Why a “fair fuel stabiliser” would be bad policy

The government does not receive a “windfall” from higher petrol prices.

There's a notable interview with Robert Chote, the head of the Office for Budget Responsibility, in today's Financial Times in which he repudiates the notion of a "fair fuel stabiliser".

Philip Hammond, the Transport Secretary, has promised to "look at the practicality" of this measure in time for the next Budget and the government is under significant pressure from the tabloids to limit petrol prices. But Chote warns that the fuel stabiliser is premised on the false assumption that the state receives a windfall in tax revenues when oil prices rise. In fact, higher prices rarely increase revenue because of the overall effect on economic performance.

Chote refers to a summer analysis by the OBR which concluded that the "overall effect of a temporary oil-price rise would be 'close to zero' " and that "a permanent rise would create a loss to the public finances". This is because higher pump prices "reduce the demand for fuel, lowering fuel duty receipts" and push up the indexation of tax thresholds, benefits, public-service pensions and index-linked gilts.

As the data below confirms, higher oil prices would generally lead to a fall in tax revenues.

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This doesn't mean that a fuel stabiliser is unworkable, but it does mean that the government would need to raise taxes elsewhere if it lowered duty on petrol.

Chote's conclusion is that "a fair fuel stabiliser would be likely to make the public finances less stable rather than more stable". But will ministers put short-term political considerations first? We'll soon find out.

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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