Labour has a case to answer on the Lockerbie bomber

We were not told that the government did “all it could” to facilitate al-Megrahi’s release.

The news that the last Labour government did "all it could" to secure the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, has prompted David Cameron to claim that MPs were not given "the full picture" at the time. Labour has responded by pointing out that nothing in the report contradicts what David Miliband told MPs on 12 October 2009.

If you compare Miliband's statement with Sir Gus O'Donnell's report, it becomes clear that Cameron has a point.

Here's the key quote from the O'Donnell report on the release:

Policy was therefore progressively developed that HMG should do all it could, whilst respecting devolved competences, to facilitate an appeal by the Libyans to the Scottish Government for Mr Megrahi's transfer under the PTA or release on compassionate grounds as the best outcome for managing the risks faced by the UK.

And here's the key extract from Miliband's statement:

British interests, including those of UK nationals, British businesses and possibly security co-operation, would be damaged, perhaps badly, if Megrahi were to die in a Scottish prison rather than Libya . . . Given the risk of Libyan adverse reaction, we made it clear to them both that as a matter of law and practice it was not a decision for the UK government, and as a matter of policy we were not seeking Megrahi's death in Scottish custody.

As Miliband made clear at the time, the Brown government favoured the release of Megrahi "as a matter of policy" but did not formally lobby the Scottish government. This assertion is supported by the report, which notes that "the former Government took great effort not to communicate to the Scottish Government its underlying desire to see Mr Megrahi released before he died".

But while Miliband's statement is not contradicted by the report, he said nothing to suggest that the UK favoured Megrahi's release to the point of actively "facilitating" an appeal by the Libyans. The problem, in other words, is not what he did say but what he didn't say. Miliband has since (rightly) admitted that the release of Megrahi was wrong. He should now also admit that the government failed to give MPs the full picture on Megrahi.

NB: It's worth pointing out, as few have today, that Megrahi's conviction is widely disputed. Read John Pilger's column from September 2009 for the full story.

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.