Osborne's intervention over the Philpott case is a new low

The Chancellor's decision to exploit the public grief over the deaths of the Philpott children in order to make the case for cutting welfare is political opportunism at its worst.

Where the Daily Mail leads, George Osborne follows. Speaking this afternoon, the Chancellor said of the case of Mick Philpott, who was jailed for life earlier today for killing six of his children: 

It's right we ask questions as a government, a society and as taxpayers, why we are subsidising lifestyles like these. It does need to be handled.

Osborne was careful not to suggest that the welfare state was to blame for the death of Philpott's children (it was Philpott, he said, who "was responsible" for the "horrendous crimes") but he has chosen to exploit this tragedy in order to make the case for cutting benefits for large families. The specific measure under examination, as I reported earlier today, is limiting child benefit to two children for out-of-work families. But regardless of the merits or demerits of the policy, the Philpott case isn't an argument for it. Both his wife and girlfriend were in work throughout the period in question (and so would have been unaffected by the coalition's £26,000 benefit cap); the problem was that their benefits, like their salaries, were paid directly into Philpott's bank account. The guilty party wasn't the welfare state but a violent, misogynistic bully intent on controlling the lives of the two women and their children. There is no conceivable welfare measure which could have prevented this. 

But that hasn't stopped Tory MPs renewing calls for child benefit to be capped at two children. The policy was intended for inclusion in last year's Autumn Statement but, thankfully, was vetoed by the Liberal Democrats. Iain Duncan Smith, who first floated it back in October, said then:

My view is that if you did this you would start it for those who begin to have more than say two children. Essentially it's about the amount of money that you pay to support how many children, and what is clear to the general public, that they make decisions based on what they can afford for the number of children they have. That is the nature of what we all do.

But the scale of the problem has been much exaggerated. At present, just four per cent of families with a parent on Jobseeker's Allowance have more than two dependent children. And, of course, the identity of those families is in constant flux: only 1.5 per cent of those on benefits have never worked. Those who advocate the policy also need to explain why children should be punished simply for having been born into large families. Limiting child benefit to the first two offspring would inevitably lead to a surge in a child poverty, storing up far greater social problems for the future. 

Osborne's decision to disregard all of this was already alarming before today. But his willingness to now go further and exploit the public grief over the deaths of the Philpott children in order to harden support for benefit cuts represents a new low in the welfare debate. 

George Osborne leaves 11 Downing Street on February 27, 2013 in London. 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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