The Tory-Lib Dem university battle isn't over yet

Lifting the penalty on early student loan repayments won't be enough to keep the Tories happy.

The government's tuition fees package, you'll recall, was filleted with "progressive" amendments designed to persuade recalcitrant Lib Dems to back the plans. But we learn from the Daily Telegraph this morning that one of those concessions - fining graduates who pay off their student loans early - has been revoked.

Vince Cable had planned to impose a five per cent charge on the value of early repayments in an attempt to prevent "wealtheir students" from avoiding interest charges. Back in October 2010, the Business Secretary said:

There is an issue about people who go on to very high-earning jobs and who therefore pay off relatively quickly and we do have to think about how to find a way by which they make some sort of contribution towards low-earning graduates.

It was always a dubious proposal. Some of the wealthiest students (or, more accurately, the children of wealthy parents) bypass the loan system altogether by paying their university fees upfront. Indeed, as the liberal think-tank Centre Forum observed, it would likely be low-income graduates who lost out since "debt aversion not affluence is the biggest cause of early repayments".

But this isn't just about bad policy. The Lib Dems agreed to abandon the proposal as a quid pro quo for the appointment of Prof Les Ebdon as the director of the Office for Fair Access. Although Cable's favoured candidate, Ebdon was attacked by the Tories as a supporter of "social engineering", with Michael Gove privately lobbying against his appointment and the business select committee voting against it.

One Downing Street source cheerfully tells the Telegraph:

The Lib Dems were very keen to appoint Ebdon and we felt very strongly about penalties for early repayment of loans. This is hopefully good news for tens of thousands of families, as well as many Conservative MPs who had raised concerns about the penalties.

But it's hard to imagine Tory MPs will be so sanguine. It is they, rather than the Lib Dems, who look like the losers from this affair. The abandoment of early repayment charges is a minor concession that, in most Tories' eyes, hardly compensates for Ebdon's three-year appointment.

To the consternation of the Russell Group, Ebdon has threatened to forbid universities from charging the maximum £9,000 tuition fee if they do not meet targets on widening participation. An option he describes, in language strikingly reminiscent of Cable, as "the nuclear button".

Cable will confirm Ebdon's appointment next week but expect Tory MPs to take every opportunity to undermine him.

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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