The coalition needs to get its line straight on Romania and Bulgaria

Nick Clegg contradicts Iain Duncan Smith and says that the government has estimated the number of Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants expected next year.

Has the government estimated the number of Romanians and Bulgarians expected to emigrate to the UK next year? At the moment, it depends who you ask. Following a freedom of information request by the NS, Eric Pickles's department told me last week that it "holds" the information but was deciding whether "the public interest in withholding [the figure]...outweighs the public interest in disclosing it". Following an identical FOI to the Home Office, I was similarly told that a figure could be released after an "internal review". 

But in an appearance on The Andrew Marr Show last Sunday, Iain Duncan Smith suggested that no  figure existed. Here's the transcript.

 

Eddie Mair:
… estimates of Romanians and Bulgarians who might come here. It’s one thing not to 
release them, but have they been compiled?
 
Iain Duncan Smith:
Not to my knowledge. 
 
Eddie Mair:
You haven’t seen any statistics?
 
Iain Duncan Smith:
No, no, no, I’ve asked whether or not there is any reasonable or rational figure that 
can be gained. And to be honest with you, the last government got it so badly wrong, 
it just shows you that estimating the numbers coming through is incredibly difficult.
 
To complete the confusion, Nick Clegg said this morning on his LBC phone-in show that he had "seen estimates but they are estimates". He added: "I don’t think we as a government should start bandying about estimates which at the moment are not very precise."
 
It's easy to see why the government is reluctant to release an estimate. If the figure is higher-than-expected, it will be attacked from the right for "losing control" of immigration (and will be powerless to act since EU law guarantees the free movement of people). If the figure is lower-than-expected, it runs the risk of suffering a similar fate to Labour, which mistakenly forecast that just 13,000 people a year would migrate from eastern Europe to the UK after 2004 (300,000 did). But to have any credibility, minister should really agree whether one exists. 
A protester waves a Romanian 1989 Revolution flag during a protest at Piata Universitatii square. Photograph: Getty Images.

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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