Now I have to confess to having been slightly nervous in advance of today’s event so I thought I had better do is a quick calculation to see how many women are running my various organizations. I found, rather to my surprise, although it wasn’t really, that I am surrounded by rather a lot of them. Over half the chief executives of my 19 charities are women (although when the unforgettable and incomparable Julia Cleverdon retires from Business in the Community next month this situation will change); and in my Office, three of my seven private secretaries and my Treasurer are women – it’s perhaps a little wonder that I feel so at home today!

Ladies, and the occasional gentleman, I just wanted to say a very few words today to congratulate “Opportunity Now” on its 17th birthday. I’m only sorry that we couldn’t manage to fit in the event 18 months ago for the 15th anniversary – but all I can say is, better late than never!

Now I have to confess to having been slightly nervous in advance of today’s event so I thought I had better do is a quick calculation to see how many women are running my various organizations. I found, rather to my surprise, although it wasn’t really, that I am surrounded by rather a lot of them. Over half the chief executives of my 19 charities are women (although when the unforgettable and incomparable Julia Cleverdon retires from Business in the Community next month this situation will change); and in my Office, three of my seven private secretaries and my Treasurer are women – it’s perhaps a little wonder that I feel so at home today!

But when you add these figures up, the fact that there were a surprise to me is, I think, an important point. Not one of those individuals earned their position through political correctness. Just like each of you, they were successful because of their talent and ability.

That is why I am so thrilled that two of my Prince’s Trust Businesses are here today. Like the 70,000 other businesses we have set up over the last twenty-five years, Isidora Popovic and Deborah Rouah-Choueke had plenty of talent and good ideas, but no way of putting them into practice. The banks weren’t prepared to give them a chance. But The Trust was and gave them the finance and business mentors to set them on their way and now each is running a successful business. Isidora supplies Fortnum & Mason and Harvey Nichols with her “Popina” range of organic biscuits and crackers and, in 2006, she won Waitrose’s “Small Producer of the Year” award. And Deborah manages a team of florists who work for her bespoke floristry business, “The Vase”. I cannot tell you proud I am of them and, if I might say so, what a marvellous example they set to other creative young women. I only hope that they see the achievements of these two remarkable young ladies and are inspired to realize their own dreams and ambitions.

And this is important, because women are making a huge impact in businesses across every conceivable sector and around the world. And that means they are playing a crucial role in the success of our economy, whether that be at the local or the national level. Some of the most successful business women in the country are gathered today and it provides me with an opportunity to salute all of you, I must say.

But I wonder if you will permit me to make an observation about a particular sector of the economy that interests me especially – and that is our rural communities? This is not a scientific fact that I have researched, but it appears to me from the many years that I have spent trying to help farmers and the wider rural community, that many businesses in the countryside are started and run by women. Izzy Warren-Smith from Women in Rural Enterprise, with whom I have worked for a number of years now and who has done so much to encourage this sort of talent, would, I think, agree. And as I am sure Ionwen Lewis of the Women’s Food and Farming Union might tell you, on most farms it seems that it is the wives who look after the books and do the paperwork and who often have that special entrepreneurial flair that can make the whole difference to the viability of the business bringing into many rural households a vitally important stream of income. And when they aren’t doing that they seem to have the energy to be school governors, youth leaders, local councillors, music teachers, sports and dance coaches, church councillors and active members of the W.I. – the list is completely endless! That old adage about women having the ability to “multi-task” could not be more true! And I rather suspect that if we were to do a poll here today we would find that nearly all the women are involved in at least one or two voluntary activities – and sometimes more… This rather brings to mind the comment that God apparently made after he had created Adam. “I can do better” – and all I can say in today’s company is, he certainly did!

Finally, I do also just want to congratulate Lady Howe, the first to chair the campaign when it was called “Opportunity 2000” and to Clara Freeman, who took on the mantle with such determination, and finally Carolyn McCall, who leads the work with immense energy and drive, and has made a huge difference to this whole company. It’s been a remarkable success but there is a lot more to be done. I have an idea from Julia just how hard you work and it is evident from this gathering today just what an enormous amount of power and commitment you have harnessed. If I might say so, it has been a huge pleasure to be with you all this afternoon and I would just like to thank Herbert Smith for making it all possible. Thank you very much and a very happy 17th birthday as far as “Opportunity Now” is concerned.