By Amit Roy
ASIAN peer Lord Karan Bilimoria has spoken for the first time of “the two three things I want to do” when he takes over as president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI).
The CBI, which has 190,000 members who employ a total of seven million people, is considered the voice of British business.
Bilimoria, who was elected the CBI vice-president earlier this year, will take over as president in June next year for a two-year term.
The crossbench peer, the founder of Cobra Beer and also chancellor of Birmingham University, will be the first Indian – indeed, the first ethnic minority person – to hold this very influential post.
At the annual conference in London on Monday (18), the key speakers were the leaders of the Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem parties, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson, respectively, who all outlined their business plans after the December 12 election.
Speaking on the sidelines of the event, Bilimoria set out his priorities. “What is really important is that whoever wins (the election), India stays as a priority,” he said.
“I have always said that if there is a special relationship that the UK has, it is with two countries – one, of course, is the United States of America; the other with India.”
Referring to the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), he said: “The CII is our sister organisation in India and we have such a close relationship with them to the extent the CII office in the UK is based within the CBI offices.”
“I tend to work very closely with them to really promote the links between the UK and India and help to turbocharge that relationship, which I think has fallen behind since 2016. And I think there is a great opportunity to bring it back to what it was and take it much further.”
In his opinion, former prime ministers Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron had all worked to strengthen relations with India, but this had not been the case with Theresa May.
Karan Bilimoria with CBI India team (India head Shehla Hasan on left).
Bilimoria was heartened that Johnson’s government had “brought back the two-year postgraduation work visa, which is something I personally fought very hard to institute in 2007- 2008. But it was taken away by Theresa May when she was home secretary in 2012.”
He also believed the “hostile environment” towards migrants, encouraged under May, had now gone, along with the previous Tory target of under 100,000 for net immigration. However, he opposed the £30,000 minimum salary that new would-be migrants were required to earn – “that’s got to go”.
“You’ve got to be able to bring in the skills that the economy needs at any one time,” he reasoned. “And that’s got to be the migration policy.”
As president, he would work to make the CBI the voice of not just big business but of all business, and “promote it more within the SME and entrepreneurial community”.
“The next thing is to promote creativity and innovation which goes hand-in-hand with entrepreneurship and the global aspect, being of Indian origin, building on the links with India as well.
“The really important message I think from this conference is that business has got to be at the heart of everything.”
On Kashmir, where Labour’s policy has caused fury among Indians, his view was clear: “It’s India’s business. It’s a democratically elected government in India and they have made the decisions they have made and it is not for us to interfere at all.”
The conference heard of the prime minister’s resolve to “get Brexit done”. He also quashed rumours he was considering replacing the chancellor Sajid Javid with Rishi Sunak, the chief secretary to the treasury.
In response to a question from a journalist, Johnson said: “I’m going to give you an absolutely categorical assurance I will keep Sajid Javid as my chancellor. I think he’s a great guy and I think he is doing a fantastic job.”
Incidentally, Johnson began by remarking that he had given planning permission as mayor to the hotel where the CBI conference was being held – the Intercontinental London The O2 in Greenwich. The CBI’s director general Dame Carolyn Fairbairn hailed it as “the best conference venue in the UK – some say in Europe”.
The hotel’s owner, Surinder Arora, confirmed that Johnson “was mayor when we got the planning permission. And he also came here during construction. So he took a personal interest. We are delighted to welcome the CBI for the third year running. We have got over 1,000 delegates. We can take up to 3,000.”
Corbyn was given a polite hearing as he outlined Labour plans to nationalise a number of industries, including BT’s broadband services, and also increase taxes for the highest earners.
Swinson was warmly applauded as she said her plan was to cancel Brexit. She also said the Lib Dems would never help Corbyn get into 10, Downing Street.
Other speakers at the conference included Ivan Menezes, CEO of Diageo.
Delegates included Lord Jitesh Gadhia, who analysed the issues facing 800 companies from India which had invested in the UK. He said they were “looking for a pragmatic approach”.
Lord Gadhia added: “The reason they set up in the first place in the UK was to get access to both to the UK and to Europe. Providing there is a trade arrangement between the UK and EU that doesn’t have lots of barriers that will be a good outcome for them.”
A delegate who had flown in from Delhi was the CBI’s country head for India, Shehla Hasan. She revealed that a recent CBI report had identified “seven challenges which British companies face across all sectors – there are certain trends which are the biggest market access barriers to India”.
The report had been compiled by the CBI after it had consulted 80 British companies that do business in India. She said: “The government of India is receptive; it wants to know where the shoe pinches.”
“India has improved a further 14 places in the ease of doing business ranking of the World Bank and it is now in the 63rd position,” Hasan said. “It still has quite some way to go.”
She said: “One silver lining is the reinstatement of the poststudy work visa that was done a couple of months back – that has really made India very positive towards the UK. Now the number of students going to the UK will start increasing.
“Earlier the UK was losing out to Australia, Canada, US, New Zealand. That is very heartening for Indians. But what the Indians want on visas is parity with the Chinese.”