Monday, April 23, 2012

What I said to FCC on Conference Accreditation

So, there I was, in my parents' living room on Saturday afternoon and suddenly the awful realisation hit me.

I'd been urging everyone else to respond to the Federal Conference Committee's hasty consultation on the Sussex Police's request for an accreditation system for our Autumn Conference in Brighton.

I'd blogged on it, twice, for sure, but not actually sent the e-mail off.

So, as soon as I got home, I sent the following e-mail to them.

Dear FCC

Before I get into the substance of my argument, I’d like to say that I do have some sympathy for the dilemma you must be in. You feel acutely the burden of responsibility for the safety of everyone attending Conference and a natural fear of going against professional advice is understandable. However, I hope to persuade you that there is no case for an accreditation system as there is no evidence that it will make anyone safer.
I do believe that it was possible to anticipate the Police request and it would have been better if you had consulted at Gateshead to avoid a hasty one week consultation in the middle of local elections across the Country. 

I find the case for accreditation very weak. I have been unimpressed with the arguments of some in favour of accreditation who have tried to scare us 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, especially when Conference goers are filling a variety of venues outside the security cordon for almost a week.

When professional advice is as easy to pick holes in as the Sussex Police’s, I don’t think FCC should have any qualms about rejecting it. Let me explain:
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 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 that’s gone through the testing of the criminal justice system. 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. I don't see how one single person will be made safer by this demand. It is an unreasonable and illiberal request. There is not a shred of evidence that it would prevent an atrocity and it is so fundamental to our values as Liberal Democrats that the Police should not be able to determine who attends Conference or engages in the political process that I urge you to reject it out of hand. You will be able to find alternative insurance.

I appeal to you 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.

I will be publishing this separately and I have no objection to you doing so if you wish to publish consultation responses in the interests of transparency.

Thank you for hard work you do as a Committee. I appreciate the difficulty of the situation you find yourselves in.


Caron Lindsay

PS: This is an extract from the speech I would have made in the debate in Birmingham last year if I’d have been able to get there in time.
 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.
 Today, FCC makes its decision. Let's hope that they reject this illiberal and ineffective idea.

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