Mugabe should “take heed” of Middle East, warns Hague

Foreign Secretary speaks of “ambitious foreign policy” for Britain, and compares Mugabe and Gbagbo t

William Hague has warned that repressive African leaders will find it harder to "hide from the world" and should "take heed" of events in the Middle East.

Addressing a Times summit yesterday (published as a comment piece today – £), he sounded emboldened by Britain's action in Libya, declaring that "Britain has an ambitious foreign policy that seeks to build up our standing and influence in the world".

He compared Robert Mugabe and Laurent Gbagbo directly to Muammar al-Gaddafi, implying that Britain could have a role to play in their countries, too:

The action we have taken in Libya, authorised by the United Nations Security Council, shows that the international community does take gross violations of human rights extremely seriously.

Just as Gaddafi is an obstacle to the peaceful development of Libya, there are others who stand in the way of a brighter future for their countries. In Ivory Coast the former president, Laurent Gbagbo, has refused to concede that he lost last year's presidential election and is sanctioning attacks on defenceless civilians in a desperate attempt to cling illegitimately to power. In Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe's security forces continue to act with impunity, ramping up intimidation in order to instil fear in their opponents.

With allied missiles raining down over Libya, the subtext of such a comparison is clear. While Hague's suggestions focused on sanctions against countries that protect corrupt dictators, and forcing those responsible for human rights abuses to face international justice, the threatening language and emphasis on the role Britain has to play implies a new, muscular phase in our foreign policy.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for 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.