'Islam is a strange religion'

Ajmal Masroor challenges some of the preconceptions about his faith

'Muslims are not normal and Islam is a strange religion!' Do you believe this or do you demonstrate this in your direct and indirect behaviour?

Ask a Muslim this question and I can almost guarantee you that he/she would have felt treated like this, if not on a regular basis, occasionally. This has become the popular perception amongst many non-Muslims today. Once I went out for dinner with a group of people.

They all ordered alcohol and I ordered a glass of fresh juice. This sparked off a discussion amongst us all, why I did not drink alcohol; in the course of the discussion one of them asked what was wrong with me that I do not drink?. I explained to them that according to my faith drinking or taking any intoxicants was forbidden.

I know this makes me different from the popular culture here in Britain but what is wrong with being different? In fact Islam encourages me to challenge such cultural values, not to shove Islamic values down anyone throat, but to engage in a reasoned rational discussion about the benefit and harm of some of these popular cultures.

I remember another occasion when I was invited to speak at an event and I said to a group of white English audience that I was English. I heard murmurs of disapproval from the audience. One elderly lady stood up in protest and said 'young man you are not English, the best you can be is British and you should be proud of it'. She further explained to me that only people with Anglo-Saxon heritage and white skin complexion can claim to be English. I know I was making a controversial claim but can we ever imagine accepting someone who is brown or black, English and Muslim?

Ajmal Masroor is regularly invited to speak on issues on integration and Islam in the modern world. He leads Friday prayers in several Mosques across London.
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I was wrong about Help to Buy - but I'm still glad it's gone

As a mortgage journalist in 2013, I was deeply sceptical of the guarantee scheme. 

If you just read the headlines about Help to Buy, you could be under the impression that Theresa May has just axed an important scheme for first-time buyers. If you're on the left, you might conclude that she is on a mission to make life worse for ordinary working people. If you just enjoy blue-on-blue action, it's a swipe at the Chancellor she sacked, George Osborne.

Except it's none of those things. Help to Buy mortgage guarantee scheme is a policy that actually worked pretty well - despite the concerns of financial journalists including me - and has served its purpose.

When Osborne first announced Help to Buy in 2013, it was controversial. Mortgage journalists, such as I was at the time, were still mopping up news from the financial crisis. We were still writing up reports about the toxic loan books that had brought the banks crashing down. The idea of the Government promising to bail out mortgage borrowers seemed the height of recklessness.

But the Government always intended Help to Buy mortgage guarantee to act as a stimulus, not a long-term solution. From the beginning, it had an end date - 31 December 2016. The idea was to encourage big banks to start lending again.

So far, the record of Help to Buy has been pretty good. A first-time buyer in 2013 with a 5 per cent deposit had 56 mortgage products to choose from - not much when you consider some of those products would have been ridiculously expensive or would come with many strings attached. By 2016, according to Moneyfacts, first-time buyers had 271 products to choose from, nearly a five-fold increase

Over the same period, financial regulators have introduced much tougher mortgage affordability rules. First-time buyers can be expected to be interrogated about their income, their little luxuries and how they would cope if interest rates rose (contrary to our expectations in 2013, the Bank of England base rate has actually fallen). 

A criticism that still rings true, however, is that the mortgage guarantee scheme only helps boost demand for properties, while doing nothing about the lack of housing supply. Unlike its sister scheme, the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, there is no incentive for property companies to build more homes. According to FullFact, there were just 112,000 homes being built in England and Wales in 2010. By 2015, that had increased, but only to a mere 149,000.

This lack of supply helps to prop up house prices - one of the factors making it so difficult to get on the housing ladder in the first place. In July, the average house price in England was £233,000. This means a first-time buyer with a 5 per cent deposit of £11,650 would still need to be earning nearly £50,000 to meet most mortgage affordability criteria. In other words, the Help to Buy mortgage guarantee is targeted squarely at the middle class.

The Government plans to maintain the Help to Buy equity loan scheme, which is restricted to new builds, and the Help to Buy ISA, which rewards savers at a time of low interest rates. As for Help to Buy mortgage guarantee, the scheme may be dead, but so long as high street banks are offering 95 per cent mortgages, its effects are still with us.