals to move to a per plane duty. Notwithstanding the importance of ensuring a greener, low-carbon economy and the important part that aviation must play in achieving that, this and any other taxation policy must concentrate not only on increasing revenue for the Treasury and greening our economy, but on rebalancing our economy in a way that will not impact disproportionately on our regions.

The Newcastle Journal ’s long-standing campaign, “A Tax Too Far”, has called on Governments, past and present, to recognise the disproportionate impact of APD on regional airports. It urges that APD or PPD be restructured in line with the impact they have on regions, compared with London, and for consideration to be given to reduced rates of APD for new start-up routes in and out of the north-east. The Newcastle Journal’ s campaign has clear support from the business community. In January, the Emirates vice president for the UK and Ireland, Laurie Berryman, made it clear that larger airlines would be forced to consider their position at UK regional airports if APD becomes too great and passenger numbers fall. Moreover, earlier this month, the North East chamber of commerce wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport to call for an overhaul of the APD system, stating that it has a disproportionate impact on our region’s businesses. The NECC is calling for differential rates for regional airports, to replace the current blanket duty, in order to ensure that the north-east economy does not suffer and that its export businesses can continue to grow. As the NECC chief executive, James Ramsbotham, has pointed out:

“North East businesses already face heavier costs than their counterparts in other regions in order to access common markets due to high fuel prices, so addressing the anomalies that APD gives rise to will ensure that our exporting businesses have a much better chance of realising their potential.”

Of course, if differential rates of APD or PPD were introduced for regional airports, it would also reduce pressure on Newcastle airport’s already overcrowded south-east counterparts. In the words of Graeme Mason, head of corporate affairs at Newcastle airport:

“By freezing or reducing the rate of APD out of regional airports, the Government could, at a stroke, rebalance the economy, reduce the North-South divide, and take the pressure off the South East.”

An announcement on the issue is expected in the Chancellor’s Budget tomorrow. Will he recognise the regional impact of tax and provide a real stimulus for regional economies like ours in the north-east in his so-called “Budget for growth”? Like Newcastle airport, the North East chamber of commerce and many other north-east businesses, I—and I am sure my colleagues—await the Chancellor’s announcement tomorrow with great anticipation.

11.50 am

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): I congratulate my hon. neighbour—as I suppose I should call him—the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop) on securing the debate and on his powerful and very well-researched speech. He has done excellent work.

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As we know, the north-east economy is largely founded on the historic industries of coal mining, ship building and steel manufacture. For decades, we have had issues with both the run-down of those industries and the run-down of employment in those industries, even those that continue. Although the news of the revival of the steel industry is very welcome in my constituency, I do not think it will employ 10,000-plus people again, which it did not so long ago. There has been a long history of assistance being given to the north-east in relation to various coal and steel closure areas and regional development grants. In the 1980s, I remember filling in the forms for regional development grants in a former life. There has been a long history of needing to do something about the north-east, and various Governments have continued that.

I accept the points made about the RDA. RDAs around the country have had patchy success. However, I think that even the other RDAs would recognise that One NorthEast was probably the best and most successful. I pay tribute to the former Minister for the North East, the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East (Mr Brown), for his passion and advocacy both of RDAs and the region. Something we should all recognise in this place is that what divides us politically is far less than what joins us when it comes to regional issues.

The RDA did good work but, as I said in the recent debate in the House led by the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne East, we need to consider the study done last year by Experian and the BBC. They looked at 324 areas in the country in terms of economic strength and rated Hartlepool as 314th, Redcar and Cleveland as 319th and Middlesbrough last at 324th. Whatever else has happened, we have not driven the Teesside area up the economic league. The only time we had any significant urban renewal in Teesside was from 1987 to 1998, when we had Hartlepool marina, Stockton riverside and university campus, Teesside barrage and waterpark, Teesside retail and leisure park, and Middlesbrough riverside. That was the period of the flawed but, nevertheless, energetic and focused Teesside development corporation, which was scrapped by the Labour Government when they came to power. Much less has happened since in that regard.

I shall turn to transport. The Tees valley is the birth place of passenger railways. If someone were to ask in a pub quiz where the first passenger railway was, most people would say that it was Stockton to Darlington, which runs along the Tees valley. So where are we today with our railways? We still have a railway that runs from Darlington, almost touches Stockton and goes all the way through to Saltburn. It passes very close to the Riverside stadium, but does not stop there; it passes very close to Teesside retail and leisure park, but does not stop there; and it passes within half a mile of Teesside airport, but does not stop there. Is there another airport in the country that has virtually no public transport? The failure to even allow a railway that already exists close to Teesside airport to be part of the transport structure in the area shows that there is an awful lot to do. Middlesbrough is the largest town in the country without a direct link to London, which is another example of what is left to do. We have some real issues to deal with and real work left to do.

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In business, I always used to say that one could tell whether a committee was any use, first, by how it was formed—did it form itself?—and, secondly, whether people attended it. Teesside Valley Unlimited formed itself as a private-sector led, private-public partnership about five years ago, because of the perceived needs of the Tees valley and the difficulties there. It is no surprise that that organisation was very quick out of the traps when it saw the opportunity to have a local enterprise partnership for the area. I know that that enraged some people further north and that it was felt to be a fragmentation of effort that may lead to outcomes that are not as good.

Alex Cunningham: I have always been a one region person. Although I congratulate the people of Tees valley on putting together the first LEP in the region, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that it is important that the north-east—the smallest region in the country—works closely together and has a tremendous partnership with our local authorities and other organisations in order to drive the region forward? We should not simply try to plough our own furrow, as some people would have us do.

Ian Swales: I was about to come on to that matter. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. Absolutely, we need one regional voice on a number of issues. This Government perhaps differ from the previous Government in that we do not see the need for such an approach to be prescribed in detail for every region. I hope that the existing structures can make decisions, create what they think they need and make it work. If there are two LEPs in an area, the Government are not prescribing that they cannot talk to each other and say, “Okay, let’s jointly work on this.” A good example is European funding. The Government have already decided to retain a regional focus for European funding, because that is what is necessary.

Tom Blenkinsop: The hon. Gentleman is an excellent advocate for the region, and it has been a pleasure working with him on getting steel back to Teesside. However, there are some fundamental problems with the LEP structure. Let us consider, for example, Hitachi. As he has rightly mentioned, that is a great success story for the region. How will small and medium-sized enterprises in the Tees Valley LEP that want to grow around Hitachi, which is not in the Tees Valley LEP, interact with the new LEP, the North East Economic Partnership and the other structures?

Ian Swales: I thank the hon. Gentleman for mentioning that. Not everything happens through Government agencies. Business is business. If I were running a business, or if I wanted to run a business in the Tees valley, and I knew that a train manufacturing facility was being set up 10 miles away, I would not need a Government agency to lead me to talk to people and make things happen. We have suffered from the idea that people wait to be told what to do, and that is a good example.

Tom Blenkinsop: That still does not answer my point. If an SME wants to get regional growth fund funding, which LEPs does it talk to? Does it talk to both? Does it also talk to the NEEP, or does it talk to the Department

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for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Treasury directly? It seems that the need for further meetings will increase, rather than decrease.

Ian Swales: Okay. I will be more specific for the hon. Gentleman. Clearly, if a business wants to base itself in the Tees valley and has customers—wherever they are—it should talk to the Tees Valley LEP. If those customers happen to be in the region, that is fine. I do not see a problem with that. As I have said, there is no law that states people cannot talk to each other.

An almost religious adherence to the regions has had some benefits, but it has also created some problems. In 2004, the people of the north-east firmly rejected the idea of regional government. Some of us regretted that more than others, but the decision was absolutely overwhelming—not just from the fringes of the north-east but from the heartlands of Tyneside and Wearside.

Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s point, but I think that he accepts that if he wanted to put together a worse set of circumstances to get a yes vote, it probably could not be done. Does he agree with that?

Ian Swales: Absolutely. One issue was whether central Government were prepared to release enough powers. I remember reading the document and being unimpressed by such statements as the “power to advise Ministers”, which did not strike me as a particularly powerful power, so I agree with that. Regionalisation, however, has had some impacts—I will come on to wider issues in a moment—on the Tees valley. For example, our area, which contains 750,000 people, has been deemed unable to run our own ambulance service, which has been moved out of the area. The fire service was about to be moved, and an attempt was made to try to get the police to merge with another organisation. We need to stand up strongly for what is a very natural, large area of population, and, sadly, regionalisation has not always helped.

[Mr Edward Leigh in the Chair]

I am not a “little Teessider”—my wife comes from Stanley, which is quite a bit further north. My right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) would not let me get through this debate without mentioning the dualling of the A1. Just in case hon. Members did not think that was going to happen, it has happened. [ Interruption. ] Sorry, the dualling has not happened. I have mentioned it on behalf of my right hon. Friend. It would be great if that dualling were to happen. I recognise that the north-east has a lot of coherence, though it seems a long way from the end of my constituency to the north of my right hon. Friend’s constituency.

The north-east has a lot of strengths. In many cases, we can work together. In other cases, it is not appropriate to work together. There are enormous strengths in terms of industrial background and the conversion of people and industries in those historic sectors to doing new things. We have people who are highly skilled, as the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) has said. We already show, particularly through process industries and other manufacturing, that we can make and export things, and I know that the Government are very keen to see that happen.

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On rebalancing the economy—yes, the process is redistributive, but as the hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) has said, what is it redistributing?—we know that the country has a huge economic problem at the moment. I welcome mechanisms such as the regional growth fund, but we have a massive issue in terms of small and medium-sized enterprises. I hope that the Minister will respond specifically to this point: 97% of the grants given out by One NorthEast were less than £1 million. That £1 million threshold has to be very short-term. If the board of the regional growth fund cannot consider hundreds and hundreds of projects, then we need a programme mechanism beneath that board.

Ian Mearns: It has been estimated in some quarters that the potential growth in supply chain jobs from the Hitachi development is as much as 7,000 jobs. There is very little chance, however, of 7,000 supply chain jobs in the north-east of England coming from the SME sector, if there is not much more flexibility in the distribution of the regional growth fund and in grants that are fit for the SME sector. At the moment, such grants are out of reach for many businesses.

Ian Swales: I welcome that intervention, which powerfully supports the point that I was just making. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point.

I would just like to mention two other issues that the Minister could perhaps touch on. One issue relates to energy prices.

Mr Edward Leigh (in the Chair): Order. I hope to start the winding-up speeches at 10 minutes past 12, and the hon. Member for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) wants to come in. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will bring his remarks to a close.

Ian Swales: I will do that, Mr Leigh.

Energy pricing has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. I also want to press the Government on the Infrastructure Planning Commission. We have a large project in my constituency at the moment that must divide itself, completely artificially, in two. Part of the project is supposedly covered by the Infrastructure Planning Commission and part of it will be approved by the local authority. It is costing the business a fortune to fight two planning processes.

I will draw my remarks to a close now. Again, I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland. As I have said, there is a lot more that joins us on these issues than that separates us.

12.5 pm

Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): I will cut parts of my speech to make your deadline, Mr Leigh.