Former Liberal Democrat MP Mike Hancock appearing on BBC News.
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The Mike Hancock saga shows that politicians can't be judged by the law alone

Natural justice, not merely the law, must be seen to be applied in cases of wrongdoing.

There’s a great Rumpole of the Bailey story, where our eponymous hero, as ever defending not prosecuting, calls on the jury to administer, not the law, but justice for the accused, who is clearly guilty of the crime for which he is charged – but for entirely understandable reasons. I am often reminded of this, and ponder whether the same shouldn’t apply to elected politicians, only in reverse?

There’s nothing very positive to say about the Mike Hancock saga from anyone’s point of view and no one, save the complainant, comes out of this with any sort of credit. But the whole saga raises one interesting point: should our public representatives sit, not above the law, but in fact below it?

The major difficulty for the Lib Dems in the Hancock case, as with many of the recent cases of inappropriate behavior (on a wildly ranging scale it should be said) is the fact that often not only were the charges not legally proven, but the authorities felt that there was insufficient evidence to even start the full legal process. And therefore, as the accused are (rightly) innocent until proven guilty, they feel no need to resign nor often face any penalty under party disciplinary procedures, however much many folk feel they should. And indeed, when calls are made for elected officials to do the decent thing, their supporters more often than not revert to the clarion call that this wouldn’t be justice. But of course, what they mean is, this wouldn’t be the law.

Now, I’m not advocating that there should be some sort of built-in lower level of proof required for politicians than the rest of us; that would hardly be liberal. But I do wonder if everyone connected with politics should accept that not only does the law need to be applied to every case, but natural justice needs to be not just applied – but to be seen to be applied. And falling on your sword for the greater good, not of the party you are a member of, but of the electorate you are there to represent, might be the best service you can do.

Sure, it’s a pipe dream. Certainly it opens up the door to wrongful accusations becoming just another political weapon. Of course, on many occasions, the innocent will suffer – we all know that in politics, you can get smoke without fire. But it might just be a price worth paying.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

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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.