Europe, what have you done for me lately?

The EU's triumph on mobile charges shows how the union benefits consumers.

The debate about whether or not Britain should have a referendum on its membership of the European Union continues to rumble on with politicians from the left and right intervening. But not a single politician has mentioned a new piece of European legislation which is set to reduce mobile costs for consumers in Britain and further afield.

In the last few days, most mobile phone customers will have received a text from their operator informing them that roaming charges, the cost of using data services abroad on smart phones, are falling. None will have been told that the change is due to concerted action by the European Commission rather than a benevolent decision by their mobile company.

The new rules mean that no customer can be charged more than:

• 29 euro cents (24p) a minute to make a call.

• 8 cents (7p) a minute to receive a call.

• 9 cents (8p) to send a text message.

• 70 cents a megabyte (58p) to download data or browse the internet, charged by the kilobyte used.

My operator, Orange, have done the absolute minimum and brought their charges down from the extortionate rate of £2.55 to 58p per megabyte. They still charge £8 per megabyte to roam in most countries outside the EU. Despite being forced to take this action, their website claims that “We are constantly updating our roaming services in Europe to provide the best possible business service abroad.” A likely story.

Thankfully the European Commission aims to reduce the gap between domestic and foreign call rates to virtually nothing by 2015. Indeed, Labour MEP for South East England, Peter Skinner, said in May:

“If roaming prices have not come all the way down to domestic levels by 2016, then the European Commission will be obliged to propose additional legislation to ensure that roaming charges are identical to domestic prices.”

Over the last two days several politicians have added their thoughts on Europe without drawing attention to Brussels’ triumph on mobile charges. David Cameron has confused everyone with his ‘hokey-cokey’ on an EU referendum. Despite calling for “less Europe not more Europe” in the bearpit of yesterday’s Commons debate he used his Sunday Telegraph article to say “The single market is at the heart of the case for staying in the EU … Leaving would not be in our country’s best interests”. So why not follow through with an up-to-the-minute example such as the data roaming cap?

In the same paper, Liam Fox called for a “new relationship” with the EU (rather than exit). But rather than talking up the virtues of EU membership here and now he used the past tense to claim that:

“The single market was one of the most important aims of the European Union project, yet in choosing a model based on harmonisation rather than mutual recognition it became inevitable that a body of law and regulation would be created that would potentially invite bureaucratic cost, diminished global competitiveness and even give encouragement to those who would fan the embers of national protectionism.”

On Labour’s side, Douglas Alexander wrote in yesterday’s Guardian that an EU referendum is no substitute for a European strategy. In defending the EU, he commented:

“We must be clear, the single market is not just about “free trade” as the Eurosceptics misleadingly imply. It's about far more than that: removing barriers behind the borders – and that requires common rules with a commission and court to enforce them. And where we have shared goals – from tackling climate change to cross-border crime and human trafficking – in an era of billion-person countries and trillion-pound economies – we cannot afford to give up on ways that help amplify our voice and protect our interests.”

Better but still no cigar.

The failure of politicians in the UK on all sides to make the positive case for Europe is one of the reasons why the debate about a referendum has now reached fever pitch. An ‘in/out’ referendum can be won but politicians who favour remaining in and pushing back the UKIP tide must start to make the positive case.

European Union Commission President José Manuel Barroso. Photograph: Getty Images.

Will Straw is Director of Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain in the European Union. 

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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.