2 Baroness Cohen of Pimlico debates involving the Cabinet Office

Mon 13th Mar 2017
Higher Education and Research Bill
Lords Chamber

Report: 3rd sitting (Hansard): House of Lords

Higher Education and Research Bill

Baroness Cohen of Pimlico Excerpts
Lord Sheikh Portrait Lord Sheikh (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I am in favour of the amendments tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey. I declare my interest as co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Islamic Finance. The APPG has recently reformed and is now an active body. I am also a volunteer patron of the Islamic Finance Council. I have long-standing experience of financial services and a strong connection with the City of London. I have promoted Islamic finance and attended numerous conferences in this country and abroad. I also used to be a visiting lecturer at various colleges and thus have a deep interest in the education and well-being of students.

Sharia-compliant student finance is one of many issues that fall within the scope of Islamic finance. The United Kingdom has the largest Islamic finance market outside the Muslim world. Its assets now exceed $20 billion. Worldwide, the Islamic finance sector is now valued at more than $2 trillion, with an annual growth rate of over 15%. We have in this country very competent accountants, solicitors, consultants and other professionals who can help foreign countries develop their Islamic financial structures. I have made this point twice in your Lordships’ House recently, including in the debate tabled by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, on the subject only last week. It is, however, incumbent on the UK to look at its own structures and address deficiencies wherever they may arise. Otherwise we will not be seen as a model for others to follow.

This brings me to the matter at hand. In 2013, the UK hosted the ninth World Islamic Economic Forum. It was the first time that the forum had been held outside the Islamic world, for which the UK drew great praise and admiration. The former Prime Minister, David Cameron, spoke at the forum and stated that he would like London to be a great capital of Islamic finance in the western world. He made the further point that London proudly possesses the virtues of openness and innovation. Indeed, we need to be innovative to be a market leader in Islamic finance.

At the conference, Mr Cameron made three commitments on behalf of the Government: to issue a sovereign sukuk for around £200 million, to provide a sharia-compliant student loan scheme, and to arrange start-up loans for new businesses based on sharia principles. In the light of the first commitment, a sukuk for £200 million was issued. It was very successful and was oversubscribed by 10 times. It is important that we now deliver the second commitment: the arrangement of a sharia-compliant student loan.

It is four years since the commitment was made, so it is most overdue. David Cameron said:

“Never again should a Muslim in Britain feel unable to go to university because they cannot get a Student Loan—simply because of their religion”.

The Government continued to illustrate their commitment to this. In 2014, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills held a consultation on sharia-compliant student financing. In their response, the Government stated that they acknowledged its importance and supported the introduction of such a scheme. It is important that we now push ahead and make it available to students as soon as possible.

Increasingly, I find that many young Muslims wish to reconnect with their Islamic principles. With there being more than 300,000 full-time Muslim students today, it seems clear that this wish remains unfulfilled for some students without a sharia-compliant student finance scheme. The diversity of modern Britain must be reflected in all spheres of life in order to integrate the next generation of Muslims and other minorities with the rest of the population.

For the past four years, I have been asked by the high commissioner for Bangladesh to present awards to British Bangladeshi school leavers. The performance of these children has improved dramatically in recent years and this community is now performing exceptionally well at school. More of these children now wish to move on to higher education, thus increasing the number of Muslim students at our universities.

Today, funding a degree in the UK requires significant expenditure. Tuition fees combined with living expenses mean costs of at least £22,000 a year for the average student. Of course, studying in London will undoubtedly cost more. A student loan is therefore the only route to education for many people.

Let us be frank: a bright, young potential Muslim student may be forced to make an unfair choice—forgo their principles or opt out of going to university altogether. The lack of sharia-compliant loans therefore has a direct impact on the potentially life-changing decision for parents and potential students whether to continue into higher education. They simply do not want to get involved in interest-based loans that go against their faith-based principles. This can have wider implications. For example, as someone who has been involved in combating radicalisation, it is clear to me that education is a key tool to better integrate our communities and further enhance social cohesion.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to ensure our world-class higher education sector remains financially sustainable, with an ability to invest in the excellent teaching that students expect. However, we must also give all young people, irrespective of their religious belief or racial origins, the opportunities to succeed and to study. By doing so we will encourage all communities to take an effective role in the advancement and well-being of our country. We want religious minority groups to be given the same chances as others so that they become valuable members of our society.

I add that sharia-compliant financing appeals beyond the Muslim community to those who simply desire a more ethical form of financing. In my experience, a number of non-Muslims have opted to take up Islamic financial products as a matter of principle. I have received letters and emails from leading Muslim organisations and community leaders who would like the Government to introduce sharia-compliant student finance arrangements. These letters have been received from the Muslim Council of Britain, the Muslim Association of Britain, the East London Mosque & London Muslim Centre, the London Central Mosque Trust Ltd & the Islamic Cultural Centre, Muslim Engagement and Development, and from the honourable Jaffer Kapasi OBE. I have passed copies of this correspondence to my noble friend the Minister.

Additionally, I have received a letter from Mr Mohammed Amin MBE, who is currently the chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum. He is a chartered accountant specialising in Islamic finance. Until his retirement, he was a partner and head of UK Islamic finance at PricewaterhouseCoopers. He is firmly of the view that it is possible for sharia-compliant arrangements for students to be introduced by autumn 2018. I also forwarded a copy of this letter to my noble friend the Minister.

While I fully support the development of a publicly available and regularly updated progress report as outlined in the amendments, I would prefer to get a commitment that a sharia-compliant student loan scheme will be available in the UK by autumn 2018. I very much appreciate that the Department for Education has opened a tender for consultants to bid to assist in the development of a sharia-compliant scheme for students. This tender was opened on 21 February and the closing date was 7 March 2017. While we welcome this step, we ask for a commitment that the scheme will be operational by autumn 2018. I and others are of the opinion that this is possible if there is a will to prioritise the project. On our side, we are very happy to provide any help and support that may be needed.

Baroness Cohen of Pimlico Portrait Baroness Cohen of Pimlico (Lab)
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I support the amendment and the powerful speeches made by the noble Lords, Lord Sharkey and Lord Sheikh. I am staggered to be reminded how long this has been going on for and the difficulty with which Government seem to be approaching this issue. Nothing should stand between the young and their education. I fear that the lack of a sharia-compliant scheme may bear particularly hard on young women. It is not unknown in communities such as my own Scots family for the men to get first crack at the money and the women to follow. It would not surprise me, I fear, were the same still the case.

The real point is that we can do sharia-compliant finance. Twenty years ago, when I was in the City, we did sharia-compliant finance and made money out of it. It strikes me as staggeringly ungracious of us not to have made the student loans scheme work when we have profited from similar schemes as a country. I support the amendment.

--- Later in debate ---
Baroness Cohen of Pimlico Portrait Baroness Cohen of Pimlico
- Hansard - -

My Lords, I support the amendment. That may come as a faint surprise as I am chancellor of BPP University, the ownership of which is sort of changing—our old owners have become our new owners. We do not expect it to lead to instability. Our vice-chancellor will be replaced by a new vice-chancellor who has been there for a very long time. I am staying as chancellor and the chairman of the academic council is also staying. Above all, this is why I support the amendment with perfect confidence: we are a regulated university. We are a for-profit university, but what we may do with our profits is strictly limited.

We are limited as to what fees we can charge and we expect it to stay that way. We may charge only £5,000 a year for an undergraduate degree, unless it is a two-year degree, in which case we are allowed to charge £6,000. None of that is expected to change, nor could we change it unilaterally. This is because the present regime for those of us registered in England is extremely secure. I support any amendment that would keep the regime as secure as it currently is. This amendment is right—we fall into it and will continue to fall into it.

Lord Mackay of Clashfern Portrait Lord Mackay of Clashfern (Con)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My Lords, I wonder to what extent this amendment focuses on the general questions that have been raised. As I understand it, the amendment focuses on whether students at a particular institution should be eligible for loans. If an American university, or some other foreign university, set up a campus here, would the amendment provide that students at such a campus will not be eligible for student loans? I am not certain whether they would be.

Syria and the Use of Chemical Weapons

Baroness Cohen of Pimlico Excerpts
Thursday 29th August 2013

(10 years, 10 months ago)

Lords Chamber
Read Full debate Read Hansard Text Read Debate Ministerial Extracts
Baroness Cohen of Pimlico Portrait Baroness Cohen of Pimlico
- Hansard - -

My Lords, like the noble Marquess and many in this House, I voted for the invasion of Iraq. At the time, I was a non-executive director of the Defence Logistics Organisation of the Ministry of Defence and therefore close to the organisation in support of that action. I had good cause to believe that we and the Americans could achieve our joint military objectives. After the first few weeks and the cheering sight of a poisonous dictator toppled, statues being pulled down and the bad men in disarray, the picture looked very different with sectarian murder, lawlessness and a disbanded army prowling with the weapons nobody made it give up. I had not—none of us had—foreseen all that, but if you open a Pandora’s box, you get what you get.

Here we are faced with a very different and much stronger moral case for military intervention. Because I feared from the general rhetoric flying around that I might find myself voting this week, I worked out what I thought and assumed for the purpose of my thinking that a dreadful chemical attack was ordered and carried out on 21 August by the Assad regime. However, I remain unable to support military intervention, despite powerful speeches by good friends such as the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, and my old colleague in arms and noble friend Lord Robertson of Port Ellen.

In the Commons today, the Prime Minister was at pains to distinguish the action envisaged in this case from the invasion of Iraq. He also sought to suggest that the action proposed would be limited to punishing those responsible and putting chemical weapons beyond use. I fear he is being hopelessly unrealistic about how any military action by us would be received. No one would believe that it was not personal. No one would believe that we were not directing the action to regime change, and why should they when we have from the outset opposed the Assad regime, declined to recognise him and recognised the opposition instead? Most people would believe that we had seized our opportunity for regime change using a very high moral ground to justify our actions. Nor does the concept of limited-target military action hold water. Even as we speak, we surely know that the Syrian Government, like any people of sense, are doing their best to put their weapons and their senior personnel, whether guilty of this particular outrage or not, beyond harm, even, by precedent of Saddam Hussain, packing them around with innocent civilians.

Noble Lords have wondered aloud about what the consequences of not interfering militarily would be. Do we really believe that the Russians, following very different interests from us, voting against us in the UN, as they have, really see their national interest being progressed by allowing the Assad regime to go on using chemical weapons now that their use has been so exposed? Who do we think actually insisted that the Assad regime admitted the UN inspectors? Surely it has to be its principle supporters. It was not taking any notice of the UN or us. The Russians may not be our friends but that does not make them either short-sighted or stupid.

It is very tempting to want to punish the guilty and take revenge for the murdered innocents. It is even more tempting, given that—as in the Iraq case—the US and we probably have the military power to do just that. We might be able to do it and have a happy few weeks, as we did in Iraq, while we rejoice in the defeat of the wicked. But short-term rejoicing has already brought long-term sadness and destruction in Afghanistan and Iraq, as other Members have noted. I can believe only that it would be like that again, and I shall not be able to support military action.