The perils of non-compliance

Ireland and America are suffering the same problem with their contentious taxes.

A flat tax, levied on milllions of people matching a basic selection criteria, is being fought vehemently. Although non-payment is ostensibly illegal, in practice it is unlikely to result in any real punishment. This in turn could result in a major headache for the government. Am I talking about Dublin or Washington? Both, obviously.

The Irish property tax is the subject of a massive campaign of non-payment. At the first deadline for registration, last Saturday, only half of Ireland's 1.6 million households had registered to pay. There will be many more waves of deadlines, threats and posturing before it comes but the theoretical end-point is jail.

Clearly, that isn't going to happen to 800,000 homeowners. But what other possibilities do the government have? They can't afford – politically or finanically – to back down. The expected year-one revenue of €160m is too much to turn down and in a country seems to have taken all the austerity it can bear, a moment of weakness could well mark the end of the project.

The government may simply hope that attrition (and increasingly scary letters) will reduce the number of holdouts. It is possible to jail a few thousand people in a way that it isn't with a few hundred thousand.

But they then have a further problem, in that they are "only" fighting over around €80m. If they still want to come out on top financially, they can't go for expensive measures of coercion. For instance, it costs over €75,000 to keep a prisoner in jail for a year; if each holdout manages to take up just five hours of a civil servants time, then at the average wage, they would cost the government more than they owed.

As a result, any enforcement the government does will have to be enacted on the cheap, which won't be easy given the scale of the problem.

On the other side of the Atlantic is a tax that nobody wants to admit is a tax. The Affordable Care Act – Obamacare to its detractors – imposes a $695 charge on anyone who fails to purchase insurance. This individual mandate is the subject of a supreme court hearing which is baffling many economists – because it really is all in the name.

The constitution, after nearly 250 years of interpretation, allows for the imposition of taxes by Congress for pretty much any reason it sees fit. There are still limits to the legislature's power, but it is universally agreed that if the individual mandate were a tax, it would be legal. In fact, the Republican alternative to the act is essentially just that, except instead of imposing a tax on those who don't buy insurace, it gives a tax credit to those who do. In fact, the credit, which is over $2,000, imposes a far bigger penalty on non-purchasers than Obama's plan.

The administration knows how unpopular new taxes are, however, so it is refusing to call it one. And the opposition is playing along, because they know that their best chance to get the bill overturned involves pretending that the new tax is a fine along with the government. And so the court case continues.

That's not the only strange political compromise in the bill, though. In the one measure that supports the claim that the mandate is not a tax, there are no legal penalties for non-compliance. The IRS, which administers the charge, is able to send threatening letters, but ultimately non-payment means nothing.

Even more worrying for the admistration is the fact that the charge is actually far too low to do what it is meant to do. Its implementation is due to the fact that Obamacare requires insurers to take anyone who asks, and cover all pre-existing conditions; but this led insurers to fear that people would remain insurance-free until they got ill, then buy healthcare until they got better. If this were the case, health costs would shoot up, and everyone would be worse off.

Hence, people are penalised for not buying insurance even if they are healthy. All well and good, no?

Not quite. Health insurance is really expensive. That's what got the US into this mess in the first place, after all. $695 a year is actually less than almost every insurance package currently on the market, so the fear for many is that healthy young people will take a decade of paying the charge (or not paying it, if they have the courage), then join up when they get ill. If that happens too much, then insurance premiums will rise further – making that course of action even more appealing.

As President Obama and his Irish counterpart Enda Kenny are learning, making people do what you want them to is hard.

Barack O'Bama: The president with the Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. Credit: Getty

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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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.