Lib Dem Lords’ maiden speeches: Jonny Oates on international trade and on running away to Ethiopia at 15

We like to cover our Lords’ maiden speeches. Nick Clegg’s former chief of staff, Jonny Oates made his last week. He talked about international trade and particularly about encouraging trade with Africa, and told us something about his life that may well become one of those Lib Dem trivia questions for fundraising quizzes. I think we need to know the full story.

My Lords, it is an honour to make my maiden speech, albeit necessarily briefly, in this debate. I want first to thank everybody who made my introduction to your Lordships’ House so easy—in particular, Black Rod and his staff, the doorkeepers, attendants and police officers, who have been an unfailing source of directions, advice and, above all, patience. I also want to thank my two supporters, my noble friends Lady Parminter and Lady Suttie, who have been great friends to me over many years.

I have taken the geographic part of my title, Denby Grange, in tribute to my late uncle Lawrence, who was a miner at Denby Grange colliery in West Yorkshire all his life. My title is not only a tribute to him; it is a wider acknowledgement that my good fortune is built on the shoulders of my grandparents and parents, uncles and aunts. They all faced much tougher challenges than I ever have and, through the sacrifices they made, they opened up a whole world of opportunities to their children and grandchildren that they never had themselves.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, whom I first had the pleasure of meeting when we both took part in a delegation to Ethiopia this September. That was not my first visit to Ethiopia. Thirty-one years ago, aged 14, I sat in front of a television set and watched Michael Buerk’s harrowing BBC news report from northern Ethiopia exposing the horrific human tragedy that was unfolding. That broadcast ignited an enormous sense of anger in me. Much of the disaster was manmade. In the West, we sat on millions of tonnes of intervention stocks—the legendary grain mountains and wine lakes—as hundreds of thousands of people starved to death.

I decided that something had to be done and, with the self-righteous certainty of a by-now 15 year-old, I felt that I was obviously the person to do it. So I ran away from home, to Ethiopia, determined to change the world—the full story is actually a little more complicated than that but, given the time constraints, I hope that noble Lords will forgive this rather concise summary. Once in Ethiopia, I rapidly discovered that the demand for unskilled 15 year-old English boys was not huge, and that Colonel Mengistu’s Ethiopia was a particularly terrifying and dangerous place. I was rescued from it by an Anglican clergyman, to whom I owe my life. He told me bluntly that I needed to go home and learn some skills, but he also told me that it would not be long before the TV cameras forgot Africa again. He asked me not to do the same. I never have.

Over the past two decades, I have had the opportunity of living and working in Zimbabwe and later South Africa, where I have learned many important lessons and been nurtured by deep and enduring friendships.

Ethiopia today is a very different place from the Ethiopia of 30 years ago although it remains hugely vulnerable to drought, as Clive Myrie’s BBC news report on Monday underlined. The Ethiopian Government have achieved impressive development successes over the past decade with the help of UK development aid. I was proud to work in the coalition Government when we met the 0.7% target for development aid and when Mike Moore in another place and my noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed enshrined that in law. But if Ethiopia’s successes are to be sustained, the Ethiopian economy needs to continue to grow sufficiently to support development from its own resources. Trade could and should play an increasing role in that. Expansion of UK-Africa trade offers huge and mutually beneficial opportunities for African economies and British companies. With the right policies, we have a real opportunity to lead the world in a growing trading relationship with Africa.

The Government have rightly put much store by expanding trade with China and India, but we are well behind the pack there. In Africa, we still have the chance to lead. I hope that we will take it.

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