My Lords, I join my fellow Peers in welcoming my noble friend the Minister to his new position and in congratulating him on a most accomplished maiden speech. He has made an auspicious start. I had the pleasure of meeting him recently and his positivity and keenness to engage really impressed me. I have no doubt that he will perform superbly in this new role and I very much look forward to working with him.
One of the great considerations for trade and investment currently is our relationship with the European Union and our potentially key and central role as part of the EU in negotiating the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or free trade agreement, with the United States. While this, along with our trade and investment relationship with India and China, is a priority—and rightly so—there are other opportunities that we cannot ignore or overlook. There is great scope for British companies in a number of emerging markets, and I would like to comment on one that I believe is in danger of being overlooked, particularly by our business community.
Last month, I visited Islamabad and Lahore in my capacity as the chairman of the Pakistan Britain Trade and Investment Forum and as the Prime Minister’s UK-Pakistan Trade Champion. Those who know me will be aware that I have been championing the cause of UK/Pakistan bilateral trade and investment for many years, well before being given the honour of the official title in April 2014.
In the past I have argued that, while the annual UKTI budget to facilitate trade with China and India has been substantial, the figure for Pakistan has been a dismal zero, or a nominal amount in support of a conference. Although I am keenly aware that issues such as security have been an impediment to this potential trade, the arguments for engaging with this market are many: a significant population of 185 million—of predominately young people—vast natural resources, a growing middle class, the relative ease of doing business and English as the language of business, to name a few.
Recent developments mean that we can no longer ignore this market. I cannot say this emphatically enough: we, the United Kingdom, cannot afford to ignore this market. The most significant of these recent developments is the visit by the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, to Islamabad in April this year and his commitment to provide $46 billion towards building an economic corridor through the length of Pakistan. That is the biggest overseas investment announced by China to date. It will link Kashgar in China’s western region of Xinjiang, down through the lush, agricultural expanses and bustling cities and towns of all four provinces of Pakistan, to the new deep sea port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea. This economic corridor—a network of roads, railway and pipelines to transport oil and gas—enables China to develop a cheaper and shorter route to trade and investment with the Middle East, Africa and Europe. According to analysts, it will place Pakistan at the heart of four out of the five fastest trade flows in the world.
When I met the Petroleum Minister Shahid Abbasi in Islamabad, he could not say more clearly that Pakistan wants, above all, UK companies to come and operate in the country because of the trust and admiration for British expertise and the historic ties and special relationship with Britain. The same sentiments were expressed by the various ministers at the Office of the Chief Minister of Punjab in Lahore. The general view held by the business community at the Lahore chamber of commerce was that the Chinese investment or loan is greatly appreciated and welcome but it allows China to bring in its equipment, its companies and its labour to build this economic corridor and then to leave. The alternative of UK companies, through the many contracts, would mean the delivery not just of excellent projects and products but of expertise and knowledge and the legacy of a highly trained workforce.
Incidentally, the chief executive of the UK company with me on that visit, Lagan Construction, which built the runways at the new Islamabad International Airport, had this to say: “We have worked in over 30 countries around the world and the workforce in Pakistan is second to none. The workers are conscientious, they pick up skills very quickly and they work extremely hard”. I saw for myself the scale and quality of what Lagan had delivered, and it was truly impressive. The excellent workforce available should be another incentive for UK companies to operate in Pakistan. Of course, the UK companies that are already operating there—there are over 100 companies, some of which have been there for many years—benefit from huge profits. That includes companies such as GlaxoSmithKline, which has a 28% share of the market, Standard Chartered, Unilever, Reckitt Benckiser and the Ashmore Group plc, not to mention the many retailers, such as Debenhams and Mothercare.
Business opportunities will only accelerate over the next decade but it is important that we take this market seriously now. The British Chambers of Commerce and their overseas business networks initiative—a partnership between UKTI, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the British Chambers of Commerce—has a crucial role to play in increasing the number of UK exporters of goods and services.
The energy requirements of Pakistan are severe, and the UK has much to offer in that regard. We have expertise in solar, biomass, hydro and wind. Scotland particularly has much to offer. In the oil and gas sector, Aberdeen is full of excellent companies that currently need export markets, and Pakistan has yet untapped, but certain, oil and gas deposits. Pakistan’s Petroleum Minister expressed his interest in visiting Aberdeen to personally invite companies to come and explore the opportunities open to them. The potential is there, not just in energy but in infrastructure, agriculture and dairy.
From a poverty alleviation point of view, we should consider how some of the money that is channelled through DfID could be channelled as technical assistance or as seed or anchor funding towards some of these energy projects. It would bring benefit to the deprived communities in Pakistan through economic development and bring a commercial return to the UK in helping to boost our exports and our trade and investment figures. I request that the Minister consider this suggestion and prioritise this particular emerging market economy.