Has Danny Alexander really been boycotting Starbucks?

The Chief Secretary to the Treasury's mixed messages on the tax avoiding chain.

Danny Alexander attempted to burnish his radical credentials yesterday when he revealed that he had been boycotting Starbucks. After the chain promised to review its UK tax arrangements, he said: "I might be able to buy a coffee from Starbucks again soon".

But asked by John Humphrys on the Today programme this morning whether he had been boycotting Starbucks, Amazon and Google, all of whom have been accused by the Commons public accounts committee of "paying little or no corporation tax", Alexander offered a notably different response. "I’m a tea drinker, so I don't tend to go to Starbucks or other such places," he said, adding: "I do use Amazon from time to time, or I have." So was the "tea drinker" ever going to Starbucks to begin with?

But regardless of his spending habits, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Alexander can and should be doing more to prevent corporate tax avoidance. He boasted today that the £154m of funding announced by George Osborne would give "HMRC the resources they say they need to do this." But what he didn't say is that the extra funding will barely begin to compensate for the £2bn of cuts Osborne has made to HMRC and the 10,000 staff due to be laid off. A report earlier this year by the public accounts committee found that job cuts among revenue officials meant the government collected £1.1bn less in tax than it would otherwise have done. "We are not convinced that the decision to reduce staff numbers working in this area in the past represented value for money for the taxpayer," it said.

Asked by Humphrys whether she had been boycotting the unholy trinity, Labour MP and public accounts committee chair Margaret Hodge said that she was avoiding Starbucks and no longer used Amazon. "I’m a Kindle fanatic, so that’s a difficult one," she said. "Google I find more difficult." It says much about Google and Amazon's dominance of their respective sectors that even the indefatigable Hodge struggles to avoid them.

Police form a line outside a Starbucks coffee shop as demonstrators participate in a protest against the government's spending cuts. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.