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.