In December, the government issued an informal call for evidence about mortgage interest relief. There are still two weeks left of the consultation period. By comparison with the costs of Housing Benefit, which pays a substantial proportion of rent, the cost of mortgage interest payments (£400m) is limited. In just about every case, people who become entitled to it have received much higher incomes, and the issue of incentives to work hardly seems to apply.
Mortgage interest is part of a system of social protection; the aim is to make sure that people are insured against radical changes in circumstances. The government is rebuilding the welfare system around a very different kind of model, which emphasises safety nets and incentives to work rather than the need to protect people. The system stopped protecting owner-occupiers effectively when mortgage interest was withdrawn for most of them; there has been a growth of mortgage protection plans to make up for the deficiency. An important concession to growing unemployment has been the reduction of the waiting period, which had been extended to 26 and in some cases 39 weeks, back to 13 weeks. Among the ideas that are now being canvassed are a two-year time limit for the receipt of help, which would force people to move house, and a charge against the property that could be realised on resale, which may force them not to. Neither fits the the easy certainties which have characterised some other announcements about the plans for Universal Credit. The government is discovering, slowly, that there are different principles for different cases, and that one size does not fit all.