Why the NHS shouldn’t be spared from cuts

Protecting the £110bn national health budget entails unjustified cuts elsewhere.

This morning's Independent reports on growing anger among Conservative MPs over the coalition's costly pledge to ring-fence spending on the NHS. We can expect opposition to intensify as the autumn spending review (due on 20 October) draws closer.

A Tory backbencher is quoted as saying: "MPs are getting a reaction in their constituencies about the cuts to the school-building programme. They are wondering why the NHS should be protected when the future of our children is apparently not." It's a good point. The Tories' promise to protect the NHS (and International Development) from cuts has everything to do with politics and nothing to do with economics.

The decision not to touch the £110bn NHS budget (the development budget is a far smaller £6.2bn) is part of the reason why other departments of key importance (Transport, Housing, Local Government) are now facing savage cuts of up to 33 per cent.

There is a good argument for treating the NHS with care: factors such as an ageing population, drug prices and technology make inflation in the health service roughly 3 per cent higher than in the rest of the economy. But, as in the case of education, this should make the NHS a candidate for limited cuts (about 5-10 per cent), not for no cuts at all.

To his credit, Andy Burnham, the former health secretary and Labour leadership candidate, has argued as much: "The effect is that he [George Osborne] is damaging, in a serious way, the ability of other public services to cope: he will visit real damage on other services that are intimately linked to the NHS."

So far, Labour has failed to land any hefty blows on the coalition over spending cuts. The party's message (when one is discernible) is always hindered by the question: what would you cut? Coming out against ring-fencing could help the party to answer this question.

It could be Labour's Nixon-in-China moment: only the party of the NHS can be trusted to cut with care. It is time to expose the Tories' pledge for the political positioning that it is.

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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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