Amendment 15

Financial Services Bill - Report (2nd Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 14th April 2021.

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Lord Sharkey:

Moved by Lord Sharkey

15: After Clause 40, insert the following new Clause—“Access to Sharia-compliant financial services including student finance(1) Within six months of the passing of this Act, the Treasury must make provision by regulations to facilitate the availability of Sharia-compliant financial services in the United Kingdom, including availability to students who are eligible for the Government’s student finance provision of Sharia-compliant finance products for paying tuition fees and for student maintenance on equitable terms with students accessing the Government’s student finance provision.(2) Regulations under this section are subject to the negative procedure.”

Photo of Lord Sharkey Lord Sharkey Liberal Democrat

My Lords, Amendment 15 is in my name and those of my noble friends Lady Sheehan and Lady Kramer, and I am grateful for their support.

The amendment addresses the issue of the provision of sharia-compliant student finance, of which there is none. Because Islam forbids interest-bearing loans, that prohibition is a barrier to our Muslim students going on to attend our universities. We debated this extensively in Grand Committee so I will not rehearse the arguments in detail, but I will remind the House of the timescale involved.

The problem became clear in 2012 when tuition fees were significantly increased, and it became worse when maintenance grants were replaced by maintenance loans. In 2014, the Government published their report on the consultation that they had undertaken. That consultation had attracted 20,000 respondents, a record at the time. The Government acknowledged that the lack of an alternative financial product to conventional student loans was a matter of major concern to many Muslims. The report also identified a solution: a takaful, a well-known and frequently used non-interest-bearing Muslim financial product. The Government explicitly supported the introduction of such a product.

That was seven years ago. There is still no sharia-compliant student finance available, nor have the Government ever offered a detailed reason for this long delay or indicated when it might come to an end. As I mentioned in Grand Committee, I have repeatedly asked the Government the reasons for this lack of action. I have never had a substantive response. There was no substantive response from the Minister in Grand Committee a month ago and no explanation for the delay nor any indication of a date by which the takaful would be available. There was absolutely no sense of urgency. It was as though the plight of these Muslim students was not really important or worth taking seriously.

I made the point that I had written to the Minister on 4 January this year asking for a report on progress and making some suggestions. There had been no response by then, and there was no response until 5.15 pm yesterday evening, 14 weeks after my email. The Minister of State for Universities apologised for the three-month delay without offering an excuse or an explanation and her reply was completely formulaic, containing no substantive answers. It contained no indication of when sharia-compliant student finance would be available. I was struck by the casual contempt for our Muslim community that this response so clearly signalled—an absurdly unfriendly and unfeeling response with no attempt to reassure or comfort the Muslim community. In fact, if you look at the Government’s record on all this, it is very hard to see it as anything other than discrimination against our Muslim community—not just discrimination but a failure to engage and to explain.

Our amendment would oblige the Government at last to fulfil the promise they made to the Muslim community in 2013. It would oblige the Secretary of State to facilitate the availability of Sharia-compliant financial services for students who are eligible for conventional student finance on equitable terms with students accessing these conventional products, and to do so within six months of the passing of this Act so that the next Muslim student cohort did not have to face a conflict between faith and education.

I very much hope that when the Minister responds he will be able to do better than Minister Donelan. I hope he will be able to tell the House when the Government will introduce the sharia-compliant student financial product. I hope he will set a date that will allow the next cohort of devout young Muslims to go on to university. If the Minister cannot do that—if he cannot say when he will fulfil his Government’s 8 year-old promise to our Muslim community—I will seek to test the opinion of the House. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Fookes Baroness Fookes Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, has withdrawn so I call the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan.

Photo of Baroness Sheehan Baroness Sheehan Liberal Democrat

My Lords, I rise to speak in support of Amendment 15 in my name and those of my noble friends Lord Sharkey and Lady Kramer. I felt it only right and the very least that I could do, as the only Muslim speaking in debates on this Bill, to thank my noble friend Lord Sharkey for his determined resolve to ensure that all students, including devout Muslims, can access finance in order to go to university.

Parents who think that it is haram—forbidden—to take out an interest-bearing loan will try to save money to pay for their children to go to university. This has become inordinately expensive and, in many cases, unachievable now, in these financially straitened times. An important point to raise here is that boys will be favoured over girls when money is tight. Access to sharia-compliant student finance will make it easier for all bright boys, and girls, to access higher education.

I note the 2014 BIS consultation—which, as my noble friend Lord Sharkey said, had a remarkable 20,000 responses—and the subsequent report, which identified takaful as a suitable, frequently used non-interest-bearing sharia-compliant financial product. In its response to the report, the Government accepted its findings and put forward an alternative finance product based on the takaful model, which would, in the interests of equity, be available to everyone. It was designed so that repayment after graduation and debt levels must be identical to those of a traditional loan, with all repayments to be made directly through the UK tax system. In addition, the alternative finance product must be applied for in the same way as a traditional loan, through the Student Loans Company.

That was six and a half years ago. The enabling legislation has been implemented in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017, but, since then, there has been no further action. In the meantime, a sharia-compliant version of Help to Buy took only five or six months to launch, from start to finish—so the delay in offering a similar scheme to students is quite inexplicable. I hope that the Minister will be able to give categoric assurance that there will be no further delay. In the absence of such assurance, I would be pleased to support my noble friend Lord Sharkey, should he seek a Division.

Photo of Baroness Kramer Baroness Kramer Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Treasury and Economy)

My Lords, I will be very brief. In Grand Committee I gave a precis of some of the experiences of would-be students who had been deterred from going on to higher education or who had done so but then had to limit their life and activities as students because every single penny was hard to come by. As a consequence, they really did not benefit from so much of what is on offer in higher education.

I do not think that I can add anything to the incredibly powerful words of my colleagues, my noble friends Lord Sharkey and Lady Sheehan. I completely support the action that they contemplate but do so in the great hope that the Government will now make a statement that will make it unnecessary for the House to divide.

Photo of Lord Tunnicliffe Lord Tunnicliffe Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury), Shadow Minister (Transport)

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, for moving this amendment, with support from my noble friends. As I noted in Grand Committee, the Labour Party has long supported facilitating access to sharia-compliant financial services, and we therefore backed previous powers for the Government to act on the provision of appropriate forms of student finance.

As outlined both in Grand Committee and again today, the wait for the introduction of sharia-compliant finance products has been lengthy. I will not repeat the timeline cited by others but will say that we were unconvinced by the Minister’s response to the earlier amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey. Of course, we accept that there is complexity involved, but, in my experience, such challenges can be overcome when there is genuine ambition to find a solution.

The Minister previously said that the Department for Education is faced with designing a system in which students

“do not receive any advantage nor suffer any disadvantage through applying for alternative student finance.”—[Official Report, 8/3/21; col. 558GC.]

That is indeed a challenge, but it is one that I am sure can be met.

If we view the matter from a different perspective, what bigger disadvantage could there be than a certain subset of the student population feeling, at worst, unable to attend university or, at best, deeply uncomfortable about how they finance their degree? The Government have said that faith should not be an obstacle to how people live their daily lives, so why does this specific hurdle remain?

What we need from the Minister today is not a long list of stakeholder engagement exercises but a very clear signal from the Government that they understand the urgency of getting these products launched. We do not want half-hearted promises or references to upcoming reports but rather, a clear demonstration that the job will be done within an acceptable timeframe.

Photo of Lord True Lord True Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee, Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee 3:45 pm, 14th April 2021

My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have spoken in this short debate. As has been said, Amendment 15 seeks to require the Government to make regulations to facilitate the availability of sharia-compliant financial services in the UK, including a sharia-compliant student finance product, within six months of the passing of the Bill.

Institutions across the United Kingdom have been providing sharia-compliant financial services for nearly 40 years, and the United Kingdom is the leading western centre for Islamic finance. I do not believe that anyone would dispute that the United Kingdom is a world leader in this area. This Government continue to promote the growth of this sector, supporting domestic financial inclusion and our connections with key markets abroad. With respect, I think that, in this context, the charges from the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, of “casual contempt” for the Muslim community and of discrimination were a little misplaced.

Student finance is not regulated by the FCA. I did, however, listen very carefully and respectfully to the noble Baroness, Lady Sheehan, who spoke from a position of personal commitment. I can assure the noble Baroness and the noble Lords that the Government wish to extend the reach of the student finance system so that everyone with the ability to benefit from higher education can do so. That is why we have legislated to make a system of alternative payments that is compatible with Islamic finance principles possible.

As I said in my remarks in Committee, a range of complex policy, legal and systemic issues need to be resolved before a Sharia-compatible product can be launched. Despite these challenges, the Department for Education has been working with specialist advisers to establish an appropriate product specification that meets the requirements of Islamic finance.

I also heard the concerns raised in Committee, and by the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, again today, that it is not clear enough when the Government will take the next step. Since Committee, when I was concerned to hear those criticisms, I have discussed the matter with the relevant Minister in the Department for Education. Based on this, I can report that this matter is being considered as part of the wider review of post-18 education and funding.

I hope, therefore, that noble Lords will appreciate that it is not the right time to act until the wider strategy on post-18 education has been settled. I appreciate that some noble Lords, including those who have spoken, would like to see faster progress here—the question of when was put. I am able to reassure the House that there will be an update on this work as part of the review of post-18 education and funding when it is published, which will be at the next multi-year spending review. The Government will conduct the next spending review later this year. Further details on the nature of that spending review will be set out in due course.

On that basis, and with the commitment to progress as part of the review, I hope that the noble Lord will accept the assurance that the Government are committed to making progress on this very important issue and feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Lord Sharkey Lord Sharkey Liberal Democrat

I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this brief debate and I thank the Minister for his response. I point out, however, that we legislated to take powers to do this four years ago. Nothing has happened since. I remind the Minister, too, that the Help to Buy system was up and running within five or six months—and that was Islamic finance.

I also note that references to the post-18 education review seem to me—and have always seemed to me, as I said in my letter to the Minister, to which I did not get a response—completely irrelevant. We want students, Muslim or not, to be treated equally. If there is a change, after the post-18 Augar review, to the way that student finance happens, it should apply to Muslim and non-Muslim students equally: there should be no need to wait to establish the principle that Muslim and non-Muslim students should have equal access to finance. There is no need to wait.

I note, finally, that the promise of an update is not a promise to do anything at all, and does not even come close to setting a date by which these cohorts of Muslim students can gain access to finance and go on to university. In the Minister’s response there was no promise and no clarity, just talk of commitment. But after 13 years of this promise, talk of commitment is not enough, and I wish to test the opinion of the House.

Ayes 249, Noes 279.

Division number 1 Financial Services Bill - Report (2nd Day) — Amendment 15

Aye: 249 Members of the House of Lords

No: 279 Members of the House of Lords

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Nos: A-Z by last name

Division conducted remotely on Amendment 15

Amendment 15 disagreed.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 4:06 pm, 14th April 2021

My Lords, we come now to the group beginning with Amendment 16. Anyone wishing to press this or anything else in the group to a Division must make that clear during the debate.