Bicycles and other items sit on the balconies of council run housing in Lambeth on November 5, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Labour targets the Tories' weak spot on housing benefit

New figures show that there has been a 59 per cent increase in working people claiming housing benefit since 2010.

There are few stances that the Conservatives emphasise more than their commitment to reducing welfare spending. The policy imperative is to cut the deficit; the political imperative is to cast Labour as the party of the feckless.

But the rhetoric belies the reality. As Labour is highlighting today, new research by the House of Commons library shows that there has been a 59 per cent increase in working people claiming housing benefit (386,265) since 2010, increasing the already swollen budget (£24.3bn) by £4.8bn. Spending has increased in every local authority, proving that this is not merely a London problem. Rachel Reeves and shadow housing minister Emma Reynolds will visit Croydon today, where the housing benefit bill has risen by 1,100 per cent since 2010, the largest increase in the country. 

The Tories will respond by pointing out that Labour has opposed measures intended to reduce spending, such as the removal of the "spare room subsidy" and the £26,000 benefit cap (Labour would introduce a regionally-weighted version). But the opposition will present the figures as evidence that the government is engaged in crude salami slicing when more profound reform is needed. As one source told me: "Whenever the coalition talks about this issue, it’s almost entirely focused on restricting housing benefit for the under-25s, or taking it away from EU migrants. But one of the biggest drivers is people who’ve got jobs but who don’t earn enough to stay above the poverty line." 

The task for Labour is to demonstrate how it would tackle the long-term, structural causes of welfare spending. As Jon Cruddas has long argued, it is madness that for every £100 spent on housing, just £5 is invested in building, while £95 goes on housing benefit. The party's pledges to build at least 200,000 homes a year by 2020, to cap rent increases and to restore the lost value of the minimum wage are all aimed at turning the tide. I'm told that Reeves will be making further announcements to this end later in the year. 

If Labour can persuade the public that stagnant wages and extortionate rents, not work-shy claimants, are the biggest drivers of welfare spending, it may finally be able to turn the welfare debate in its favour. 

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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