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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:02 pm on 16th October 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 6:02 pm, 16th October 2019

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness will always remain in the sun, as far as this House is concerned.

International development is not listed in the title of this debate, but we have had some powerful speeches and it has of course cropped up from time to time. Our new Secretary of State led on it yesterday and our own noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, joined in. The Library briefing also made up for it. Incidentally, all cited the last Government’s record on girls’ education and climate change. When the noble Lord mentioned,

“our brave men and women”,—[Official Report, 15/10/19; col. 35.] engaged in dangerous areas of the world, I know he was including the army of humanitarian workers in the NGO sector as well.

Like most of the Opposition, my noble friend Lord Butler and a string of splendid Tory rebels, including the noble Lords, Lord Jopling and Lord Cormack, I was all prepared to support a plan which set out a new relationship with the EU. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, was clear and right to remind us of the blurred distinction between the withdrawal agreement and the plan, which we have not seen. Where is it? At the last moment, the Prime Minister keeps putting on new emperor’s clothes to convince us that he has a plan, but we are still waiting. So how can we really comment today?

Some members of this Government are behaving like Little Englanders and not as part of a Government who regard the European Union as an equal partner to trade with in the future. Whether it is deliberate or not, they show an almost casual disregard for our combined history, mainly through two world wars but which goes back many centuries.

The empty chair issue is outrageous and does not recognise that, whatever the result, we still need to be present at the most critical EU meetings—the Foreign Affairs Council was mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr. It is a blinkered attitude and it is damaging to relationships that have been carefully built up over decades. My noble friend Lord Kinnoull has already made at least one strong complaint from the EU Committee, which he made again today. It is an attitude of mind in the present Cabinet that has to change and I do not see how our present Minister can answer it.

Today, however, I wish to talk about another third country and one of our most important allies over centuries. I was back in Delhi, in India, last month, and met a senior general serving with the UN. I asked him, rather angrily, why there was so little in the Indian press about Brexit. “You know”, he said calmly, “Brexit is not really of much interest here. Our young people have moved on from the UK. They are looking to America”. What a put-down. I felt humiliated but I knew he was right. Post-colonial India is not interested in our problems, unless we show that we are genuinely ready to rebuild that complicated relationship. My noble friend Lord Bilimoria keeps reminding us of this. The noble Lord, Lord Desai, said that countries such as India are not panting to get to know us. Lutyens’ Delhi is no longer fit for purpose and I hear that the parliament itself, the Lok Sabha, is out of date and, like this building, needs a complete refit. But will we be there? Are we still in contention for new architecture and other deals in India? We should be, because our image in India needs a lot of improvement and we have made technical advances that can be shared, especially with the younger generation.

During Brexit, we deserve to be ignored by young Indians, just as we have alienated young Britons. What are we doing for those young Indians and Nepalis who would like to learn more about the UK? Are visa and immigration rules now really more favourable to them? Here, I declare a voluntary interest in the British College in Kathmandu, which has direct links with two UK universities so that students can obtain British degrees without leaving Nepal—they still cannot afford to come to the UK.

I was encouraged to read the Foreign Affairs Committee report published earlier this summer, Building Bridges: Reawakening UK-India Ties. It castigated the Government—I hope that the Minister has read it—for not developing stronger trade relations with India, including the promised but elusive FTA, and for restricting Indian students through crude immigration controls, while encouraging the Chinese. The Government’s response came back fairly vigorously in August, protesting that things were changing in both these areas. There is no doubt that the immigration message is getting across at last, and that some of the bad mistakes of the Cameron Government are being put right. However, as the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, mentioned, a country such as Belgium has more trade with us than India. India has somehow been downplayed by this Government, and not just in the universities. Will the Government make more effort to regenerate our relationship through more cultural exchanges and more dynamic forms of trade and aid?

When I first went to India in the 1960s, Noel Coward plays were still being offered and PG Wodehouse was on the curriculum—I would not be surprised if they were still there. Today, we and they have much more to offer and celebrate: archaeology, modern literature, museum collections, theatre and film. The Indian diaspora often takes a lead in this.

What about China? With Trump’s trade war with Beijing, the trouble in Hong Kong and other unsatisfied security and human rights concerns, there is a continual risk of rupture with China. Surely, therefore, it makes sense to rebuild our relations with that other Asian giant, which, while it may not have the economic muscle now, is one of the fastest-growing economies and must be destined to grow exponentially.

We know that Mr Modi is going to encourage the private sector and we should build on that. There will be human rights concerns about India too—notably the position of Muslims and other minorities, which we do mention in this House—but our shared democratic ideals will give us the strength to overcome those issues, if only we can get our act together.

I am pleased that some aid money—in line with the 0.7% target that we are very glad the Government are keeping to—is going to India’s infrastructure and communications. Without these, the very poorest and most isolated communities will suffer. The noble Viscount, Lord Eccles, was in his seat just now. The Commonwealth Development Corporation, which he once led, is a useful bridge in this context, since it receives a huge proportion of the aid budget. It will, however, have to demonstrate that it can directly reach the poorest, and it knows that the Select Committees and the independent watchdog, ICAI, will be on its back if it does not. I hope, however, that the CDC and the Prosperity Fund programmes will not deter DfID from continuing to support non-governmental and faith programmes, which can demonstrate outreach to the very poorest. I have visited many of these programmes in the past and am concerned that the present climate among UK NGOs and their counterparts is unsteady, which means that some joint programmes may be at risk or unsustainable.

I compliment the Government on one particular scheme. The FCO—not DfID—is backing an extensive gender equality programme involving major textile companies in India. It is run by an Indian charity, Change Alliance, with backing from a UK NGO that has long experience of human rights and anti-slavery work in India. I am impressed that it is the FCO, and not DfID for once, behind this programme, because it has enormous potential and can be multiplied many times. Those are examples of good news.

Incidentally, this is in keeping with business practice in both countries. We should remember that in large Indian companies such as Tata and Shriram, philanthropy goes hand in hand with economic incentives. This surely provides an opportunity for UK companies that have similar moral, as well as financial, objectives.

Finally, the Foreign Affairs Committee also mentions India’s bid for permanent membership of the Security Council, which was strongly supported by the US and the UK when Barack Obama was President. What is the UK’s position now that both President and Prime Minister have changed and Kashmir has resurfaced as an issue in the Security Council? Do the Government still support the applications of India and all the so-called BRIC countries?