Former Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change and British Conservative Party Member of Parliament for Wealden, Charles Hendry, has had a long and distinguished career in politics. He has served both in office and in opposition for over twenty years, taking on a variety of roles, including a long spell in the Energy sector. His experience here is particularly relevant as the UK begins its potential courtship of shale gas and use of fracking technology. He takes a keen interest in bringing young voters into the political arena and in January 2008 he was appointed as a Vice-Chair of the Board of Trustees of UK Youth Parliament. His most recent appointment, in November 2012, was as the Prime Ministerial Trade Envoy to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan where he currently focuses much attention in promoting British business and trade interests in these countries.
OCA: Please tell us a little bit about your background and how you came into UK politics.
Charles Hendry MP: My background was in business, but I had always been interested in politics since childhood. I knew that at some point, I would like to try and become an MP and I was eventually successful in 1992, becoming the MP for the High Peak in Derbyshire. During that Parliament, I was the vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party, but in the 1997 election, I lost my seat along with half the Conservative Parliamentary Party. I was very fortunate to be given a ‘second chance’ and became MP for Wealden in 2001. Since then, much of my political activity has focused on energy issues, holding the energy portfolio longer than anyone else – four and a half years in Opposition and two and a half years in Government.
OCA: Since November 2012, you have been the Prime Ministerial Trade Envoy to Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan. What has your role entailed to date and what challenges and opportunities do you see in the coming years for improving British relations with these Central Asian countries?
CH: The role of the Trade Envoys is to develop much closer political relations between the UK and the fast-growing ‘new’ economies. These are countries where there are fantastic opportunities for British businesses, but where we have not seen enough Ministerial contact in the past. There is a real interest in all three countries to do more business with the UK and my role is to help facilitate that process. Following the Prime Minister’s visit to Kazakhstan in July of this year, our relations there are the best they have ever been and there are great business opportunities. More regular contact with the Governments of both Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan is also, I hope, creating much closer working relations.
OCA: How has your former experience as Minister of State for Energy and Climate Change helped your work with these oil and gas rich countries?
CH: I was specifically interested in taking on the Trade Envoy role to these three countries as I had had more contact with them than any other Minister in recent years. I had visited Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan and had also met visiting Ministers from Turkmenistan, so they seemed to me to be the countries where I could help make a difference. Energy is clearly at the heart of the business relationship, but we are determined to help spread this much more widely into the many other areas where we can work together.
OCA: You recently asked a parliamentary question about shale gas and some of the environmental claims being falsely made. What are your views on the shale revolution taking place not only in the US, but also potentially in the UK and maybe one day in Central Asia with recent potential finds in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan?
CH: We cannot ignore the importance of shale gas in the US, which is now one of the country’s main economic drivers. Shale gas is a global game changer, especially as it is clear that gas will be a key energy source for many years to come. Every country will be bound to be looking at understanding how great its resources are and whether they are economically retrievable. There are real differences between the potential in the US and the UK, and UK Government has rightly put in place measures which will encourage businesses to look at the shale potential in the UK, but we are absolutely clear that it needs the toughest environmental and safety protection standards in place for it to go forward.
OCA: Have you managed to visit much of Central Asia in your new role? And if so, what are your impressions of the country and its people?
CH: I find it a completely fascinating region and I have found the welcome incredibly warm wherever I have gone. So far, my visits have all been to the main centres of business and government, but I am very keen to have the chance to see more of each country. I am passionate about encouraging more British businesspeople and visitors to go to each country, as I am sure they will share my fascination and excitement about all there is on offer to see and do.
OCA: Central Asia can often prove difficult for outsiders to really understand as there is often a lack of clear and accurate information. What role can publications such as Open Central Asia magazine play in bringing the cultures, traditions and opportunities to European countries?
CH: This is a really critical point. Many people cannot understand Central Asia simply because they have never visited, and people often have a nervousness about going to countries with very different histories and cultures. We need to help people understand the opportunities and all there is to see in Central Asia; publications like Open Central Asia have a central role in doing this. Then we need to get more people onto planes to go and visit for themselves. That is when the real change will happen – again Open Central Asia can really help to bring this about.