Opinion: Healthy scepticism alive and well among Liberty’s ranks

At the weekend Liberty held its AGM. Jo Shaw was there…

We are, as our esteemed director, Shami Chakrabarti said on Saturday “a gobby lot”. In that, the Liberty membership share much in common with the membership of the Lib Dems. Both share a tradition of being unwilling to shut up, of asking difficult questions and not necessarily toeing the line which might be expected or helpful for the leadership.

Liberty was formed 76 years ago in response to police brutality against protestors against hunger and unemployment. Police tactics at demonstrations and the politics of dissent are currently high in the civil liberties agenda. So much has changed over 76 years, and yet so little has changed.

Liberty’s AGM on Saturday continued and developed the gobby tradition. A smaller audience than last year’s large 75th anniversary Conference, but still a good crowd of all ages (a 15 year old and a 76 year old among the contributors to the debates), sexes and backgrounds.

First up was a panel discussion, chaired by the Director, which included Afua Hirsch (legal correspondent of the Guardian), Edward Garnier QC MP (the new Solicitor General – introduced as a Conservative who had said “I do not have a fit of the vapours when the Human Rights Act is mentioned”), Diane Abbott MP and Simon Hughes, the MP for Liberty currently located in Southwark. Warmest applause at the start was when Shami introduced Diane Abbott as the Labour leadership contender. Whether the warm welcome was because of her party, her contention or her long standing support and work for Liberty’s causes was hard to say.

Edward Garnier’s told us that he (and the Attorney General) would be like submarines – noone would hear or see them for a long time, but when they did surface, everyone would remember it. He also told us that it was our duty to protest (a dangerous thing to encourage Liberty members to protest as we’re fairly good at doing that anyway, but I think he meant more widely it was the public’s duty).

Unsurprisingly, the first question was about the future of the Human Rights Act (HRA). Simon quoted from the wording of the coalition agreement :

We will establish a Commission to investigate the creation of a British Bill of Rights that incorporates and builds on all our obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights, ensures that these rights continue to be enshrined in British law, and protects and extends British liberties. We will seek to promote a better understanding of the true scope of these obligations and liberties.

Simon was at pains to say that the wording had been very carefully arrived at, and that the HRA would be guaranteed. The coalition agreement protects everything, he said.

Afua Hirsch told us in her opening remarks that the Australian jurist, Michael Kirkby, had said he felt the coalition agreement with the Lib Dems saved the HRA and that she hoped so too. She wanted the Commission to consider better methods of enforcement of the protections of the European Convention on Human Right and to strengthen the wording of the Act. She pointed out that the coalition agreement only refers to the protections of the ECHR, not the HRA itself, and was forceful in her remarks about the need for protection of the HRA.

The general feeling was that the HRA Commission was a way of kicking the issue into the long grass, and that it was unlikely to come back with anything other than the status quo. This Liberty can live with.

Julian Huppert MP (incidentally the only MP from any party in the audience, along with Sarah Ludford MEP, the only MEP in the audience – good show from the Lib Dems) asked the panel whether they would scrap control orders and 28 day detention. Edward Garnier said there would be a review of Control Orders. Simon said we were committed to scrapping both. With Diane Abbott as leader, the Labour party would get rid of them, and Afua reminded the audience that in the last parliament Conservatives abstained on Control Orders, with the Lib Dems voting against.

Other questions for the panel on section 44 stop and search powers, rights to protest, extradition and privacy showed both the customary concerns of Liberty members, and the fact that these concerns and potential restriction of our liberties don’t ever disappear, they just change over the years.

After the official business of the meeting, Liberty’s plans for a move to a new larger building in Westminster, closer to decision makers and with better facilities for staff and volunteers. A large amount of money is required for the move, with a lot raised but more needed, so if you want to make a donation, you can do so here.

The opportunity for proper gobbyness came out in the motions section of the AGM. In a two hour session for four motions speakers including first time attenders at the event were not backward in coming forward and giving their views on the motions, their problems, occasionally, with some of the wording and intentions behind the motions, and the effect of them.

There were some excellent debates, especially on the motion regarding freedom of protest, proposed by the scarily eloquent Barnaby Raine, aged 15. (NOTE: If Barnaby doesn’t go on to great things, then I’ll eat this keyboard.)

This and all the other motions were passed, expressing Liberty’s support for and work towards, variously, universal jurisdiction, the independence of Legal Aid and protection of the Human Rights Act.

The general feeling amongst the delegates was of healthy scepticism about the coalition government, particularly regarding who was behind the decision to arrest Brian Haw just before the state opening of Parliament. The coalition’s words on civil liberties and freedoms are very much welcomed, but there is concern that the words won’t turn into acts sufficient to undo the damage to our liberties in the past few years.

The AGM concluded with an inspiring speech from Shami Chakrabarti, reminding us all why we were spending our Saturday debating and arguing for freedoms, and not with our feet up watching the World Cup or spending time with friends and family.

She spoke, as ever, forcefully and passionately about the risks of freedoms being sacrificed. She welcomed the coalition’s action to scrap of ID cards (which got a round of applause), and described the use of police powers under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, which gives the right for stop and search powers to be exercised without any suspicion of wrongdoing once an area has been secretly designated for such use. Shami also told us of the successes enjoyed by Liberty’s legal team in the last year, including a case regarding forced labour.

We were reminded by Shami, picking up on Afua Hirsch’s point, of how countries abroad look to the UK for guidance regarding civil liberties and the justice system.

She also reminded us of the need to scrap control orders, recollecting the anniversary conference last year. During the day, as I remember very well, a man subject to a Control Order stood up in the main hall to protest about his treatment, demanding to know what he was suspected of doing. This event showed two things, she argued, firstly that Control Orders are a complete breach of the subject’s rights to due process, to know the accusations being levelled at them, and to have the opportunity to challenge them in court. Further the idea that a Control Order is a way of protecting the public is a nonsense. Present at the conference last year were the then Justice Secretary, the current Deputy Prime Minister as well as several other MPs and notables – a security risk must be being posed by the Control Order subject for an Order to be made, and yet there was no restriction on his ability to attend the event at all.

The Director expressed her thanks for all the team of staff and volunteers for working so hard throughout the year, and for all their work to make the AGM such a success. About that, there was no gobbyness at all!

Jo Shaw is a barrister and member of the Council of Liberty, along with Lib Dem MP Julian Huppert and Lib Dem MEP Sarah Ludford. Jo writes in her personal capacity.

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  • Hmm. I’m in two minds about Liberty. I want to be supportive – I certainly support their aims. But it strikes me that Liberty has the same viewpoint of the Liberal Democrats as Stonewall does: a cross between “they’re on side anyway, so we needn’t bother” and a Labour-activist’s bias against The Liberals.

  • David Morton 16th Jun '10 - 3:12pm

    The Party’s greatest challenge is that liberalism is a diaspora while Labour and Conservatism have always been movements. This has made it much easier to institutionalise their core supporters into actual support for their political party. I’m delighted to read this excellent article because by accident or design it hints at the profound challenges the coalition causes for the liberal diaspora. On the one hand the prospect of actual power could call some liberals to the Lib Dem fold. How many small l liberals have joined other party’s to get on and do things? On the other hand the compromises of power don’t attract people of a diaspora mind set. Some people move off into campaign/NGO groups precisely because they don’t have power.

    An organisation like Liberty should be as closely alied to the Liberal Democrats as the Cooperative movement or some Unions are to Labour. It has of course never been that way but the new Coalition has the potential to push them even further away because they see keeping the flame as telling Truth to Power. Prioritising orthodoxy over orthapraxis.

    It will be facinating to see how it all pans out.

  • Andrew Suffield 16th Jun '10 - 3:48pm

    Labour and Conservatism have always been movements

    A movement is an attempt to go somewhere. Labour and the Tories are just power structures dedicated to preserving the status quo, with little purpose other than taking power from the other.

    they see keeping the flame as telling Truth to Power

    Liberty has always been an issue-campaigning body, not a political one. They aren’t much into talking philosophy. At any given time they have a list of Bad Things That Must Be Stopped, and it’s usually a pretty good list that the mainstream media does their best to ignore. They don’t really care about politics except that it’s usually the government who need to be stopped.

    (Obligatory reminder: Labour was complicit in the torture of innocent people and tried to cover it up, the new government hasn’t yet done anything to put a stop to that, and despite the Nuremberg precedent there is no prospect of prosecuting those responsible)

  • I’m not keen on Liberty being seen as just the same as the Lib Dems, anymore than I like the Cooperative movement or the Unions being hand in glove with Labour. To be inexorably linked in this way does neither side any favours. Liberty can and should shout loud to further its campaigning objectives to those that either don’t know about them, aren’t listening or don’t agree. I suppose that’s why Lib Dems sometimes can feel slightly taken for granted by Liberty – we tend to be signed up to their ideas so they don’t need to worry about us!

  • Patrick Smith 16th Jun '10 - 11:37pm

    Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) missionary and philanthropist and neglected nowadays as he occupied time in a previous world said,

    `Therefore search and see,if there is not some place where you may invest your humanity’.

    Shami Chakraburti Director of Liberty is a great champion of civil rights and a beacon catalyst of humanity in our very troubled world and remarkable role model for the young generation.

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