Page last updated at 09:57 GMT, Monday, 5 January 2009

State help for homeowners widened

For sale signs
Up to 75,000 homes are predicted to be repossessed next year

State benefits for homeowners struggling to pay their mortgage after losing their jobs are to be paid more quickly and to more people.

The government's Support for Mortgage Interest benefit has been extended to include mortgages up to 200,000 - double the previous limit.

The waiting period to qualify has also been reduced by two-thirds to 13 weeks.

Eight UK lenders have joined a separate scheme allowing mortgage holders to defer part of their interest payments.

'Personal tragedy'

The government measures are designed to cushion the blow of the economic downturn.

Every time someone loses their job it is a personal tragedy
James Purnell, Work and Pensions Secretary

Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell said: "We have changed the rules to make sure even more people can get help with their mortgage payments if they lose their job.

"We have brought in changes as quickly as possible so people don't have to wait too long for this support. Every time someone loses their job it is a personal tragedy."

The scheme provides mortgage relief to those who are already receiving a means tested benefit, such as income support, pension credit or income-based jobseekers allowance.

The new lower time limit will be available to those who have already applied under the old rules.

'Huge difference'

Homeless charities responded positively to the announcement while acknowledging it would only cover a fraction of all mortgage holders.

Shelter said cutting the waiting period would make a "huge difference" to giving people most at risk of losing their homes in the coming months more security.

"By the time people have waited nine months, most mortgage companies will have started repossession proceedings," said the organisation's chief executive Adam Sampson.

"It does remove the immediate concerns that people have starting the new year that if they lose their jobs that will automatically mean they are going to lose their homes."

However, the help will not be available to couples with joint mortgages in a situation where one has been made redundant.

A second scheme, aimed at helping people in such circumstances, is being finalised to allow householders to defer a proportion of their mortgage interest payments for up to two years.

Eight, as yet unnamed, UK major lenders have signed up to the principle of the scheme, which would be covered by a government guarantee.

The Conservatives and Lib Dems have criticised this scheme as being short of detail and said ministers must take a much tougher line on banks which have received state support to prevent repossessions.

The Council of Mortgage Lenders estimates the number of repossessions will soar to 75,000 next year amid rising unemployment.

Despite the latest initiative, there are concerns that sub-prime lenders, which lend to people on low incomes, will still continue to repossess homes within three months.

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