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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The private renting sector enables racist landlords like Fergus Wilson

A Kent landlord tried to ban "coloured people" from his properties. 

Fergus Wilson, a landlord in Kent, has made headlines after The Sun published his email to a letting agent which included the line: "No coloured people because of the curry smell at the end of the tenancy."

When confronted, the 70-year-old property owner only responded with the claim "we're getting overloaded with coloured people". The letting agents said they would not carry out his orders, which were illegal. 

The combination of blatant racism, a tired stereotype and the outdated language may make Wilson seem suspiciously like a Time Landlord who has somehow slipped in from 1974. But unfortunately he is more modern than he seems.

Back in 2013, a BBC undercover investigation found 10 letting agent firms willing to discriminate against black tenants at the landlord's request. One manager was filmed saying: "99% of my landlords don't want Afro-Caribbeans."

Under the Equality Act 2010, this is illegal. But the conditions of the private renting sector allow discrimination to flourish like mould on a damp wall. 

First, discrimination is common in flat shares. While housemates or live-in landlords cannot turn away a prospective tenant because of their race, they can express preferences of gender and ethnicity. There can be logical reasons for this - but it also provides useful cover for bigots. When one flat hunter in London protested about being asked "where do your parents come from?", the landlord claimed he just wanted to know whether she was Christian.

Second, the private rental sector is about as transparent as a landlord's tax arrangements. A friend of mine, a young professional Indian immigrant, enthusiastically replied to house share ads in the hope of meeting people from other cultures. After a month of responding to three or four room ads a day, he'd had just six responses. He ended up sharing with other Indian immigrants.

My friend suspected he'd been discriminated against, but he had no way of proving it. There is no centrally held data on who flatshares with who (the closest proxy is SpareRoom, but its data is limited to room ads). 

Third, the current private renting trends suggest discrimination will increase, rather than decrease. Landlords hiked rents by 2.1 per cent in the 12 months to February 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics, an indication of high demand. SpareRoom has recorded as many as 22 flat hunters chasing a single room. In this frenzy, it only becomes harder for prospective tenants to question the assertion "it's already taken". 

Alongside this demand, the government has introduced legislation which requires landlords to check that tenants can legitimately stay in the UK. A report this year by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants found that half of landlords were less likely to rent to foreign nationals as a result of the scheme. This also provides handy cover for the BTL bigot - when a black British tenant without a passport asked about a room, 58 per cent of landlords ignored the request or turned it down

Of course, plenty of landlords are open-minded, unbiased and unlikely to make a tabloid headline anytime soon. They most likely outnumber the Fergus Wilsons of this world. But without any way of monitoring discrimination in the private rental sector, it's impossible to know for sure. 

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