We have just announced arrangements for registering for our autumn conference, including some new security arrangements which will apply for the first time this year. Some concerns have been raised about them so I wanted to set out what exactly the new arrangements are, and why the Federal Conference Committee has decided that it is necessary this year to increase security – something that we have been very reluctant to do.
Firstly I want to restate the basic point that we as Liberal Democrats are in control of our own conference – not the police, or the Conservative party, not even Lib Dem ministers, or anyone else. You may recall that last year there were widespread rumours that our conference would somehow become confused with the Conservatives, with David Cameron speaking at our conference, or that the conference could become muzzled in commenting on what the government is doing. I think it is plain as could be that this has not happened: David Cameron has not spoken at any of our conferences (and for the record as far as I am aware no-one other than mischievous journalists has ever suggested that he should) – and our spring conference this year in particular made abundantly clear that far from being muzzled, it is more than ever a strong platform for the party speaking out on government proposals, for example the potential reforms to the health service.
The same applies to security. Of course we need to talk to the police and others but it is very clear that all decisions about security remain with FCC.
As part of our responsibility in organising conference, we do need to look seriously at the security threats, including those which are new as a result of us going into government. I believe we have a clear responsibility to everyone who attends conference to ensure they are safe. The hard fact is that our conference as a whole, and some of our members who attend conference who are ministers, are now more a focus for people who very seriously do not wish our democratic procedures to continue. To be blunt, if us taking the wrong decisions on security leads to loss of life or limb, then we have not discharged our responsibility to anyone.
People may of course believe we have made the wrong judgements, but I have been alarmed to see some comments which seem to suggest that we should not have to take security considerations into account at all. We as a committee are clear that it would be seriously irresponsible with people’s lives, as well as, for those who are more concerned about these things, the party’s financial liability. In fact if we do not take these matters seriously then we will find that venues will not accept our bookings. Our insurers want to know that we act on police advice and if we do not we run the risk of invalidating our insurance. Without the necessary insurance no conference venue will accept our booking.
If some interpret this as the party accepting any suggested ‘requirement’ for new security that is made, then that is very far from has actually happened. Over the last year or so representatives of the party, including myself, have spent many hundreds of hours discussing security arrangements with the police and Home Office, and in particular what measures Liberal Democrats regard as acceptable and what they do not. Any suggestion that we as a party have simply rolled over to accept whatever the police demand is very wide of the mark indeed.
So taking all this into account, the Federal Conference Committee – which is of course made up of very longstanding party members and conference goers – has discussed repeatedly and at considerable length what arrangements we think do need to be put in place for our autumn conference.
The major change which does need to be made is the introduction of ‘accreditation’. The aim of this process is to identify any individuals who might pose a very serious security threat to our conference. As a committee we have taken the view that, taking into account the advice of the police and the Home Office, as a party to secure our conference for our members and observers, we do need to do this.
The accreditation process is the same one which has been in place at Labour and Conservative conferences for many years. It requires attendees to provide their address, and either their passport number, their driving licence number or their National Insurance number. This is aimed at ensuring that those who register to attend conference are who they say they are.
There has been some suggestion that this means the police will decide who can come to conference. This is absolutely not the case as the final decision will rest with the party.
The police will carry out the accreditation process, as they do for other parties, but if this process does flag up any issues then these will come straight to myself as FCC Chair and the Chief Executive. It is explicit that we have the power to overrule the police – as I said, it is our conference. Can I guarantee now, in advance that whatever information is given us, we would never agree that a particular individual would pose such a severe personal security threat that for the safety of all our conference goers they should be excluded? Of course not – and I can just about conceive of circumstances in which there was very strong evidence relating to an individual that we might feel we had to take that view. But I think it unlikely this will happen, and you know how seriously we will approach any such decision.
The accreditation process is not aimed at preventing those who have been on a picket, have protested against nuclear power or those that have proactively campaigned for the decriminalisation of certain substances (!) from attending conference. It is aimed at preventing those who are intent on causing serious harm.
The data is securely handled in accordance with the Data Protection Act and only used for the purposes of accreditation at party political conferences. An up to date photo is being required because the quality of the photos previously used by the conference office was so poor it was almost impossible to recognise anyone from their badge!
In organising our conference we have a very wide range of responsibilities – first of all to ensure that the party can be fully represented, and to make policy and challenge our leaders. But we do also have to ensure the safety of all our attendees. FCC, from a very sceptical position, has become convinced that the measures I have outlined above are proportionate to the real threats which do now apply to us.