The question the Tories still won't answer about Help to Buy

Why does a scheme supposedly designed to help first-time buyers offer taxpayer-backed mortgages for properties worth up to £600,000?

While it's hard to find an economist with a good word to say about Help to Buy, the Tories are convinced that the policy is political gold. A month after the full launch of the scheme, David Cameron boasts in today's Sun that more than 2,000 people, or 75 families a day, have already been accepted in principle for a mortgage. In an attempt to emulate Margaret Thatcher, who was memorably photographed handing over the keys to those who bought their council homes under Right to Buy, Cameron has asked staff to ensure that he meet couples benefiting from the policy whenever he makes a regional visit.

The Tories are particularly keen to draw attention to figures showing that three-quarters of applicants are first-time buyers and that the average price of a house bought under the scheme is £163,000, with most located outside of London and the south east. Cameron writes: "When we launched Help to Buy we heard a lot of scare stories about how this would be a policy for the rich, the South East, the elderly and those who already had homes. One month in and the figures show this is nonsense. The typical house bought with Help to Buy is just over £160,000 — well below the national average. It’s proving hugely popular across the country, with three quarters of applications outside London and the South East. And what’s more, most applicants are first-time buyers, young and have an average household income."

But one question the Conservatives are still unwilling to answer is why a scheme ostensibly designed to help first-time-buyers offers taxpayer-backed mortgages for properties worth up to £600,000. Even if only a minority of applicants purchase homes worth more than the national average, this remains a dubious use of public money. The suspicion is that the Tories are seeking to create what George Osborne reportedly described as a "little housing boom", something that would put houses even further out of reach for most would-be buyers. If the impression develops that the government is focused on stimulating demand rather than expanding supply, Help to Buy may not prove to be the political elixir that Cameron hopes.

A recent poll by Ipsos MORI for Inside Housing showed that 57% disagree that "rising house prices are a good thing for Britain" (23% of whom strongly disagree), while just 20% agree. In addition, by 41% to 29%, they disagree that "rising house prices are a good thing for me personally". The recent experience of the crash and concern at the lack of affordable housing for young people has, perhaps unsurprisingly, persuaded the public that inflating another housing bubble isn't a great idea. With its call for the Help to Buy cap to be lowered from £600,000 and its pledge to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020, Labour may ultimately be the victor in the housing wars.

David Cameron meets first time buyers Kayleigh Groom and Chris Day, as he visits a housing estate in Weston Favell. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.