UK to "resist" European plans for a Robin Hood tax

Britain looks set to scupper a financial transaction tax, saying it will unfairly affect London.

The UK government has reiterated that it will "resist" European plans to introduce a tax on financial transactions.

This comes after José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, unveiled the proposals as part of his annual State of the Union address in Strasbourg yesterday. He said that the tax could raise some €55bn (£50bn; $75bn) a year.

Under the proposals, the tax would be levied at a rate of 0.1 per cent on all financial transactions between institutions. Derivative contracts would be taxed at a rate of 0.01 per cent. Both parties would be charged, even if only one was EU-based.

It would be a popular measure with the public. A recent poll by Eurobarometer found that 61 per cent of Europeans support a financial transaction tax, including 65 per cent of Britons.

On Radio 4 this morning, Stuart Fraser of the City of London said that this would effectively be a "tax on London", as around 80 per cent of Europe's financial transactions come through the British capital. In the Financial Times, business groups such as the CBI have queued up to dismiss the plans, saying that they would simply divert transactions to Hong Kong and New York.

This is the line that the government has taken too. As I reported last month, the Treasury said it would not back such a tax unless it was adopted globally. Since global agreement is highly unlikely, the UK (which can veto it in the EU) could successfully scupper the tax. There is little doubt that the tax would be more successful if implemented across the world -- the European Commission concedes this -- but the UK government is not even willing to engage with the idea or seek global accord.

The BBC's business editor, Robert Peston, explains why the disproportionate effect on London might not necessarily be a bad thing:

Research by the Bank for International Settlements, the central bankers' central bank, provides a useful counterpoint. This demonstrates that countries with disproportionately large financial sectors, like the UK, have disproportionately small manufacturing sectors - because capital and talent tend to gravitate to the ostensibly big returns on offer in banks, hedge funds and so on, and because the exchange rate tends to rise to a level well above what's comfortable for exporters.

So, arguably, the British economy will not be rebalanced -- towards more making, and less financial engineering -- unless and until the City is less dominant. Which possibly means that a government committed to such rebalancing, as this one is, should not be quite so wary of a tax that would squeeze City profits.

Part of the thinking behind the tax is that it would force a culture change, limiting what Peston calls "deals that the world would be better off without". Unfortunately, it seems that the UK government is more concerned with defending a return to business as usual.

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.