Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee – (Non-Afl) (Maiden Speech) House of Lords
- the importance of India as a market to do business with and seek investment from
- not just the economic ties but the many cultural and educational ties that exist
- the largest group of overseas students at my alma mater, Queen’s University Belfast, is from south Asia
- great passion for developing stronger ties between his original homeland, India, and Northern Ireland
- Many Indian-based companies have invested in Northern Ireland over the years
- Northern Ireland companies are doing a lot of business in India.
- Baroness Foster looks forward to progress on the UK-India free trade agreement.
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.