My Lords, Her Majesty’s most gracious Speech made clear this Government’s priority to ensure security and stability as we leave the European Union. Safeguarding jobs in our economy must be at the forefront of this. We must protect our position as a global economic powerhouse, but also reach out for new opportunities. A fundamental part of our economic success strength stems from bilateral trade. This will be more important than ever before as we embark on a new era for our country. In particular, I believe that we must now seek greater economic and trade ties with our friends across the Commonwealth and forge new trading relationships.
I am a great admirer of the Commonwealth. It encompasses 52 countries and a third of the world population. It is culturally, economically and politically diverse, yet shares our values of democracy and the rule of law. The Commonwealth is essentially a ready-made trading market. Its economies are large and small, developed and developing. It includes two of the BRICS economies, India and South Africa, along with several members of the “7 per cent club”.
Earlier this year, Commonwealth Trade Ministers met in London and agreed to deepen economic ties. They were clear about the advantages that we all have through sharing a common law, language and institutions. In 2014, UK exports to the Commonwealth were worth more than £48 billion and imports were worth £42 billion. There has been a trade surplus since 2011. It is estimated that, on average, Commonwealth countries trade around 20% more with each other than with non-Commonwealth countries.
Next year, we will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. This will be a golden opportunity to reflect on opportunities and develop new ideas. We must be ambitious and open-minded, and be more active in promoting business. The Government have made it clear that we will see new Bills on trade and customs. I look forward to such legislation and hope that we can support British businesses to export to new markets across the Commonwealth and, indeed, the entire world.
I would also like to emphasise the importance and potential of the Islamic finance industry to our economy. I declare an interest as the previous co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Islamic Finance. It is my intention that the group will soon be reactivated following the general election. I am also a volunteer patron of the Islamic Finance Council.
The United Kingdom has the largest Islamic finance market outside the Muslim world. Its assets now exceed $20 billion. The market is also growing significantly worldwide, at an average annual rate of 15%, with a value of more than $2 trillion. We must take advantage of the strong hand we already have in this industry. We have hundreds of accountants, solicitors and consultants who are highly trained in Islamic finance. We must harness and grow this talent pool further.
We can also export these skills and help other countries to develop their Islamic financial structures. In 2013, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, spoke at the World Islamic Economic Forum. He committed to issuing a £200 million sovereign sukuk, to providing sharia-compliant student loans and to providing sharia-compliant start-up loans for new businesses. The sukuk was issued and was 10 times oversubscribed. We must now look at the issuance of a second sovereign sukuk which can attract investment in infrastructure to support economic growth, something that was referred to in Her Majesty’s most gracious Speech.
Furthermore, we must also now move forward and deliver the other two commitments. Sharia-compliant student loans will enable greater numbers of Muslim students to attend university, while start-up loans will inspire Muslim entrepreneurs to establish their own businesses. These can only be good things for our skills base and for our economy. More widely, Islamic finance is also favoured beyond the Muslim community by those who wish for a more ethical form of financing.
We must be flexible and innovative as we explore new markets and build new relationships. This approach will deliver the best returns for our businesses, create more jobs for the future and secure a stable economy on a long-term basis.