Now is not the time to raise MPs' pay

There is a case for raising pay, but Brown cannot make it in these tough times

Is Gordon Brown really considering raising MPs' pay to appease their anger over expenses curbs? At a time when the Labour government has promised to impose the most punitive public-sector pay freeze since the dying days of the Callaghan government, this would be a disastrous decision.

There is a case for increasing MPs' salaries but now would be the worst possible time to make it. Simultaneous cuts in ministerial salaries would ensure the taxpayer doesn't lose a penny, but that would be overlooked entirely by the public. Such a move would give succour to the populist far right and risk alienating even more voters.

And yet, and yet . . . the pragmatic argument for raising MPs' pay remains persuasive. Harry Cohen, the left-wing Labour MP, was at least honest enough to describe expenses as a de facto salary increase (one that MPs, crucially, were not taxed on). And if our parliamentarians really want to spend £10,000 a year on gardening, then scaling back expenses and raising salaries would allow them do so at their own cost.

A future wage increase could be paid for by reducing the size of our bloated parliament. India, with a population of 1.2 billion, has 543 MPs. We, with a population of 61 million, have 646s. Indeed, only the Chinese have more MPs, and they have 20 times our population. David Cameron's pledge to cut the number of seats in the Commons by 10 per cent to 585 is doesn't go far enough. Reducing it to, say, 400 would allow those who remained to be paid more at no extra cost.

But that's not an argument to make in these straitened times, and Brown should avoid what would be a politically toxic move.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The problems with ending encryption to fight terrorism

Forcing tech firms to create a "backdoor" to access messages would be a gift to cyber-hackers.

The UK has endured its worst terrorist atrocity since 7 July 2005 and the threat level has been raised to "critical" for the first time in a decade. Though election campaigning has been suspended, the debate over potential new powers has already begun.

Today's Sun reports that the Conservatives will seek to force technology companies to hand over encrypted messages to the police and security services. The new Technical Capability Notices were proposed by Amber Rudd following the Westminster terrorist attack and a month-long consultation closed last week. A Tory minister told the Sun: "We will do this as soon as we can after the election, as long as we get back in. The level of threat clearly proves there is no more time to waste now. The social media companies have been laughing in our faces for too long."

Put that way, the plan sounds reasonable (orders would be approved by the home secretary and a senior judge). But there are irrefutable problems. Encryption means tech firms such as WhatsApp and Apple can't simply "hand over" suspect messages - they can't access them at all. The technology is designed precisely so that conversations are genuinely private (unless a suspect's device is obtained or hacked into). Were companies to create an encryption "backdoor", as the government proposes, they would also create new opportunities for criminals and cyberhackers (as in the case of the recent NHS attack).

Ian Levy, the technical director of the National Cyber Security, told the New Statesman's Will Dunn earlier this year: "Nobody in this organisation or our parent organisation will ever ask for a 'back door' in a large-scale encryption system, because it's dumb."

But there is a more profound problem: once created, a technology cannot be uninvented. Should large tech firms end encryption, terrorists will merely turn to other, lesser-known platforms. The only means of barring UK citizens from using the service would be a Chinese-style "great firewall", cutting Britain off from the rest of the internet. In 2015, before entering the cabinet, Brexit Secretary David Davis warned of ending encryption: "Such a move would have had devastating consequences for all financial transactions and online commerce, not to mention the security of all personal data. Its consequences for the City do not bear thinking about."

Labour's manifesto pledged to "provide our security agencies with the resources and the powers they need to protect our country and keep us all safe." But added: "We will also ensure that such powers do not weaken our individual rights or civil liberties". The Liberal Democrats have vowed to "oppose Conservative attempts to undermine encryption."

But with a large Conservative majority inevitable, according to polls, ministers will be confident of winning parliamentary support for the plan. Only a rebellion led by Davis-esque liberals is likely to stop them.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496