Following is the speech made by the UK Foreign Office Minister for Asia Hugo Swire at the event organised by the Council of British Businesses in Colombo
Deputy Minister Wickramaratne, Council for Business with Britain Chairman Shirendra Lawrence, ladies and gentlemen.
It is an honour to address such a distinguished audience and I thank you for your warm welcome.
I am delighted to be back in Sri Lanka. And I want to take this opportunity to share my thoughts on the exciting prospects for this country and for the political and economic ties between Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom.
What a difference a year makes! Since the election of President Sirisena last January, there has been a distinct and welcome change of atmosphere in the bilateral relationship between our two countries.
I was delighted to be the first overseas minister to visit Sri Lanka following the presidential elections. And our ties have gone from strength to strength – most notably when President Sirisena met the Queen and Prime Minister David Cameron in London in March.
And I think this improvement in relations is largely down to the positive developments we have seen in Sri Lanka over this remarkable year.
For me, perhaps the most significant of these developments were the commitments Sri Lanka made at the Human Rights Council in September. Those commitments to take meaningful steps towards truth and accountability after the long conflict here are key to bringing about lasting reconciliation.
And that is important because it is reconciliation that will, I believe, be the bedrock on which Sri Lanka’s future economic success will be built.
That is why, in recognition of these commitments and following talks between Prime Minister David Cameron and President Sirisena at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Malta in December, we were delighted to announce the provision of £6.6 million pounds of UK government funding to support peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
Incidentally, let me also mention another significant announcement coming out of that meeting - the appointment of a non-Resident UK Defence Adviser. Historically, our bilateral military relations have been very close and I know that the resumption of cooperation and collaboration in this field is very welcome by the armed forces of both our countries.
I will be going to the North tomorrow with the President and Sri Lankan Prime Minister Wickremesinghe to participate in the national Thai Pongal celebrations – celebrations that have even more powerful meaning at this time of new beginnings for Sri Lanka.
And while there, I also look forward to meeting resettled families, members of civil society and religious leaders to hear directly from them about the progress in reconciliation and economic development.
One vital aspect of reconciliation and economic development - and a growing area of cooperation between the UK and Sri Lanka - is tackling corruption. This was, of course, a key election promise of President Sirisena. And answering his request for international assistance, the UK is providing anti-corruption training and anti-bribery expertise to the Sri Lankan authorities.
Why are we doing that? Because the elimination of corruption improves business confidence, not only for the existing business community but it also helps
make Sri Lanka a destination of choice for new foreign direct investment (FDI).
That is good for the UK, as well as for Sri Lanka because building our prosperity through increasing exports and investment, opening markets, ensuring access to resources and promoting sustainable global growth is a key element of the UK government’s long-term economic plan and a cornerstone our foreign policy.
The latest figures released in December show the UK economy continued to grow strongly, with gross domestic product (GDP) in 3Q increasing 2.1 percent on a year ago. The unemployment rate fell to 5.2 percent, the lowest rate in nearly 10 years, while average wages and productivity measured by hour worked continued to grow.
However, both our countries cannot afford to be complacent.
We are only two weeks into the new year and already we’ve had worrying news about stock market falls around the world, the slowdown in China, deep problems in Brazil and in Russia.
Commodity prices have fallen very significantly.
Oil, which was over US $ 120 a barrel in 2012, dipped below US $ 35 earlier this week.
That is good for consumers and business customers both in Britain and Sri Lanka but bad news for the oil and gas industry, worrying for the creditors who have lent to it and a massive problem for the countries that depend on it.
And all of it adds to the volatility and sense of uncertainty in the world.
However, through its actions, the government of Sri Lanka has sent a very clear message to the international community across the world that it is open for business from all corners of the globe. Attracting FDI is I know a top priority for the government as it seeks to strengthen the Sri Lankan economy and put Sri Lanka in a stronger position to deal with the global challenges both our countries face.
And I am pleased to report that the past year has been a very busy one for the High Commission’s Trade and Investment team. With their support, British companies are now competing for around £1 billion of business across a range of sectors. We are hopeful that many will be successful in a transparent and accountable competitive bidding process.
I was also pleased that the Lord Mayor of the City of London visited in May. Many of you may have met him while he was here, promoting the City of London as a hub of global financial excellence and fostering closer links with the Colombo Stock Exchange.
UK-Sri Lanka trade
The UK also continues to be among the top 10 investors in Sri Lanka and I am delighted that around 150 companies in Sri Lanka are with a UK affiliation currently operating here. I hope and expect that that those numbers will continue to rise.
On exports, the UK is Sri Lanka’s third largest market, with exports in 2014 growing a remarkable 36 percent, to well over £1 billion. While British exports to Sri Lanka were only £165 million in the same year, we have made reducing that trade gap a priority and the latest figures show the UK exports to Sri Lanka increased by nearly 50 percent last year.
But while this is all good progress, we are not resting on our laurels. Next week, for example, the High Commission is hosting a ‘Food is GREAT’ event, highlighting the excellence of British food and drink.
And I hope you have secured your tickets for the Marco Pierre White Gala dinner to taste the finest produce from all over the UK.
Sadly I shall not be there but I am sure the High Commissioner will enjoy telling me what I missed.
After that, the team here will be hosting a multi-sectoral trade mission in February to further bolster our bilateral trading links.
I will end there and take some questions in a moment, but to summarise: it is clear from the steps that Sri Lanka’s government has taken so far that it is serious about delivering on the commitments it has made on accountability and reconciliation. Addressing problems from the past will create the right conditions for greater prosperity in the future.
It is equally clear that the administration is serious about tackling corruption and attracting the investment it needs to deliver long-term, sustainable growth.
The British government is proud to help in any way we can. And I am pleased that British businesses are contributing to Sri Lanka’s success. I am confident that when I next visit I will hear about more British companies winning business and doing business here.
I am in no doubt that this will be thanks, in no small part, to the valuable work of the Council for Business with Britain. Shirendra, thank you for all the help and support you give to the High Commission in its trade promotion activities.
By working together, the council and the British and Sri Lankan governments are making great strides in bringing security and prosperity to the people of Sri Lanka, of the United Kingdom and of the wider world.
So I am of the firm view that the prospects for our shared future are indeed bright. And all of us here can help turn those prospects into reality.