Monday, April 16, 2012

Conference accreditation rears its unacceptable, illiberal and not very pretty head

You kind of expect motions passed at Federal Conference about Federal Conference to be taken seriously by Federal Conference Committee. Especially in a year when they're up for election. Unfortunately the message from the motion on Accreditation for attendees at Conference does not seem to have got through.

This motion condemned the system and called on Parliamentarians to work with the Police to question the need for such a system. After all, we should not tolerate a situation where the Police dictate who can engage in the political process and how they can do it. That's completely unacceptable in a liberal society.

The FCC was told to negotiate security arrangements which respect members' privacy and the party's constitution.

So, what do they do when the Sussex Police demand accreditation for this Autumn's Brighton Conference? They decide to launch a consultation. Of one week's duration. In the middle of the local election campaign. It is important that people have the chance to put their views to FCC, especially as last year's measures prevented some people from attending Conference on principle, but the timing is well and truly off. They could easily have anticipated the demand and decided to consult at Spring Conference in Gateshead, for example.

FCC want our views by this coming Saturday and they should be e-mailed to and a decision will be made a week today.

Don't miss your chance to have your say on this.

I find the case for accreditation very weak. FCC members tried to scare us all by telling us terrorists wanted to kill us all. That would be why we put our belongings through airport style security at the door, then. I find that line of argument lazy and insulting and I don't want to hear any more of it. Let's face it, I have enough of an instinct of self preservation to want to get home to my family in one piece, as well as all my dear friends who will be there. Any assertion that we would be putting staff at the venue at risk by refusing to implement an accreditation process is utterly ridiculous.

This is the Police case as outlined in the Liberal Democrat Voice piece:

Two senior officers of Sussex police attended an FCC meeting in late March and outlined the reasons they are asking the party to use accreditation. It is their clear view that party conferences, including ours while we are in government, attract people who wish to cause serious harm and violence to conference-goers (and also to those working in the venue and other residents of Brighton, whom they also have a duty to protect). 
 For sure. Although this is not new. I grew up in the 70s and 80s when the IRA committed a number of violent atrocities. One such was the murder of Conservative MP Airey Neave by car bomb in the underground car park to Westminster. I've been to Parliament a few times now and all I've had to do is have a photo taken for my pass and go through security scanners.

My contention is that an accreditation system does not of itself make anyone safer. Every single major atrocity has been committed by people who were who they say they are and who had the correct paperwork.
This includes large international terrorist organisations, but also individuals who are able to make bombs or other equipment. They gave some examples of lone individuals who have caused serious violence, or attempted to, ranging from the 1984 Brighton bombing to the Norwegian gunman at a youth political event.
I will never forget waking up to the horrific scenes of the Grand Hotel in ruins when the Tory Party conference was bombed by the IRA in 1984. It was horrible, even from 700 miles away. That bomb was planted weeks before the event. Are hotels in Brighton having all their guests accredited by the Police months in advance? I suspect there would be an outcry if they were. The answer, of course, is no, they aren't.

As far as the awful events in Norway are concerned, physical security at the camp would have prevented Breivik from getting onto the island and carrying out his murderous plan.
Because of the particular attraction that major public events which are heavily covered by the media have to people who want to cause serious violence, they believe that in order to protect the security of everyone at conference, attendees should go through accreditation.
Attendees at football cup finals, the Grand National, the Olympics, pop concerts, festivals, Wimbledon or Pride don't have to go through Police accreditation. I went with my sister and niece to see Paul McCartney in Liverpool last December and the Police did not have to approve my trip. Why should our Conference be any different? The security services want the power to snoop on all our private communications. The Police wanted to bang people up for 3 months without charge. Those requests were unreasonable because they infringed civil liberties, as this one is.
The police are extremely clear, as are FCC, that preventing any other difficulties or embarrassment for the party are not part of their remit. They are focused only on specific information which might indicate that someone may pose a serious security threat to other conference-goers.
Anyone can join the party for as little as £12 and can then attend conference as a party member.

It weighs heavily on my mind that two people were barred from attending conference last year because they didn't pass accreditation. These people could easily have been completely innocent. I don't think it's the business of anyone in the party, no matter how much I trust them, and I do trust Tim Farron, Andrew Wiseman and Tim Gordon, should have the right to ban a member from attending conference without proper evidence. It's a really serious step to take. Especially when it doesn't stop any member of the general public with malevolent intentions from standing in the security queue. You don't need to be accredited to do that. The Sunday morning at Gateshead, I joined the queue half way up the hill to the Sage.

Just as an aside, we had five Cabinet Ministers at our Scottish Conference in Inverness and the Northern Constabulary didn't see fit to ask for any of this. Why should it be different at UK level?

I do not think accreditation is a sensible way of managing risk to people attending their conference. The Police case for it is far from compelling. I don't see how one single person will be made safer by this demand. I hope that party members give FCC a strong steer that they should not put up with these unreasonable and illiberal requests.

Whatever happens, I will be in Brighton, because I don't want our policy to be made by people who are ok with this sort of thing. If we fall at the first hurdle when civil liberties are challenged, who on earth else is going to fight for them?

I appeal to FCC to have the courage of their liberal convictions and find a way through that does not involve an accreditation system that is absolutely wrong in principle.

Background Information:

This is the crux of the motion passed at Conference in Birmingham last year. You can read the whole thing here on page 20.
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.
1.The Parliamentary Party and Liberal Democrat Ministers to question the current policeguidance 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 futureconferences which protect the privacy of members’ personal data and which respect theparty’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 is part of what I would have said in that debate if I'd been able to be there on time. My whole draft speech is here.

 Now, I have a very strong personal interest in this conference being safe and secure. Some of the people I care most about in the world are here. My beloved family are 400 miles away - I want to return to them in one piece. I am also one of the most over anxious people on the planet.

Despite that, I do not see how this expensive accreditation system is going to make one person safer. It seems to me to be a wasteful exercise in bureaucracy. We have airport style security on the way in and lots of vigilant security people around the place. That's enough to protect us. Nobody is going to be able to get in here with anything that could cause harm. 
Those of us who were around the last time an atrocity was carried out at a party conference will remember the feeling of numbness and shock and nausea  as we watched events unfold. That bomb, though, had been planted a month before.
In recent acts of terrorism, everyone involved has had the correct paperwork.
There is simply no need for accreditation. And since when did we fall for the line that the Police say they need it? They said that about 90 days detention as well and as a party we didn't flinch in our opposition to that.
The FCC will say that it all comes down to insurance. I am far from convinced that this is the case. My understanding is that they've gone to the usual provider who has said that if we don't take police advice, it'll invalidate our insurance. They tell us that if we don't accept accreditation, there will be no Conference. 
I think we need more imagination here.  If festivals can get public liability insurance when they have, frankly, even more A-listers than we have wandering around, then I'm sure we can find someone who is prepared to see that the physical security arrangements suffice.

1 comment:

Ruaraidh said...

Done :)


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