Clegg's policy to take money from pensions to pay for mortgages is madness

It's housing market madness, writes the IEA's Philip Booth

It is difficult to think of a policy that is as ill-conceived on so many levels as the coalition's announcement on Sunday to allow parents to guarantee their children's mortgages.

Housing is unaffordable today not because buyers are unable to secure yet more credit against the value of their house but because supply is constrained. Not long ago, the average house would have changed hands for three-to-four times average earnings; today, the vast majority of buyers have to pay five-to-seven times average earnings. If you pump more finance into a supply-constrained system, there can be only one result - yet higher prices.

Views differ on the causes of the financial crash and how to deal with the problems that the economy faces today, but one reaction of the government has been to bind banks up in ever-more regulation. Whether that is right or wrong, it is a deliberate policy decision in order to ensure that banks do not fail at the expense of the taxpayer in the future. This has made banks more risk averse. The response by the government has then been to directly take on the risks that the banks have refused, through schemes such as funding for lending or the proposed business bank. This is a bizarre policy. Banks are constrained in their own business models in order to prevent them failing at the expense of the taxpayer and, instead, the taxpayer is now taking on the risks directly.

Clegg's proposal to guarantee mortgages with pensions is another such instance of incoherent policy. In addition to the regulation of bank's capital discouraging banks from risky lending, the FSA is increasingly trying to rein in the provision of mortgage finance at high earnings multiples or high loan-to-value ratios. The government's new proposal seems to work precisely in the opposite direction. Clegg seems to be reasoning that, if everybody can secure their debts on everybody else's assets, then everything will be okay. Is that not the logic that gave us the financial crash in the first place?

Even in terms of the practical details, Clegg's plan seems crazy. Any pensioner who has already reached the age at which they can take their pension is entitled to secure their children's lending on any lump sum they choose to keep as an asset. As such, this proposal is only relevant to future pensioners. If a potential pensioner secures their child's mortgage on a lump sum which legislation prevents them from accessing until at least age 55 what will happen if the child defaults on the mortgage?

Presumably, either the lump sum will have to be taken early - which will cause havoc in terms of the relationship between the lump sum and the rest of the fund which is strictly controlled to prevent tax avoidance - or some complicated contingent loan arrangement will have to be set up. This will all require reams of legislation.

Clegg might also want to ask how many prospective pensioners are so well pensioned that they would be happy to put their pension pot at risk in this way. And, in turn, how many of those prospective pensioners would not, in any case, have a house against which they (or their children) could secure an additional loan for their children if they were so minded?

This is a completely crazy policy which actually works against many of the other things that the government is doing (in some cases probably wrongly) to try to create a more stable financial sector. Parents with assets should have no trouble securing loans for their children if they wish to do so. If banks and parents wish to freely enter an arrangement whereby a pension lump sum is taken into account when negotiating a loan, then so be it - but let's not have the government specially encourage it. The fact that policy proposals in the housing finance area are becoming more and more bizarre ought to focus people's attention on the real problem - the affordability of housing. We cannot make housing more affordable unless supply can respond to demand. Some readers may object to the policy consequences of liberalising development restrictions. However, we should be clear about the housing affordability consequences of not doing so.

Mortgages are advertised in a Halifax window. Photograph: Getty Images

Philip Booth is Editorial and Programme Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

 

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle