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Housing: Shared Ownership

Volume 721: debated on Monday 25 October 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what they expect to be the effect of the limitations on shared ownership for first-time buyers as set out in the Financial Services Authority’s policy statement A Specialist Sourcebook for Building Societies, published in March 2010, stating that a maximum of 15 per cent of a building society’s whole mortgage book will be available for non-prime owner-occupied mortgages.

My Lords, the regulation of building societies is a matter for the Financial Services Authority, which is an independent body. I have, however, raised this question with the FSA and I understand that it has written to my noble friend, explaining how it uses its Specialist Sourcebook for Building Societies.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer, but is he aware that the 15 per cent limit also covers buy-to-let, commercial and social landlords and equity release schemes, so an awful lot is crammed into it? The problem seems to have arisen because the FSA says that this is guidance but building societies have said at a recent meeting of 14 major and minor societies that individual supervisors from the FSA have insisted that this was an absolute maximum and that there was no question of discretion. Will my noble friend clarify that this is just guidance?

Well, my Lords, the FSA, and what my noble friend has reported it as saying, must stand for themselves. I cannot directly answer for the FSA. However, my clear understanding is that the source book offers guidance on the way that the FSA undertakes its regulation and does not consist of formal rules. Indeed, for those societies with advanced risk management systems, there is not even an indicative limit on the level of shared ownership in which they can engage. As I understand it, building societies can lend within their statutory limits. They can undertake any lending up to their statutory limits provided they have appropriate controls in place.

My Lords, given that the sub-prime crisis in the United States was caused in the first place by government interference requiring lenders to lend money in an unsafe way, should we not be very wary about interfering in the lending decisions of building societies or others, however important the social issues are?

My Lords, the Government want to have a sustainable mortgage market in this country, and that requires a balance in maintaining a flow of mortgages so that people can get on to the housing ladder. In that regard, the actions which the Government have taken to ensure that market interest rates are kept low are paramount. On the other hand, we want to ensure that mortgage providers lend responsibly. That is why the Financial Services Authority is conducting a mortgage market review and why in July it issued a responsible lending paper for consultation.

My Lords, to whom is the Financial Services Authority responsible if it is not answerable to Ministers?

The Financial Services Authority is, indeed, appointed by Ministers and has a high degree of reporting to all its stakeholders, including Parliament. The Government do not believe that the model of tripartite regulation which we inherited from the previous Government is at all appropriate. Therefore, the FSA will go under the legislation which we will be bringing forward and we will have a completely new system of accountability for financial services regulation which we think is more appropriate.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the large number of different affordable housing schemes offered by the Homes and Communities Agency are confusing to lenders, developers and, ultimately, to the buyers they are supposed to be helping? Will the Government undertake to rationalise the schemes that the HCA currently offers?

My Lords, I am wary of straying too far from financial regulation into housing policy areas but I will ask my ministerial colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government to write to my noble friend on that point.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that in the source book referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Gardner, there is a clear premise that building societies—mutuals—are significantly less risky than banks because, as the source book itself says, of their,

“lower exposure to wholesale funding and complex financial instruments”.?

If they are less risky, is it not time to reduce the punitive levy on building societies for the Financial Services Compensation Scheme—a levy which is reducing the funds available for lending to house buyers?

One of the beauties of the current system and our future system of financial regulation is that decisions about the relative riskiness of different classes of financial assets are emphatically not for government but for the financial regulator, which in due course will be the Bank of England. So while I can ask the Financial Services Authority to write to the noble Lord, I am certainly not going to second-guess its judgments.

My Lords, are not all the building societies that became plcs now bust and out of business, and is there not a case for looking at mutualisation with responsibility? Surely the Government should be encouraging the FSA to go along those lines so that we have good mutual organisations, which have existed in the past, lending responsibly.

My Lords, it is important that we have diversity and a variety of providers of financial services. In that context, building societies of course have an important role to play—particularly in the area of shared-ownership mortgages, which is the subject of the Question. Many building societies continue to offer products in this area, and I welcome that.

Will the Minister confirm that, in spite of what my noble friend Lord Forsyth said, there is a self-limiting situation, in that someone applying for shared ownership can have the mortgage for their percentage of ownership tailored exactly to an amount that they can be sure of paying?

My Lords, questions about what people can afford to pay are essentially for the mortgage provider to judge in the context of its commercial decisions, made within the responsible lending guidelines set down by the FSA.

My Lords, can the Minister offer a view on why equity release schemes should be regarded as sub-prime mortgages? I should have thought that such arrangements were highly desirable, given the age distribution that we face.

My Lords, I regret that I am not going to be drawn into making judgments which are for the financial regulators to make.