IFS: tax and welfare measures are “regressive”

Osborne caught out on claim that combined tax and benefit changes are “progressive”.

The oracle has spoken. At its media briefing this afternoon, the Institute for Fiscal Studies concluded that the tax and benefit measures announced in the Spending Review are "clearly regressive".

It flatly rejected the Treasury's argument that its combined tax and welfare measures up to 2012/13 are "progressive", a claim that was made possible only by the fact that the government's analysis ignores a third of the changes due to take place. These include some of the most regressive measures, such as the cap on housing benefit, the cuts to council tax benefit and the disability living allowance, and the time-limiting of the employment and support allowance.

The Treasury's justification was the lack of data available to "attribute changes in tax, tax credits or benefits to individuals". But the IFS number-crunchers believe that a "rough estimate" of the likely distributional impact can be made. The graph below is the result.

Graph

As the IFS notes, the white line (measuring the impact of tax and benefit changes as a proportion of income) shows that the changes were "slightly regressive or flat within the bottom nine-tenths of households".

The IFS has also produced another graph (see below), estimating the distributional effect of changes up to 2014/15, which shows the regressive impact even more clearly. As a percentage of net income, the poorest 10 per cent lose more than every other group, including the richest 10 per cent.

Graph

In many ways it's admirable that the coaliton, unlike previous Conservative administrations, is willing to engage in the progressive/regressive debate. But it can't choose to fight on this terrain and then cry foul when it's caught out.

Some on the right are starting to wonder whether a straight-out Thatcherite defence of regressive economics would serve the government better.

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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