Lord Sheikh

The website of Lord Sheikh, Founder of the Conservative Muslim Forum

Category: Speeches

Safeguarding in the Aid Sector

Lord Sheikh (Con)
My Lords, I note that letters have been sent to charities which have received UK aid. I am a patron and supporter of a charity which is undertaking work in 12 countries. I had a long meeting with the trustees yesterday, and we decided to tighten and toughen our safeguards. My point is: could charities which have not received such aid be written to to ask them to tighten up? I am deeply concerned about what can go on, and if they are not UK-aided there are possible concerns and problems.

Lord Bates
That is a really good idea and I am happy to take it away and think about it. It may be something for the Charity Commission to take leadership on, but if there is anything we can do to support and strengthen safeguarding, particularly for charities working overseas, we will want to consider it.

Lord Sheikh
Would my noble friend consider taking further action?

Lord Bates
As I said, I am happy to take back that suggestion about what more could be done, but the very fact that my noble friend as a trustee is now asking those searching questions of his organisation, although it is not in receipt of government funding, bodes well for the approach which is being taken more generally to improve safeguarding across the sector.

Link to Full Debate on Hansard

Russia

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for initiating the debate. I will specifically talk about the UK’s relations with Tatarstan and how we can strengthen our ties with it.  Tatarstan is a semi-autonomous republic in Russia located in the center of a large industrial region of the Russian Federation. I have been to Kazan, which is the capital of Tatarstan, and spent a few days there. I spoke to the people of Kazan, both Tartars, and Russians, and I found that the relationship between Muslims, Christians, and others are extremely friendly and cordial. In Kazan there is a place called the Kremlin, where a mosque and a cathedral face each other. This is symbolic of the friendship between all the communities in the region. As someone who is interested in promoting interfaith dialogue, that pleased me a great deal.

The President of Tatarstan visited the United Kingdom in November last year and met with us in the House of Lords. He was indeed very friendly and requested that I attend a business conference in Kazan. He also invited us to send a trade delegation from the United Kingdom to Tatarstan. I will attend the conference in May, and I hope that we will be able to arrange a trade delegation of British businessmen to Kazan. The president is very keen to strengthen trade and educational and cultural ties between Tatarstan and the United Kingdom. We should actively pursue these and achieve the right results, which will be mutually beneficial.

I will mention some details about Tatarstan and the opportunities that we can pursue. Tatarstan is one of the leading and most economically developed regions in Russia, rich in natural resources. It is prosperous in many ways, presenting opportunities for us to be involved in. At a conference held in London in November last year, His Excellency Mr. Rustam Minnikhanov, the President of Tatarstan, said that Tatarstan is interested in attracting British businesses, technology, and investments to the region and that they will readily provide support for these activities. The president further said that there are opportunities for British companies to be involved in areas such as power engineering, the automotive industry, production of auto components, IT, agro-industrial activities, engineering, pharmaceuticals, aircraft construction, the oil and gas industry and the transport sector. In addition, they would like to develop and expand their Islamic finance market. That was music to my ears as I am actively involved in promoting our expertise and knowledge in Islamic finance overseas.

President Minnikhanov also noted that Tatarstan is an innovative region which ranked first in the Russian national rating for investment for the third year in a row. In addition, the Russian Federation Government have launched a project in which special economic zones have been created for businesses to manufacture, manage or invest. We can get involved in those zones.

Tatarstan would also like to strengthen and forge educational links with British institutions in the UK. Given that there is only one university partnership with Tatarstan—with Cardiff University—this is an area that is worth looking into. I hope very much that we can look seriously at expanding our links with Tatarstan, and there is certainly an appetite in Tatarstan to do so. I ask my noble friend the Minister if she would like to comment on our relations with Tatarstan.

Link to Full Debate on Hansard

Islam: Tenets

My Lords, I begin by expressing my disquiet and resentment at the wording of the Question for this debate. The noble Lord, Lord Pearson, has referred to Islamist terrorism. I feel that to use “Islamic” or “Islamist” relating to any form of terrorism is completely wrong. Islam is a religion of peace and does not allow any form of suicide attack or terrorist activity. A terrorist should be referred to as a terrorist without reference to any religion. During the IRA activities, it was inappropriate to associate terrorism with a particular religion. It would be greatly appreciated if one were careful about using appropriate language in your Lordships’ House, otherwise, it may cause offense to the people of this country.

I received numerous complaints from Muslims when it became known that this debate had been tabled. Islam is indeed a religion of peace and I promote this fact in my coat of arms. Even when we greet somebody, we use the phrase As-sal?mu ‘alaykum, which means “peace be upon you”. I would like to emphasize that it is written in the Holy Koran that Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala has said: “Whoever kills a human being, it is as though he has killed all mankind, and whoever saves a human being, it is as though he has saved all mankind”. This is very similar to what is written in the Talmud. Islam and Judaism, like other religions, both value the sanctity of life.

There are more than 3 million Muslims in this country and nearly all of them are peace-loving people. They have been successful in every walk of life and have contributed to the advancement and well-being of this country. I appreciate and understand that a tiny minority have acted very badly and committed criminal offenses. What they have said and what they are doing is totally un-Islamic. Islam teaches us to celebrate the difference and diversity which God has purposefully created in our world.

The Question of this debate refers also to UK Muslim leaders. I consider myself to be one of the Muslim leaders. I am very active in combating extremism and radicalization among all communities, and I have attended and spoken at numerous meetings. I have been involved in initiatives and have taken positive action to deal with the issues of radicalization and extremism. To deal with them requires a holistic approach and we must all work together. It should involve the community, local authorities, schools, universities, prison authorities and the police. Mosques, Imams and Muslim centers also have a vital role to play. We must also take steps to combat radicalization through the use of the internet, notably through social media, and for this we must work with organizations that can do so effectively. Because of the shortage of time, I cannot enumerate the steps to be taken, although I have prepared an extended report on these issues.

I am also actively involved in promoting interfaith dialogue and I am a patron of five Muslim and non-Muslim organizations which are involved in these activities. In the Holy Koran, Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala has said: “O mankind! We have created you from male and female and made you into nations and tribes, that you may know one another”. As Muslims, we should get to know one another and people from other communities, as commanded by Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala.

Radicalisation and extremism cannot be dealt with by looking at theological issues because we need to take positive steps. I am proud to be a practicing Muslim. I have studied the Holy Koran and the Sunnah. I doubt very much if the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, has made a deep study of Islam. I feel that a debate such as this, tabled by him, can create discord and lead to further problems.

In verse 106, Surah An-Nahl refers to the notion of Taqiyya—hiding one’s faith in life-threatening conditions—as only self-defense. Mainstream Islam does not accept the current situation anywhere in the West as threatening Muslims to an extent that they would need to hide their faith identity to survive. This question is therefore completely irrelevant. In regard to Al Hijra, in verse 97, Sura An-Nisa refers to Taqiyya in compelling cases where Muslims cannot practice their faith for fear of persecution and threat to their life. In such extreme circumstances, they are advised to leave the land of hostility for a safer place. Again, no such conditions exist in the West to compel Muslims to migrate away from the West. This is again totally irrelevant and taken out of context.

In Islamic terminology, abrogation means lifting a ruling indicated by a sharia text, on the basis of evidence from the Holy Koran or consensus of the Sunnah. In most cases, the abrogation was to make things easier for Muslims or increase the rewards. As a Muslim, I say that it is totally unnecessary to re-examine the three points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. I want to emphasize that any act of terrorism is not in our name.

Finally, I urge everyone in the country to be united and stand together to combat any form of radicalization or extremism, in whatever form it comes.

Link to Full Debate Hansard

Exports: Africa and the Commonwealth

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord Popat on securing this debate and on his excellent speech. I also welcome my noble friend the Minister to her new role on the Front Bench.

I was born and brought up in east Africa. I am a strong supporter of the Commonwealth and the African countries. I have visited a number of countries overseas and know their ambassadors and high commissioners in London. I have also met members of their diaspora in the United Kingdom.

I have spoken in your Lordships’ House several times previously on various aspects of trade with the Commonwealth and the African countries. Today, I will talk specifically about the Islamic finance market in the United Kingdom and the opportunities to promote this in the Commonwealth and the African countries.

I declare an interest as the co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Islamic Finance. My background is in financial services and I have a long and strong connection with the City of London. In fact, my full title is Baron Sheikh, of Cornhill in the City of London. The APPG is a robust body and enjoys strong cross-party support in both Houses of Parliament.

The UK has the largest Islamic finance industry outside the Muslim world. We have five fully sharia-compliant licensed banks and 20 banks offering Islamic finance services. We were the first western nation to secure a sovereign sukuk. The net assets of Islamic funds in the UK are $728 million, and 65 sukuks issued at $48 billion have been listed on the London Stock Exchange.

The global market for Islamic financial assets grew by 7% last year and it stood at $2.3 trillion at the end of December 2016. With global Muslim population numbers expected to rise from 1.6 billion in 2010 to 2.8 billion in 2050, the demand for Islamic finance products and instruments will indeed continue to grow.

Islamic finance is also an attractive proposition for non-Muslim consumers who wish to have a more ethical form of finance. Although penetration of the industry as a whole is low, the levels of public awareness and understanding of Islamic financial products and services are increasing. I believe that there are still considerable opportunities to develop and grow Islamic finance in Muslim and non-Muslim countries, particularly across Africa and the Commonwealth.

The APPG on Islamic Finance aims to promote the understanding and development of Islamic finance in the UK as well as in overseas countries. The UK has been providing Islamic financial services for more than 40 years, while government policy over the last decade has created a fiscal and regulatory framework that encourages the growth of Islamic finance.

Services in the UK are offered by financial intermediaries, asset managers, insurance providers and more than 30 international law, accountancy and consultancy firms. A number of them attended the stakeholders meeting that I will refer to later. The UK is the leading centre of Islamic finance education training, with four professional institutions and nearly 70 universities and business schools offering Islamic finance courses and degrees.

The APPG believes that, by harnessing our status as the leading western hub, Islamic finance can offer a great way to build new relationships and access new overseas markets. This is particularly important post Brexit. As the global market for Islamic finance expands,  UK organisations and institutions are well placed to help develop, support and optimise Islamic finance frameworks within the emerging sectoral markets where there is growing domestic demand.

This very point was made at the dinner that the APPG recently hosted in London for 30 guests. They represented around 16 countries and were visiting London for the Global Islamic Finance and Investment Group, which is an important platform to discuss the global opportunities and barriers facing Islamic finance. We can certainly play a role in this regard.

Last week, the APPG held its inaugural stakeholders meeting, which was attended by 30 Islamic finance practitioners. The discussion addressed the very matter of exporting our Islamic finance capability, and there was a desire among the stakeholders to be more involved in overseas activities. I believe the time is now right to better understand the global demand and develop a UK proposition that meets this need.

DfID can play a greater role in achieving this objective. I had a meeting with DfID about three weeks ago to discuss the matter, and we were pleased that DfID attended last week’s stakeholders meeting. It has a growing interest in Islamic finance from a financial inclusion and development perspective. We welcomed DfID’s suggestion of working with the APPG and the stakeholders to develop export opportunities for the UK Islamic finance sector.

In conclusion, I believe that our domestic capabilities, coupled with the growing demand for Islamic finance in Africa and Commonwealth countries, present a great opportunity for the UK to export its expertise in this area. I request that the Government, regulators and our Islamic finance industry work together to showcase our capability in Islamic finance at a global level.

What are my noble friend’s views on the export of Islamic finance activities, and would she would be willing to work with the APPG and the stakeholders to promote these activities?

Link to Full Debate Hansard

Previous Bilateral Trade: Sudan

Lord Sheikh
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to promote bilateral trade between the United Kingdom and Sudan.

Lord Sheikh (Con)
My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I declare that I co-chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sudan.

The Earl of Courtown (Con)
My Lords, the Department for International Trade has a dedicated presence in east Africa to promote trade and investment, and works with DfID and the FCO to support UK businesses there. We welcome the lifting of US economic sanctions, and are tracking emergent opportunities. However, political and economic factors make Sudan a challenging place to do business. The need for reform is central in our engagement with the Government of Sudan.

Lord Sheikh
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. In the light of current preparations for Brexit, and given the US revocation of sanctions on Sudan, I hope that we can now consider Sudan as a valuable potential trade partner. What support are the FCO and the Department for International Trade rendering the UK-Sudan trade and investment forum to be held in London in December? What are the Minister’s views about areas which British companies and businesses can look into in order to undertake bilateral trade with Sudan?

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Sri Lanka

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Naseby for bringing this important subject before your Lordships’ House. I am a friend of Sri Lanka. I have visited the country three times and met its leaders and other senior figures. I also enjoy a healthy long-standing relationship with its high commissioner in London. Here in Parliament, I am a vice-chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sri Lanka. I have raised issues relating to Sri Lanka on several occasions in your Lordships’ House. I believe that it is in the political and economic interests of the United Kingdom to maintain a close and productive relationship with Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka was torn apart by civil war. Conflict prevailed for 26 years and caused immeasurable suffering. An estimated 100,000 people lost their lives and hundreds of thousands more lost their homes. It has been eight years since the fighting ceased. People are now returning to their communities and attempting to rebuild their lives. In order for permanent peace to be achieved, the Sri Lankan Government are making the necessary reforms towards reconciliation. I am pleased that this is being done. However, they must ensure that all communities feel that proper and transparent justice has been served for the atrocities that took place. Until this happens, wounds cannot be fully healed.

It is important to note some of the specific positive measures that have already been taken by the Sri Lankan Government. A national policy on reconciliation and coexistence has been approved to serve as a framework to prevent conflict reoccurring. A task force has held public consultations to inform the development of new and transitional systems of justice and reparations. Powers have been devolved from the presidency to the Parliament, and presidential term limits have been reintroduced. Independent bodies have also been set up to maintain oversight of key public institutions, including the police and the judiciary. The security services are also being trained to fully comply with international human rights law, particularly with regard to people who have been arrested or detained. It is  important that we applaud this progress and use it to provide further incentives for Sri Lanka to continue such momentum.

The European Union took this approach earlier this year, when it granted Sri Lanka enhanced market access status through the generalised scheme of preferences, which is commonly known as GSP+. This removes around two-thirds of import duties on Sri Lankan products entering the EU market. The EU Trade Commissioner stated that this was a vote of confidence that Sri Lanka will maintain its progress in implementing international conventions. She also mentioned that the situation was still unsatisfactory in many areas and that more work needed to be done.

Indeed, there is some concern that the progress of reform has slowed in recent months. Much more assertive efforts need to be made in a number of respects. Of particular concern are the tens of thousands of people who are still unaccounted for. Many people are still seeking the truth about what happened to their friends and family during the war. There are horrific accounts of people being forcibly removed from their homes by heavy-handed military or police officers. There are many allegations of human rights abuses on both sides. Whatever the truth, it is important that the allegations are investigated swiftly and with transparency. The integrity and impartiality of the judiciary will be crucial in this respect.

The Government recently introduced the Office of Missing Persons. This office will attempt to search and trace those who are missing and determine the circumstances in which they went missing. It is now important that progress is accelerated. I support the calls for Sri Lanka to produce a timetable for implementation of further reforms, particularly with regard to transitional justice mechanisms. There also needs to be much faster movement towards revising the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which is viewed by many as a key cause of human rights abuses.

The UN special rapporteur on human rights and counterterrorism visited Sri Lanka in July. His report stated that positive steps were being taken, but that Sri Lanka was still falling short on measures that would achieve long-term solutions and benefit all communities. Specifically, he said that he was encouraged by the Government’s zero tolerance of the use of torture, but that it had become so endemic in the security sector that it remained a little bit of a problem. In short, the Sri Lankan Government are trying to put—and seem committed to putting—the right policies in place. However, the level of fundamental change required in practice is proving somewhat difficult in some areas.

Last month, President Sirisena made an address to the United Nations. He spoke of the importance of protecting and strengthening democracy and of using power responsibly. He was also clear in his commitment to build a society that promotes true freedom and equality. He was equally clear on the need for support from the United Nations in order to fully achieve these aims. I received his speech as an acknowledgement of the work that still lies ahead, but also as a plea for respectful support from the international community.  There was clearly a sense of caution that, if measures are imposed too heavily and hastily, there is a risk of destabilising progress. What was my noble friend the Minister’s reaction to this speech?

I must also mention the importance of economic prosperity for Sri Lanka. I held a debate in your Lordships’ House on increasing bilateral trade between the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka. Trade can serve as a route to improve the financial position of many and can assist a country’s economic and social development. Sri Lanka has much to offer and I hope that we will look more closely at furthering our trading relationship with it, particularly as we look beyond Europe.

Since the conflict ended, successive Sri Lankan Governments have set a course for the island to become a major commercial maritime hub. I reiterate what I have said in your Lordships’ House with regard to trade with Sri Lanka. Britain should look carefully at the opportunities to exploit the rapidly changing economic landscape of this region. There are already about 100 British companies successfully operating in Sri Lanka in an environment that is already seen as one of the most liberalised economies in south Asia. Yet more rapid growth is expected, with an array of free trade agreements coming on stream to facilitate access to massively expanding Asian marketplaces. Sri Lanka should be seen as an excellent staging post for British businesses in the post-Brexit era to penetrate major markets from India to China. What positive action is being taken to accelerate trade between Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom?

Sri Lanka has undergone extreme turmoil and is still in the early stages of reconciliation. Peacebuilding is slow and often frustrating. The unity Government have made strides that were not possible just five years ago. We must recognise this and understand the fragile climate that still exists. I hope we can move forward with a policy of positive engagement, firm scrutiny and support for Sri Lanka. Finally, I would ask my noble friend how best we can achieve these objectives.

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Queen’s Speech

My Lords, Her Majesty’s most gracious Speech made clear this Government’s priority to ensure security and stability as we leave the European Union. Safeguarding jobs in our economy must be at the forefront of this. We must protect our position as a global economic powerhouse, but also reach out for new opportunities. A fundamental part of our economic success strength stems from bilateral trade. This will be more important than ever before as we embark on a new era for our country. In particular, I believe that we must now seek greater economic and trade ties with our friends across the Commonwealth and forge new trading relationships.

I am a great admirer of the Commonwealth. It encompasses 52 countries and a third of the world population. It is culturally, economically and politically diverse, yet shares our values of democracy and the rule of law. The Commonwealth is essentially a ready-made trading market. Its economies are large and small, developed and developing. It includes two of the BRICS economies, India and South Africa, along with several members of the “7 per cent club”.

Earlier this year, Commonwealth Trade Ministers met in London and agreed to deepen economic ties. They were clear about the advantages that we all have through sharing a common law, language and institutions. In 2014, UK exports to the Commonwealth were worth more than £48 billion and imports were worth £42 billion. There has been a trade surplus since 2011. It is estimated that, on average, Commonwealth countries trade around 20% more with each other than with non-Commonwealth countries.

Next year, we will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. This will be a golden opportunity to reflect on opportunities and develop new ideas. We must be ambitious and open-minded, and be more active in promoting business. The Government have made it clear that we will see new Bills on trade and customs. I look forward to such legislation and hope that we can support British businesses to export to new markets across the Commonwealth and, indeed, the entire world.

I would also like to emphasise the importance and potential of the Islamic finance industry to our economy. I declare an interest as the previous co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Islamic Finance. It is my intention that the group will soon be reactivated following the general election. I am also a volunteer patron of the Islamic Finance Council.

The United Kingdom has the largest Islamic finance market outside the Muslim world. Its assets now exceed $20 billion. The market is also growing significantly worldwide, at an average annual rate of 15%, with a value of more than $2 trillion. We must take advantage of the strong hand we already have in this industry. We have hundreds of accountants, solicitors and consultants who are highly trained in Islamic finance. We must harness and grow this talent pool further.

We can also export these skills and help other countries to develop their Islamic financial structures. In 2013, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, spoke at the World Islamic Economic Forum. He committed  to issuing a £200 million sovereign sukuk, to providing sharia-compliant student loans and to providing sharia-compliant start-up loans for new businesses. The sukuk was issued and was 10 times oversubscribed. We must now look at the issuance of a second sovereign sukuk which can attract investment in infrastructure to support economic growth, something that was referred to in Her Majesty’s most gracious Speech.

Furthermore, we must also now move forward and deliver the other two commitments. Sharia-compliant student loans will enable greater numbers of Muslim students to attend university, while start-up loans will inspire Muslim entrepreneurs to establish their own businesses. These can only be good things for our skills base and for our economy. More widely, Islamic finance is also favoured beyond the Muslim community by those who wish for a more ethical form of financing.

We must be flexible and innovative as we explore new markets and build new relationships. This approach will deliver the best returns for our businesses, create more jobs for the future and secure a stable economy on a long-term basis.

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Commonwealth

My Lords, I am pleased to contribute to this important debate today. I thank my noble friend Lady Anelay for introducing the subject and congratulate her on the excellence of her speech.

I have spoken previously in your Lordships’ House of my respect and admiration for the Commonwealth. Covering 52 countries, and a third of the world’s population, it is an enduring symbol of unity. The Commonwealth is perhaps one of the world’s most diverse unions, yet shares the values of democracy and the rule of law. Particularly at a time when the world seems so divided, we must celebrate this strength of unity and harmony. I am proud that we send high commissioners rather than ambassadors to Commonwealth countries as we do not regard ourselves as foreign in relation to each other.

Next year, the United Kingdom will host the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. This is an opportunity for us to drive forward an ambitious and progressive agenda. The previous summit in Malta in 2015 made a great deal of progress in areas such as climate change, peace and security, and sustainable development. Indeed, given the size and breadth of the Commonwealth, it seems only natural that it takes a lead in addressing some of our biggest global challenges. I say this with particular regard to our upcoming exit from the European Union. We must now refocus our efforts on tackling global issues through new networks.

I will speak specifically about the importance of building our bilateral trade relationships. In an increasingly globalised world, there is great demand for bilateral trade agreements that help to build economies without sacrificing national sovereignty. We know that we need to develop a post-Brexit trading plan. As the EU acted as a protectionist bloc against trade with outsiders, so the Commonwealth can open our trading borders to an entirely new world. The Commonwealth itself is effectively a ready-made trading network. It contains a diverse range of economies, both large and small, developed and developing. Specifically, it contains some of the most dynamic and fast-growing economies, including two of the BRICS: India and South Africa. India is also a member of the “7% growth club”, along with fellow Commonwealth nations Tanzania and Bangladesh.

Trade links between the United Kingdom and the wider Commonwealth are already strong. In 2015, total trade flow between the UK and Commonwealth countries was approximately $91 billion. The Commonwealth Secretariat has calculated that, overall, the UK is the fourth most important export market for the Commonwealth, behind only the USA, China and Japan. Twenty-four Commonwealth countries send at least a quarter of their EU exports to the UK, and eight Commonwealth countries send around 10% or more of their total global exports to the UK.

There are long-standing reasons for the success of our trade within the Commonwealth. Our commonality of language, as well as of administrative and legal systems, plays a crucial role in tearing down barriers. Not least, we of course by definition share a proud heritage and long historic ties.

It has been estimated that when both bilateral partners are Commonwealth members, they often trade around 20% more and generate 10% more foreign direct investment. I would like to see more use of the internet and social media to enhance trade between the various Commonwealth countries. We must focus on channelling investments into sectors with the potential for new growth while helping developing Commonwealth countries to develop their infrastructure and productive capacity. We will need to be very ambitious and liberal in our scope for new trade agreements. We will also need to ensure timely and efficient implementation of such agreements in order to realise their full potential.

I can personally vouch for the level of interest from our Commonwealth friends in increasing trade with the United Kingdom. Earlier this week I attended the high commissioners’ banquet at the Guildhall and discussed a range of issues with high commissioners from different countries. As someone who has a long-standing connection with the City of London, I was pleased to see the City of London Corporation hosting such an event. At dinner I sat next to the high commissioners for Kenya and Malawi. There was a clear appetite for closer trade ties in both cases.

In relation to Malawi, I also discussed the matter of establishing educational links between our academic institutions. I am a strong supporter of such initiatives due to the cultural benefits that they can provide to young students and the long-term economic benefits to our countries. When we learn from each other we gain from each other, and education, like trade, brings people together. Kenya and Malawi are just two of many developing countries within the Commonwealth with optimistic futures for their growth and prosperity. This presents us with vast opportunities for foreign relations.

I would like specifically to mention Sri Lanka, a Commonwealth country with which I maintain close links. I have previously tabled a debate in your Lordships’ House on the matter of bilateral trade with Sri Lanka, and recently asked a Question about trade with that country. Our two countries have sustained healthy political and economic ties for over 200 years. Sri Lanka has experienced significant growth over the past 15 years and is forecast to grow by at least 5.5% this year. It has signed three regional trade agreements with other nations and one is under negotiation with China. I recently met the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka; last week I had a meeting with the country’s Trade Minister; and soon I will meet my noble friend Lord Price, accompanied by two Sri Lankan businessmen. I hope we can build closer ties for the benefit of both our countries.

It is important to note that we already have a large diaspora here from Commonwealth countries who bring knowledge and expertise with them. We must activate and nurture this pool of talent. We must also encourage them to take their knowledge and skills from here to their home countries. On migration policy, it is imperative that our immigration system serves our national interest. We should encourage some migration, subject to certain criteria, but must also assert control over our own borders, which we will be once again free to do. In any case, the renewed opportunities for responsible migration from the Commonwealth will  be most welcome. We must seek to promote the movement of the best talent from the Commonwealth to provide us with adequate staff to enable the country to progress further. Can consideration be given to formulating a suitable plan for the immigration of people from the Commonwealth?

We are entering an exciting new phase in our relationship with the Commonwealth. I applaud the meeting of Commonwealth Trade Ministers held in London last week, and pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Marland for his tireless efforts. I understand that the meeting comprehensively identified opportunities as well as challenges across the Commonwealth. I also commend the establishment of the Department for International Trade, and hope that it will place a heavy focus on Commonwealth countries. I hope that we will begin to appoint more trade envoys to Commonwealth countries to identify and investigate opportunities in greater depth. Do the Government intend to appoint more trade envoys?

Finally, I am pleased to note that work is being done among Commonwealth countries to combat radicalisation and promote human rights. I ask my noble friend how we can enhance these activities, as the two issues are very important.

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Higher Education and Research Bill

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.

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International Women’s Day

My Lords, I am grateful that your Lordships’ House is again acknowledging this important day. I welcome that we pay tribute to the achievements of so many women and continue to push for full and proper gender equality across the  world. Women are the pillars of our families and communities. They have played invaluable roles in our history, including during the two world wars, yet they struggle to gain equal treatment. Much progress has been made since the first International Women’s Day more than a century ago. However, there is still much more to be done.

I shall address the situation of women in the Islamic world. I appreciate that there is a negative perception among some people relating to the role and status of women within the Muslim community. I believe that we all, in particular the Muslim community, must develop a greater appreciation of this perception and do more to tackle it. This means ensuring equal rights and opportunities in a social, educational and economic context. As is the case in all other religious and non-religious circles, we must always seek to achieve genuine parity between men and women. The Muslim community must also speak with a louder voice on gender equality and do more to mark occasions such as International Women’s Day.

It is important to look at the facts in order to understand the challenges. In Islam it is believed that the most important person in one’s life is the mother. We are taught the respect and dignity that should be provided to them. Muslims in fact believe that paradise lies at the feet of the mother. We should also remember that Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, worked for a lady whose name was Bibi Khadija. In fact, Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him, married Bibi Khadija, who was the first person to become a Muslim. It is therefore important to realise that females are not secondary to males in Muslim life.

With regard to education, girls actually now comprise an encouraging 43% of full-time Muslim students. A study last year also found that more Muslim women than men are now obtaining degrees. The same study found that average scores in school tests at ages 11 and 14 were higher for Muslim girls than for Muslim boys. Every year I present awards to British Bangladeshi school leavers and I can say that girls always outnumber boys in relation to high achievement. However, there is a problem for young Muslim women more widely, particularly for those not in education. Only 29% of Muslim women aged between 16 and 24 are in employment, compared with 51% of women in the general population. We need to investigate this paradox of increased education but low economic activity.

There is a disturbing disparity between single and married Muslim women’s career aspirations. Single women are one and a half times more likely to be in employment than married women. This unacceptable situation must be looked into as a matter of urgency. I would like to see dedicated programmes promoting the empowerment of Muslim women, perhaps most notably in workplaces. This could be in the form of providing practical training to assist with employment, or comprehensive childcare services. It is important that the Muslim community acknowledges these disparities and works with relevant organisations to help remedy the situation.

I must also mention that there has been criticism of sharia councils in some quarters, particularly among Muslim women. It should be noted that these are mediation services and do not claim to be making  decisions that are legally binding. There is evidence that some decisions made are unfair to women. It is important that the deliberations and procedures of such a system are fair to men as well as women if the sharia councils are to have the confidence and respect of the people. Equality, equity and fairness must always be maintained at the heart of any system of dispute resolution. I would like to see the establishment of a national body, self-regulatory in its constitution, of which every sharia council should become an accountable member. Furthermore, I would like to see each sharia council have at least one female adjudicator.

Another social ill faced by some women is that of forced marriage. There are unfortunately no reliable statistics available on this in the UK. The hidden nature of such activity means that incidents often go unreported. However, I pay tribute to the work of the Forced Marriage Unit, the information it collects and the support it provides to victims.

I must emphasise the difference between arranged marriage and forced marriage. Arranged marriage requires the free consent of both parties. Forced marriage is where pressure or abuse is used to force one party into giving consent. I emphasise that Islam does not permit forced marriages. The bride and the groom must be asked by the imam in the presence of witnesses whether they both consent to the marriage before it can take place.

I emphasise that forced marriages unfortunately occur across a number of communities and religious groups. In 2014, forced marriage became a criminal offence. I believe it is as important that we educate all communities about the dangers of it. All communities must ensure that it is understood that forced marriages are forbidden and, more importantly, work towards changing cultural attitudes where it is a problem. I pay tribute to all the charities which work so hard in this area, such as the JAN Trust.

I have spoken many times of the pride I feel in living in a country where those of different cultures and faiths live alongside each other in relative peace. The United Kingdom is a symbol of tolerance and inclusivity to the rest of the world. It is therefore important that all communities work together to lead the way in promoting gender equality.

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