Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee debates involving the Leader of the House during the 2019 Parliament

Israel and Gaza

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Excerpts
Monday 16th October 2023

(9 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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I agree with that. I said in the Statement that the Government’s position is that we should return to seek the two-state solution, and ultimately seek the way of peace. The way of terror is the way of death.

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, terrorism can never be contextualised and unfortunately I know that first hand. Under the Terrorism Act 2000, Hamas is a proscribed organisation and it is an offence to invite support for a proscribed organisation. Can the Leader of the House tell us what actions His Majesty’s Government will take to deal with the enormous amount of people on the streets of the United Kingdom asking for support for this proscribed organisation—including in Belfast, where we had the spectacle of convicted IRA terrorists asking for support for Hamas?

Lord True Portrait Lord True (Con)
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My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. Hamas is proscribed—those who invite support for this group could be jailed. However, arrests are an operational matter for the police. The Home Secretary has asked police to step up patrols and monitor protests.

The Importance of the Relationship Between the United Kingdom and India

Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Excerpts
Thursday 19th January 2023

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Baroness Verma Portrait Baroness Verma (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who are contributing to this important and timely debate today. The number of noble Lords speaking demonstrates the importance that is placed on our relationship with India.

As the UK and India continue the important work of negotiations on the free trade agreement, there is of course far more to the relationship between the two countries than the trade deal. I have spent well over two decades engaging with business organisations and businesses in India, and I refer to my interests in the register. I have led UK business delegations to India, engaging with progressive states that have changed, and continue to change, India, not just domestically but internationally, as India’s growth story provides opportunities for new markets. Those who know India know that each state is different, with different languages, food styles and cultures, and each with a unique place in India’s history. This makes India an incredibly diverse and interesting country.

We have a British Indian diaspora in the UK of 1.6 million. Interestingly enough, I was listening to the previous debate about previous generations coming to the UK and thought that it is on great shoulders that the rest of us have made our place in the UK. The Prime Minister of India, Prime Minister Modi, refers to the diaspora as the living bridge between the UK and India. Families like mine, which have been present in the UK since before World War II, have remained connected with family and friends in India. I believe that this huge resource has been underused in connectivity and in gaining a wider understanding of the different nuances of engagement with India.

India celebrated 75 years of independence last year. It has one of the largest growing global economies, with an increasingly growing affluent and better-educated middle class. With a wider population nearly 1.4 billion strong, it has among the world’s largest population of under-35s.

I want to focus on relationship building rather than solely on the FTA, which, post Brexit, is critical for the UK. We have huge opportunities in front of us as a country. I am sure other noble Lords will speak about student visas and the importance of enabling businesses from India to have ease in sending their senior management employees to the UK when they are investing in our country. We have real opportunities to build on current relationships and forge much stronger and closer collaborations.

Sharing a stronger future is the narrative that I and like-minded people want to hear. Next week, I leave for India to finalise a conference that I am organising in bringing women-led businesses from the UK, India and Uganda together in Delhi. The conference will be both in person and virtual. There I will be meeting with businesses about electric vehicles produced in Bangalore. Our place in the world makes us a great convening power; we can not only engage directly with the emerging economies but, through our relationships, ensure wider partnerships.

I will also have the opportunity to meet businesses looking to diversify abroad. We in the UK are among the most trusted and safest places for doing business. We must ensure that we are as welcoming and accommodating as possible, and that we showcase our Midlands and northern regions better, so that investment is made evenly across our country. I know that we have many champions for the regions, particularly in this House. They must be included in the strategic partnership planning necessary to attract not just new business from India but the resources needed to provide skills development for those regions as economies change.

I want to see stronger partnerships in defence, cyber and AI development, along with stronger partnerships in the creative industries, pharma and life sciences. As we grow the green economy, of course, we will develop our partnerships in the sustainable sectors. There are so many current and new opportunities in working collaboratively there.

As chancellor of the University of Roehampton, I know that the university is looking hard at greater, wider and deeper engagement with India, as are many universities. I hope that we will work equally hard at engaging with top-level universities in India for our students to spend time there and build new friendships. It is so important to look at stronger collaborative work on research and development in both countries, growing our pool to include working collectively with our friends in developing nations. Some of India’s leading universities have a strong presence from developing economies from the south. Education has always been a strong and positive route to building and growing our influence, and we should better explore it.

We are known for our soft power but we need to ensure that it remains at the heart of all we do. The world is moving at pace. New relationships are being developed, as are the challenges. It is critical that we remain at the centre of these relationships, and here I ask my noble friend the Minister to consider my suggestion, which I have mentioned to him in private.

In 2010, the Government appointed trade envoys to a number of countries important to us on a range of fronts. I must congratulate the Prime Minister of the time on doing so. I have seen the incredibly important work that the envoys carry out. It is of course about boosting trade opportunities but, equally important, it ensures regular engagement and influence, and builds on our shared values and friendship. I have consistently suggested that there is an important need to have not one but possibly three or four trade envoys to India, given the size of the country. It is so important to have continual engagement. We talk a lot about strategic partnerships and having envoys would surely only enhance them. I urge my noble friend the Minister to talk to the Prime Minister about these important roles. It could be a lost opportunity, and one we can ill afford to miss.

I visited India when I was 16. Although I was born in India, I came to the UK when I was just under one. Returning in 1976 as a 16 year-old, I was quite surprised at what I found. But over the years, as a regular visitor to India, I have seen enormous change taking place. The infrastructure projects, such as the highways and the metro, and renewable energy projects are just some of the areas that have transformed India. There is so much potential still, as states look at ways to engage inward investment, much of it through online portals.

Can my noble friend the Minister say what work is being done with his department and the Department for International Trade to see what opportunities there are for British businesses and to look at how different states operate? What assistance and support is available and how can collaboration be found? A quick example for me is a recent visit by the Telangana state politicians, who came with businesses. They engaged with us and provided information on the ease of doing business there through their business portals. We are keen to follow up, but how do we ensure that these follow-ups with interested parties progress further?

With the support of the 1928 Institute, the first British-Indian think tank, I suggested to colleagues across both Houses that we set up an all-party parliamentary group on UK-India trade and investment so that we could focus on trade and investment opportunities in both countries and feed in with data and analysis of the impacts of decisions and policy thinking around engagement. I am pleased to say that we have a very strong group with cross-party representation. With the 1928 Institute providing the secretariat, we have regular engagement with our friends at the Indian high commission.

We believe that the group will provide a strong Parliament-wide link that will not just strengthen political engagement and understanding but will build on what will become the free trade agreement for us to make this century one of strong foundations, strong collaborations and new partnerships. We are hoping to take our first delegation in April, so we are looking to plan the visit. The all-party group will undoubtedly play its role in strengthening opportunities for both countries. Will my noble friend the Minister agree to meet the all-party group so we can provide him and his department with our plans of engagement?

As a British Indian, I have lived here all my life. The strength of our nations are the people. They build relationships and protect them. We have a huge opportunity to share the global growth story, but we have to recognise that how we narrate that dialogue and how we view our partnerships matters in what we are able to achieve. The global economy is changing rapidly. We cannot afford to stand on the sidelines. Recent events have clearly demonstrated how quickly Governments and economies come under stress and pressure if we have not prepared well and built the channels for dialogue.

As two nations that have suffered terrible attacks at the hands of terrorists, it is also important to build on knowledge exchange, enhance our expertise on evidence sharing and the tools for data gathering and analysis. This year I hope my noble friend the Minister will support me in hosting a reception at the Foreign Office on Raksha Bandhan. This is an annual celebration where, in times past, sisters would tie a thread of protection around the wrists of their fathers and brothers as they went off to fight in war. Last year it was suggested to me that Raksha Bandhan also meant “my bond to protect”. I met British Indians serving in our Armed Forces. They do our country proud, with a long-standing association with the services through people like my grandfather, who was a captain in the Indian Army. Through their commitment to our safety, they fulfil the beautiful message of Raksha Bandhan. It will also be wonderful to recognise them and celebrate their presence.

It would be good to see the contribution of the Indian subcontinent reflected properly in our history books. This was mentioned in the previous debate. There is so much to say, but time is always a challenge. I, as someone well versed in the importance of both nations and their place in the world, believe that we can make huge strides economically, politically and through collaborative opportunities. I look forward to the contributions of all noble Lords, but particularly to the maiden speeches by—I had better get the names right—my noble friend Lord Minto and the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee. Did I say that right?

Baroness Verma Portrait Baroness Verma (Con)
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I knew I was going to screw it up somewhere. I am really looking forward to the valedictory speech of our wonderful noble Lord—my noble friend—Lord Soley. He is a brilliant example of where we do not share the same politics, but we share courtesy and the trust and confidence of the House. I beg to move.

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Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Portrait Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee (Non-Afl) (Maiden Speech)
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My Lords, I am very pleased to be able to make my maiden speech during this timely and important debate. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, and congratulate her on bringing the debate forward.

Before I make my comments on the substance of the debate, I thank all those who have made my arrival in this place such a pleasant one. I place on record my sincere thanks to Garter, Black Rod and all the staff in the various offices, including the magicians in IT help—please always keep well—the catering and cleaning staff, our police officers and, of course, the wonderful doorkeepers, who have already kept me right on a number of occasions and welcomed me every day with a smile. Thank you to each and every one. I also thank the two noble Lords who were with me when I was introduced. The noble Lords, Lord Dodds and Lord Godson, are both dear friends; I thank them for their continued support.

My congratulations to the noble Earl, Lord Minto, on his contribution today. I thank him for going first; that is always good when you are making a maiden speech as well. The Fosters were also reivers from the borders of Scotland. Like the Elliots, they left behind cattle stealing and moved on to law and politics—well, this one did in any event.

Noble Lords may be wondering why I have chosen a debate about the relationship between India and the UK for my maiden speech; it is quite a distance, in many ways, from Aghadrumsee to Chandigarh. Early on during my time as Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment in the Northern Ireland Executive—a post that I was proud to hold for more than seven years—I realised the importance of India as a market to do business with and seek investment from. I visited on a number of occasions and, in doing so, appreciated not just the economic ties but the many cultural and educational ties that exist.

For example, in 2019, the Jaipur Literature Festival set up a partnership with Belfast. I enjoyed a wonderful evening celebrating the cultural exchange that took place in the city. I am pleased to see that the festival that is taking place now in India will again have representatives from across the United Kingdom, with Belfast-born author Elaine Canning showcasing her debut novel, supported by the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and the British Council.

Reflecting on the point about the importance of educational exchange made by the noble Baroness, Lady Verma, and the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, I am pleased to say that the largest group of overseas students at my alma mater, Queen’s University Belfast, is from south Asia. Seven years ago, Queen’s University attracted fewer than 10 students from there but, today, I can proudly say that it has close to 1,000 such students annually, so the educational exchange and relationship is also strong.

Although I am really pleased to see these developments in culture and education, it is in the field of economic development that I find the most reasons to be cheerful. In particular, I warmly welcome the fact that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Department for International Trade have recognised that representatives from the regions of the UK are much better qualified to promote the strengths, cultures and propositions of their own regional economies. Then, working alongside the British High Commission is a huge enabler for bringing more business to the United Kingdom.

As a former First Minister and Economy Minister for Northern Ireland, I was fortunate to follow in the footsteps of one of our local Peers and his great passion for developing stronger ties between his original homeland, India, and Northern Ireland. I speak of the noble Lord, Lord Rana of Malone, of course. The output of his work was Northern Ireland’s first ever office in Mumbai and Bangalore within the British deputy high commissions. I fondly remember a trip to India that we made together when I was Minister.

Many Indian-based companies have invested in Northern Ireland over the years. HCL, First Source Solutions, Tata Steel and a number of smaller companies have recognised the advantages of investing in Northern Ireland, bringing thousands of jobs for our young, bright population. Likewise, Northern Ireland companies are doing a lot of business in India. Companies such as Randox, CDE Asia and Terex are all companies that I know well and which are continuing to do business globally from their base in Northern Ireland. With an office of the Department for International Trade now in Belfast, and with the Mumbai branch of Invest Northern Ireland again open for business thanks to that department, I think that the future is bright for Northern Ireland as a region of the United Kingdom doing business in India.

It is critical that we have a stable and growing relationship with our friends in India, whether in culture, economic development, trade or defence. There are many strings to that bow; I look forward to hearing from the Minister how we are going to deepen that relationship further. In particular, I look forward to hearing about progress on the UK-India free trade agreement.