Lord Sheikh

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

Category: Speeches

BBC World Service and British Council

My Lords, I am pleased to speak in this debate. I think that we all appreciate the importance of soft power in the modern world. We must therefore make friends and influence people overseas. I am very supportive of the BBC World Service and believe that it provides a truly valuable service, but I shall focus today on the work of the British Council.

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities, building lasting relationships between the UK and other countries. The British Council has been building long-term trust, people-to-people connections and international opportunities for the UK for more than 80 years. Each year, it works with millions of people on six continents and in more than 100 countries. It is an essential part of our international effort to promote British values and interests.

I speak as someone who has benefited from the work of the British Council. Growing up in Uganda, I found the British Council to be an extremely helpful and informative organisation. The regional representative of the British Council used to come to our school to give talks. There was a British Council library in my home town, and I used to borrow books from it frequently. It was through the British Council that I learnt about Britain—its constitution, institutions and values. Indeed, my first knowledge of this House doubtless came as a result of the British Council. Little did I know that I would end up in your Lordships’ House one day—I would never have dreamt that when I was young?

I came to the UK to study by myself, and my family arrived later. When I came to Britain, I stayed in a British Council residence: first in Knightsbridge and, following that, in Lancaster Gate. The council also helped me to find private accommodation in London and once, when I was once in hospital following an injury, a lady from the British Council used to come to see me frequently.

I have nothing but admiration for what the British Council does. I have continued to support it in my work ever since. I have travelled a great deal abroad and have spoken to representatives of the British Council all around the world, including in Bangladesh, India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Jordan and Nepal.

The British Council does admirable work, but in this country, at least, it is not good at telling people what it does. We must therefore publicise its work. I was pleased to learn that only 22% of the British Council’s funding comes from government, with 63% coming in the form of fees and income from services. By 2015, government funding will be less than 20%. I am pleased that the British Council seeks to maximise earned income to minimise the cost to the public of its activities.

The activities of the British Council can be summarised under the following headings: English examinations, language school accreditation, arts, education and society and overseas development assistance. As noble Lords will be aware, the British Council’s activities are under review, with the findings expected later this year. I would like to add my views on the subject.

I have already said that more needs to be done to promote the work of the British Council. I also think that the British Council could move out of central government, with its multifarious activities taken over by the private sector. I also believe that we need to put more power in the hands of local groups. The British Council is already a very good employer in the areas in which it operates, but individual facilities must be given more autonomy. However, they must work hand in hand with our embassies to ensure a joined-up approach to our overseas activities.

I am passionately supportive of the British Council and hope that the Government continue to give it the support it needs to carry on with the work that it does so well.

Strenghtening the UK’s manufacturing sector

My Lords, this is a very important debate about the future of our nation’s economy. I would like to commend my noble friend Baroness Wilcox for introducing the subject and for her excellent speech.

Without seeking to rebalance our economy we will struggle to secure the long-lasting recovery that we seek. It was the manufacturing sector that made our country great and it can do so again. In recent years our economy has relied too much on services and too little on goods. I say that despite coming from a background in financial services. We must of course promote our services industry, but it is also imperative that we manufacture and export specialist products. We have the resources to produce and export such goods, as well as the expertise of our people. We must begin to make things again and reactivate our manufacturing capabilities.

I am pleased that the Government have improved our infrastructure, and that they will make further improving it a priority. Strong infrastructure is important to enable goods to be transported throughout the country and overseas. As noble Lords will be aware, specialisation leads to division of labour; as a result of this many products are manufactured in a variety of places. We must therefore provide businesses with the means to get things from place to place as quickly as possible.

Manufacturing declined massively under the previous Government. In addition, they allowed our skill base to drop considerably. I agree with the Government’s policy of taking robust action and improving our system of training and education, particularly in relation to apprenticeships and vocational training. I am very pleased that, under the Conservative Government, we have created more than 1.7 million apprenticeships. This will enhance our manufacturing base and help in our recovery.

We must also enhance our work with universities to bolster our manufacturing capabilities. Much of what is manufactured in this country requires very advanced skills, and while our academic institutions do great things, I feel that the two do not work alongside one another as well as they should. We need a joined-up approach that will allow academia to feed into industry and vice versa. I would like to ask my noble friend the Minister to comment on this matter, and on what the Government are doing to ensure that it will happen.

We need to encourage the bright thinking that will further promote our manufacturing sector, but we must also protect the ideas that we as a nation produce. In my professional role, I have worked on the insurance of copyrights and patents. I welcomed the Intellectual Property Act, which was introduced by this Government.

Output in our manufacturing sector declined sharply in 2008-09 and, after a short period of growth, it declined again in early 2012. Then 2013 saw something of a recovery, and indeed things do seem to be moving in the right direction in certain sectors. The UK is traditionally a base for high-quality pharmaceutical manufacturing, particularly of innovative medicinal products and delivery systems.

Another area where a revival has been seen is in our motor industry. This is one area where Britain fares very well on exports. Last year, 82% of all cars made in the United Kingdom were exported overseas. Unfortunately, across the board the picture is not that good. More needs to be done to increase our manufacturing capabilities. In this regard, I feel that we need to give assistance to SMEs, which are the backbone of manufacturing and other business activities. They are resilient and certainly determined to do well in whatever they undertake. I am a great supporter of SMEs and in my business life have rendered them support, with the result that my company has flourished and the SMEs, too, have done well.

On many occasions in your Lordships’ House, I have stressed the importance of placing a greater focus on trade, and particularly exports. From more overseas trade comes growth, and from growth will come prosperity and stability. It will also enhance our manufacturing sector and stimulate investment and innovation in new technologies.

We also have much work to do if we are to hit the Government’s target of doubling UK exports to £1 trillion by 2020. The continuing efforts of UK Trade & Investment must be acknowledged, and I applaud the Chancellor for expanding the resources available for exports. Doubling the amount of lending available to exporters and cutting interest rates on this lending will be welcomed across the board, but the fact that exports are still stalling suggests that more should be done. Do the Government plan any further measures to give a shot in the arm to exports?

In this regard, we also need to do more to target emerging markets, particularly those such as India, Brazil, China and Africa. We also need our embassies to take on a more commercial role, opening doors for our businesses and assisting them by pushing the brand of UK plc. They can also assist our business and political leaders in organising more trade missions. I ask my noble friend to comment on those points.

I end by saying that the United Kingdom is doing well financially on its path to recovery. The Government’s achievements can be summarised as follows: the deficit has been cut by a third; more than 1.5 million new jobs have been created; more than 1.7 million apprenticeships have been set up; and our growth, which is expected to be about 3% this year, will be the highest of the G7 countries. We cannot be complacent; we must continue our efforts to improve our financial health and achieve success in every way. More manufacturing will certainly play a vital part in achieving this.

Question on Sri Lanka

Lord Sheikh to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the current action to resolve the dispute between the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil community.

The Senior Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government & Foreign and Commonwealth Office – Baroness Warsi

My Lords, we consistently urge the Sri Lankan Government to make progress on reconciliation and a political settlement between communities. We note that the 2013 Northern Provincial Council elections established a new Chief Minister for the heavily populated Tamil region. The Sri Lankan Government must ensure that all provincial councils can carry out their roles effectively. We encourage Sri Lanka to engage with the UN internal investigation into alleged violations of international law as a contribution to reconciliation.

Lord Sheikh

 My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. What is Her Majesty’s Government’s assessment of the positive actions taken by the Sri Lankan Government in implementing the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, particularly in regard to demining, the resettlement and rehabilitation of Tamils, infrastructure development and steps taken to improve the education and health of people in Northern and Eastern Provinces? As Sri Lanka and the United Kingdom are founder members of the Commonwealth, will Her Majesty’s Government help in utilising the framework of the Commonwealth to establish a domestic truth and reconciliation commission to address the alleged human rights violations in the country?

Baroness Warsi

 I thank my noble friend for his question. Of course, we have welcomed progress made, including on infrastructure development and demining, but we remain concerned that the Sri Lankan Government’s national plan of action to implement the recommendations only partially covered the full range of recommendations and that, in turn, action taken by the Sri Lankan Government only partially corresponds to some of those recommendations. We agree with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that the Sri Lankan Government have not established a credible independent domestic investigation into allegations of violations of international law on both sides of the military conflict, and that this is fundamentally a question of political will. This is despite the UK and others calling for such an investigation since 2009. As a result, the UN Human Rights Council has passed a resolution that establishes an international investigation, which we strongly support.

British Values in Education

My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Storey for securing this timely debate. Education is extremely important to me. My personal coat of arms reflects this. It contains the motto “iqra”, which means “read”. It also shows a peacock holding two quill pens with a row of books. I should add that I have a business as well as an academic background, and for many years I was a visiting lecturer. I chair the Conservative Muslim Forum and we look at issues that relate to Muslim communities in this country. I have held meetings with Muslim leaders and associations on the subject of education and I have spoken at events. I have also written on this subject.

We are taking positive steps to deal with the education of Muslim children. The Muslim faith and British values are not two separate things; in fact, for most British Muslims, they are the same. I believe it is vital that these values are at the heart of our education system and indeed of the way of life of all those living in this country. The importance of education for the betterment of society is something that is also highlighted by both the Holy Koran and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, who asserted that for Muslims to fulfill their role of serving humanity, they must acquire knowledge for the common good.

Education is a tool that should be used to assist with integration and social cohesion. Going to school gives children the opportunity to create and develop bonds of friendship across different racial and religious groups that will help them to flourish in the future and thus become valuable members of British society. We should be grateful for the religious freedom that we all have as British citizens. The Muslim community cannot operate in a bubble, away from the rest of society. That spreads ill feeling and stops Muslims from flourishing here. This great country is a land of opportunity and one that I am proud to be a part of, but it is only through integration that we can make the most of the opportunities of this land.

As well as high grades and good qualifications, our children should come out of school as good citizens and well-rounded human beings who are a benefit to society as a whole. We must prepare teachers, imams and parents so that there is a clear understanding of how to promote both Muslim and British values. With this in mind I am totally supporting the establishment of courses at the University of East London for the training of Muslim teachers and imams. Our educational practices should follow moderate lines. We must not allow extremists to hijack our beliefs and pass them off as something that they are not. We must prepare our children for successful careers that will benefit them, their communities and the country at large.

The Lord Nash, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools comments on Lord Sheikh’s contributions in his closing remarks in the Debate.

I agree with my noble friend Lord Sheikh that education should be a tool of integration. We will not be able to call ourselves a truly successful society until we have a much more integrated society—and, sadly, we are some way short of that.

Debate on the Role of the Armed Forces

My Lords, this is an important debate and one in which I am pleased to get the opportunity to speak. The contributions of our Armed Forces need to be recognised and respected. We have a duty to repay their courage and commitment, including after their service, and we also have a duty to their families, who also pay a price on our behalf. I record my gratitude for the risks that they bear, and have borne. We, the nation, owe a great deal to those who risk their lives and serious injury for the sake of our security.

We have a proud tradition of playing a major part on the international stage and our service personnel have demonstrated a courage and strength that have regularly achieved international acclaim. We have a duty to speak up for our Armed Forces and to champion their cause. I am a proud supporter of our Armed Forces, and I take every opportunity to support them and their work, as I know the vast majority of the public do, too. The points I would like to contribute to the debate today surround the issue of relations between ethnic minorities and the Armed Forces. That is an issue I am well placed to speak on, and one I have spoken on previously in your Lordships’ House.

In 2009, the Ministry of Defence formed the Armed Forces Muslim Association, whose meetings I have attended and spoken at several times. General Sir David Richards—who is now of course the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Richards, was the founding patron of the association, and General Sir Nicholas Houghton is now the patron. Our Armed Forces have a long tradition of recruiting from a wide ethnic base, and that is something of which we should be proud. I am pleased to note that some Muslims now hold senior positions in the Army, the Navy and the RAF. Promotions and appointments to our Armed Forces, as with all employers, must be based on merit. However, I have been assured that the Armed Forces are committed to equal opportunities for all. It is to the benefit of our nation and its defence capabilities that our Armed Forces are reflective of our country as a whole. I do not support that being done by quotas or positive discrimination. Instead, we must work to improve relations between our Armed Forces and ethnic communities in order to allow it to develop organically.

The increasing number of Muslims in the UK Armed Forces is a natural change, because society is becoming more tolerant and young Muslims feel more able to come forward and serve. Generally, both female and BME personnel are in the lower ranks for both officers and other ranks. More recently, targeted recruitment activity has sought to increase the number of females and BME personnel in the Armed Forces, so we should see more female and BME personnel coming through to senior positions in the future. While there is a continual, long-term gradual increase in the proportion of BME personnel, problems still remain. Those are particularly prevalent in the Muslim community. After meeting senior officers of the Armed Forces on two occasions, I recently wrote a report on that subject in my role as chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, a copy of which has been sent to the Minister. We are putting the various ideas into action in conjunction with the imams and senior members of the Armed Forces.

There are currently 2.7 million Muslims in the United Kingdom, whose heritage comes from many different parts of the world. On the whole, those Muslim communities have integrated well into British society and contribute towards a number of industries and professions. However, the number of Muslims who have joined the Armed Forces is severely disproportionate to their population in this country. Given the integral part that our Armed Forces play in upholding the pride and spirit of our country and helping to define our national identity, that imbalance must be addressed. There are opportunities for Muslims to join the Reserve Forces, as they have the knowledge and expertise. The relationships between the Armed Forces and Muslim communities are generally good, but there are problems. It is important that we strengthen and maintain the relationships. Both the Armed Forces and the Muslim community can and should do more to achieve this.

Two of the objectives of the Conservative Muslim Forum are to strive to maintain unity, brotherhood, tolerance and good will between all persuasions of Muslims and with the wider community and to work to maintain and build bridges with all communities and religions within the United Kingdom. The Conservative Muslim Forum is a robust organisation, and members of all communities are welcome to our functions. The imams and members of the Armed Forces have attended our events. The Armed Forces imams periodically lead the Friday prayers, which are held in the House of Lords. I therefore feel that the Conservative Muslim Forum could also be specifically used as a platform to strengthen the links between the Armed Forces and Muslim communities. The Conservative Muslim Forum’s involvement in building stronger links with the Armed Forces will not have any political agenda, as it is very much appreciated that the role of the Armed Forces is totally apolitical. This is not about making a political point but more putting an end to the feeling that Muslims cannot make it in the Armed Forces.

This is perhaps the most important part of increasing Muslim participation in our Armed Forces, for there are number of misconceptions, leading people to believe that a life in the Armed Forces is not compatible with our faith. There is still work to be done in Muslim communities to encourage family members to be more accepting, but the chain of command inside the Armed Forces is getting better every year at accommodating Muslims. Muslims in the UK Armed Forces are able to pray five times a day and fast, as long as this does not have a direct impact on health and safety or operational effectiveness. Female service personnel can also wear the hijab, if they wish to do so. They are provided with halal rations, can seek support from Muslim chaplains and use prayer rooms on base, one of which was recently made available on a naval warship. I recently got the opportunity to try halal ration packs for myself to see what is provided for soldiers on exercises and operations.

To Muslims, a love of your country and serving your community is an important part of our faith. For thousands of soldiers in the Armed Forces, faith features regularly in their daily lives. Conviction in their faith supports them through the arduous nature of their employment, whether it is at sea, on land or in the air, in training, on exercise or while deployed on operations, where danger is often not far away. We must increase the visibility of Muslim service personnel, both in Muslim and mainstream media, and increase attendance at awards and events arranged by the Muslim community. We must also involve a wider range of ethnic minority media in Armed Forces recruitment campaigns. I am proud that the Conservative Muslim Forum has taken a lead on this with our website now carrying links to the Army recruitment website, along with links to the Navy and RAF recruitment websites. Educational literature should also be provided for imams and mosques, explaining the role and nature of the Armed Forces. It is encouraging that we have now established a firm base from which to take this initiative forward, and I commend the work of the Armed Forces imams, Imam Asim Hafiz and Imam Ali Omar, as well as several individuals from within Army HQ and naval command.

I would like to add that an Armed Forces Muslim Forum was recently launched by my noble friend Lord Astor and Chief of the Defence Staff Sir Nicholas Houghton. The forum looks to improve relations between the Muslim community and the Armed Forces at a strategic level. My deputy in the Conservative Muslim Forum, Mr Mohammed Amin, was also in attendance at the launch. I have also spoken to a number of other Muslim leaders who are very keen that we should all, as a community, make efforts to build more harmonious relationships with the Armed Forces. I will be very pleased to be proactively involved in making this happen and increasing the role of the Armed Forces in the Muslim Community and the role of the Muslim Community in the Armed Forces.

Finally, many Muslims, including members of my family, fought in both world wars. We did this out of love and loyalty to the king and the empire. The first non-white person to receive the Victoria Cross was in fact a Muslim, whose name was Sepoy Khudadad Khan, who fought in Belgium during the First World War.

Lord Astor of Hever, Parliamentary Under-Secretary in the Ministry of Defence, comments on Lord Sheikh’s contributions in his closing remarks in the Debate.

I agree with what my noble friend Lord Sheikh said about Muslims in the Armed Forces. I was honoured to be invited, as my noble friend said, to the most recent Armed Forces Muslim Forum event, where I spoke alongside the CDS. During that event I met several serving Muslims as well as leaders of organisations around the UK, who were all very enthusiastic about the ongoing work the Armed Forces are doing with the Muslim community.

Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking and Prevention of Sexual Violence in Conflicts Worldwide.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s most gracious Speech contains some very welcome measures that will protect the most vulnerable in our country and advance the cause of a fairer society. One such measure that I particularly welcome, and the subject on which I will speak today, is the inclusion of the modern slavery Bill.

Modern slavery is an appalling crime that has no place in today’s society. The modern slavery Bill, the first of its kind in Europe, represents a historic opportunity to get new legislation on the statute book and reflects the Government’s determination to lead the global fight against this evil. Human trafficking is an issue that is of great concern to me. I have raised it on a number of occasions in your Lordships’ House. I was born and brought up in Africa, which was ravaged by slavery. I have always appreciated the work of General Gordon and David Livingstone. About four weeks ago, I went to Zanzibar and visited the site where the slaves were kept and sold. Some 200 years since the abolition of slavery, it is depressing that there is a continuing need to confront this evil.

Human trafficking destroys lives and its effects damage communities. It is an international organised crime, with the exploitation of human beings for profit at its heart. Vulnerable women, men and, most tragically, children are trafficked for sexual exploitation, labour exploitation or to be used in criminal activity. This is something that no civilised country should tolerate. Victims often travel to the UK willingly in the belief that they are destined for a better life.

Despite concerted efforts in this country and across the world, the appalling reality is that human trafficking is one of the fastest growing international criminal activities. The International Labour Organisation estimates the number of slaves worldwide to be 21 million, with the slave trade generating £150 billion of illegal profits annually. I am pleased that the Government have shown that they will not tolerate slavery and human trafficking within, or into, the UK, and are taking the lead on combating these awful crimes. Human trafficking is a truly international crime, with potential victims identified from all over the world. We must work more closely with our international partners to stop this terrible crime.

The modern slavery Bill will be a significant step in Britain’s approach to combating this evil. The main provisions of the Bill relate to the committal of offences, the introduction of slavery and trafficking prevention orders, the creation of an anti-slavery commissioner, the protection of victims and stricter law enforcement powers at sea. It brings together, rationalises and simplifies existing laws that are dotted around in other Acts, bringing clarity and focus to Britain’s approach. I am pleased that there is cross-party consensus on this issue. We must continue to work together on this so that the Bill is the strongest it can possibly be. I look forward to the modern slavery Bill’s passage through your Lordships’ House and hope that this will be an effective step on the road towards ending this most heinous of crimes at home and abroad.

Finally, I welcome the United Kingdom’s intention to lead efforts to prevent sexual violence in conflict worldwide, which was included in Her Majesty’s most gracious Speech. I have spoken in your Lordships’ House several times on this matter, and I am very glad that a global summit, which will be co-chaired by the Foreign Secretary, is being held in London this week on the subject. I do not have the time to talk about the subject in any detail, but I would like to say it has been reported that rape has been used as a weapon by certain Muslims, and in this regard I would remind them that Islam strictly forbids this evil practice. Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, instructed Muslims not to lay hands on women, children and elderly people in any form of warfare.

International Conference on Educating Muslim Pupils

I would like to commend the Association of Muslim Schools for organising this International Conference which aims to address the needs of Muslim students and educationist in the broadest sphere.The Association aims to provide high quality services and support for the development of excellence in Muslim Schools in all spheres of life for learners and educators. I agree with these objectives and hence I am here today to welcome to the Conference.The Conference has a busy programme and I hope ideas will emerge which can be put in practise for the benefit of Muslim education. This Conference will also be an excellent venue for networking and I hope that the people attending can exchange ideas and learn from each other’s successes.This is truly an International Conference and mashallah we have a very large attendance here today. I want to talk about the importance of education, in particular that with values and faith at its heart.Education is extremely important to me. My personal coat of arms reflects this. It contains the motto “iqra”, which means “read”. It also shows a peacock holding two quill pens with a row of books. 

These all signify the importance of my educational background and the fact that I am very keen to promote education.  I used to be a lecturer but I soon had to decide whether to go into full-time lecturing or to go into business. But I worked out a compromise and I became a visiting lecturer as well as going into business. Tony Blair was not the first person to say “Education, Education, Education”. It was Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, founder of the Aligarh University in India, who first coined the phrase and it was actually his motto. 

In Islam, education is seen as vital. There is a verse in the Holy Quran which reads as follows: “Read in the name of your Lord who created. Created man from a clot of blood. Read! And your Lord is the most generous. Who has taught by the pen. Taught man what he did not know” 

This verse shows that Muslims believe Allah created humanity and that he commanded us to seek knowledge in order to become stronger in our faith. The Holy Prophet (peace be upon him) has also said the following: “Seek knowledge even unto China”. “Acquire knowledge for he who acquires it performs an act of piety, he who speaks of knowledge praises God”.“The ink of the scholar is more precious than the blood of the martyr”.

The importance of education for the betterment of society is also something that is highlighted by both the Qur’an and the sayings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), who asserted that for a Muslim to fulfil their role to serve humanity, they must acquire knowledge for the common good. Everyone should be given an equal opportunity to succeed, regardless of religion or socio-economic group. For me, this is one of the key pillars of values-based education. Education provides individuals with the knowledge and skills needed to increase their incomes boost their employment opportunities and fight social inequalities. One of the aims of this conference is to build bridges of understanding between Islamic faith education and mainstream education. 

It is therefore important to note the importance of education as a tool in assisting with integration and social cohesion, especially in the diverse multi-cultural and multi-faith society that we live in today. The school establishment is the earliest social institution with which children come into regular contact with others, and the lessons they learn while at school help prepare them for adulthood and for living working lives. Going to school gives children an opportunity to create and develop bonds and friendships across different racial and religious groups, which will help them to flourish in the future and be a valuable part of British society. When I was at school in Uganda, I had several friends of different religions and I learnt to speak six different languages. Learning about other religions enabled me to develop an understanding of the various groups that lived in and around my community. It will enable other children to do the same. Faith-based education is in fact instrumental in promoting some of these values. Indeed, the concept of building bridges across communities in the wider sense can be nurtured by education with faith at its heart. 

Religion can promote a neighbourly society that too often seems to have been eroded. I believe that learning to appreciate cultural harmony and developing an awareness for others can be all the more effective if it is taught within the context of the true meaning of Islam. We can only benefit from our religious diversity if we sustain the freedom for religions to reflect their differences. It is through reinforcing such ideas that strong community links will be forged. This will also ensure that our children are taught the importance of cultural and community values. In this respect, schools should not just be an academic institution but should also promote civic values. As well as high grades and good qualifications, our children should come out of school as good Muslims and well-rounded human beings that are also a benefit to society as a whole. In short, faith schools are an important part of the education system, offering diversity and choice to parents, as well as helping improve standards. 

I would in fact like to see greater participation by Muslims in all aspects of the education system, as governors and teachers in mainstream schools in addition to Muslim faith schools. Local Muslim community organisations and parents need to play an important role for this to happen. It is imperative that parents take an interest in the education of children and the parental involvement does have a positive impact on the outcomes of pupils and students. I would like to state that the standard of education amongst children of Bangladeshi extraction has improved considerably over the last ten years. Their performance is fact better than the results the British white communities. One of the reasons is that there is a greater parental involvement in the educational wellbeing of the children. 

Ladies and gentlemen, faith, values and community cohesion can go hand-in-hand with education. I believe that the shared objectives of so many people here today are proof of that. In recent months there has been references relating to extremist practises in some schools, there are also been reference to the alleged Trojan horse plot which has received a great deal of publicity. I would not like to comment and do not know fully whether these comments are justified. I would however like to say that our educational practises should follow moderate lines. We must prepare our children for successful careers which will benefit them, their communities and the country at large. 

In Urdu we say Deen and Dunnia which means religion and the world. I would however like to say that in my business and professional life I have met young Muslims, males as well as females who have done well in every walk of life. Let us have more of these bright and successful young people and I am sure we can achieve this. 

Finally I would like to thank the Association of Muslim Schools for asking me to address the Conference. Please enjoy the Conference and I hope that you find it interesting and fruitful. Thank you.

 

 

 

 

Budget Statement

My Lords, I am pleased to speak in this debate and pay tribute to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for another successful Budget. Under this Government our economy is on the mend. The problems inherited from the previous Government were greater than we had imagined, but slowly things are turning around. This Government are striving to be the most pro-growth in living memory. However, tough decisions are needed to reduce the deficit, heal our economy and keep interest rates low. Our economy needs to be more resilient and balanced. This is the only way in which to secure a better future for Britain and our well-being.

We are indeed on the way to growth, and this Budget was the next step. It was a positive Budget, one looking not only to solve the problems of the past but to secure a better future. The Budget will also indicate that people can be trusted with their own money. More money in the pockets of working people often means more money in the hands of business, through consumer spending. It is welcome that the personal allowance will rise to £10,500 in 2015-16. I ask my noble friend the Minister if there is scope to increase it further.

Much has also been made of the ways in which this Budget will benefit pensioners. People work hard throughout their lives and it is only reasonable that they expect flexibility from, and a good return on, their savings. There will be no obligation to buy an annuity if savers do not want to do so. As someone who has been actively involved in the arrangement of pensions, I can say that some people were not happy with the restrictions on their pension funds when the time came for their retirement. I therefore welcome the revised arrangements. I am pleased to note that everyone who retires on these schemes will now be offered free, impartial and face-to-face advice. Financial education has been insufficient in this country for far too long. While I wholeheartedly support people having the freedom to do what they wish with their money, it is important that we make sure that they are in a position to make wise choices. With this in mind I ask the Government: what is being done to ensure that advice is offered not only to those who are about to retire but to younger people who must learn the importance of saving for later in life?

Manufacturing declined massively under the previous Government and is enjoying something of a renaissance under this Government, but still the growth is not enough. We must not rely purely on financial services but begin to make things again and reactivate our manufacturing capabilities. I was born and brought up in a colony where nearly everything we had was of good quality and was made in Britain. We had British-made cars, clothes, household appliances, bicycles and food products—the list goes on. The Empire is now gone but the British people have the ability to be great again in manufacturing.

On many occasions in your Lordship’s House, I have stressed the importance for us to place a greater focus on trade, in particular our exports. In January, our trade deficit was estimated to be £2.6 billion. Our deficit on goods continues to be partly offset by our surplus in services, but we cannot allow this to go on. The continued efforts of UK Trade & Investment must be acknowledged. I applaud the Chancellor for expanding the resources available to it and going through it. Doubling the amount of lending available to exporters and cutting the interest rates on this lending will be welcomed from across the board. The Chancellor was clear that we will have the most competitive export finance in Europe. Our exporters need the confidence that Government understand the crucial role that exporters play and are willing to support them at every turn. I know that a great deal of progress has been made over the past couple of years, not least in recent months.

It was encouraging that the Business Secretary visited the United Arab Emirates on a trade mission back in January and launched a UKTI Gulf investment team. I visit UAE frequently because I own properties in Dubai. The economy of that city is indeed lifting, and we should make use of the opportunities that are now opening to outsiders. I was also very pleased to see the Trade Minister open British business centres in Slovakia and Hungary earlier this month. The drive to boost our trade with central and eastern Europe is most welcome. However, this is not enough.

We need to look in more depth at opportunities with countries such as Brazil, India and China, where export prospects are greatest. A report last month from the manufacturers’ organisation EEF found that emerging markets now account for half of manufacturers’ priority targets. In particular, Brazil has become a top priority, with one-third of companies planning to increase exports there. It is very important that our Government fully realise this potential and capitalise upon it swiftly and assertively. They must develop strategies to target these markets rather than react to potential opportunities.

The report also found that there is a lack of awareness among manufacturers of the support available to them. This further confirms my already-held view that we need to market the services of UKTI more effectively. In particular, I should like to see a much more concerted effort on expanding our trading links with Africa. I know Africa as I was born and brought up there. I am visiting Kenya, Tanzania and Zanzibar in three weeks’ time.

A recent report from the World Bank forecasts that sub-Saharan Africa will grow by 5.3% this year. There are several African countries where growth exceeds 7% per year. Countries such as Ghana, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania are seeing increased consumer spending and need further investment in telecommunications and education. We have historic ties with some of these countries. We must act now and connect our businesses at home with the overseas markets of the future. I should be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could inform the House of any further plans to focus on these lucrative emerging economies.

Of course, none of these ventures will even be possible if we fail to nurture the talent and innovation of our young people. That is why I applaud the announcement to extend further the apprenticeship programme, supporting 100,000 more through extra grants to businesses. As someone who has been involved in training in my own business—financial services—I appreciate the training of our young in every field to ensure our growth and well-being.

The Federation of Small Businesses welcomed both the reduction in corporation tax and the doubling of the annual investment allowance for small firms. However, it cited as problems poor communication and the fact that firms often do not take advantage of government schemes simply because they do not know about them. This is a problem that has been mentioned in relation to business and exports many times. I ask the Government for clarification on what is being done to improve the way in which their policies are communicated to SMEs and others who can benefit from them. I also ask the Minister whether he believes that the Government will meet their exports targets. If the growth in exports continues to be slow, what plan do the Government have to deal with this?

Finally, the people who are paying 45% tax are often entrepreneurs and businessmen, who create jobs and generate revenue for the country. They should not be penalised and I feel that consideration should be given to reducing their tax rate from 45% to 40%. I would appreciate my noble friend’s comments on this point.

I believe that this was for the most part a good Budget. The Government are on course, as is our economy. However, I shall be grateful if, in his closing remarks, my noble friend is able to answer some of the points that I have raised.

South Sudan

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Chidgey for initiating this short but important debate. I was born and brought up in Africa and still have many connections throughout the continent, so I feel particular resonance with this debate. I have visited Juba, as my family undertook business in that part of the world. I also declare that I am the chairman and a funder of a charity which has undertaken humanitarian work in Sudan.

There was a long struggle for independence for South Sudan, with decades of conflict, but since it was granted independence in July 2011 its problems have not been erased. In Sudan, there has been a history of problems relating to cultural differences, poverty, tribal intolerance, violence and ethnic religious prejudice. After South Sudan gained its independence, differences arose within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. It started as a political dispute between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar, but has escalated into a full-scale conflict, with some of the fighting along ethnic lines. The President has accused Mr Machar of launching a coup, which Mr Machar denies strongly. Following the ceasefire of 23 January there was hope that a long-term peaceful solution could be found. However, the brutality witnessed less than a month later in the city of Malakal shattered all our hopes and disturbed even the most seasoned of aid workers on the ground.

Two months on and I am now very disappointed that the second round of peace talks have been delayed. The two sides are unable to even agree on who is to attend such talks. This is extremely frustrating and illustrates the scale of the challenge ahead. The international community must be swift and assertive in condemning any obstruction to progress on negotiations. I support the threat of sanctions by the European Union and the United States in the event that progress is not forthcoming. Most importantly, it is the humanitarian situation and human rights violations that are threatening innocent people’s livelihoods. I commend the work of the United Nations and the World Food Programme to assist with this, but it is not and cannot be enough.

The UN mission in South Sudan has been clear to both sides that its premises and facilities must not be violated. I welcome the temporary strategic shift towards the protection of civilians and the facilitation of humanitarian assistance. I also welcome the establishment of a commission of inquiry so that human rights abuses are properly investigated and perpetrators held accountable. Any eventual solution must be thorough and comprehensive enough to prevent such a catastrophe from recurring. I believe that the participation of all sides and relevant parties is crucial if this is to be achieved. The decisions of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development must be respected in its role as mediator in the region.

It is also paramount that we see the withdrawal of all allied forces and armed groups, as originally drafted in the cessation of hostilities agreement. The people of South Sudan are enduring suffering every day. Twenty thousand people have died and nearly a million people have been displaced in the space of just three months.

There are now also warnings of a potential famine if farmers do not feel safe enough to return to their homes and plant their fields. It is depressing that the world’s youngest country has descended into such chaos. The people of South Sudan had already encountered far too much suffering prior to independence. Ultimately, these divisions must be healed and governance must be strengthened for the sake of the South Sudanese people.

This will happen only through mutual compliance with the cessation of hostilities and mature political dialogue. During the January ceasefire, our Foreign Secretary was clear that the UK was ready to lend its full support to efforts for a process of national reconciliation. I hope that we will do so and respect this commitment, and I would be grateful for clarification on this point from my noble friend the Minister. I am, however, encouraged by our Government’s commitment to working closely with the Republic of South Sudan towards international peace and stability. I ask my noble friend to update the House on the representations that the UK has received from the African Union on the assistance the UK can provide.

I also call on the Government to further press South Sudan to implement the agreements from September 2012 to resolve outstanding areas of disagreement with Sudan and uphold the ceasefire. We need to continue to work towards resolving the political, tribal and humanitarian problems to achieve peace and prosperity not only in South Sudan but in Africa as a whole. I look forward to the Minister’s remarks at the close of the debate.

 

Employment

My Lords, I pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Freud for introducing this subject and for his excellent speech. I speak as a businessman and as somebody who has employed many people through several business ventures. At the outset I take the opportunity to commend the Chancellor of the Exchequer on his Budget Statement. I hope to speak more on this subject during the impending debate next week but it is useful to note in this debate the measures that will boost employment.

I welcome measures announced in the Budget to support businesses, which include cutting the cost of energy bills for manufacturing and doubling the annual investment allowance to £500,000. The Chancellor also stated that we will have the most competitive export finance in Europe, by doubling government lending available to exporters to £3 billion and cutting the typical interest rate by a third. All these will provide a much needed financial boost to businesses and free up money to spend on employing more staff, among other things. This was a Budget that backed businesses and, as a result, backed employment.

It is my belief that this Government’s work on welfare and employment is one of their greatest achievements. I have spoken on this subject in your Lordships’ House previously. It has been stated many times in this Chamber, in the other place and elsewhere that the coalition Government inherited a dire financial situation—but we must not forget that this was not the only legacy that their predecessors left behind. This Government also inherited a culture of worklessness, one whereby welfare could and often did pay more than work and where generations did not work. Let us not forget that children and young people who live in households where adults do not engage in any form of employment are not only the most deprived in our society but also the most likely to follow this path once they leave full-time compulsory education. This generational cycle of worklessness was a key factor in the rising levels of welfare dependency and poverty in our communities. Alongside this, there were also vastly high levels of unemployment.

There are now 1.3 million more people in work than when Labour left office. Unemployment now stands at 7.2%, the lowest for the past five years. The number of young people in work has increased by 43,000 in the past three months and the employment rate has now hit a five-year high with a record 30.1 million people in jobs. The OBR has forecast that over the next five years a further 1.5 million jobs will be created, with real earnings growing every year.

It is however important that we remember that employment is not merely a matter of statistics. Every position filled means another family have the security of a regular pay packet. We must not forget that this pay packet is put back into the economy both in taxation and in consumer spending, supporting yet more jobs and growth. Nor should we forget the great benefit to the person’s individual well-being. I am sure noble Lords will agree that work gives people pride and confidence. As an employer, I know that people tend to work for two reasons. The first is to earn a living and the second is to get job satisfaction. On the contrary, being out of work sometimes creates depression and has an adverse effect on people. Work is good for people’s mental health, their physical health and their general well-being—benefits that have been demonstrated repeatedly. Dependency is not liberating. It constrains people and prevents them from achieving their ambitions. What is more, if we can get more people in work, some of them will receive salary progressions and improve their standards of living.

The Government deserve recognition for trying to ensure that we have a fair welfare system to support those in genuine need. Since benefits were capped, 9,200 households have moved into work or reduced their own benefit claim. Some 4,300 of these households have found jobs. We have heard many times that it is the Government’s aim to reward those families who want to work hard and get on. Here we are seeing that, as a result, thousands of people are finding jobs and moving off benefits. It was not right that tens of thousands of households received far more in benefits than the ordinary hard-working family earns. We cannot underestimate the resentment and anger felt by hard-working families who saw others who made a conscious effort not to work being rewarded handsomely by the state. This caused tensions within our communities, which is understandable. To have people saying that they “could not afford to work” was absurd. Britain must be one of the few countries in the world where this was the case. Social security should be for people who find themselves out of work and are trying to get back into employment. Few people would disagree with these aims.

I pay tribute to those who offer people the chance of work. The rise in employment is not created by Government alone. It is being fuelled by businesses and entrepreneurs across the country. They should be congratulated. As the economy continues to improve they are feeling increasingly confident about employing more people. I have spoken many times in this Chamber and elsewhere on the importance of supporting small businesses. As has been said many times, SMEs are the lifeblood of the British economy. An ambitious and thriving small business sector is vital for steering the economic recovery in the right direction. None of the early signs of recovery that we are seeing today would have been possible without these small businesses. Their importance comes not only in the money they can make but also in the jobs they create. We must ensure that the systems are in place to aid them in doing this. The National Insurance Contributions Act, given Royal Assent recently, was one such measure. The employment allowance will give businesses and charities a much needed tax cut as a result of the Act. This will benefit over 1 million businesses, with almost 500,000 being taken out of paying national insurance contributions altogether. Businesses will, more often than not, spend these savings on their business—investing it, increasing wages and creating jobs.

Let us also not forget the smallest of businesses, those which currently have no employees at all. The allowance will create a strong incentive for sole traders and new and start-up businesses to hire their first employee. The number of self-employed people has risen. I hope that soon they will have more employees of their own, creating wealth and jobs through innovation.

Another welcome measure is the removal of the jobs tax on young people under the age of 21. As a result of this, employer national insurance contributions will be removed altogether on 1.5 million jobs for young people. Youth unemployment is falling, but it is important that more is done to get young people into work. We can see from the experience of previous generations that the longer the period spent out of work as a youth, the longer the time spent out of work later in life. I am pleased that, thanks to this measure, the future is looking brighter for young people in this country. This will also come as a great benefit to the businesses that employ them. A young, vibrant and skilled workforce is a benefit for us all.

We should also welcome the rise in the number of women in employment. As someone who has spoken many times about female empowerment, it is most welcome that the number of women in employment has reached a record high, with more than 14 million in work for the first time. The number has increased by over 500,000 since the election. Getting into employment should not be something that people are expected to do alone, particularly for those who have never worked before. It can be a daunting process. I am pleased that the Government’s Work Programme is helping people into work. Unlike the short-term focus of previous schemes, the Work Programme is geared towards not just getting people into work, but keeping them there. It is helping large numbers of people escape the misery of long-term unemployment and get back into real jobs. Through this scheme, providers are rightly paid according to results. They have the flexibility to design support systems that address the needs both of the individual and of the local labour market. So far the scheme has helped 208,000 jobseekers find lasting work, including 17,560 young people. This is evidence that there are jobs available, but we must work to ensure that all the measures are in place to get those who need jobs into them.

It is my belief that this Government are committed to lowering unemployment and helping people back into work. However, we must not be complacent. More needs to be done to increase employment and train people to fill the jobs. To enable us to achieve that, we should not rely on my business, which is financial services, but expand our manufacturing activities and undertake more business overseas. We must increase our trade with India, China, Brazil and Africa. There are considerable opportunities in Africa, where I was brought up and with which I still have connections. Given our historic ties with a number of African countries, we must promote more trade with them. Also, we should increase apprenticeships and train more people in different trades and businesses.