Clegg sets himself against a Lords referendum

It will be hard for the Lib Dem leader to argue that the people should be denied a say.

The defeat of electoral reform a year ago means that Nick Clegg is determined to secure reform of the House of Lords in this parliament. Clegg needs at least one defining constitutional change to persuade his party that the coalition has been worth it. Indeed, he recently heightened the stakes by suggesting that the Lib Dems could vote down the proposed boundary changes if the Tory backwoodsmen veto Lords reform.

The Queen's Speech in May will contain a bill proposing the creation of a new second chamber in which 80 per cent of members are elected and 20 per cent appointed. But Clegg now faces a further obstacle to reform. A joint committee of MPs and peers has unexpectedly called for a national referendum to be held on the proposed changes. Neither of the coalition parties supports a referendum but Labour, however, does. The shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan commented yesterday:

The public should have the final say on major constitutional reform, a position the Tory-led Government followed with the referendum on the alternative vote, and its votes in towns and cities for directly elected mayors.

Today's Independent reports that Clegg will oppose a referendum [which would delay and possibly prevent reform] on the grounds that all three of the main parties advocated Lords reform in their general election manifestos. But Labour will point to the fact that it also backed a referendum in 2010. Until recently, the British electorate had little experience of referenda. The AV referendum was only the second to be held on a national level [the first was the vote on EU membership in 1975]. But that vote - and those forthcoming on directly-elected mayors - has set a precedent. Once the possibility of a referendum is raised, it is hard to argue that the people should be denied a say. That is the challenge Clegg now faces.

Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg is determined to secure reform of the House of Lords. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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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.

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