Will Cameron introduce new anti-strike laws?

Ministers are considering a new 50% turnout law to restrict strike action.

The decision by PCS union staff to vote in favour of strike action on the eve of the Olympics has revived the debate among Conservatives about whether to tighten the UK's anti-union laws. The latter are already the most restrictive in the western world but Tory MPs want the coalition to go further and ban strikes unless at least 50 per cent of union members participate in the ballot. In the case of the PCS, just 20 per cent did (57 per cent of whom voted in favour of action). Others argue that border guards, like the police, should be banned from striking at all.

Until now, ministers have insisted that they have "no plans" to change the law but today's Telegraph reports that  the government is "now considering legislation to stop unions striking unless more than half their members vote." Aware that Boris Johnson, who has previously called for the introduction of a minimum turnout law, will seize any opportunity to outflank the coalition, Cameron may be tempted to indicate movement on this front.

Then there are those who will only be satisfied if the Prime Minister emulates Ronald Reagan and sacks anyone who participates in the strike. Conservative commentator Donal Blaney declared on Twitter: "Cameron should do a Reagan and fire every single immigration officer who strikes next Thursday. We need to face these selfish militants down". It was in 1981 that the then US president fired 11,000 air traffic controllers who ignored his order to return to work.

Since the PCS, led by Mark Serwotka, is not a Labour-affiliated union, Ed Miliband has found it easier to condemn this strike than others. But if he is retain credibility among the wider union movement, he must voice his opposition to any change in the law.

Up to 5,500 Border Force staff, members of the PCS union, will strike next Thursday. 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.