Opinion: The problem with Lib Dem conference security arrangements

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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.

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28 Comments

  • Nick (not Clegg) 3rd Jun '11 - 9:52am

    Do the other Parties’ conference delegates (and visitors?) have to submit to these conditions. Are these requirements imposed by police at other conference venues, or are they a fad of the Manchester/Birmingham forces?

    What do our parliamentary party members (particularly our Home Office spokespeople) make of this?

  • So it’s not a question of identification? It’s to allow the police to vet properly accredited delegates, and exclude those who are deemed to be undesirable? Amazing.

  • Labour (when in power) you had to give your car registration plate, even if you where attending by train

  • David, Twickenham 3rd Jun '11 - 10:17am

    These requirements have been part of attending Labour and Tory conferences for several years, including in Brighton and Bournemouth as well as Birmingham and Manchester.. Our conference was assumed to be less prone to threat. Now we are a party of Government (hurrah!) it is equally prone to disruption by the motivated. And who is to say that it would not be easy for such a motivated person to infiltrate and dupe a local party short of potential delegates into sending them to Conference. I, who live in the real world, welcome the protection that this system will ensure.

  • Good article. I’m glad someone is taking this nonsense seriously.

  • James Baker 3rd Jun '11 - 10:36am

    I think Dave does an excellent job of summing up people’s concerns. This requirements will have formed part of the ‘security’ advice provided by the Home Office and Police. Sadly the Home Office and the Police are prone to seek or impose all sorts of over the top measures in the name of security. It’s the process of complying with everything the Home Office suggests in the name of security that led Labour to develop and implement some of the most illiberal legislation seen in this country.

    If you apply for this years conference you will be enabling the police and security forces access to a lot of your personal information. They will be able to share this amongst themselves as put simply the data will be exempt from the data protection principles due to the exemptions for crime prevention under section IV of the Data Protection Act.

    As a party we have fought against over the top vetting and barring for working with children, that we now actively seek it to protect our selves by imposing such measures on delegates shows us to be cowards when it comes to sticking by our liberal principles.

  • James Baker 3rd Jun '11 - 10:48am

    It’s true that other parties have similar over the top security arrangements. Phil Booth was for instance prevented from speaking at a fringe event on ID cards at Labour conference as his own security pass hadn’t been organised (Ironic). Labour also ejected Walter Wolfgang and the police held him under the Terrorism Act. These are not instances we should be keen to mimic. The mantel of government doesn’t have to require adopting mass background checks on anyone wanting to attend conference. It’s also worth remembering the sheer income that security forces gain from running conferences these days? Millions of pounds of budgets & vested interest lie in hyping security risks.

  • Mike Galloway, MK 3rd Jun '11 - 11:02am

    The Conservative Party requirements are at https://conservativepartyconference.com/files/Security%20Guidelines%20-%20Registration%20Page.pdf – they require Passport AND Driving Licence number AND Car Registration number even if not going by car. They also seem to need a counter signature is some cases to confirm you are who you say you are.

    The Labour Party go further still and require all of Passport Number, National Insurance number, Driving Licence number and private and company vehicle registration numbers.

    But as we know, the Labour and Conservative conferences are stage managed events so clearly their security arrangements are designed to deter people from attending. Is that what the Liberal Democrat Party wants?

    As you do not even need to show any identification or pre-register to get in Parliament these arrrangements are total overkill. That some of our MPs have so quickly lost touch with the real world is bad enough, but now it seems Cowley Street and FCC have done the same. What challenges were made to the Home Office and Police. What is the truth about the public liability insurance requirements. How much extra is being spent on this. As a party that believes in transparency – lets see the evidence.

  • Another concern is the total lack of transparency. Will a person who is barred from attending be told why? Is there a right of appeal if the reasons turn out to be mistaken or spurious?

  • Gareth Epps 3rd Jun '11 - 12:25pm

    Great piece Dave. I’m looking forward to a reply from FCC and the President, who is constitutionally responsible and has been (unusually) woefully silent on this so far.

  • Andrew Wiseman 3rd Jun '11 - 1:02pm

    Dave,

    Many thanks for your thoughtful piece. I had already drafted a piece of my own which has just been posted. While it deals with some of your issues there are a few that are not picked up. I will respond those later today.

    Regards
    Andrew

    Andrew Wiseman
    Chair, FCC

  • David, Twickenham 3rd Jun '11 - 3:30pm

    Yes Benjamin. People aren’t blown up at Party Conferences any more. Think it might be anything to do with increased security – of all kinds?

  • Jacki Boyle 5th Jun '11 - 2:48am

    Can I throw in a couple of thoughts/questions here? I found the police presence in Sheffield rather overpowering – I think all delegates could have had a personal bodyguard! It cost a fortune and got us bad press. Is the aim this time to reduce police numbers???
    Secondly, long term thought. I had to read the English party membership rules again this week. I hadn’t realised that technically you can only APPLY to join – you should be “approved” by the local party before you are a member. So if we all did this, we could assure the police that our members are ok and leave extra checks for press/corporate etc. It would also be a great way to make sure new members actually got talked to face-to-face!

  • It seems we are faced with the choice of accepting these excessive measures or not attending conference. If we opt for the latter, will we have our registration fees refunded? Andrew Wiseman please advise.

  • David, Twickenham 6th Jun '11 - 1:51pm

    Stuart, is it possible for you to have paid money without having registered via this process?

  • Er, what’s all the fuss about? We are talking about passport number, driving licence number and National Insurance number. Surely these are held on any number of databases already. Are they taking fingerprints? Are they asking where you went on holiday last year? Are they asking about which way you plan on voting at conference? I’m not a fan of state intrusion into people’s lives, and agree that personal information has a habit of moving from one database to another, but surely there are bigger things to worry about…

  • David, Twickenham 7th Jun '11 - 3:30pm

    Just registered. Only needed to put in my passport number. FFS!

  • Hazel Watkins 8th Jun '11 - 10:28am

    Incredible – you know what, I went to catch a flight the other day – and they insisted on seeing my passport!!!

    I did show them my LibDem membership card (ok it was under a false name) as surely this proved beyond all doubt I’m not a threat to anyone – but they wouldn’t budge and insisted on seeing the passport.

    Police State!!!

  • Free proofreading for you:
    You have a ‘negociate’ in there which I assume should be ‘negotiate’; also, I don’t think you meant to refer to ministers as ‘legitimate’ targets of terrorists…

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