Opinion: Who will keep us safe from the men in black with big guns?

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Party conferences are different when you’re in government as we found out at Liverpool last year. I didn’t go to Sheffield in spring but I heard from good friends that some of the demonstrators there were very aggressive and made it difficult for people with mobility problems to safely access the conference.

This year at Birmingham I saw something new again – machine guns being carried by police outside the conference. This wasn’t by officers patrolling the streets outside the secure zone. No, it was inside, where people had already come past 3 separate checks that the face on the badge was similar to the face on the wearer – I say similar because passport standard photos are notorious for not looking like the real thing! Having passed those checks we then went through an airport style security gate and bags went through X-ray.

Then, and only then, were we confronted by armed police. They didn’t look very fierce, though they certainly looked young and strong and I wouldn’t have liked to have seen them in action.

I asked them why we had armed police inside the security zone. “It’s about your safety, Ma’am,” was the response. “But I don’t feel particularly safe having to walk past men with big guns to get into the building” said I. “It’s all about keeping you safe” was the response.

Eventually the information was volunteered that they were a deterrent to anyone contemplating wickedness from the buildings “over there”. Now maybe I’ve seen too many bits of action movies, but I’d have thought that anyone in the buildings “over there” would just lob a shoulder launched missile at us and be away long before the men with big guns knew what had hit them. Maybe not, maybe they’d just look out of the window, see pairs of nice young men in black carrying big guns and decide not to bother today.

This would be funny if it wasn’t serious. The Home Office pays for security for the Deputy Prime Minister. That includes a large part of the policing costs of such conferences. The police say what they think they need to do, then they get paid for doing it. Is there a conflict of interest here? Who checks the risk assessment? Could the same level of security be provided for less money, with fewer police?

Questions that many people have been asking this week and that I hope are answered properly before the Spring conference next year which comes to our own region. The Sage at Gateshead will be the venue and I want to look forward to the conference in my own region (which by the way contains the nation’s favourite building – Durham Cathedral) without men in black with big guns keeping me “safe”.

* Maureen Rigg is Stockton Liberal Democrats group leader, and blogs here.

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14 Comments

  • Andrew Suffield 24th Sep '11 - 5:48pm

    You can see those guys around Parliament as well – same equipment, and most probably same people.

    If you really want to address this, start there.

  • Excellent blog and it’s good to see it published here. There is, of course, no need whatsoever for our police to carry machine guns and to say that it’s for our safety is the most grotesque lie. Those responsible should not be in the police force at all.

  • I definitely didn’t see the point. Nick’s army generally keep the guns away when they travel round the country. Displays such as those around conference were extremely intimidating and ridiculous – this is not America. We don’t need guns all over the place.

  • paul barker 24th Sep '11 - 8:01pm

    If The Norwegian Labour Party had hired some Police with machine guns a lot of innocent lives would have been saved.

  • Entirely agree, Maureen.

    While I am reassured of my safety by the moderate presence of police, I feel less and less safe the more tooled up the police are and when they are in high numbers.

    Changing our security culture should be a central Lib Dem campaign.

  • I’m with you on this, oh distant-cousin-by-marriage. But I guess you knew that anyway. (Dad says hi!)

  • Joseph Donnelly 25th Sep '11 - 1:26am

    @Paul Barker

    If the Norwegian Labour Party had posted police with machine guns at a youth camp on the odd chance a madman turned up then they would of saved lives you mean?

    If we are really going down that route then a youth camp is actually quite far down the list of places that should have machine gun armed policemen present.

    Its the classic dilemma, how much liberty do we sacrifice for our security and as a liberal I am certainly worried that we have sacrificed far too much in order to protect ourselves from extreme events that are pretty much unstoppable anyway.

  • Maureen Rigg 25th Sep '11 - 8:36am

    Joseph, I agree entirely about the Labour Youth camp. I don’t know the detail but I imagine a risk assessment was done on that and the perceived risks addressed. As no-one seemed very clear what was happening in the course of the horror I suspect that more guns on the island might have led to more deaths.
    We do sacrifice some liberty and “normality” for security but I believe that the fine line was overstepped at Birmingham.

  • David Rogers 25th Sep '11 - 12:32pm

    I strongly agree with Matthew’s first comment above, about it not solely (or perhaps mainly) being about us as delegates, but about those who are there because it’s their job. The workplace smoking ban in pubs, restaurants, etc. is an interesting comparison, being not about the punters, but the staff.

    And Matthew it’s not just London! Gatwick Airport in West Sussex is a similar example to those you quote.

    Earlier (regrettably unprevented) terrorist incidents in Sussex include the 1984 Grand Hotel bombing in Brighton – I lived less than 1km away at the time, and had been in the hotel’s bar the night before – and the murder in 1990 of Eastbourne MP Ian Gow. These were Government targets at the time.

  • David Wright 25th Sep '11 - 3:58pm

    What I don’t understand is why our passes were checked 3 times going into the Conference Centre, but not at all going into the conference hotel, which at limes would have had a lot more cabinet ministers in it than the ICC. Surely 1 check on each would have been better.

    To get into the conference hotel, all you had to do was walk past a smiling policeman. I even went in twice, as it happened, not wearing my badge, and carrying a large bag (not a Lib Dem bag) which was also not checked.

    I don’t WANT them to restrict access to the conference hotel, but surely if there is a real threat to the Conference, the conference hotel could be a target too, as Brighton sadly proved.

  • Tony Greaves 25th Sep '11 - 4:44pm

    I am rather pleased I decided not to go to the conference in Birmingham. Having my badge checked three times would have been more than I could bear.

    As for the guns the questions that should be asked are:

    (1) what is the purpose of them? If it is reassurance it fails (it makes a lot of us feel a lot less safe) and anyway that is a stupid reason. If it is deterrence surely they should be outside not inside the conference itself. If it is to use them what are the rules of engagement and how will they prevent ordinary people from being shot by accident?

    (2) what are the rules of engagement? I often wonder about this with the guns outside Parliament which seem to me to be similarly dangerous and useless. If someone goes up to them with a bag, sees the gun and runs away what do they do? If someone goes up to them, shouts abuse (or political slogans) and refuses to leave what do they do? If one of the crowds of demonstrators that appear daily across the road in Old Palace Yard pours over the fence into the Lords car park (easy enough to jump over, I’ve done it) what will they do? Do they have to get clearance from a superior to shoot? Why don’t I ask them? (Makes a note to ask them).

    (3) if they are inside the building how do guns stop a suicide bomber? In the unlikely event of anyone getting inside with a bomb how do they prevent that person planting the bomb (eg in a carrier bag in the exhibition area)? I assume a person wandering around with a bomb will not get it out and show it to the man with a gun.

    (4) what on earth is inside the heads of the men wielding these big guns? What are they looking out for? If they see something they don’t like what do they do? Shout out and wave their guns at all and sundry or take aim at somone who then hides in the crowd…

    All a mystery to me. I really conclude it is all symbolic and both bad symbolism and a huge waste of money.

    Tony Greaves

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