Here is what I am emailing to firstname.lastname@example.org in response to the consultation about Liberal Democrat conference (deadline Saturday 21st April):
In itself, the idea that background checks might sometimes be a necessary part of extra security for events seems to me very plausible. So too does the possibility that the large number of journalists and TV cameras in attendance at the autumn round of party conferences make them a more attractive target for disruptive or violent action than other events at other times, even ones with similar prominent people from the party and government attending.
On the other hand, I know that the police made security demands in the past that have not been substantiated by the evidence. I remember, for example, how the case for 90 days detention without trial was supposedly supported by individual examples – which on closer inspection showed the police not even using their existing powers to the full in those cases, let alone showing a need for more.
I remember too the poor judgement about security risks the police have often made when it comes to photographers (including the bizarre example of stopping an ITN film crew from filming a story about someone being stopped from taking a photo of a church). To their credit, the absurd cycle of stories about people being stopped taking photos has rather abated. But there has been no linked rise in terrorism following this, which rather makes the point that their judgement in the first place was often questionable.
And then there is my own limited experience of being subject to an extensive accreditation-style check outside of party conferences – for a Parliamentary pass. A documentary quirk dating back decades in a previous generation of my family meant my background check took a long time to complete. Yet at the same time, Sinn Fein MPs with much more lively backgrounds had access to Parliament (if they wished it) and there was the entrance you could get in by simply waving a pass at a policeman (no scanning or anything to check for forgeries), taking a bag that would not be checked with you, and emerging in the heart of Parliament.
That entrance has since been tightened up, but the assiduousness with which the paperwork of my relative needed checking compared to the lack of security at that entrance has made me sceptical of bland claims that background checks are necessary.
Against all that, how do the proposals for conference stack up? Not well, I am afraid.
The consultation paper gives two examples of the sort of threats that conference needs protecting against and which, it is claimed, background checks would protect against: “[The police] gave some examples of lone individuals who have caused serious violence, or attempted to, ranging from the 1984 Brighton bombing to the Norwegian gunman at a youth political event”.
Neither, however, is a case of background checks failing. In the case of the Brighton bomb, the problem was with a bomb being planted well ahead of conference by someone who was not going to conference. In the Norwegian case, a policeman impersonated, followed quickly by armed force. Background checks of people attending events would not have helped in either case.
If that is really the best examples the police can provide, then the answer should be: “We’re concerned about those sorts of threats to. So please don’t waste your time and money on accreditation checks which won’t stop them. Put the effort instead into measures which will.”
Best wishes etc.
UPDATE: Caron has blogged the reply being sent to everyone who sent in their views.