Could Osborne's mortgage scheme be used to buy second homes? He doesn't know

Chancellor unable to say whether the rich will be able to get government support to buy second or third properties.

George Osborne's new mortgage guarantee scheme ("Help to Buy") garnered him plenty of favourable headlines from Fleet Street but is the Chancellor on top of the detail? Asked this morning on the Today programme whether the £12bn scheme, which will underwrite mortgages for buyers with deposits of between 5-20 per cent, could be used by the well-off to buy second (or third) homes worth up to £600,000, Osborne was unable to say. The Chancellor made it clear that this was not the intention but would only say that he was "working with the industry". 

The mortgage market is an extremely complex thing. The intention of the scheme is absolutely clear, which is that it is for people who want to get their first home or have a home and want to move to a bigger home, because perhaps they have got a bigger family. We are working with the industry to get a scheme that works.

The Treasury has issued a list of those properties that will not eligible for support, including buy-to-lets, but it makes no mention of second homes. Labour has been quick to pounce on the omission, noting that Osborne was unable to deny that the new scheme "will allow wealthiest to buy second homes with govt support". Ed Balls's special adviser Alex Belardinelli quipped that they could use next month's "millionaires' tax cut" to do so. 

Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott (Vince Cable's representative on earth) has also responded, urging Osborne to "say no now". If he wants to shut down an encouraging Labour line of attack, the Chancellor would be wise to take his advice. 

Update: Following Osborne's refusal to confirm that second homes will be exempt, Ed Balls has gone on the attack, declaring that the government "is basically saying that if you’ve got a spare room in a social home you’ll have to pay the bedroom tax, but if you want a spare home we’ll help you buy one."

Here's the statement in full: 

Not only is George Osborne pressing ahead with a tax cut for millionaires it now seems that his mortgage scheme will help people, no matter how high their income, to buy a subsidised second home worth up to £600,000.

The Government is basically saying that if you’ve got a spare room in a social home you’ll have to pay the bedroom tax, but if you want a spare home we’ll help you buy one.

Is the Government really going to give millionaires a tax cut averaging £100,000 and then give them a taxpayer guarantee if they use that money as a deposit on a house - a second home or even a home to buy to let? Not just tax cuts for millionaires but subsidised mortgages for millionaires.

Surely people struggling to get a mortgage and those who want to own their first home must be the priority for help, not the small number who can afford to buy a second one. We will only tackle the housing crisis and help first time buyers if we finally build the new affordable homes we have said should be at the heart of any proper plan for jobs and growth.

This more of the same Budget stuck with a plan that is completely failing on growth, living standards and the deficit, but the one new thing George Osborne announced is already unravelling.

George Osborne leaves number 11 Downing Street in central London on March 19, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.