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 problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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