George Osborne: Bank of England can act to cool housing market

Chancellor says it is up to the Bank to make judgment over property prices as concern grows over housing bubble

George Osborne has suggested he will not intervene to try to tackle a housing bubble, despite growing concern that spiralling property prices could lead to a crash.

He said responsibility to cool the housing market lay with the Bank of England, which he said should not hesitate to use its powers to ensure economic stability. He said the government should "let them make the assessment" about the housing bubble.

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Effective Strategies to Be Followed for Proper Wealth Management

Wealth management forms an essential part of finance which every individual should take care of. It typically deals with the strategic planning and management of one’s wealth. This article tells you about the effective strategies …

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Georgia bill would protect controversial for-profit probation industry

State lawmakers support private law enforcement contractors that critics say are unconstitutional and too powerful

Georgia is poised to enact legislation that would protect a multimillion-dollar law enforcement industry that critics say has revived Dickensian-era debtors prisons in America.

The Georgia bill, called House Bill (HB) 837, is a boon to private companies that sign state contracts to manage the probation periods of minor offenders. The state sentences the offenders, then hands off the supervision to the probation companies, who monitor the offenders and administer drug tests, among other services, then charge offenders for the cost. The industry dates to 1992, when local and county courts began outsourcing misdemeanor probation cases to private companies to alleviate pressure on overburdened state probation officers. And in 2000, the Georgia Legislature eliminated county-run probation services entirely for misdemeanor cases, determining that state probation officers should handle only more serious, felony, cases.

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Are You in Your 40s – You Need the Best and Effective Financial Planning

Individuals in their 40’s are generally considered as a “late baby boomer” or a “member of an old generation.” Well, you can prove this concept wrong by putting your youth aside and indulging yourself in …

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Labour backs principle of George Osborne’s pension shakeup

Opposition says changes to pensions market should go even further but won’t commit to voting for Tory plans

Labour has backed the principle of George Osborne’s plans to allow people to spend their pension pots and called for an even bigger shakeup of the market, but has refused to say whether it will vote in favour of any legislation on the subject proposed by the coalition.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said Labour believed in greater flexibility for people to spend or invest their pension money as they saw fit and wanted to see even more reform to help savers get better deals without ripoff charges.

“I support – we support – reforms to the pension market, so people can get a better deal and have more flexibility, especially at the moment, when people are just not getting a very good deal on their annuity,” Reeves told Sky News.

“But we’re talking to people here who are coming up to retirement, who have saved all their life, and put things aside. I think we can trust those people to make sensible decisions about how they want to support themselves in retirement,” she said. “I would argue that they haven’t gone far enough in what they announced on Wednesday.”

Despite backing the essence of the proposals, Reeves also called on the government to set out clearer protections to make sure the plans “benefit people on modest incomes and not just the privileged few”, acknowledging that some members of her party had concerns.

Her colleague Chuka Umunna said he could not confirm whether Labour would vote for any legislation bringing in the changes, which would allow people to take more money out of their pensions without having to buy an annuity.

“We need to see the bill and I’m not going to sign a blank piece of paper on your show, as good as that may be,” the shadow business secretary told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.

Osborne’s announcement has created a dilemma for Ed Miliband’s party, as polls suggest it has given the Tories a boost but a number of Labour figures appear sceptical about the wisdom of the reforms.

Tom Watson, the prominent MP and a former election organiser for Miliband, has said the coalition’s plans to allow savers to take money out of their pensions in big lump sums will “pull the rug out from underneath the pensions deal that protects individuals, families and the taxpayer alike”.

Austin Mitchell, another Labour backbencher, said he believed backing the plans was a “mistake” and several of his colleagues shared that view.

Several MPs retweeted an article suggesting that Osborne’s reforms would lead to a “long-term social disaster”, while John McTernan, a former adviser to the party, warned of the “moral hazard” associated with giving people more freedom.

Others, including John Mann MP, appeared to criticise the Labour leadership for having a confused message, in contrast with “a pretty simple message from George Osborne: we’re going to help our pensioners with the mess on annuities”.

Miliband did not fully address the issue in his response to Osborne’s budget, but Reeves made a surprise announcement late on Friday night that Labour was minded to back the reforms.

Reeves wrote an article for the Independent on Sunday setting out three tests for the government to meet.

Osborne must make sure people get the right advice, and must ensure the scheme is fair across people of all incomes and does not cost the state any more in social care if people spend all their money too early and need bailing out, she said.

“We believe it’s right that people who save are given greater choice in using their carefully saved pension money,” she said. “But we want the government to go further to help people turn more of their hard-earned savings into a decent income in retirement.”

Some charities have warned that some people who cash in their pensions in order to save or invest the money will risk losing free social care in later life because this right will only be available to people without substantial assets.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation and Age UK said this could be an unforeseen consequence of the budget reforms, as money in pension funds would not be counted as assets when it comes to means-testing for social care help.

The Lib Dem pensions minister, Steve Webb, seen as a key architect of the reforms, admitted there was still “a lot of detail” to be worked out and the government did not yet know how exactly it would be implemented. However, he previously made the case that pensioners should be free to spend their money on Lamborghinis if they wished.

On Sunday Iain Duncan Smith, the work and pensions secretary, also dismissed those questioning whether people could be trusted to spend their money wisely, saying most were much more sensible with their money than the state.

“Why would somebody who has made all the effort over the years to save, putting money aside, both in terms of paying national insurance and saving on top of that for a retirement income, why would they suddenly want to go out and just behave irresponsibly having behaved responsibly all their lives, planning for their future, giving themselves security?” he told Sky News.

“Why do we think that the state, who has arguably being the most profligate of all people with money – not ordinary people but the state has misused taxpayers’ money for generations – so why would we say that those people would actually go out and blow their money on something?

“No, I don’t think so, I think what they’ll do is try and find new areas, new vehicles for them to invest their money in that will give them a better return than they’d be getting with their annuities.”

Rowena Mason

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Feel the Professional Way of Moving With the Help of a Leading Mover Named Ob Movers

Many of us do not like the prospect of shifting from one place to another. Relocating to new place brings happiness and many expectations in our mind but on the other hand the task of …

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The secrets of the mystery shopper

How would you like to get paid £40,000 a year for shopping? Some mystery shoppers achieve this, but it’s not as easy as it sounds

The customer next to you in the queue looks innocent enough. But instead of a shopping list, you notice she’s carrying handwritten notes about the appearance and cleanliness of the store. She’s been timing the progression of the queue on her phone … and is that a tiny camera lens peeking out from her purse? There’s no trenchcoat in sight, but odds are, you’ve just spotted a mystery shopper.

There are approximately 50,000 mystery shopping trips carried out every month in the UK, according to the Mystery Shopping Providers Association (MSPA), and as more and more spending takes place online, the demand for mystery shoppers is growing. “Retailers are becoming increasingly aware that shoppers who are prepared to set foot in a physical store want a service and an experience they can’t get online,” says Simon Boydell, spokesman for Marketforce, which has more than 300,000 mystery shoppers on its books. “Our clients want to measure how well their stores are delivering on that experience.”

Sainsbury’s, John Lewis, the Post Office and Metro Bank all use mystery shopping company ABa to score their stores, which then helps to determine staff bonuses and identify any training issues. “We assign different store locations to each shopper and rotate them so that they never go back to the same shop within three months,” says ABa spokeswoman Jill Spencer. “Each day, they typically spend up to eight hours visiting five to 10 stores, plus another hour or two filing detailed reports on every aspect of their visit.” For that, the mystery shoppers can earn up to £155 a day. They are also reimbursed for their petrol and hotel stays, and compensated for their car depreciation (the shoppers can be expected to drive as many as 20,000 miles a year). Meanwhile, video mystery shoppers, who film their visits with a hidden camera planted in a buttonhole or handbag, can earn even more – around £300 a day.

Shoppers are usually repaid any money they spend in the stores, and may also be allowed to keep the products they buy. “I’m typically given between £5 and £20 to spend at each store, to assess the service I receive at the till,” says Laura, a 50-year old mystery shopper from Devon, who has been paid to visit around 7,000 shops since 2001. The purchase usually has to be related to a service or a type of product that the retailer wants her to check. “I’m always given a scenario, such as buying something from a specific department or a new product range, but within that framework, I can often buy whatever I want – and keep it.”

Like most full-time mystery shoppers, Laura is self-employed, taking jobs from ABa and other mystery shopping companies as and when they come up. Her income is typically £30,000 to £40,000 a year, and that doesn’t include all the freebies she gets on the job. “With the perks, it’s enough to live on. But I don’t do it because I love shopping. In fact, I hate shopping now. When I’m not working, it pains me to have to go out and buy a pint of milk.”

She does, however, find it satisfying to return to a store she has previously mystery shopped and see standards have improved. “I know it must be because of my feedback or why would they pay me to give it? Some of the retailers I shop at win awards for customer service, and I think that is down to us mystery shoppers. I feel I’m not just doing a service for my company, I’m doing a service for all shoppers everywhere.”

Sadly, regular mystery shopping assignments that pay like Laura’s are few and far between. In fact, competition is so fierce, she keeps her job a closely guarded secret and even her friends and family don’t know who she works for (Laura is not her real name).

It’s estimated that more than 500,000 people have registered as mystery shoppers in the UK, but just 10% or fewer manage to get regular work each month and this has led to a dramatic reduction in compensation. “Where once you got a fee, reimbursement for your purchase and mileage, you now often just receive a contribution towards a purchase,” say Val, a 51-year-old former mystery shopper. “I worked for 40 different mystery shopping companies for almost 20 years but I gave up entirely three years ago because I had bills to pay and very few assignments paid what I considered to be an acceptable rate.”

Nowadays, mystery shopping companies mostly rely on the promise of freebies to incentivise their workers. “Marketforce shoppers typically get a couple of pounds for a visit as a token gesture for their time and effort,” says Boydell. “At the most, we’ll pay £15 to £25 plus reimbursement for say, a meal for two or a hotel stay. We don’t directly employ any shoppers so we don’t have to pay them the minimum wage.”

Shoppers for Marketforce do not receive any recompense for their travel and, on average, get just £5 to £15 to spend during each visit, but Boydell argues the shoppers are deliberately chosen because they would be visiting those shops anyway or “are happy not being paid”. For example, no fee is offered for all-inclusive trips to five-star hotels abroad, yet these jobs are usually snapped up “within 10 minutes or less” of being advertised online.

“I’d go on a cruise for nothing,” says Laura. “But I think mystery shopping companies that pay you a nominal fee to travel to a restaurant and eat a meal are exploiting people. I won’t touch those jobs anymore.” There are plenty of people, however, that would. Hannah, a 41-year-old City lawyer, has conducted nearly 500 visits for the Mystery Dining Company in her spare time without receiving remuneration or travel expensesAs a prestigious “platinum diner”, she is regularly hand-picked by the Mystery Dining Company to carry out their most exclusive assignments, enjoying £200 meals at Michelin-starred Mayfair restaurants, five-star hospitality at Ascot and overnight stays at boutique hotels.

But there’s no such thing as a free lunch – even if you work for a mystery dining company. Hannah says she typically spends two to four hours after each visit writing detailed reports on everything from the quality of the food to specific interactions with staff, whom she always needs to be able to name or “subtly” describe. Trickiest of all, she must memorise all these details while eating her meal – unable, of course, to openly write anything down.

“There’s lots to remember, and sometimes it can detract from the experience. You’re expected to give feedback while it’s fresh, so I’ve had to get up at 5am to write a report before work. It’s a challenging thing to do; you need to be focused, articulate and detail-orientated.”

Yet to some, mystery shopping is so attractive that “a few hundred people” every week are willing to spend up to two and a half hours filling in surveys at ukmysteryshopper.co.uk, just to be in with a chance of effectively winning a £100 mystery shop. “We make money when we sign people up via our surveys, we don’t work for any brand we mystery shop,” says spokeswoman Amy Mills. Within the surveys, she admits “there may be questions that if you select yes, you’ll get text messages and there may be a charge for those messages”. Would-be shoppers need to read the terms and conditions of each of the 15 10-minute surveys they are asked to complete, she says, adding that just five of those who have taken part will be selected “at random” each week to receive a £100 voucher. Their reports are then published online, apparently with their name or photo.

The MSPA warns that the industry is rife with highly organised scams. For example, emails or calls asking for money upfront may purport to be from legitimate mystery shopping companies whose entire websites have been copied to lure in unsuspecting victims. “Never pay a fee to register for work. A genuine mystery shopping company would never ask you to,” says Adam Kaye, MD of mystery shopping company GAPbuster Worldwide. “There are unscrupulous people out there who promise significant sums of money if a shopper pays to join, but even the most prolific mystery shoppers aren’t exactly millionaires. The reality is: if it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”

Working as a mystery shopper

• Visit the mystery shopping forum thread on moneysavingexpert.com for word-of-mouth reccomendations about different companies and how they operate.

• If you are unsure about the authenticity of a company, check whether it is a vetted member of the MPSA at www.mspa-eu.org.

• Stay on the right side of the taxman: “It is unlikely that there will be a taxable profit if the mystery shopper is simply reimbursed for the cost of meals they are required to eat to fulfil their assignments,” says a spokesperson HMRC. “Profits will arise, however, if any assignments involve a fee or if the mystery shopper is reimbursed for the cost of goods which they are allowed to keep. In which case the tax charge will be based on the value of those goods.”

Donna Ferguson

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Money talks: Payday loans, first-time buyers and tenants

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There’s been a huge jump in the number of people seeking advice for problems with payday loans, according to the charity StepChange. It helped clients struggling under the weight of £110m worth of this kind of debt in 2013, up from £60m the previous year. The charity says the regulator’s plans for tougher controls on short-term lenders charging APRs of 5,000% or so do not go far enough, and wants it to launch stricter caps. The industry is also in the sights of the Church of England, and at the weekend we learned more about its plans to compete Wonga and the like out of existence.

First-time buyers are the losers from changes in the housing market which began back in the 1980s with changes to the way people rented, argues Patrick Collinson. The result is a “structural shift”, which has seen levels of home ownership fall to the lowest level in 25 years, and the private rentals overtake social renting for the first time since records began. In the private rented sector, tenants are seeing rents on newly let properties rise – and those in London are reportedly paying twice as much as the national average. Meanwhile, the battle for what little social housing remains is intensifying as councils get tough on housing lists.

Banks and building societies are simplifying accounts, meaning changes for customers to get their heads round. On Wednesday, Nationwide said it was overhauling its saving range – ditching some of its best-known accounts and launching three new ones, without introductory bonuses. RBS, which had already slimmed down its range, has now announced it will not return to better rates for online deals, or new customers, and will also scrap 0% balance transfers on credit cards. Unfortunately while simplicity is a good thing for consumers it is, sadly, unlikely to mean better rates – even in what is supposedly the Isa season.

Also on the site this week

• Home and away: properties for those looking for a renovation project

• Our Consumer Champions hear how Barclays thwarted a reader’s World Cup dream

• Tips on making the most of a home seller’s market

Surreal estate

Not so much odd, as out of this world, this Majorcan villa was designed by renowned Uruguayan architect, Alberto Rubio, famed for his curved gull-like roofs and wide open-plan living spaces. On the market at just over £6m, the villa has amazing views across the Mediterranean and comes with extensive gardens, terraces, swimming pool and a separate guest/staff apartment.

Send your strange property spots to money@guardian.co.uk.

Real deals

• Nationwide has launched a limited time, low fee balance transfer credit card offer. The deal offers 0% for 26 months with a 0.75% fee (minimum £5) and available until 31 March.

• Tesco Clubcard credit card is offering 0% on purchases for 18 months plus Clubcard points wherever you shop.

That’s all this week.

Hilary Osborne, editor guardian.co.uk/money

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Hilary Osborne

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Evaluate and Analyse Your Loan Repayment Options

If you have a bad history regarding payments related to your borrowings, it can give you a very bad name. Because of this you may sometimes not be able to take any additional borrowings in …

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