Cameron's plan to "roll back" green charges could mean higher taxes, says Clegg

The Deputy PM suggests that the cost of green policies could be transferred from consumer bills to general taxation.

After David Cameron's surprise pledge at PMQs to "roll back" the "green regulations and charges that are putting up bills", Nick Clegg made little attempt to hide the extent of his disagreement with the Prime Minister this morning. He told the Today programme that he wasn't "fully expecting" Cameron's intervention (his office was given 30-minutes' notice) and that he didn't agree with the Tories that higher bills were "all the fault of us caring about the environment". He rightly pointed out that the majority of the green charges attacked by Cameron are actually energy efficiency measures designed to aid fuel-poor households, including the Energy Company Obligation (£50), the Warm Home Discount for pensioners (£11) and smart meters and better billing (£3). 

But sounding a more conciliatory note, he promised that he and Cameron would "come up, as we always do in coalition, with a solution in the national interest and resolve our differences". What could that solution be? As I noted yesterday, one option would be to transfer the cost of some of these green measures from consumer bills to general taxation, as the SNP pledged to do last week. In his Today interview, Clegg suggested just this, stating that policies such as the Warm Home Discount could be paid for out of "government expenditure". If there is to be a coalition compromise, expect it to look something like this. 

Whether this move would resolve Cameron's political troubles is doubtful; Labour would simply reply that the government is giving with one hand and taking with another. Owing to higher wholesale prices and profiteering by the big six, bills will continue to rise remorselessly. The public, 75% of whom don't believe that green taxes are to blame for steeper prices, will see no evidence that the government is prepared to side with them against the energy companies. Until that changes, Miliband's big freeze will continue to give him the edge. 

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton last month. 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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