Osborne reveals the true aim of Help to Buy: to inflate house prices

"Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up," the Chancellor reportedly told the cabinet.

Mervyn King once memorably complained of David Cameron and George Osborne's "tendency to think about issues only in terms of politics, and how they might affect Tory electorability". Rarely has there been a better example of this than the Help to Buy scheme. 

While Cameron and Osborne publicly state that the aim of the policy is to help first-time buyers, their real aim is to create a pre-election feel-good factor among Tory-leaning homeowners by inflating prices. With the cap for support set at a £600,000 (the average house price is just £172,000), Help to Buy will act as a giant state subsidy for homeowners seeking to trade up or borrow against the value of their property. 

Today we learn that Osborne has told the cabinet as much. The Independent's Andrew Grice quotes the Chancellor as saying: "Hopefully we will get a little housing boom and everyone will be happy as property values go up." 

This is undoubtedly smart politics; 45% of homeowners voted Conservative in 2010 and are more likely to remain loyal to the party if they're feeling flush by 2015. But it is terrible economics and a policy that no one genuinely committed to expanding home ownership should support.

Even while allowing some to make it onto the ladder, the scheme risks blocking the route for others by further widening the gulf between prices and earnings. There is much that the government could do to ease the housing crisis, including increasing supply by allowing councils to borrow to build (as Vince Cable has proposed), penalising developers who sit on unused land, and improving conditions for private tenants. But none of these objectives are aided by an electoral bung less aimed at delivering more homes than more votes.

George Osborne leaves 10 Downing Street on October 7, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

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.