Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Keeping Conference Liberal and safe: Gareth Epps must be there

A couple of years ago I wrote a few posts around the farcical arrangements the Labour Government were putting in place regarding those working with children, including parent helpers. Thankfully Lynne Featherstone got rid of this excessive and ineffective vetting and barring scheme.

It breaks my heart to see our Party meekly accept a system for accreditation of Conference representatives, whose right to be at Conference is enshrined in our Constitution which is similarly disproportionate, discriminatory and downright daft.

I have a really strong vested interest in making sure that nobody comes to harm at our Conference. As I've said many times before, some of the people I care most about in the world are going to be there. I'm going myself and I want to return to my family in one piece, thank you very much.

I have no problem with the airport style security and scanners which will greet us at the doors to the ICC. They are an unfortunate necessity in this day and age - but that should be sufficient.

Our Federal Conference Committee have effectively ceded power to the Police to decide who goes to Conference. That is absolutely and utterly wrong. The Police should not have the right to exclude people on the basis of an arbitrary CRB check. Some people have not even put themselves forward for accreditation because they fear that they would not pass. I wish they had done, because I feel that the outcomes of those applications would have either confirmed our fears, or given us more confidence in the system. I mean, it just defies any sort of logic that the author of Spiderplant Land a woman photographed with Nick Clegg as part of her Council campaign this year and who was deemed safe enough to meet Prince Philip last month has been told she would fail and be denied access to Conference. I actually wish she would apply and really test the system out.

Conference starts 2 weeks on Saturday, and some people have not even had the results of their accreditation through  while some have been refused. It's to be seen whether the FCC will show resolve and overturn those exclusions.

As it now seems to be common knowledge, it's fine to say what I've known for a few days now, that Gareth Epps, former FCC member, former Councillor, former Parliamentary candidate and  pain in the backside to every leader of the party since it was formed (which I hope he'll consider a matter of pride) has been denied accreditation. The reason is a technical one - that his photo doesn't comply with the exacting standards set by the Police. Something to do with his fringe, apparently. Gareth, understandably, isn't happy and the Federal Conference Committee have so far, as I understand it,  refused to over-rule the Police, despite him submitting a different photo. While the appearance of a fringe on a photo or not is not going to make Conference one tiny bit safer, I'd say to Gareth that his attendance at the event is vital and if he needs to have a new photo taken and get the brylcream out to tame his fringe, then just do it, and I'd say to FCC that they need to take the temperature down and find a way to resolve this.  I vaguely remember something about Tim Farron at the time saying he'd step in if people were being arbitrarily excluded.  I am sure that if given the chance, he'd come to the rescue and bash heads together if need be.

This isn't about Gareth and his photo, though. And I don't want the debate to come down to that. It's about us  being told by corporate interests and the police that we need to take action which will make absolutely nobody safer. The Police should not be able to over-ride my constitutional right to attend my conference. While I am too much of a peace-loving hippy to ever cause harm to anybody, anyone with  malevolent intent would be sorted by those scanners at the door Actually, the queue for those scanners is probably the most dangerous place to be because you don't have to have accreditation to stand there.

We need to make the argument that everyone involved in all the big terrorist attacks in recent years have had the correct accreditation. Where is the evidence that such a draconian system is needed? The Police are always over-cautious and they're not naturally liberal. There are times when they need to be stood up to and this is one of them. They told the last Labour Government that they needed to detain terrorist suspects for 90 days, way more than other countries in Europe and they just rolled over and had their tummies tickled until they were forced back by the strength of the opposing argument.

The argument made by FCC is that no venue would allow them to hold Conference if they didn't follow police advice - which amounts to these draconian security measures - because our public liability insurance would be invalid. I find that argument incredible. Are they really telling us that nobody would offer the right insurance without these sorts of security checks? How far did they look? Did they just ask the usual company and go no further? It just defies logic that the huge festivals we all see over the Summer, from T in the Park to Glastonbury to Reading all function without everyone having to be police checked and our conference can't. There are A-listers who are arguably at as much risk as our Cabinet ministers from unwanted attention, wandering around these events freely, too. Maybe that's what we should do - turn Conference into a massive Festival. It would certainly be different and our civil liberties would be protected.

While I was writing this, I checked what security arrangements had been in place for Nick Clegg's members' only visits in Scotland last week. We all had to book our space in advance and bring photo ID with us, and I'd wondered if we'd gone through any formal police check. We hadn't - and the only threat to anybody came from the random paint thrower outside the hall.

The Cabinet go on Ministerial visits every day - and I'm not aware of people who attend these visits having to be police checked. If there's physical security at the event, then that's safe enough.

On the Sunday morning of Conference, at 9am, the following motion, to be proposed by Stephen Gilbert MP,  will be debated.
Mover: Stephen Gilbert MP Summation: David Grace Conference accepts the need for physical security measures to protect those attending but does not accept that such measures can interfere with the democratic decision-making processes of a political party. Conference affirms that Liberal Democrats have always defended and promoted the fundamental rights of freedom of association and assembly, protected by Article 11 of the European Convention of Human Rights, by Article 12 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and by Article 22 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Conference recalls that: a) The preamble to the party constitution states that "We will at all times defend the right to speak, write, worship, associate and vote freely...". b) The party's general election manifesto specifically proclaimed "The best way to combat terrorism is to prosecute terrorists, not give away hard-won British freedoms". Conference therefore condemns the system of police accreditation adopted for this conference which requires party members to disclose personal data to the police and which is designed to enable the police to advise that certain party members should not be allowed to attend. Conference therefore calls upon: 1. The Parliamentary Party and Liberal Democrat Ministers to question the current police guidance on accreditation and to seek to persuade the Home Office to change guidance on current practice to reflect the rights of association and assembly and the internal democracy of all political parties. 2. The Federal Conference Committee to negotiate security arrangements for future conferences which protect the privacy of members' personal data and which respect the party's constitution and internal democracy. 3. The Party President to ensure that conference arrangements respect Article 6 of the federal constitution which provides that Local Parties elect representatives and that no other body within or without the party has the power to exclude in advance their attendance at conference.

This now seems to be quite tame a response. There are a number of people who have not gone through the accreditation process because either it's too stressful for them, they are worried that they wouldn't pass, or they are a transgendered person who doesn't want to be outed by it, or their objection in principle is just too much. I wonder if we need to have some sort of appreciation event/vigil type thing at Conference for them - the people who should be there.

It is ridiculous that Conference is 2.5 weeks away and some people who may already have spent hundreds of pounds on travel and accommodation which they won't get back still don't know whether they will pass accreditation and be able to enter the Conference. This is completely unacceptable.

Two further points: Nick Clegg was the guy who stood up and said he'd go to jail rather than be forced to carry an ID card. The Party is letting him down by showing less resolve than he did on an issue of civil liberties.

Benjamin Franklin had it right when he said: "Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."


Emily said...

The issue of Gareth's fringe is fascinating and depressing because it shows exactly what the accreditation system can do (check someone complies with an arbitrary set of requirements, plus presumably a check of other files held about that person) and what it can't (determine whether someone intends to violently attack the conference).

It reminds me too much of my work's QA audits, which are all about box-ticking and sign-offs but cannot determine anything about the quality of the work audited.

I am keeping my fingers crossed for a good response to this issue at the conference. I've joined very recently (last week) but if this is ignored/swept under the carpet, I may have to reconsider.

Stuart said...

Regarding Nick's recent visit to Edinburgh. The original invitation made no mention of producing some form of photo ID, only that you had to register in advance. I later found out you had to print your own ticket!

If photo ID was required I would have been prevented from going as I don't have any Photo ID.

I didn't go to any of the events, maybe just as well.

Alasdair said...

Did you really just mention conference security checks and 90 days detention in the same breath? Brilliant.

I've been to Labour conference for the last couple of years, and I've never heard of anyone being turned down. As for Epps, I suspect all he needs to do is submit a clearer picture - hardly a great injustice!


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