Financial Services and Markets Bill Debate

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Department: HM Treasury
Moved by
197: After Clause 65, insert the following new Clause—
“Duty of the FCA with regard to interest rates for mortgage prisoners
After section 137FD of FSMA 2000 insert—
“137FE FCA general rules: interest rate for mortgage prisoners
(1) The FCA must make general rules requiring authorised persons involved in regulated mortgage lending and regulated mortgage administration to introduce a cap on the standard variable rates charged to mortgage prisoners and to ensure that mortgage prisoners can access new fixed interest rate deals at an interest rate equal to or lower than an interest rate specified by the FCA.(2) In subsection (1)—“mortgage prisoner” means a consumer who cannot switch to a different lender because of their characteristics and has a regulated mortgage contract with one of the following types of firms—(a) inactive lenders, or firms authorised for mortgage lending that are no longer lending, and(b) unregulated entities, or firms not authorised for mortgage lending and which contract with a regulated firm to undertake the regulated activity of mortgage administration;“new fixed interest rate deals” means the ability for the consumer to fix the rate of interest payable on a regulated mortgage contract for periods of 2 years and 5 years;“standard variable rate” means the reversion rate which is a variable rate of interest charged under the regulated mortgage contract after the end of any initial introductory deal.(3) The general rules made under subsection (1) must set the level of the cap on the standard variable rate at a level no more than 2 percentage points above the Bank of England base rate.(4) The general rules made under subsection (1) must make new fixed interest rate deals available to mortgage prisoners who—(a) are up to date with payments or have aggregate arrears of no more than one monthly payment in the past 12 months,(b) have a remaining term of 2 years or more,(c) have an outstanding loan amount of at least £10,000, and(d) have not received consent to let the property. (5) When specifying the interest rates for new fixed interest rate deals required by subsection (1) the FCA must specify rates for a range of loan-to-valuation ratios taking into account the average 2-year and 5-year fixed rates available to existing customers of active lenders through product transfers.(6) The FCA must ensure any rules that it is required to make as a result of subsection (1) are made no later than six months after this Act is passed.””Member’s explanatory statement
This new Clause would require the FCA to introduce a cap on the Standard Variable Rates charged to mortgage prisoners and, under specified circumstances, ensure their access to fixed rate interest deals.
Lord Sharkey Portrait Lord Sharkey (LD)
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My Lords, I declare an interest as co-chair of the APPG on Mortgage Prisoners. I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, for adding his name to my Amendment 197, which is a probing amendment to allow debate on the issue of mortgage prisoners. There are getting on for 200,000 mortgage prisoners in the UK, who are trapped with their current lenders. For eight years or so they have paid very high standard variable rates, now of around 7%, 8% or even more.

Mortgage prisoners exist because the Government sold their mortgages to vulture funds, which have been increasing their standard variable interest rates and refusing to offer mortgage prisoners new deals or access to fixed rates. The harm being caused to these mortgage prisoners is the direct responsibility of the Government; when the time came for the mortgages of Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley customers to be sold back to the private sector, the Government could have pursued an approach that ensured that these customers were protected. They could have sold them to active lenders or secured a cast-iron commitment from purchasers to offer these customers new deals.

The risk to these customers was clearly identified. In January 2016, the noble Lord, Lord McFall, wrote to the Treasury, UK Asset Resolution and the FCA to highlight that many of those affected by the sales were mortgage prisoners who would be unable to switch lender. He warned:

“Given the prospect of rising interest rates it is important that all mortgage customers are given the opportunity to achieve certainty over their payments by accessing a fixed rate. I am concerned that some customers affected by these mortgage sales … will not be offered reasonable fixed mortgage rates.”

UKAR responded that, in returning these mortgages to the private sector,

“the option to be offered new deals, extra lending and fixed rates should become available”.

However, this requirement was not written into the contract when mortgages were sold to the vulture fund Cerberus, with the BBC reporting that UKAR is now claiming to have been misled by it.

Consumer champion Martin Lewis, about whose work I will have more to say in a moment, lays the responsibility for the treatment of mortgage prisoners with the Government. He said that they have

“sold these loans to professional debt buyers that don’t offer mortgages, and left these people with these types of mortgages that have been too expensive and crippled their finances and destroyed their wellbeing.”

The Government are directly responsible; they chose to sell the mortgages to vulture funds.

In 2021, the House of Lords passed an amendment that would have capped standard variable rates for mortgage prisoners. This would have provided immediate, practical help for the 200,000 mortgage prisoners and their families. When the Government rejected this amendment in the Commons in April 2021, the Minister claimed that

“the Government and FCA have undertaken significant work in this area to create additional options that make switching into the active market easier for some borrowers.”—[Official Report, Commons, 26/4/21; col. 85.]

The FCA published an update in November 2021; this review confirmed that its interventions have, so far, had only a tiny impact. Only 2,200 of the almost 200,000 mortgage prisoners have been able to switch, just over 1% of the total. It turned out that lenders had only a limited appetite to offer options to switch using the modified affordability test devised by the FCA.

The FCA and the Government show little understanding of how vulnerable many mortgage prisoners really are or what stress and financial hardship they have endured and continue to endure. They certainly have not done anything practical to help. All this misery and harm could have been prevented, but even now the Government still refuse to acknowledge their responsibility or provide any help. At the moment, they and the FCA propose no further action.

This is deeply unfair and more than slightly ironic. A recent LSE report found evidence that the Treasury has not only made back the cost of managing the sales of these mortgages but has made a £2.4 billion surplus. However, there has been one significant development. Last Wednesday, my co-chair of the APPG on Mortgage Prisoners, Seema Malhotra MP, and Martin Lewis, chaired a meeting in Parliament to examine and explain new research conducted by the LSE, generously funded by Martin Lewis. The Treasury and the FCA were in attendance. This research contains concrete and costed proposals for a solution to this long-standing and continuing injustice.

Martin Lewis told the meeting:

“This report lays out starkly that the state sold these borrowers into poverty, knowing it could cause them harm, and made billions doing it. The result has destroyed lives. People have been left in financial, physical and mental misery, exacerbated by the pandemic and cost of living crisis ripping through their already dire situations. When we put solutions to the Treasury in the past, it said it wanted to look at them, but couldn’t as they weren’t costed. Now, having fought tooth and nail to get some of the data needed from official institutions, it is costed.”

Therefore, there should be no more excuses. He went on:

“The Government has a moral and financial responsibility to mitigate some of the damage done. Mortgage prisoners are the forgotten victims of the financial crash. The banks were bailed out at the expense of these borrowers. I hope the Treasury lives up to its past promise to investigate at speed and uses this report as a springboard to find any and all solutions to free mortgage prisoners.”

The APPG has sent copies of the LSE report to the Treasury, the FCA and other interested parties.

Will the Minister and her Treasury colleagues meet the APPG and its supporters to discuss the solutions proposed in the LSE report? Can she arrange this meeting urgently—certainly well before Report? Thanks to the support, generosity and persistence of Martin Lewis, and the work of the LSE and the APPG, we now have a clear and costed plan finally to bring relief to the nearly 200,000 mortgage prisoners. There can be no excuse for further delay. If we cannot set a course to free these prisoners, we will want to return to the issue on Report. I beg to move.

Viscount Trenchard Portrait Viscount Trenchard (Con)
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My Lords, I am delighted to support Amendment 197, moved by the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, and to which I have added my name. I served on the former Services Sub-Committee of the former European Union Committee with the noble Lord and have been impressed by his accurate understanding of, and thoughtful approach to, this and other financial issues.

The noble Lord explained the reasons for his amendment with his customary clear logic. I will not take up the Committee’s time by repeating them. I particularly endorse the introduction of a cap of 2% over the standard variable rate for mortgage prisoners. UK Finance has identified 195,000 borrowers from inactive lenders, of whom 47,000 have been identified as mortgage prisoners.

I welcome the FCA’s recent review of this problem and its review of the effectiveness of its regulatory interventions to remove barriers to switching. Recently, only a small number of borrowers have been able to switch from an inactive lender to a new deal with an active lender. I share the FCA’s hope that more mortgage prisoners will be able to switch their mortgage and I hope that the Minister will support this amendment.

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Lord Harlech Portrait Lord Harlech (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, for tabling this amendment, and all noble Lords for their contributions.

The Government have a great deal of sympathy for borrowers who are unable to switch their mortgage, and the Treasury has already worked extensively with regulators and industry to act where possible to support borrowers. For example, we have worked with the FCA to implement changes to its mortgage lending rules, removing the regulatory barrier that prevented some customers, who otherwise may have been able to switch, accessing new products.

However, we do not believe there are further practical and proportionate universal options than those already taken to reduce the rates paid by these consumers. Extensive work has been done to look into this issue, partly as a result of prior interest from this House, which has emphasised the complex and varied circumstances that consumers are in. Specifically, following commitments made during the passage of the Financial Services Act 2021, the Government worked with the FCA to conduct a report into mortgage prisoners, which was completed and laid before Parliament in November 2021. This report found that the vast majority of those with the 195,000 mortgages held by inactive firms are not mortgage prisoners, as they are already paying competitive rates for their circumstances or they would be able to switch if they took action to do so—if, of course, they met the risk appetite of active lenders, a point raised by my noble friend Lady Noakes. Others had different factors that might prevent them being able to switch, such as being close to the end of their mortgage term or having an account in arrears. The report found that only 47,000 were truly mortgage prisoners—that is, customers who are up to date with their mortgage payments and unable to switch to a new mortgage deal, but who could potentially benefit from lower rates if they were able to switch.

While I understand the difficulty that many of these customers are facing, capping the standard variable rates charged on mortgages with inactive lenders to help this limited group of customers would have significant implications for the wider mortgage market which cannot be ignored. Any action we take must also be fair to other borrowers in the active market, particularly those with similar characteristics and paying similar rates, who may be unable to access fixed-rate deals.

A cap for mortgage prisoners would therefore create an arbitrary division between one set of consumers and another. Capping rates would also restrict lenders’ ability to vary rates in line with market conditions—a key part of responsible lending. This is a material risk, which, as Ministers set out during the passage of the Financial Services Act 2021, could have financial stability implications. Those concerns were also raised by the London School of Economics in its November 2020 report on mortgage prisoners, which argued against the introduction of a standard variable rate cap. In view of these risks and the proportionate steps that the Government and the FCA have already taken to support mortgage prisoners, it is clear that an SVR cap is not an appropriate solution.

However, borrowers who have switched have seen significant savings. The FCA’s review found that take-up was affected by consumer inertia and limited lender risk appetite. Some 140,000 letters were sent to borrowers about the rule change, which resulted in only 700 calls to brokers.

The noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, raised the new report from the London School of Economics and Martin Lewis. The Government will of course carefully consider the proposals put forward in this report. I note that it recommends free, comprehensive financial advice for all, but I would like to provide reassurance that the Government are committed to helping people in financial difficulty. We recognise the important role that debt advice providers play in assisting people, including mortgage prisoners, who are in problem debt, especially with the increasing cost of living pressures that were raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett.

This is why the Government have continued to maintain record levels of debt advice funding for the Money and Pensions Service, bringing its budget for free-to-client debt advice in England to more than £90 million this financial year. Furthermore, the Government have made a number of interventions, as a result of the financial crisis, to protect the economy and ordinary savers and businesses from the negative impacts of economic and financial instability. These include the interventions in Northern Rock and Bradford & Bingley, with their loan and mortgage assets ultimately held in the government-owned company UK Asset Resolution. It is right that the Government seek to achieve value for money for taxpayers as we exit the interventions made as a result of the financial crisis. The proceeds from these sales are not hypothecated and go towards supporting wider public finances.

The noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, sought to draw out the wider case of the Government selling on. I can say only that UK Asset Resolution sales met or exceeded best practice for customer protections. Firms had to agree to robust protections before their bids were considered. Inactive firms have and use a range of forbearance options for borrowers in payment difficulty, and many borrowers with inactive firms pay competitive rates.

However, the Government are consistently committed to looking for practical and proportionate options where they will deliver genuine benefits for affected mortgage borrowers, and where interventions are fair to borrowers in the active market and to taxpayers. In light of the request, we will be happy to facilitate a meeting with Treasury officials before Report. We will co-ordinate with Members’ offices to agree a time and place suitable for everyone.

While it is important that we do not create false hope, the Government will carefully consider the proposals from the LSE/Martin Lewis report. In light of this, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw this amendment.

Lord Sharkey Portrait Lord Sharkey (LD)
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I thank all noble Lords who spoke in this brief debate. There was a sense of déjà vu in all this. I recognise the arguments of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, because it is not so long since we heard them last time. It would be indelicate of me to remind the Committee that, having heard all those arguments last time around, and mine, we voted fairly massively in favour of the amendment in front of us again today.

As I said in my opening remarks, at the moment this is not about the amendment as it is down on the page. This is a probing amendment to make sure that the initiative of Martin Lewis, the LSE and the APPG is taken seriously by the Government. I am grateful for the Minister’s promise—if that is what it was—to arrange a meeting with the APPG and other interested parties. It would be wrong if, after all this work and effort, we were simply to get a note from the Treasury passed under the door saying, “No, it doesn’t work”. We want an interactive process to discuss the proposals that Martin Lewis and the APPG are putting forward. I do not think the Minister talked about timing, but we need to do that urgently and before Report.

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Finally, the banks are not the only players in the chain that are responsible for fraud. Other players, such as telecom companies, social media, dating sites, web hosting companies, online marketplaces and so on all play a part in the fraud chain. Information I received just last week from a major UK fintech company indicates that over half the scams by number originate on just four social media platforms, three of which are owned by Meta. These fraud enablers—I call them that because they are the conduits by which most people are found and contacted by fraudsters—need to be robustly incentivised to stop their services being used to defraud innocent people. It is not right that only the banks end up picking up the cost. I beg to move.
Lord Sharkey Portrait Lord Sharkey (LD)
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My Lords, I will speak briefly to Amendment 203 in the name of my noble friend Lady Kramer, who cannot be with us today. She is making good progress but is still recovering from surgery. On her behalf, I gently disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Vaux. The amendment is straightforward: it would simply prevent financial services from using the “You should have known it was fraud” excuse to deny restitution. In effect, in many sectors this allows the banks to decide whether to refund.

It seems to me that it is impossible to design a fair test for “You should have known” when talking of retail customers, especially vulnerable ones. How on earth do we devise a fair test under those circumstances? It is true that most consumers will not have the ability to challenge a bank’s classification of an event as “You should have known”, because they do not have the resource or the means to do so. Effectively, without Amendment 203, banks can decide for themselves which cases to allow, and that does not seem to be a good idea.

Lord Naseby Portrait Lord Naseby (Con)
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My Lords, I will speak broadly in support of these amendments, starting with Amendment 202. The incidence of fraud is growing almost daily. It is a huge worry and, unfortunately, it rests on His Majesty’s Government to try to find an answer to it. I accept that it is not an easy problem, but we cannot shy away from it. Over lunch today I was having some discussions with Transparency Task Force, a certified social enterprise. Certainly, some of the evidence it has is quite extraordinary and deeply worrying. I do not know whether there are other types of scams not covered in the Bill. I have not given any notice to my noble friend on that, but we would certainly like an answer.

On Amendment 203 on qualifying cases, I have spoken to only about half a dozen people who have had scams, but none of them knew anything about who was behind it. It is not very likely, is it? Having watched “The Gold” on television on Sunday, I can see how creative some people can be. It does not seem realistic, which is why Amendment 203 is important.

I have had a chat with members of the All-Party Group on Personal Banking and Fairer Financial Services. The only way to get a grip of these problems is to know what is happening on the ground. The noble Lord, Lord Vaux, asked for a six-monthly report, which is quite right. A quarterly report would probably be better, though it might be too tedious. At this point in time, His Majesty’s Government do not have a handle on the rate of growth, which is deeply worrying. I do not know whether these amendments are exactly right, but the problem is there, and it is the responsibility of His Majesty’s Government to get a grip on them.

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Moved by
213: After Clause 71, 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.”Member’s explanatory statement
This is a probing amendment to allow debate on the progress towards provision of Sharia-compliant student funding.
Lord Sharkey Portrait Lord Sharkey (LD)
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My Lords, Amendment 213 addresses the provision of sharia-compliant student finance, of which there is currently none. This matters because Islam forbids interest-bearing loans and that prohibition can be a barrier to our Muslim students going on to attend our universities.

This is not a new problem, nor the first time the issue has been raised in this House. 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 a report on the consultation they had undertaken. It attracted 20,000 responses, a record at the time. The Government acknowledged that the lack of an alternative finance product to the conventional interest-bearing student loan 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, sharia-compliant financial product. The Government explicitly supported the introduction of such a product. That was nine years ago, and we still have no takaful. In 2013, Prime Minister Cameron promised action. He 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.”

But nothing has changed. There is still no available sharia-compliant student finance. In fact, it now looks further away than ever.

The Muslim community and parliamentarians in both Houses have continued to press. Last September, the right honourable Sir Stephen Timms wrote to the then Secretary of State for Education to ask whether delivering sharia-compliant student finance was still a government commitment. He got a reply saying that it was. Sir Stephen wrote again in October to the new Secretary of State, the right honourable Gillian Keegan MP, asking whether government policy had changed—there was quite a lot of change around at the time.

Ms Keegan confirmed that the provision of a sharia-compliant student finance product remained a government commitment and that the Government were considering whether and how the ASF could be delivered as part of the lifelong learning entitlement. She noted that the consultation on the LLE had concluded last May and promised to provide a further update on ASF as part of the Government’s response to that consultation.

The Government published their response to the LLE consultation last Tuesday. The whole response runs to 71 pages, yet ASF gets no mention in the document’s ministerial foreword and only two substantive paragraphs right at the end of the response. This does not seem a proportionate reaction, either to the gravity of the issue or to the overwhelming number of individual respondents who asked for sharia-compliant student finance, by far the largest group of respondents. The question about sharia-compliant student finance attracted 851 unique individual responses; the average number of unique individual responses to all the other questions in the consultation was 30.

The first substantive paragraph confirms the Government’s commitment to the ASF but says, without any explanation, that it will not be delivered with the 2025-26 launch of the LLE. The second paragraph says:

“The Government is procuring advice from experts in Islamic finance and will be working with the Student Loans Company … to better understand timescales for delivery of an ASF product under the LLE. Our aim is that learners will be able to access ASF as part of the LLE as soon as possible after 2025. An update on ASF will be provided by late 2023.”

This is miserable stuff. It makes it clear that, in the past nine years, there has been no serious thinking or planning for ASF. It does not explain why ASF has to be linked to the LLE at all or why it cannot be launched simultaneously with it. It also makes no hint of an apology to the Muslim community for condemning at least four more cohorts of Muslim students to choose between faith and education.

If we interpret the Government’s vague timings generously, the ASF will arrive in the academic year 2026-27. That is four academic years away and means an additional 16,000 qualified Muslim students not going on to university. It will have taken 16 years for the Government’s firm, clear and repeated commitment to be realised. The problem remains as it was 11 years ago. This is deeply unsatisfactory and obviously has gravely disadvantaged our Muslim community. It is easy to see how the Government’s inaction over such a serious issue over such a very long timescale could look like discrimination against our Muslim community, especially since the Government seem not to have engaged with the community or explained the very long delay and lack of a target date.

Before last Tuesday, Universities UK and 68 Muslim organisations and prominent individuals had written to the Minister, pressing for speedy action and a firm date for ASF. Since then, there has been widespread disappointment and dismay at the very long further delay and the continuing lack of a firm date. The Muslim Council of Britain, UUK, the CEO of Islamic Finance Guru, the NUS and others have all written to me expressing their disappointment at the Government’s response. It is deeply distressing and shameful that the Government, despite their firm promises, should continue to treat our Muslim community in this offhand, almost contemptuous way.

It is very hard to avoid the conclusion that the Government are making a fundamental error—moral, social and political—in putting Muslim students right at the back of the queue. Will the Minister talk to her colleagues in the Department for Education to ask them to arrange an urgent meeting with interested parliamentarians and Muslim community groups? This would allow explanation of the further delay and of the work programme, and an exploration of the possibility of setting an earlier and firmer date for the introduction of the ASF.

All this has gone on for far too long. I hope the Minister will be able to give a substantive and encouraging reply. I beg to move.

Baroness Sheehan Portrait Baroness Sheehan (LD)
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My Lords, I support my noble friend Lord Sharkey’s amendment. I should declare that, as a Muslim woman, I have a number of relatives who will be, and are being, affected by this. Not every Muslim feels unable to take out student loans as they are currently structured but there is a significant minority. It is usually women affected because they always come at the bottom of the list of who will be financed without a loan through private means. I urge the Minister, particularly given all the conversations we had last week about International Women’s Day, to consider this.

I will not detain the Committee long; my noble friend Lord Sharkey gave us chapter and verse on the Government’s position and prevarication on this issue, which, we are told, they have been able and willing to support for over a decade now. The Higher Education and Research Act 2017 allows the Government to introduce a student finance product consistent with Muslim beliefs regarding interest-bearing loans. However, as my noble friend said, the Government have yet to launch such a product. In February last year, as part of the conclusion of their review of post-18 education and funding, the Government said that they were still considering whether and how to deliver sharia-compliant alternative student finance and whether they would do so as part of the lifelong loan entitlement.

We have a situation where, not only are 18 and 19 year- old Muslims—predominantly girls—unable to access higher education but it now looks as though, with the LLE, they will not be able to access post-18 further education either. That will curtail their life chances, their ability to contribute to the life of this country and the financial contribution that they make to their families.

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Lord Harlech Portrait Lord Harlech (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, for tabling this amendment on access to sharia-compliant financial services, including student finance. The UK is widely considered the leading western hub for Islamic finance. Institutions across the UK have been providing sharia-compliant retail and wholesale financial services for nearly 40 years, offering a range of products, including bank accounts, mortgages and insurance.

Last year, the Government expanded the scope of the alternative finance rules, which support equal treatment for sharia-compliant finance products, to include home-purchase plan providers and arrangements made through peer-to-peer platforms. This allowed for these products to be treated in the same way as conventional mortgages and loans for tax purposes, contributing to a level playing field for Islamic and conventional finance products. The Treasury is currently consulting on reform of the Consumer Credit Act, which will consider ways to make it easier to provide sharia-compliant consumer finance.

Within this context, the Government want to help ensure that higher education remains accessible to all those with the desire and ability to benefit from it. They remain committed to delivering an alternative student finance product compatible with Islamic finance principles and, more broadly, to ensuring equitable regulatory and tax treatment when compared to conventional finance. The Government legislated at the first opportunity to make a system of alternative student finance possible, taking the necessary powers in the Higher Education and Research Act 2017. However, a range of complex policy, legal and operational issues need to be resolved before a sharia-compatible product can be launched.

When noble Lords discussed this matter during consideration of the Financial Services Act 2021, my noble friend Lord True stated that the Government would provide an update alongside the Government’s response to the post-18 education funding review. As a result of that review, the Government have been progressing plans for introducing a lifelong loan entitlement, which will provide an individual entitlement equivalent to four years of post-18 education. This will significantly change the ways that students can access learning and financial support.

It is important that an alternative student finance product mirrors the mainstream student finance offer; therefore, it cannot be delivered until the LLE regulations and delivery specification are finalised. The Department for Education consulted on the LLE in February 2022 and sought views on barriers that learners might face in accessing their entitlement, including consideration of an ASF product. The Government’s response to that consultation was published last week; it provided an update on ASF and set out the Government’s aim to deliver an alternative student finance product as soon as possible after 2025.

Several Members, including the noble Lords, Lord Sharkey and Lord Tunnicliffe, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Sheehan and Lady Bennett, spoke about timespans—in particular, harking back to 2013. In September 2014, the Government published their consultation on a potential model that could form the basis of a new student finance product. The Government signalled in the consultation response that they would need to take new primary powers to enable the Secretary of State for Education to make alternative payments in addition to grants and loans. These were secured in the Higher Education and Research Act, which received Royal Assent in April 2017. Specialist consultants were appointed in October 2017 to provide advice on the range of issues that would need to be resolved for a new system of alternative student finance to be implemented.

Work has started to assess how the Department for Education can ultimately deliver an ASF product alongside the LLE. Our aim is that students will be able to access alternative student finance as soon as possible after 2025. The reason for that timespan is that a range of complex policy, legal and system issues will need to be resolved to launch an alternative student finance product. Most importantly, that includes procuring advice from experts in Islamic finance, who will be working with the Student Loans Company to better understand timescales for delivery of such a product. The Government are introducing the LLE, which will significantly change the ways students can access learning and financial support. The scale and complexity here should not be underestimated. The DfE is trying to replicate a system of student finance that delivers the same results as now and whereby students do not receive any advantage, or suffer any disadvantage, through applying for alternative student finance.

Furthermore, the ASF product will need to mirror the mainstream student finance offer to ensure that access to finance and the repayments expected from borrowers are the same. From the 2025-26 academic year, new students studying at level 6 seeking government financial support will do so using the Student Loans Company’s systems under new LLE regulations. The LLE regulations and delivery specification therefore need to be finalised before an ASF equivalent can be delivered. Finally, every “touch point” for students at the SLC—that is, marketing and information materials, application forms, online portals and correspondence—will need to be reviewed and modified to ensure sharia compliance.

The Department for Education is procuring advice from experts in Islamic finance to support delivery and planning of this product, and launched an expression of interest advertisement, which closed on 20 February, to understand the market capability to deliver this advice. The department is currently considering responses and next steps. The noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, raised the takaful. The advice will support the next phase of delivery of alternative student finance on the detailed design of an ASF takaful product, as part of the LLE, and on the delivery of ASF by the Student Loans Company.

In response to the request for a meeting, this is obviously something that will need to be done in joint consideration with the Department for Education. I cannot make promises for both departments but I will take the request back. As per the request in the previous group, I note that this would ideally be before Report.

I hope I have reassured noble Lords that the Government are committed to ensuring that sharia-compliant financial products are accessible. I therefore request that the noble Lord withdraws his amendment.

Lord Sharkey Portrait Lord Sharkey (LD)
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I regret to say that the noble Lord has not convinced me at all that any progress is likely to be made and has not really explained why we are in the position we are in. I have talked to Islamic finance experts quite frequently over the last 11 years that this has been going on. They have always told me that it should take up to 18 months or so to have some kind of ASF product available on the market. They point to the Islamic version of the Help to Buy scheme, which I think the Minister mentioned. From a standing start, that was sold in the marketplace 18 months later. If that can be done, why can we not move faster? The basic question of why this is taking so long has not been answered by anybody here today.

I return to the 71-page report on the LLE. Why was the delay in ASF not explained? There was no attempt to explain why it was put back. It is quite obvious that no preliminary work of any standing was being done for the last 11 years. That in itself is deeply shocking.

It is also true that there has been no significant engagement with the Muslim community throughout this whole period. Why is that? That does not seem sensible, reasonable or honest.

I get no sense that the Government are embarrassed by their position, that they intend to move faster than they have over the past 11 years or that they understand the moral nature of this issue. I will withdraw the amendment but, unless we get the meeting that we talked about so we can sit down together to talk about this with members of the community as well as parliamentarians, when it comes to Report we will find a way, if we can, to encourage the Government to do more faster than they currently plan to do. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment 213 withdrawn.
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Baroness Noakes Portrait Baroness Noakes (Con)
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My Lords, I am sure we all have our own stories of how we have fallen foul of the PEP regulations. My own relatively recent one is that Revolut refused to let me have an international payment card, with no real explanation. It must have been because it tagged me as a PEP, because I cannot think of any other reason why it would not want to give me one. But I do not think this is really about our individual experiences, even though they are extremely aggravating for us and, indeed, our families.

I have Amendment 227 in this group, and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Trenchard for adding his name to it. The Minister will see that the four amendments in this group are all slightly different, but she should take no comfort that they are not taking a consistent approach to this problem. They demonstrate, as I am sure this debate will, that we have a united resolve that this has to be dealt with.

Like my noble friend Lord Moylan’s amendment, mine seeks to amend the 2017 money laundering regulations to exclude people with a UK nexus from the PEP regime in the area of financial services. My noble friend’s amendment excludes individuals who are “ordinarily resident” in the UK for tax purposes, while mine focuses on UK citizens. My amendment says that UK citizens are not to be treated as PEPs unless the FCA considers that any of the categories of PEPs set out in the regulation—my noble friend Lord Moylan read this out—presents a money laundering risk. My amendment is predicated on UK MPs, Ministers and all the others in the list not presenting a higher money laundering risk than the rest of the UK population. There may well be some bad apples in the PEP barrel, but no more so than in other segments of UK society.

I believe that the money laundering regulations are based on an erroneous assumption, at least so far as the UK is concerned, that all PEPs—and their families and associates—present a high risk in money laundering terms. My amendment leaves the decision on risk to the FCA, on the basis of a risk assessment, but I would be staggered if the FCA concluded that UK PEPs presented a particular money laundering risk. Indeed, its own 2017 guidance, which the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, referred to—and apparently enjoys reading in the evenings—states that UK PEPs should normally be treated as low risk.

My amendment is based on citizenship. I believe that is a fairly straightforward way, because it can be established by way of a passport, which will often be required in any event as part of proof of identity for money laundering purposes, for all categories of individual. I believe it is administratively less complex than the way based on tax status in my noble friend Lord Moylan’s amendment, for a number of reasons, including the fact that more than four times as many people have passports than fill in tax returns.

In addition, my noble friend’s amendment seems to admit that foreigners can be exempt from the PEP rules if they are resident in the UK and paying tax here. I am somewhat uncomfortable with that proposition. My noble friend may not be aware that the term “ordinarily resident”, which appears in the amendment, disappeared from the tax code 10 years ago.

I am similarly not convinced that the other two amendments in this group will do the trick, because they call for consultations and reviews by the FCA, but the FCA has consulted on and reviewed this before. As we heard, the latest set of guidance, which came out in 2017, recognised that UK PEPs are not high risk, but nothing has changed, as the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, said. The fundamental problem remains that the regulations require enhanced due diligence for all PEPs, and that is where the aggravation arises. Even low-risk PEPs have to be subjected to enhanced due diligence, with all the record keeping and evidence that entails.

Furthermore, the regulated firms that have to comply with money laundering laws are, frankly, terrified of falling foul of their regulators, whether here or abroad. It has cost them a small fortune in regulatory fines and compliance costs, and they simply will not take unnecessary risks. From their perspective, upsetting a few PEPs and their families is a lot less expensive than getting entangled in regulatory enforcement. That is why I believe that we have to change the regulations if we are to achieve a step change and get UK PEPs treated with common sense in our own country.

Lord Sharkey Portrait Lord Sharkey (LD)
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My Lords, I have added my name to Amendment 215 from the noble Lord, Lord Moylan. I congratulate him on his opening remarks.

I first encountered the PEP problem in 2016, as the banks were preparing for and, in some cases, anticipating AML regulations. For years I had had money with NS&I with minimal fuss and no difficulties at all, so I was very surprised when it wrote to me demanding very much more detail about my finances and sources of funds. My three children were even more surprised to get the same letter from NS&I—they did not even have NS&I accounts, which showed overzealousness on the part of the organisation.