How Cameron and Clegg could reach a deal on cutting pensioner benefits

The coalition could pledge to means-test benefits from April 2015 and promise to increase them the previous year to ensure no one is left out of pocket.

With both Labour and the Lib Dems no longer committed to preserving universal benefits for pensioners, what's preventing the Tories executing their own U-turn? The answer is David Cameron's 2010 "read my lips" pledge to protect them (ironically made under pressure from Labour), which was subsequently included in the Coalition Agreement. After seeing the damage inflicted on the Lib Dems by their volte face over tuition fees, Cameron is determined to avoid anything that could provoke claims of betrayal, not least due to the renowned power of the grey vote (the demographic among which UKIP is performing strongest). 

But as Nick Clegg pointed out on The Andrew Marr Show yesterday, the coalition's pledge to "protect key benefits for older people such as the winter fuel allowance, free TV licences, free bus travel, and free eye tests and prescriptions" only applies up to May 2015, while the current Spending Review is concerned with the 2015-16 spending period. The difficulty for Cameron is that six weeks of the period fall before the next general election, meaning any decision to means-test them would technically breach his pledge. As a result, Tory hopes of further welfare cuts, which would allow the government to limit cuts to areas such as policing and defence, have evaporated. As Clegg again stated yesterday, he is only prepared to consider additional cuts (such as the abolition of housing benefit for 25-year-olds and the limiting of child benefit to two children) if the coalition "starts at the top" by curbing benefits for the wealthy. In response, the Tories reaffirmed Cameron's 2010 pledge: "David Cameron promised to protect the benefits for pensioners who've worked hard and done the right thing - and we've kept that promise. Conservatives want to do more to fix the welfare system so that it works for the hard-working people who pay for it."

But with the Treasury still only a third of the way to meeting its Spending Review target of £11.5bn cuts (a total that will be far harder to reach with welfare cuts off the table), it's worth noting one way the coalition could resolve this conundrum. The government could announce that one or more of the benefits will be means-tested from April 2015 and increase payments to pensioners the previous year to ensure no one is left out of pocket. While administratively complex, this would offer the coalition a chance to break the deadlock on welfare. As Philip Hammond, Vince Cable and others battle to protect their departments from the full force of Osborne's axe, it's exactly the kind of imaginative compromise both sides might be tempted to explore. 

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg makes a speech at the G8 Open for Growth - Trade, Tax and Transparency conference at Lancaster House in London. 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.