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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 12 May 2009

[Jim Sheridan in the Chair]


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

9.30 am

Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): I have been advised, Mr. Sheridan, that this is your debut as Chairman of proceedings in Westminster Hall. As a fellow member of the Chairmen’s Panel, I know that I speak for everyone in wishing you well in the post.

I am honoured to be a trustee of the Industry and Parliament Trust. As such, I was fortunate enough to lead a delegation to India. It was a two-centred visit—to Mumbai and Chennai. I shall go into detail about that presently, but I take this opportunity to thank everyone in the trust for the magnificent work that they do in these increasingly turbulent times for Members of Parliament, bringing them up to speed on a number of crucial issues.

I remind the House that the IPT is a registered charity. It was set up to foster understanding between those who create and maintain the industrial wealth of our country—including legislators, who unfortunately might be seen in many quarters as the sales prevention team. I would robustly resist that charge, but some believe that Members of Parliament do not live in the real world and that they have no understanding of what it is like to run a business.

More than 600 parliamentarians have participated in IPT fellowship programmes since the organisation was founded in 1977. I became an advocate of the organisation in the days when I was MP for Basildon; I was given the chance by the Esso organisation, and it was a wonderful opportunity. I am now doing a postgraduate course with Bank America.

The trip to India was the result of recent research undertaken by the IPT with business leaders in the UK, which found that they wished MPs to be more informed about various key issues. More than 66 per cent. of respondents stated that the emerging economies were a priority. The research also revealed that many parliamentarians were thought to lack sufficient understanding of the challenges and opportunities presented by new and developing economies. It is not for me to say how American legislators should pursue matters, but having recently been to China and India, I would say that more American parliamentarians could and should take the opportunity of visiting those two countries and learning at first hand how they are developing.

It was as a direct consequence of the findings of the report that a successful fellowship programme was run to China last year, in particular to Shanghai. I and a number of hon. Members were on that trip, and it was extremely valuable in every sense.

The objective of the IPT India fellowship was to educate parliamentarians on how United Kingdom businesses operate in emerging economies, and to show that Westminster could do more to help. I am pleased to
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tell the House that the visit provided us with the opportunity to experience India from a strictly business perspective, and to share our experiences and impressions of the challenges and opportunities faced by UK companies operating in Chennai and Mumbai. Today’s debate has attracted huge interest in various quarters.

I thank the excellent House of Commons Library. Members of Parliament have every cause to be grateful to the Library for its expertise. It has provided us with a magnificent pack on India, which covers every aspect of life there. I shall certainly shall use it as a bible on the subject.

Lionel Altman, who ran my Westminster office from 1984, died earlier this year. He was a serving member of the City of London council at the time, and I am delighted to have been contacted by the lord mayor of London and the corporation’s chairman of policy and resources, Stuart Fraser, who are interested in this debate. Indeed, the City of London will shortly be sending people to India to see what further business opportunities there may be there. I congratulate them on that.

The group that visited India included 10 parliamentarians. There is criticism that the House of Commons and the House of Lords do not always work in tandem, but that certainly was not the case for us. We were blessed in every sense that Baroness Coussins and Lord Janvrin were there. Those two individuals brought with them a wealth of talent and experience. As a result, our meetings developed in a way that would not have been possible had it been only Members of Parliament; we would then not have been able to engage in the challenging exchanges that we did.

Of the eight Members of Parliament involved, most are not able to be here this morning. They include the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs. Moon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell). The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) is here, but he has to operate in a Trappist mode this morning, acting as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister. I will certainly touch on the work of the British Council. My eight colleagues, all very different personalities, were a joy to be with, not only for the quality of the questions they put to our hosts but in the way the group gelled together. The IPT is an example of both Houses working together at their best, especially in providing all sorts of opportunities for UK plc.

We saw the demise of the British Raj in 1947, a long time ago. India has a population of 1.3 billion, and it is the world’s largest democracy. Poverty is widespread, with 62 per cent. of the population living in slums. Three of the world’s 20 mega-cities are in India. India’s is a fast growing economy, with a large, skilled work force and a burgeoning urban middle class. As well as Hindi and English, India has 16 other official languages; sadly, none of them has been mastered by the Member of Parliament for Southend, West. Gross national income per capita is only $950, which highlights the comparatively low-wage economy that makes India so competitive. India is a young country, with 70 per cent. of the population being 27 and under. By 2050, India will be the second largest economy in the world.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the special relationship between this country and India. Does he agree that the
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best way in which we can help India is to trade with it? Is he aware that the director-general of the World Trade Organisation said that protectionism in the EU—I do not want to be characterised as a serial EU-basher—is a major problem for our trade with countries such as India? World trade could collapse by 9 per cent. this year. What can we do to ensure that we shift the EU’s trade policy away from protectionism?

Mr. Amess: I agree absolutely. In fact, shortly I shall enlarge on how we can create better opportunities for trading our goods and services. I shall talk about the British embassy consuls and the British Council. The delegation saw how Indian business women and men are very keen to do business with us; relations, in every sense, could not be better. I probably shall not be tempted to enlarge too much on the EU, but, given his responsibilities, perhaps the Minister will come up with some solutions on trade barriers when he winds up the debate.

The United Kingdom has a long-established and special relationship with India on which we should build. In our time-honoured British tradition, we introduced to India our own language, the art of bureaucracy, parliamentary democracy and cricket—just one of the sports that we invented and at which others occasionally beat us, although our recent performance against the West Indies was splendid. Parliament can greatly assist UK business in further maximising opportunities through forging strong and mutually beneficial relationships.

The fellowship, which met in March, organised some superb seminars bringing together experts able to give parliamentarians an insight into the journey that India has been on, where it is now and where it is likely to go in the future. It proved useful to have those seminars before the trip. Furthermore, I speak for everyone in thanking most warmly Virgin Airlines, which not only took care of our travel, but looked after us throughout our stay. The visit raised our awareness of what more British businesses can, and should, do in India, and how we parliamentarians can assist them. We were briefed by the deputy high commissioner and UK Trade & Investment in Mumbai and Chennai on their work in encouraging UK business to enter the Indian marketplace. In the lobby afterwards, I had a brief word with the Indian Foreign Secretary, and mentioned to him that we had had a very positive trip, because it coincided with some of the commissioners being over. I wanted to pass on our thanks via the Foreign Secretary.

We also gained a great understanding of how Parliament can better highlight India’s prospects in encouraging investment in Britain. I wish to make a serious point to the Minister that we picked up during our trip about the visa application process with which Indian business executives must contend in order to visit Britain. Various people said that there is a lack of business experience among the Foreign and Commonwealth Office people working on the UKTI desk at the Mumbai high commission. I hope that he will reflect on that point. UKTI and the UK India Business Council have important roles to play, and all their activities need to be closely co-ordinated.

The hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey provided us with tremendous assistance, and throughout our trip we were delighted with the work of the British
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Council. It was an education for me. Parliamentarians should be encouraged to take much more advantage of the opportunities that the British Council can provide in business, social activity, leisure and all sorts of other areas. I, for one, was very impressed with the networking skills of the British Council. We do not use it to its full potential.

Our visit could not have been better timed, given the recent comment and media coverage in the wake of the film, “Slumdog Millionaire” and its triumph at the Oscars. None of us realised that India was not especially proud of the portrayal of the Mumbai slums. Much more importantly, however, our trip also followed in the wake of the atrocities of the bombing and armed occupation of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel.

Our comprehensive educational visit involved spending time in a number of locations, attending presentations and visiting industrial sites to gain an insight into various sectors at a grass-roots level. We saw first hand how India has developed its own markets in education, manufacturing, high technology, defence, construction and pharmaceuticals. An additional emphasis was placed on the cultural and creative industries through a visit to Bollywood—this will put colleagues’ noses out of joint, but I was the only hon. Member signed by Bollywood.

Mr. Virendra Sharma (Ealing, Southall) (Lab): I have been tempted to my feet by the hon. Gentleman’s comments that he was the only one to get a response from Bollywood. What role will it offer him? Furthermore, what role will he play in encouraging more exchanges between businesses and educationalists in Britain and India? That is very important for building confidence. Not only are British companies going over to India, but Indian companies, such as Tata and others, are coming over here; mutual business exchanges are already taking place. I hope that that will continue.

Mr. Amess: I agree absolutely with the hon. Gentleman. On a serious note about Bollywood, however, it is a very successful industry that presents all sorts of opportunities.

Our trip was in no sense a junket, and already action has resulted. Not only are we having this debate, but Baroness Coussins and Lord Janvrin have produced a wonderful report identifying a number of things to do to build on and develop business opportunities and cultural and educational links—I shall come to those shortly. Being accompanied by Members of the House of Lords was a blessing. Members of Parliament tend to come back from such trips full of good intentions, but we are busy people who have to respond to the daily news and so on. We felt that Members of the House of Lords would be less distracted, which has already proved to be the case. Thanks to Baroness Coussins and Lord Janvrin, we will make absolutely sure that the India fellowship, organised by the IPT, and our trip, have a positive outcome.

Throughout the trip, we were indebted to Sally Muggeridge and Sarah Hutchison for their support in, among other things, organising with businesses a wonderful programme of events. They would be the first to say, however, that the trip would not have been such a success without the wonderful team of other IPT employees. I am also indebted to the support of the chairman of the IPT, the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner) and the deputy of the IPT board of trustees. Highlights
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of our trip to Mumbai included a visit to the Bombay stock exchange, where we were given an excellent insight into Indian capital markets. We get star-struck by Wall street, so we were allowed to sound the gong to open trading, even though no one was actually listening.

That was complemented by a visit to HSBC and KPMG in which we discussed business opportunities in India and those companies’ impressive approaches to corporate responsibility and social enterprise. Cadbury showed us its activities in India and told us that chocolate is a great luxury in India. On average, a child consumes just one bar of chocolate a year. Hindustan Unilever outlined its distribution to rural areas and told us how its products encourage economic activity among the very poorest. Tata provided us with the opportunity to learn about the launch of the world’s cheapest car, the environmentally efficient Nano car, which is initially aimed at the Indian market.

The Indian economy is enjoying growth of 7 per cent.—albeit from a low base—with unit labour costs much lower than those in most other countries. Through its factory in southern India, the manufacturer Supreme is responsible for producing many of the recycled bags that we see in Boots and a number of other supermarkets and shops on the high street. It provides vital skills and employment opportunities for young women and men, who are often the only wage earner in a family.

A visit was made to a recently established business park to see the new and very high-tech engineering plant of the United Kingdom manufacturer, GKN. We were delighted when our hosts asked us to unveil plaques on trees, and I am told that those trees are still thriving. No visit to Mumbai by parliamentarians would be complete without visiting the high sheriff, who will shortly visit us in Parliament, which shows the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Sharma) that things are happening and are being followed up. The high sheriff of Mumbai chairs a leading engineering institution in which one third of the graduates are women. Finally, we explored the burgeoning film industry at Yash Raj Bollywood studios, which was, in every sense, wonderful.

Chennai—or Madras as it was known to the British—on the east coast of India provided us with a contrast and yet another opportunity to see many successful business ventures. While I was out there I visited a school, which, I am delighted to tell the Chamber, will be twinned with Belfairs school in Southend, West. I have to say though that, thanks to the British Council, I was already pushing at an open door.

The highly respected Indian Institute of Technology showed us its leading edge research projects in biotechnology and told us that a high volume of its graduates are employed in blue chip companies every year. BAE Systems has enjoyed successful business activities in India for many years, and, at a reception jointly hosted by the deputy high commissioner, Mike Connor, it provided us with a presentation of its current initiatives.

Sally Muggeridge and the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey visited the Madras cricket club. They stood on the pitch at 8.30 am in 30 degrees of heat. I am informed that, sadly, no one saw a live elephant. Returning to Mumbai, we enjoyed a dinner and presentation given by Shell, which took place at the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower hotel in the very room in which guests had sheltered from terrorists during the siege of the hotel a few months earlier. Shell was an early entrant to the
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Indian market, starting with oil lubricants and building up a sizeable joint venture that now provides leading research into emissions management and climate change controls, which is vital in a country the size and scale of India.

We finished our visit at the Colonial Bombay yacht club with a briefing by Bombay First, which is modelled on our own London First. Standing by the gateway to India, it left us with a fitting memory of how India used to be in colonial times.

In conclusion, I had three aims when I applied for this debate. I wanted my colleagues to give their opinions of the value of the trip and say how, in the months and years head, we intend to follow up on the relationships that we formed during the visit. Secondly, in a humble and inarticulate fashion, I wanted to raise the awareness of what more British business can do in India and, thirdly, to set out how the House can help to build on the expertise. Even in such difficult times, with the state of the British and the world economy, more can be done. Does the Minister think that sufficient assistance is being given to encourage India to invest more in British business?

It was, in every sense, an honour and privilege to have been part of the delegation. We had some fun. Some of us occasionally wandered into the markets in different streets in India, and it is true to say that one or two of us bumped into tailors, and visited silk factories and the like. None the less, throughout the visit, we engaged in hard and constructive relationship-building work. We even managed to cope with the wonderful travails of our bus driver. The members of the delegation owe a huge debt of gratitude to all the businesses that supported us and made the trip possible and, above all, to the staff of the IPT who enabled us to follow such a magnificent educational programme.

9.57 am

Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab): I apologise to the Chamber because I am still suffering from what my wife describes as man flu. [Interruption.] My wife has assured me that it is not swine flu. However, she also said that I was a swine with flu.

It is a real pleasure to be involved in this debate and to welcome you, Mr. Sheridan, on your first outing as Chair of a Westminster Hall debate. It is important that life experience and qualifications are taken into account in the chairing of such debates, so my welcome to you is sincerely meant.

First, let me apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), who hoped to be here this morning but has been detained on other business. Later on, I will say something about him and his activities in relation to India, but now I shall try to follow the detailed contribution from the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess), who was leader of the delegation.

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