Esther McVey poses for pictures outside 10 Downing Street during the 2013 ministerial reshuffle. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Esther McVey flounders as bedroom tax failure becomes clear

Conservative minister says policy was "never all about saving money" but just six per cent of tenants have downsized.

After the publication of today's BBC study showing that the bedroom tax has resulted in just 6 per cent of affected tenants moving house, while pushing 28 per cent into rent arrears, it was left to Esther McVey to defend the government this morning. While failing to achieve the behavioural change they wanted (owing to the lack of smaller properties for tenants to move to), ministers boast that the measure is saving £1m a day (housing benefit is reduced by 14 per cent for those deemed to have one "spare room" and by 25 per cent for those with two or more). 

But when McVey, the Conservative employment minister, was asked on Radio 5 Live how much money the government had saved, she replied: "But it was never all about saving money...", a line of argument entirely at odds with that deployed by her department. 

McVey went on to explain that the policy was "about using the stock, the housing much better". But the problem is that the lack of one bedroom properties means there isn't enough housing to use "better". In England, for instance, there are 180,000 social tenants "under-occupying" two bedroom houses but just 85,000 one bedroom properties available.

It's for this reason that the DWP now prefers to emphasise the money it expects the policy to save (while challenging Labour to say how it would pay for its reversal and also remain within the new welfare spending cap). Iain Duncan Smith said today: "It was absolutely necessary that we fixed the broken system which just a year ago allowed the taxpayer to cover the £1m daily cost of spare rooms in social housing."

While the policy is also costing money, by increasing homelessness and pushing some tenants into the private sector, where rents are higher (inflating the housing benefit bill), it seems likely that there is a net saving. But if, as McVey suggests, the policy isn't really about saving money, it's not clear what the point of it is at all. As long as the government fails to build the houses required, most tenants will simply be left to endure yet another welfare cut

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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