Miliband's call for a judge-led inquiry gathers strength

MPs' failure to land a blow on Bob Diamond has bolstered the case for a full inquiry.

It was Lib Dem MP John Thurso's comparison of Bob Diamond with Geoffrey Boycott ("You have been occupying the crease for two and a half hours and I am not sure we are any further forward") that was the defining moment of yesterday's select committee hearing. Put simply, the bowlers weren't up to the job. Their ineptitude exemplified precisely why we need a judge-led inquiry into the Libor scandal.

The Commons will vote today on whether to hold a parliamentary inquiry (the government's preferred option) or a judicial inquiry (Labour's preferred option), with the coalition's sizeable majority almost certain to ensure that MPs back the former. Andrew Tyrie, the chair of the Treasury select committee, has indicated that he will refuse to preside over an inquiry that does not enjoy cross-party support, but today's Financial Times reports that George Osborne, on this occasion, has prepared a plan B. Should Tyrie refuse to chair the inquiry, John McFall, the former Labour chair of the committee, will be asked to lead it instead. McFall will only accept the post with Miliband's blessing, but the offer of a Labour chair will make it harder for Miliband to withhold his support.

Yet George Osborne's evidence-free assertion that Labour ministers were "clearly involved" in the rate-rigging scandal means that consensus could prove elusive. It's worth noting that Miliband isn't the only one banging the drum for a judicial inquiry. The Daily Mail, one of the few papers with the capacity to shift government policy, reaffirms the case for "a proper judge-led public inquiry" in its editorial column today. Indeed, the paper seconds Miliband's proposal of a swift inquiry into the Libor scandal (to report by Christmas), followed by a second year-long inquiry into the wider "culture and practices" of the City of London.

As I suggested yesterday, the unending argument over which party called for the least regulation, matters less than who is seen to have the right policy now. One of Cameron's biggest problems is that he leads a party that voters see as far too close to the banks (a party "bankrolled by the banks", in Miliband's words) and other vested interests. It is one that his opposition to a judge-led inquiry (backed by 75 per cent of voters, according to YouGov) will only increase.

Former Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond leaves Portcullis House after appearing before the Treasury Select Committee. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.