With the opening of registration for the Autumn Liberal Democrat conference this week, the first details have emerged of registrants needing to provide information to the police for “security checks”.
Looking at the Lib Dem blogosphere this morning, it’s clear that people are deeply unhappy with the requirements. I’m going to try to explain what the problem is, how it’s come about and what we might do about it.
What Information Is Required?
The pass application guidelines make it clear what is needed. First off, an up-to-date photo compliant with the new passport guidelines (which exist to make automated facial biometric recognition easier) for your conference pass.
Secondly, either your passport number, driving licence number or National Insurance number. If you don’t have any of the latter, it seems to be possible to come to some kind of arrangement with Greater Manchester Police (who are doing the checks on behalf of Birmingham’s West Midlands Police).
What’s The Problem?
There’s a debate to be had about the amount of security that is proportionate to our needs. Certainly, it’s arguable that our Government ministers are a legitimate terrorist target. It’s arguable that checking that people aren’t coming in to Conference with obvious weapons is a sensible precaution (though nearly being told to surrender a 4″ steel ear piercing as a weapon at Sheffield was clearly ridiculous).
It’s also arguable that some people might be prepared to take more subtle steps to attack or embarrass the party inside our conference venue, and that attempting to pre-”vet” attendees is a way to detect those people. But this is where we start to run into more fundamental difficulties.
On the philosophical side, there’s the fact that our voting delegates are elected by our local parties with a democratic mandate to represent us; if those delegates are denied access by a third party, then those local parties are disenfranchised. Of course, there are existing procedures for local parties to appoint replacements when delegates can’t make Conference for whatever reason, but with the new, stricter approach to deadlines it might prove difficult to get such replacements in place.
Practically, there’s concern about how the police will use the information provided. In the absence of any other information, it’s reasonable to assume they’ll use it for Criminal Record Bureau checks, which have been shown to be error-prone on several occasions. There’s no information about what will happen with people whose passport has a different name from their party membership card – perhaps because they go by a pseudonym, or because they’re transgendered – and the police have a poor record of dealing with such situations respectfully and sensitively.
The biggest concern for me personally is the long-term storage and sharing of information, which you must consent to as part of the terms and conditions. Both the Liberal Democrat party and the police force will be permitted to hold your personal data, including those passport etc. details you provide, indefinitely; the police will be able to share them with other forces. The more places your personal data is stored, and the more detail is stored about it (and it’s hard to present a more tempting target for data theft than the information we’re being asked to provide) the greater the risk of accidental disclosure, let alone institutional abuse. There is no argument I can see which justifies mandatory holding on to the information provided for one conference, after that conference has finished.
How Did We Get Here?
Ultimately, the worst thing about this situation is that it comes across as yet another case of the Cowley Street ivory tower not listening to or communicating with the party grassroots. In January when I signed up for joint registration, I was warned I might need to provide “compulsory security information” for Birmingham (but not Sheffield). I asked what this might entail, and was told that details had not been finalised and I would be informed ASAP. I still have questions, which I’ve put to the Conference team as well as outlining above.
The glib defence, which I have unfortunately heard from several party members this morning, is that “the police asked for this for our security”. This doesn’t wash with me – the police have asked for many things for our security; ACPO supported the largest compulsory state database of personal information in the West, claiming it was for our security against terrorism, and yet as Liberal Democrats we campaigned against the National Identity Register. It’s simply not good enough to say “we need it for security” to a liberal.
There is a more nuanced argument, which may or may not be true – that we have to co-operate with the police to get public liability insurance for the conference, without which it cannot go ahead without risk of bankrupting the party.
If that is the case, then we need to be reassured that our Federal Conference Committee understood the privacy concerns, and have done their best to negociate with different police forces about requirements, and have gone with the venue and police force with the most liberal requirements. We haven’t had that – I’ve had (in my capacity as a local party secretary) an e-mail from the chair of the FCC encouraging me to help my members comply with the compulsory data sharing.
Where Do We Go From Here?
For all the Twitter shouting and counter-shouting, there’s very little information about the discussions which have gone on between FCC and West Midlands Police. A good starting point to the debate we need to have, to enable our party members to make informed decisions about whether they’re happy to attend the conference, would be for the FCC to apologise for springing this on us, and to provide information about what they’ve tried to do to respect our privacy. It may yet be possible to challenge some of the conditions (particularly the indefinite storage ones).
One point that’s come across this morning relates to the effect on the debates within conference – if people who care about privacy choose not to attend, then the debates and votes will be biased towards people who do not care about privacy. For that reason alone some people with concerns about these matters may still wish to attend.
In the past, party members have not needed to be conference delegates to attend fringe meetings and training. This has started to change, with fringes at Liverpool held inside the main conference centre, and we need to confirm whether this is a matter of policy or convenience. I’ll be making sure my SAO’s AGM is open to people who do not choose to comply with the imposed conditions, and encourage others to do the same.
And again, Cowley Street need to learn the lesson that when you try to impose on grassroots liberals, they will react angrily and loudly, and both sides will accuse the other of damaging the reputation of the party. If the Parliamentary Party are going to try to work in coalition with the Tories with plenty of dialogue and respect, the Federal Party needs to do the same with its membership.
Dave Page is a local party voting delegate with Birmingham conference accomodation already arranged.