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10.31 am

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Sheridan, particularly as it is your debut outing in the role. I am sure that it will be the first of many. I congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on not only leading the delegation, but securing the debate and introducing it so comprehensively. However, one and a half hours is a short time to discuss something as huge as India—the world’s largest democracy—and I am sure that we could easily have filled three hours, if not more.

I thank all of those who created the opportunity for parliamentarians to visit India and see first hand the experience of British businesses in India and those Indian businesses that are having such an impact on the UK economy. The Industry and Parliament Trust provides a vital link between business and Parliament. It was a fascinating and useful trip that greatly added to my understanding of both business and India.

As mentioned by the hon. Member for Eccles (Ian Stewart), I speak on foreign affairs for the Liberal Democrats and, indeed, this was my first experience of India. I was particularly keen to experience that country to widen my understanding of the foreign affairs role. A little bit of me fell in love with India. I have visited various countries and although India is often compared to China—both countries are talked of in terms of competition and in discussions about growth—I, frankly, found India much more inspiring. Many of the reasons behind that relate to the fact that India is the world’s largest democracy. The biggest difference between experiencing China and experiencing India is the freedom that individuals have. Both countries have huge problems, but the ability of ordinary Indians to be entrepreneurial and dynamic comes across from when one lands at the airport to when one walks down the street. Indeed, that also came across in all the meetings that we held.

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In terms of an overall impression, India has obviously grown rapidly—by about 8 or 9 per cent. each year since 2003, although that is slightly dipping now. Wherever one goes in India, it is apparent that it is a country of contrasts: between rural isolation and urban sprawl, lavish riches and people who are literally dirt poor, and an economy driven by a vast array of young people, who also have a huge respect for wisdom and old age. It is a dynamic and bustling country and the sheer energy of it nearly knocks one down. There is a sensory overload of colours, noise and smells— particularly in a city such as Mumbai. Most of all, India comes across as a country that is keen to innovate and has entrepreneurial spirit. That is why it is clear that it is not only a key global power now, but that it will only grow in influence in the years to come.

I want to share what I thought was one of the most inspiring visits, which was when we went to see the sheriff of Mumbai, Dr. Indu Shahani, who is a formidable, forceful and friendly woman. She is very positive and embracing, and is indeed, I suspect, a strong role model for other women in the city. By profession, she is a teacher so we met her at a college. With 50 per cent. of the population under 25, education is vital for India’s future development. Dr. Indu Shahani told us about a scholarship scheme that was being set up with the university of Westminster to send four girls to London to study. A delegation of academics from the university were in Mumbai on 26 November to discuss the scheme. They were to meet the shortlist of eight girls from which the final four would be chosen. They were near the Taj hotel at about 10 o’clock at night and they heard shots being fired just as they were leaving their meetings. There was obviously a degree of confusion, but most of the delegation of academics were prevented from going back to the Taj hotel where they were booked in to stay. Instead, they were taken to the homes of members of the Indian staff to spend the night. Sadly, two of the academics had gone on ahead and went back into the hotel just at the wrong moment. One of them was shot, although fortunately they recovered and are now fine.

Obviously, for an Indian college trying to put together a scholarship scheme, it was hugely worrying that such an incident would have a negative impact. However—this speaks wonders about the university of Westminster and made me feel quite proud to be British—the university said that, as a gesture of solidarity, it would extend the scholarship scheme to all eight girls on the shortlist, rather than just offer it to four. Indeed, two of those girls came from the slums. That is an example of the type of work going on between India and the UK, and shows that it is perhaps in the most difficult moments that the friendship between the two countries is strongest.

We were obviously in India to visit various businesses. I was struck by the strong commitment to corporate social responsibility that others have mentioned. That concept seems to be much more ingrained in Indian business than it is in many British businesses. Tata was perhaps most impressive in that respect. Its business has a long history of being part of the community, although it has forthcoming challenges in terms of sustainability and climate change. The launch of the Nano will be followed by the Europa, which will be a similar model with lower emissions launched in Europe.

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It was hugely helpful to have Baroness Coussins with us because she has a strong background in CSR. When we visited Hindustan Unilever Limited, it told us that its motto was, “Doing well by doing good.” HSBC talked to us about its financial inclusion education programmes, environmental sustainability and how it is training women to be entrepreneurs. It used the words “corporate sustainability”, which might find their way into the UK lexicon in relation to this matter. Corporate sustainability is a different approach. It is not an add-on, a public relations strategy or something that will simply look good in a glossy brochure; it is about the entire way that a business operates.

When on a trip, the most striking things are not always found on the programmed activities; they are often found when one gets away from the scheduled meetings. Some colleagues and I went for a wander around one of the slums in Chennai. Frankly, watching “Slumdog Millionaire” does not prepare one for seeing that level of poverty. Walking past the chop shop where they put different bits of cars together, I thought that if it were in Britain health and safety would have a field day with what was left lying around the road, and, of course, there was no running water or sanitation. However, when we walked down the street, children were excited and talked to us—their basic English was quite good. They have so little, but they are almost unaware that they have so little. It is difficult to go through that experience without feeling a huge sense of guilt. That experience was for me very profound.

Similarly, in Mumbai, we saw places that were basically shacks with no sanitation. However, we then walked down the street and saw that a street party was going on. At such parties, there is a tradition of getting paste and coloured dye and throwing it over everyone with hilarity and joyfulness. There is a challenge in seeing such intense poverty, but it is also inspiring to see the positive attitude that goes alongside that. That is one of the things that will stand India in good stead.

Obviously, the UK has a history of close ties with India. Indeed, that came through in a meeting with Cadbury, which is an historic brand in India. It has a 70 per cent. share—most businesses would be chuffed with that—of the chocolate market. I was intrigued to learn that chocolate has to be made to a different formulation in India. A different level of milk fat is required so that chocolate does not melt until it is at 35(o), whereas apparently Cadbury chocolate in the UK melts at 28(o). That is an interesting fact that stuck in my brain.

The relationship between the UK and India has been important and will be important in the future, but we need to guard against complacency and thinking that we will always be close because of our long history. There are increasingly close ties between the United States and India as more and more young Indians go to US universities to study. Indeed, it is often the older Indians who have a strong attachment to the UK.

History is not enough. We need to encourage more Indians to study here, which is why the activities in India of the British Council, which we met, are so important. Coming back to the purpose of our visit, that is also why the activities of British businesses working in India and Indian businesses working in the UK are a wonderful way to integrate the two countries for our mutual benefit in the future.

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10.41 am

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): I, too, congratulate you, Mr. Sheridan, on becoming a member of the Chairmen’s Panel, and also on having your debut in a relatively quiet and civilised debate.

I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on introducing this debate with such panache and on the fact that he obviously was a good leader of the delegation. It is important to emphasise that it was a successful delegation. There is a caricature, certainly among the media, of all parliamentarians as members of what I refer to as the all-party surf and sand group, but it obviously did not apply in this case.

We had a debate in this Chamber about three weeks ago on the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report on overseas territories. There is another classic example of the work of a group having a major impact. In fact, the Government of one of our overseas territories were, in effect, suspended as a direct consequence of it. I congratulate all the members of that Committee.

I shall not reprise the comments made by Members who spoke with such enthusiasm about the visit of the Industry and Parliament Trust to India, about what lessons could be learned, and about their hope that Indian friends would look at their work and what they had done. Instead, I shall make two or three general points and perhaps widen the debate.

It is apt that we are having this debate, because India is in the middle of its national elections. Before the first world war, it was common for elections in the United Kingdom to take place over several days, if not weeks, because of the problems with communications. It was possible for our predecessors to fight and lose a seat in, for example, Manchester, and then move on to fight another seat a week later. That is what happened to the British Conservative Prime Minister Arthur Balfour in 1906.

In India, where polling is staggered over five dates, the election is still going on. There are 828,804 polling centres—imagine the sheer size of the challenge. Returning officers have been murdered and voters have been intimidated, but, nevertheless this largest democracy is successfully carrying out a vast national election, and we should celebrate that. It puts into context some of the little local difficulties that we face in some of our elections.

I want to touch on and perhaps expand briefly the comments made by hon. Members and hon. Friends about British-Indian relations. I take the point that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) made at the end of her contribution. My friend the right hon. Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney) rightly said that we are all children of the Commonwealth now, not children of the British empire, although that lies heavily on my generation. We should reflect on the fact that modern Indian society is global. It looks to the United States of America, to China and to the middle east.

We should not downplay our links with India but we need to take them forward. They are not something to be put in a museum or regarded as a jewel in the crown, if I may use that analogy. We should also recognise the
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fact that 349,193 visas to visit the UK were issued in 2008, which was more than for any other country. The number of contacts between people is enormous.

The UK and India also have a vital and effective partnership in countering terrorism. What happened in Mumbai had an enormous impact on British public opinion, and the Indians are some of the world’s leading fighters against terrorism. We should celebrate our compatibility in economic affairs. Both countries have strong service and knowledge sectors and traditions of democracy, and both uphold the rule of law, which, as all colleagues will recognise, is crucial to business and investment. I was speaking to members of a delegation of visitors from Hong Kong last week who emphasised how important the rule of law is in getting investment in Hong Kong.

I would like to emphasise the fact that India now operates as a global power. It is a member of the G20, the World Trade Organisation, the G-77, and the United Nations Human Rights Council and, of course, it plays a crucial role in the Commonwealth. I see one part of that, in that I am one of the two parliamentary representatives on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We must remember how important that side of India’s history still is to Indian Governments today. I commend the work of the Indian high commissioner and the Indian defence attaché.

Finally, India has a crucial role in helping to resolve major international crises on its borders—not only the ongoing problem with Burma but, of course, the conflict in Sri Lanka. We should recognise that India has provided more than 55,000 military and police personnel to United Nations missions in the past 60 years. In many respects, it has been the unsung hero of the United Nations in resolving some of those issues.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West on securing this debate, and all the hon. Members on that visit to India on their obvious enthusiasm for strengthening British-Indian relations.

10.47 am

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Bill Rammell): It is a pleasure to be here for your first time as Chairman of a Westminster Hall debate, Mr. Sheridan. I assure you that I will refrain totally from any comments about Members of Parliament losing their virginity.

To proceed, I genuinely congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing valuable parliamentary time for the debate, and I am pleased to have the opportunity to respond to the comments and contributions that have been made. What has come across clearly this morning is a real understanding of the commitment and hard work involved in fostering relations. I noted all the comments about the hon. Gentleman’s dignity and leadership skills. I would have expected nothing less from a fellow Essex Member of Parliament. I also take this opportunity to congratulate the IPT on the exceptionally valuable work that it does not only in this area, but in many others.

As many Members have commented, this is an historic moment for India. Tomorrow marks the fifth and final day of voting in its general election. The counting of
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votes in the world’s biggest democracy will begin on Saturday, and the new Government must be constituted by 2 June.

I question the implicit enthusiasm of the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) for elections over five days. I know how exhausted I am knocking up for one day of elections. The thought of five days on the trot beggars belief.

Whatever the outcome of India’s elections, I am confident that its commitment to the liberalisation of its economy will continue, because it genuinely understands that opening up its economy will create a quantum leap in its ability to attract foreign investment, accelerate much-needed infrastructure development and drive forward inclusive sustainable growth, which is critical to its meeting its millennium development goals.

We also look at India in the context of the current economic climate. India is not immune to global downturn; it no longer remains on the sidelines of the crisis. Growth is likely to fall to 4.5 per cent. in 2009, from the 8.5 per cent. average of recent years. As a result, it is estimated that there will be an extra 9 million to 12 million Indians living in poverty in 2009. Although 4.5 per cent. might seem a high figure by our standards, for India to achieve its millennium development goals and lift the 456 million Indians who live on less than $1.25 a day out of poverty, it needs to deliver sustained growth of at least 9 per cent. a year. That is a challenging factor.

Unlike China, India’s population is getting younger, but India will be able to reap that demographic dividend only if it makes substantial investments in its physical and social infrastructure. In that regard, UK companies have a lot to offer and a lot to gain.

Since 1991, as many hon. Members have mentioned, India’s gradual opening up to international trade has fuelled consistently high economic growth that has made a real and substantial impact on people’s lives there. Now India is entering a new phase in moving up the value chain. Whereas the early years of its growth were fuelled by offshoring and low-cost, low-value service provision, the emphasis and focus now—this is the challenge to us that the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) underlined—are on value-added, research and development-rich, manufacturing and services: from groundbreaking new oncology treatments in the pharmaceuticals sector to highly sophisticated knowledge process outsourcing and world-class, innovative production in sectors as diverse as nanotechnology, animation and renewable energy.

I would like to respond to some of the points that have been made. I welcome the comments on our high commission in India, which were made by the hon. Member for Southend, West, who led the delegation, and I will ensure that those congratulations are passed back to it. He commented on the fact that the emerging economies have to be a priority for the Government and for this country, and I agree.

In 2006, UK Trade & Investment launched a five-year plan that refocuses more of our resources on the 17 key emerging markets. In India, 86 UKTI staff are working in nine offices, which is an increase of 18 per cent. over the last couple of years. That is exactly the kind of improvement that we need to make.

The hon. Gentleman also talked about India being a young country and about the demographic dividend, but that represents part of the challenge for India, in
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that it has to upskill and educate that younger generation. He also mentioned the World Trade Organisation overview. The Doha development agenda is important. We need a successful EU-India free trade agreement and a development-friendly conclusion to the DDA, addressing India’s concerns on the special safeguard mechanisms in agriculture. That is at the forefront in respect of those issues.

The hon. Gentleman made an important comment on the role of the British Council. In my former role as Minister of State with responsibility for higher education, I was pleased to have the opportunity to lead the UK-India Education and Research Initiative, which, in a practical way, is bringing together UK universities and their counterparts in India for the benefit of both our countries. The British Council has been fundamental and critical in developing that initiative, and I have seen the impact it has had on the ground.

The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) intervened on the hon. Member for Southend, West to make a point about so-called EU protectionism. The EU is not protectionist, but we are rightly resisting Indian demands for asymmetry when entering negotiations. That is a sticking point at the moment, but the seventh round of negotiations will resume on 13 July in Brussels and I hope that those issues can be overcome.

The hon. Member for Southend, West also mentioned the role of the British Council in twinning schools in this country and in India. I have seen the real advantages of that and I welcome the fact that he has promoted such an initiative in his constituency, because that broadens the minds of young people in this country at an early stage and builds a relationship and contact that is beneficial on both sides.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether enough was being done to get Indian inward investment in this country. That is a priority for UKTI. Some 600 Indian companies have a base in the UK, of which approximately two thirds are in the information and communications technology and software sector, with the next significant knowledge sector being pharmaceuticals. Those companies’ investment is worth some £9 billion. The UK attracts around 50 per cent. of all Indian investment in Europe. We need to fight to maintain that figure and that position.

The success of Indian entrepreneurs in the UK is well known in India. India has entrepreneurial talent and is a priority market for UKTI’s global entrepreneurs programme, which supports links between exceptionally talented entrepreneurs and their counterparts in the UK.

The hon. Gentleman will also be aware that Tata is a much-valued investor in the UK. Its acquisitions of Tetley, Corus and Jaguar Land Rover have helped to secure many jobs in this country. In addition, Tata Consultancy Services is a major employer in Peterborough and elsewhere in the UK, providing more than 4,000 jobs for people locally. We want that kind of relationship to continue.

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