Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen, thank you. It’s a real honour to be here.
And it really is a room to inspire the next generation of British entrepreneurs and professionals. Every one of you has an incredible story to tell.
You are leaders in your chosen fields, running some of the UK’s most successful companies - trading across Asia and the rest of the world.
British Asian entrepreneurs
Despite the tough economic conditions, your companies have continued to grow, invest and create jobs for the future. There are an estimated 300,000 ethnic-minority led SMEs in the UK, contributing around £30 billion to the UK economy every year.
You are wealth creators in every sense of the word. I know it hasn’t always been easy. Along the way, many of you will have experienced setbacks and discrimination. But you’ve never let those challenges – no matter how difficult – stop you driving innovation or seizing opportunities across every sector of our economy.
So it was no surprise to see Britain’s Asian community so strongly represented in Management Today’s list of Britain’s Top 100 Entrepreneurs.
In the Liberal Democrats, we see your ambition, hard work and enterprise as the rocket fuel Britain’s economy needs to thrive.
You typify the strong entrepreneurial spirit which can be found right across Britain’s Asian community, and one of the biggest reasons why we joined the coalition was to give you the stability you needed to get Britain’s economy back on course.
Britain - an open economy
We will continue to fight day in, day out to ensure Britain remains the modern, diverse outward facing trading nation it’s always been - doing business with our European neighbours and the rest of the world.
I’ve been clear about my concerns regarding the way in which the debates over immigration and Europe in this country are moving. There are critical issues to address on both. Europe needs reform. People need an immigration system they can have confidence in.
But, as I said at the CBI (Confederation of British Industry) yesterday, more than ever, responsible politicians and businesses need to defend Britain’s status as an open economy. This remains one of our quickest and surest routes to success in the years ahead.
Trade with South Asia
Our growing trade with countries like India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal is a prime example.
British business already has a great story to tell in South Asia.
The UK is a leading investor in these countries, with a diverse range of well-known British names such as Marks and Spencer, Unilever, Airbus, Diageo, GlaxoSmithKline, Reckitt, HSBC, Next, Cairn Energy and others securing their share of these growing markets. But, as I saw for myself in India, there is so much more we could be doing.
According to the World Bank’s latest estimates South Asia’s economy is set to grow by over 6% this year and next – making this the second fastest growing region in the world after the East Asia and the Pacific region.
A huge amount of this momentum is being driven by what the World Bank call the Modi dividend. Prime Minister Modi has made boosting investment, jobs and growth a priority for his government and, when I met with him in the summer, we discussed the critical role Britain could play in helping India realise its ambitions.
As the world’s leading financial centre, the UK can offer access to the capital and investment India needs to modernise its infrastructure, as well as the expertise, experience and world-class universities to equip its population with skills for the future. And India makes up the bulk - almost £17 billion - of the UK’s £22.3 billion of trade with South Asia.
But that should in no way detract from the huge opportunities on offer in other key South Asian markets. Pakistan is a case in point. This is a developing market with a young population of around 186 million. It also has an emerging middle class which recognises and trusts British products and brands because of the enduring links between our two countries, and we’ve set a target to grow our trade to £3 billion by 2015.
It’s a similar story in Sri Lanka where, 5 years since the end of the war, this economy is one of the fastest growing in the region. Not only are there massive opportunities here for us to boost our exports across all sectors, but also build on the UK’s strategic advantage as Sri Lanka’s go-to partner in Higher Education and technology.
The same goes for other countries like Nepal and Bangladesh, who are looking to strengthen their competitiveness in the years ahead. For many, improving infrastructure is a top priority – with major inv[estments being made across the region in transport, energy and communications.
There’s also a strong focus on skills training, as well as increasing access to better healthcare, particularly in more remote regions. In Britain, we have the knowledge and business capabilities – a lot of it represented here tonight – to help meet these challenges.
This isn’t just about the usual global names going out there to become even bigger.
There is a genuine gap here for British SMEs in every sector and UK region to get involved and seal their own deals. UK Trade and Investment stands ready to offer whatever support companies may need, with on-the-ground operations in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.
We’ve also put together an ambitious package of export-finance support. This includes an increased focus on smaller exporters, as well as doubling the size of our Direct Lending Scheme to £3 billion. We’ve also extended a new £1 billion line of credit for businesses looking to invest in Indian infrastructure projects.
We just need more people to follow your lead in taking that leap. This is where we need your help. Your connections to South Asia whether through family, work or education are some of our greatest assets.
Dadabhai Naoroji Awards
That’s why I was so proud to launch the first-ever Dadabhai Naoroji Awards this year. These Awards are designed to both honour Naoroji’s legacy - as an Asian hero, proud Liberal and Britain’s first Asian MP and businessman - and celebrate individuals who have contributed to reinforcing our country’s links with India today.
I hope to see more of your names amongst the nominees and winners next year.
These links create a closeness and strength which cannot be manufactured, and can help more UK businesses unlock the opportunities emerging within South Asia. For example, over 1.2 million British citizens have family connections with Pakistan, while the UK is home to the second largest Indian Diaspora community in the world.
So I’d ask you and organisations like the ABA to continue to work with us, sharing your expertise with other British companies.
Your experiences can help us inspire more businesses to grow their businesses abroad, enabling Britain to secure the stronger economy and fairer society we need for the future.
In conclusion, please keep up your incredible work. The support is here, the expertise is here and we are committed to backing you all the way: creating new jobs, boosting trade and driving growth in the UK and across South Asia for decades to come.