It’s a great pleasure to have the opportunity to address what I’m sure will be a highly successful conference hosted by Women in Business NI. I’d like to congratulate Kate Marshall and her team for all they do to promote the interests of women embarking on careers in business and commerce.
As a member of the House of Commons - an institution once described as ‘the best gentlemen’s club in London’ - I know what it’s like to work in an environment where women are in a minority.
Many years ago I read a book which examined why history had never produced women painters who’ve received the accolades on the scale given to the greats like Michelangelo or Titian or Turner. Appropriately enough, the book was called the Obstacle Race, and whether it’s the arts or politics or business, I know that life for women who want to work hard and get on in life can sometimes feel like a series of hurdles to be scrambled over.
And one of the key obstacles holding back many women who could be highly successful in business is confidence. Now I hesitate to say that in Northern Ireland, where so many women displayed phenomenal resilience, courage and determination even during the dark days of the troubles.
But it’s still the case that many women hesitate before making that leap into the world of business and enterprise. I know this is an area on which Women in Business NI is focused.
I pay tribute to the excellent work they do in forging networks to bring together aspiring entrepreneurs and those thinking about taking their first steps into commerce. And let me emphasise that encouraging and supporting aspiration is an absolutely key priority for this Government.
The simple fact is that as a country we are in a global race and the only way we can compete successfully in that race is to back the men and women who want to do the right thing, work hard and make life better for their families.
We must foster the kind of business spirit and innovation that once made Belfast a powerhouse of the industrial revolution. And that has to include harnessing the vast wealth of under-used talent that women can bring to the business world.
The argument for more women in our boardrooms is clear - they bring fresh perspectives, new ideas, and broader experience, all of which lead to better decision-making. So this is not just about equality, it’s is about good business sense. And progress has been made under this Government.
Today 94 of the FTSE 100 companies count women on their boards, as do over two thirds of FTSE 350 companies.
But I’d be the first to acknowledge that there’s still some way to go. Here in Northern Ireland, Invest NI research indicates that in 2011 the female level of entrepreneurial activity was 4.3 per cent compared to 10.3 per cent for men.
Across the UK as a whole in 2012, 6.3 per cent of UK working-age women were involved in setting up and running a new business, approximately half the rate of men.
So the Government has set up a Women’s Business Council to provide advice on how to maximise women’s contribution to economic growth.
We’re running a very successful scheme giving start up loans to new businesses and 40% of successful applications have come from women.
For the second year running, more women than men have started apprenticeships in England.
And through our changes to personal allowances we’re delivering a £704 tax cut for over 600,000 working people in Northern Ireland and taking 75,000 of the lowest paid out of income tax altogether, the majority of whom are women.
And we have a package of support for women in work. Our Universal credit reforms will see an additional £200 million provided for childcare support, with 100,000 more families across the UK eligible for this help.
We are also determined that that every extra hour a person works will make them better off so that work always pays we see an end to the perversities of a benefits system that actually penalises people who want to work.
And I would like to add that we are taking our international obligations seriously.
The UK’s international development programmes have changed the lives of millions of women across the world.
In 2012, we helped ¾ of a million women access financial services and secured property and land rights for nearly 250,000 more. We also made it possible for 2.5 million girls to take their first steps into primary school.
But turning back to economic matters here in Northern Ireland - you’ll all be well aware that devolution vests a number of key responsibilities on the economy with the Executive. I warmly welcome the excellent work they have done in attracting investment and high value jobs to Northern Ireland.
The last fortnight has seen some excellent news on jobs, with nearly 1,300 new posts in areas as diverse as manufacturing, insurance, banking and the agri-food sector.
Northern Ireland has some world beating companies and it’s a great place to do business. That’s a message we’ll be reinforcing in a few weeks time when David Cameron brings together some of the world’s most powerful leaders at the G8 Summit in Fermanagh.
But despite recent encouraging news on jobs, I fully appreciate that unemployment remains far too high, particularly among young people. And the Northern Ireland economy remains too dependent on public spending.
So the UK Government, working alongside the Executive, remains committed to rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy. We are determined to creating the conditions in which private enterprise can flourish so that people like you can expand your businesses and see them go from strength to strength.
I believe that it’s the private sector, and not government, that really drives economic growth and creates long term, sustainable employment. That’s not to say that the Government doesn’t have a role, but its primary purpose should be to make it easier for businesses to grow and not harder.
That’s why our new Employment Allowance will see national insurance cut for 25,000 Northern Ireland businesses with 10,000 SMEs paying no tax on jobs at all.
We’re also cutting the main rate of corporation tax from 28 to 20p the lowest rate of any major developed economy and we’re continuing to assess the case for corporation tax devolution.
And let me be clear. We’re determined to crack down on aggressive and artificial tax avoidance by big business. Our goal is a competitive tax system which is attractive to overseas investors but which also ensures that everyone pays their fair share.
That‘s something we can only achieve by working with international partners and it will be high on the agenda for the G8 summit in a few weeks time.
Looking back to when I was appointed as Secretary of State, I promised to work closely with the Executive here on boosting the Northern Ireland economy. And that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.
For example over recent weeks I have had some very encouraging discussions with the Executive on a package boost to the economy, alongside measures to promote greater social cohesion and address sectarian divisions.
And it is important to remember that despite the eye watering scale of the deficit crisis, the 2010 Spending Review reduced the NIE’s resource budget by only 6.9% over four years, far less than an average 19% reduction for most Whitehall departments.
Since then, we’ve provided Stormont with an additional £900m and capital funding for the Northern Ireland Executive will actually increase by 7.4% in real terms next year.
The Prime Minister announced in March that Northern Ireland would receive an extra €181 of EU structural funds than would have been the case had the Government stuck to the European Commission’s formula. And the size of the block grant for Northern Ireland means that public spending per head here continues to be 20 per cent higher than the UK average.
So let nobody try to assert that this Government is starving Northern Ireland of cash. At a time of unprecedented pressure on the public finances we continue to recognise Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances and to provide it with as much support as we can afford.
In conclusion, I’m the first to acknowledge that the last few years have been very tough. But to change course now by returning to policies of more borrowing, more spending and more debt would be disastrous. That’s what got us into this mess in the first place.
By contrast, as result of the difficult decisions we’ve taken, the record deficit we inherited is down by a third. That’s helped to keep interest rates at record lows for businesses right across the UK.
At last, there signs that the economy is starting to heal. Since the election, over 1.25 million jobs have been created by the private sector and there are now more women in work than ever before. And a few weeks ago, we had the welcome news that the UK economy has returned to growth.
As the Governor of the Bank of England put it: “a recovery is in sight.”
The road ahead will still be difficult.But we’re on the right road. And I firmly believe that entrepreneurs like all of you here today can play a key part in returning Northern Ireland to prosperity and success.