The myth of Cameron's legal challenge to Salmond

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore says UK government would not challenge Salmond's referendum.

Does the Scottish government have the legal right to hold a referendum on independence? Alex Salmond and some constitutional lawyers insist it does, the UK government and some constitutional lawyers insist it does not.

The vote Salmond intends to hold in autumn 2014 would be an advisory one (the SNP concedes that it does not have the power to hold a binding referendum) designed to provide him with a clear mandate to negotiate for independence. But in his statement to the Commons yesterday, Michael Moore, the Secretary of State for Scotland, declared that even this would be legally questionable. So, assuming Salmond proceeds, would the UK government challenge him in the courts? Apparently not. Here's what Moore told Scotland Tonight yesterday evening.

Interviewer: The idea that it could be legally challenged, who's going to mount that challenge?

Michael Moore: Anybody could and I don't think that a decision of this magnitude about whether or not Scotland stays part of the most successful multi-nation state in the history of the world or goes its own separate way, I don't think that should be left ...

Interviewer: Would the UK government launch that challenge though?

Michael Moore: While there's a prospect that anybody could, it's not our intention to do that.

But as the blog Wings over Scotland asks, why would the UK government not challenge what it ostensibly believes is an illegal attempt to break up the Union? Moore's words will inevitably prompt questions about the government's true opinion of the legality of a Scottish-led referendum.

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.