Questions for Grant Shapps on Question Time

The housing minister is forced to stand in at the last minute as Baroness Warsi is "indisposed".

Baroness Warsi has withdrawn from tonight's edition of Question Time. Rumours are currently flying as to whether this is as a result of Mehdi Hasan's interview with her in this week's NS (full version not yet online -- go and buy and issue of the magazine) , in which she controversially states that Tory losses in "at least three seats" at the last election were "based on electoral fraud... predominantly in the Asian community", or whether she in fact pulled out days before publication, as government spinners seem to be putting about at the moment.

She will be replaced on tonight's programme by Grant Shapps, Conservative MP for Welwyn Hatfield, Minister of State for Housing & Local Government, and Question Time novice. We can only imagine the commotion in his office right now as he tries to prepare to face Simon Hughes, Diane Abbott, David Starkey and Brian Cox at about four hours' notice.

Surely, he will be asked about Lady Warsi's absence, and in particular the identity of the three seats she names in the interview. But there are questions that need to be put to Shapps himself -- as housing minister, he is now responsible for ameliorating the ever-worsening crisis in the UK's housing sector.

The loss of council homes for life, the chronic shortage of affordable housing in every part of the UK, and his recent remarks on housing association salaries are all areas where Shapps should be grilled.

But perhaps most important to pin down is the effect of the planned council tax freeze on new houses, or the New Homes Bonus scheme, as it has been called. Toby Thomas over at Left Foot Forward reports that shadow housing minister John Healey, in his speech to the Labour Party conference today, has once again strongly criticised this particular policy, arguing that it will in fact result in an increase in council tax, a disincentive for local authorities to build new houses, and an overall effect that some local authorities will end up paying the housing bills of others out of existing budgets (the New Homes Bonus will come out of existing grants). Toby writes:

Healey's analysis finds that 103 councils will suffer a fund-cut of on average £2 million each, helping to pay for the 222 councils who will gain by £400,000. Bigger towns are likely to lose out most, with Birmingham needing 8,500 homes a year built to avoid losing its grant, while Blaby in Leicestershire needs just 70.

This effect could in turn be heightened should local authorities choose not to embrace their newly-devolved role as the lead agency for house-building in their area. In an interview I did last week with Sir Bob Kerslake, incoming permanent secretary at Communities and Local Government and currently chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency, he expressed the hope that "forward-looking" local authorities will seize on these incentives, but acknowledged that this will create inequality across the UK. He said:

"You can work with local authorities and show them potential, and even trade off one benefit of housing with another benefit, but in teh end I thnk if they set their face against it then they have to realise that different places will end up in different situations... That is the reality of looking backward."

Perhaps Grant Shapps will be able to shed some light this evening on what people stuck in poor quality housing who happen to live in a backward looking local authority should do to improve their situation, when faced with the reality of the arbitrary inequality created by such "big society" devolution.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.

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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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