Danny Alexander confirms: the student loan book will be privatised

Off the book borrowing of the worst kind.

Danny Alexander, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, has confirmed that the Government will be privatising student loans as part of a plan to raise £15bn from sales of public assets, in order to boost investment.

Speaking to the Commons today, he said:

We will take action to sell off £15 billion worth of public assets by 2020.

£10billion of that money will come from corporate and financial assets like the student loan book.

And the other £5 billion will come from land and property.

Mr Speaker, government is the custodian of the taxpayers’ assets.

When we no longer need them, we should sell them back at a fair price – not act like a compulsive hoarder.

The sale is not expected to be finalised until 2015, two years later than originally planned.

In order to get a decent amount for the loan book, the government is expected to offer sweeteners to whoever purchases it. The most extreme of these would be the proposal, revealed earlier this month, to lift the cap on interest paid by people who took out loans between 1998 and 2012.

That change would increase the revenue for whoever owned the loan book in 20 to 30 years time, because people who would otherwise have paid their loans off will still owe money. But it won't do anything for the government's balance sheet today – unless the government sells the book to a private company for a lump sum, which is exactly what it plans to do.

Another sweetener proposed has been what is called a "synthetic hedge". That would involve artificially replicating the change, by promising whoever buys the student loans that they will be paid the difference between the actual cash flow and the estimated cash flow which would have been received without the cap. It's fairer – because it spreads the cost throughout all taxpayers, rather than lumping it on young graduates – but it's also far more cowardly. Crucially, because the government would't have to pay any extra cash flow now, it won't have to work out where that extra revenue comes from. That's a difficulty it gets to offload onto a future government.

Whatever happens, a sweetener of sorts will have to be offered. Student loans are a classic example of an asset which is worth far more to the government than any private entity: a revenue stream spread over decades, with a high degree of variability in the value of the repayments.

For an organisation, like the UK state, which can borrow at record-low interest rates for decades on end, selling it off at a discount to secure a cash lump sum now is terrible financial management. It is as though they had decided borrowing to invest was a good thing, but they'd rather pay higher interest rates than they have to in order to keep it off the books. Surely not…

Photograph: Getty Images

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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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.