What the books don't tell you

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

‘‘Mummy, there’s a pretend mouse in the kitchen.” Larry has stomped into the bedroom with the imperious air of somebody bearing Very Important News. Instantly – and with a sinking feeling in my stomach – I know what this means: there is a mouse caught in the glue trap.

Glue traps are the last resort. For months, hordes of mice have been frolicking nightly around the slightly too-small flat, snacking on leftover rusks and bits of rice that have escaped my half-hearted attempts to clean up after baby Moe. We have tried “humane” traps, snap traps and poison, all to no avail. They may look small, brown and not particularly intelligent but clearly these rodents are a highly evolved super-breed.

The last straw came at 4am the other night when, having finally dropped off after settling Moe for the third time, I was awakened by the sound of scratching right next to my pillow. One thing I do not need in my life right now is anything else keeping me awake at night. So, the next morning, I marched to the corner shop and bought the glue traps: square bits of paper covered in a substance so sticky that once the mice run on to it, they can’t get off.

I creep into the kitchen. Sure enough, there on the sideboard is a tiny baby mouse, stuck fast to the trap. It must have been there for some time; it is still moving but only feebly. I creep over and look into its bulging, terrified brown eyes. It looks back at me imploringly. All I can think about is its poor mouse mummy, hiding somewhere behind the cooker, watching her baby die a horrible, prolonged death. I think about all the time that she must have waddled around pregnant, how she must have carefully built her nest, foraged for food, fed her baby right through the day and night: all for nothing. All because of me.

But there is nothing I can do. The baby mouse’s legs are so fragile that they would break if I tried to disengage it from the trap. The only course of action available is to kill it as soon as possible. I gingerly pick up the trap and the mouse and shove them into a plastic bag. Then I put that bag into another plastic bag. I don’t like to waste plastic bags but if it spares me the sight of spattered baby mouse guts, I feel it is justified.

“Mummy, what are you doing?” Larry has materialised at my side. I know from his shrewd expression that there is no way I can pussyfoot around.

“I am putting the mouse into a plastic bag, Larry, and then I’m going to take it outside and hit it with a brick.”

“Oh.” Larry looks at the floor. “Can I see?”

“Er, no. Yes. Well, I suppose so.”

So we both tromp down to the garden and Larry watches as I batter the baby mouse to death. In hindsight, I think this might have been the Wrong Parenting Strategy. It is decisions like this that the books just don’t prepare you for.

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The world takes sides

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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.