Jenny Willott's speech to Spring Conference

March 8, 2014 3:45 PM
Originally published by UK Liberal Democrats


Before I was elected, I worked at Unicef and I saw there the ability of organisations, businesses and governments to do good in the world.

Unicef is dedicated to bringing the international community together to champion the rights of every child, making sure that no matter who they are or where they live, they can grow up safe, happy and healthy.

The way my friends and colleagues there were committed to building a fairer, safer society, both at home and abroad, was an inspiration then, and it still is today. And I'm sure they believed in a stronger economy too!

I know that many of you here feel the same as me: our party's focus on fairness and equality of opportunity are the key reasons why I became a Liberal Democrat.

So I am really excited to be able to stand in front of you now, as a Liberal Democrat Minister in Government, and show how we are putting this into practice.

Conference we aren't just debating, or talking about what we would like to do.

We are actually doing it. Making a real difference.

Don't let anybody - least of all the Labour party - tell you otherwise.

This is my first time speaking to you as a Government Minister.

After nearly two years as a Whip - working behind the scenes, in the dingy back rooms of Westminster - I can tell you it's quite a shock to the system to be under these lights up here on the stage in front of so many people!

Of course if I really told you about the dingy back room that is the Whips Office, Alistair Carmichael wouldn't be happy with me; and I don't know if you've ever seen an unhappy Alistair Carmichael, but trust me, nobody wants that...!

But without incurring Alistair's wrath, I think I can safely say that the past four years have been quite an experience for all of us in this Party.

I'm sure we'd all agree that this has included both highs and lows, but throughout, one thing has remained constant. We have always been the Party with fairness and equality at our core, free from the ideological blinkers of both the Tories and Labour.

We formed the Coalition Government in 2010 in the national interest.

It was essential to get the economy back on track after years of Labour mismanagement, so we put aside personal differences and gave this country the stable, responsible government it needed.

So now, for the first time the Liberal Democrats have a record of delivering in government - we have demonstrated our economic competence, and the Coalition's economic plan is working.

And Conference - you have been there every step of the way.

Guiding Lib Dem Ministers - giving us new ideas, keeping us on the straight and narrow, telling people what we have done and keeping the faith.

But unlike the Tories, we Liberal Democrats believe there is more to being a good government than just managing a thriving economy. We also need to build a fairer society.

Real growth must be across the country - in the Welsh valleys down the road from my constituency just as in the mansions down the road from Westminster.

I get that.

Vince gets that.

Danny gets that.

Nick gets that.

And Conference - I know for sure you do.

Fairness and equality - making sure the fruits of the recovery are shared by the many not the few - are central to what we all believe as Lib Dems, and central to my work as a minister in BIS.

I also want to give credit to Jo Swinson, whose maternity leave I'm covering. Jo has done so much work at BIS, and as Women and Equalities Minister, to make sure these inherently Lib Dem priorities remain at the top of the agenda.

We both want the UK to lead the way in demonstrating business as a force for good, both here at home and wherever British firms work overseas.

By force for good, I don't just mean giving money to local charities or doing the odd bit of community outreach. These are, of course, excellent things to do, but I'm talking about something more fundamental, more integral to the whole way that a business operates.

I'm sure you all remember the horrific pictures we saw last year when the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing over 1,100 people.

Clothes being sold on British high streets were coming from factories like that.

The public reacted.

The backlash against the big clothing brands supplied by that factory was considerable - the companies couldn't ignore it.

It demonstrated the immense power of public scrutiny. And the power of scrutiny, of openness - power in the hands of citizens - are fundamentally Liberal Democrat principles.

People are increasingly interested in where the products or services they buy come from, and how they were made.

The scale of the Rana Plaza tragedy - and the fact that we here in the UK had unwittingly contributed to it, through our demand for cheap clothes - was so deeply shocking that it has changed the behaviour both of retailers and their customers.

British businesses can have a hugely positive influence on society - through their environmental policies, their procurement policies and the working conditions they give their employees.

Overseas their efforts are equally vital. British business can lead by example helping to eradicate child labour, protect the environment and expose corruption all over the world.

Of course, companies already have to operate within the law, but I want to see them go beyond the bare minimum legal requirement and positively impact the communities in which they work, wherever they are. The minimum should be the start, not the end.

Social responsibility - looking out for the people around you, not just yourself - is fundamental to the Liberal Democrats and sets us apart from the Tories, and as a result I think this is an area where we can have a real and long-lasting impact on this country's business culture.

And to encourage more companies to make the long term commitment necessary, it helps if they know that this doesn't just benefit the people around them, it also affects their bottom line - in a good way!

More than 50 studies, including from Goldman Sachs, show that companies with strong environmental, social and good governance policies do better than their peers.

There are plenty of examples of big, household names who are already making a real virtue out of their corporate social responsibility:

Marks & Spencer have set themselves the goal of becoming the world's most sustainable major retailer, and not just because they're concerned about their image - M&S believe these changes saved them £70 million in one year alone.

Or take General Electric, the fourth largest public company in the world, which since 2005 has built its entire business model around sustainability.

They were explicit; this was not done just for moral or ethical reasons, but because they saw a large and profitable business opportunity in helping companies reduce their energy and water use, their waste, and their carbon emissions.

Or the sportswear company Puma. They have created a pioneering system to monitor and report on the company's impact on nature, including putting notional prices on environmental impacts.

They believe other companies will eventually have to adopt this new way of pricing in sustainability.

All companies who know what's good for them.

Good for the environment.

Good for their customers.

Good for their employees.

Good for Britain.

Businesses increasingly seem to be taking this message on board - encouraged not least by ever-increasing scrutiny from customers, who can easily spread word of bad behaviour via social network sites.

Following Rana Plaza, Primark has devoted a whole website to the work they're doing to improve workers' rights in Bangladesh, as well as helping those affected by the disaster.

And H&M now publish a list of all of their suppliers, making it easier for people to check on those who produce their clothes.

As the saying goes, 'sunlight is the best disinfectant', and supply chain transparency is growing ever more important.

Customers want to know that what they buy hasn't been made in a way that harmed either people or the environment.

And for business, monitoring and respecting human rights not only avoids ugly headlines and viral Twitter campaigns, it can help firms to attract and retain the best workers.

Having a diverse workforce with equal opportunities for all brings a variety of perspectives which can lead to better decision-making.

The UK is leading the way in so many fields. Let's add to that list transparency and fairness about how we make our consumer goods.

When we chaired the G8 in Northern Ireland last year the UK made promoting transparency a top priority. And we are taking our first bold steps.

For many developing nations, natural resources can be more of an economic curse than a blessing, because of the corruption and violence that often follow.

Tackling this isn't just the responsibility of the governments of developing countries - western companies are paying vast sums of money that ultimately go to the wrong place, and it is largely western consumers who are benefiting from the resources extracted.

Following the G8 we have been working with our European neighbours to shine a light on this sector.

Companies will have to publish all payments they make to any government. The public will know if a multimillion dollar payment has been made, and can check if the result is new schools for children or new Bentleys for government officials.

We will be one of the first countries to put this in place, and not only that, we have also signed up to a global standard to open up how we monitor these industries here in the UK.

Under the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, companies publish what they pay for oil, gas and mining; governments publish what they receive from these companies; and then an independent administrator compares the two and publishes the results.

Lib Dems have always been clear that the UK needs to take its international responsibilities seriously, and measures like these are key to this.

But good governance isn't just about money.

Today is international women's day, and it frustrates me that while we continue to strive towards a fairer, more equal society, gender inequality is clearly still a problem both abroad and here in the UK - despite years of Labour trying to legislate it out of existence.

As one of only 7 women out of our 56 MPs, I couldn't agree more with Nick when he said that our party is still 'Too male and too pale'. I want to see us be far more proactive about encouraging underrepresented minorities (and majorities) to stand for Parliament.

And it's why I'm so encouraged to see so many fantastic women selected to fight the General Election next year.

But politics isn't the only offender. We need more women at the top of every field, from engineering to entrepreneurship, finance to physics.

Millions of women aren't being given the chance to fulfil their potential; mothers who want to get back into work have far too many hurdles in their way; and too many women are still being paid less to do exactly the same job as male colleagues.

This is unacceptable.

In Government, we set a target to have 25% women on boards by 2015. With the latest figures at more than 20% in January, I'm confident we can achieve this.

But appointing more women isn't an end in itself; it will help ensure more talented women get Board experience, so in future they will not only advise, but run, this country's great companies.

This is something that Vince Cable has been passionate about as a priority in government.

Last September, Vince commissioned an independent review into the 'code of conduct' signed by headhunters to help increase diversity at the top. Charlotte Sweeney published her report on Tuesday and made several recommendations.

As a result we are getting unequivocal legal guidance on the legality of women-only shortlists from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission.

One of the excuses companies often use for low - or no - female representation on their boards is that women don't put themselves forward. So I am working with head-hunters to be more transparent about the number of women at different points in the recruitment process.

I saw a Board opening recently, for which the range of people applying was a positive hotbed of diversity; yet the corporate head-hunter list was three-quarters male, and 100% pale.

Was this a one off? Maybe it was a coincidence? Or was this an example of a fundamental ingrained bias that needs to end?

Nowadays no one can seriously believe that women are less capable of running big companies than men, so getting better information about the number of women shortlisted for positions should help us identify where in the process the blockage is occurring.

Are not enough women applying? Are headhunters failing to put women forward? Or are boards not choosing women even when presented with really strong female candidates?

Not having enough women at the top does huge damage to our economy. A well-balanced board brings fresh perspectives, talent and broader experience which leads to better decision making, and avoids group think.

And progress is being made - At the last election more than 1 in 5 of the FTSE 100 companies had no women on their boards. Now only 2 remain.

As we build our post-recession economy, we need our workforce to be diverse from top to bottom to maximise all talents. No sane business should ignore 50% of the talent in our country.

And no sane business should ignore the importance of putting corporate social responsibility at the forefront of every company's business strategy.

That is why we are taking a lead on these things.

With Liberal Democrats in Government, now is the time to drive diversity, corporate sustainability and transparency to the top of the agenda, and that is exactly what Vince Cable and I are doing in the Department for Business.

What is becoming clear is that not only does this not come at the expense of profits, but that properly ingrained corporate responsibility can actually create long-term success.

And the Liberal Democrats are driving this.

The Liberal Democrats are the party of fairness.

The party of equality.

The party of responsible business.

Business needs us.

Boardrooms need us.

Britain needs us.

Thank you!