Just over a week ago, it was my pleasure to attend the Liberty AGM in London, something which I’ve only just found time to write about. I haven’t written about liberty & human rights in a while. Maybe it’s part fatigue from the continual reduction by the government, or partly because after a while, there’s little extra to say on the matter apart from repeating your position again and again – the peril, I guess, of believing in things that are inalienable and non-negotiable.
Anyway, I’ve been a Liberty member for over two years but it was my first Liberty AGM, and probably the first time I attended such an event since my student union days. The difference being the majority of the audience were 50 or over (although I did still meet some interesting people my own age such as Andrew Lee of JR Jones), which makes me worry for the long-term future of the organisation; then again, it was on a Saturday, and there was the consolation Liberty’s staff are mostly young and enthusiastic.
Much of the day is procedural – approving accounts and confirming election results (something hashed by a very poor chairperson, who just announced names and made no mention of winning margins or where details would be available – very poor and opaque. There were also a series of motions, ranging from CCTV and Privacy to protection of journalist’s sources.
There were lots of interesting things but to me there were two debates of real interest; one was a motion on Liberty’s stance on assisted dying, allowing those who wish to die with dignity to do so. This provoked a counter-motion that “Liberty declare its opposition to the involuntary euthanasia of the elderly in nursing and care homes and hospices.” A motion that only really could happen in England (pernicketiness taken to an extreme) and it led to a frustratingly bickering debate that could only happen here – did the motion imply killing people in hospitals and private homes? As a newbie I could sense the politics within the organisation, particularly the audience’s uneasy attitude to the vociferous and eccentric (if reasonably harmless) Norman Scarth.
Nevertheless, the debate was very civil, and like all the other motions, the motion passed – the only one to do so with some opposition. I did the only thing and abstain as it was poorly-worded and such an obvious point of motion (Liberty does not need to waste time condemning something obviously heinous as murder). It does go to show, however, that Liberty’s AGMs are hardly preaching to the choir.
The other motion was something I hadn’t been aware of before, which was the National Staff Dismissal Register. A private enterprise that was set up with partial Home Office funding, it allows employers to add people that have left their employment (voluntarily or not) while “under suspicion” of any crime. While corporate crime is obviously undesirable, the fact that no proof of any offence is needed, let alone a conviction or even a police investigation, is disturbing. The person concerned is not informed of their addition and one’s right to appeal (or correcting any errors) is not clear – both of which probably break the spirit if not the letter of our data protection laws. The BBC has a little more info here, but I haven’t seen much else on the blogosphere, especially when compared with the (equally heinous) state-run operations which collect details of accusations and people’s DNA regardless of guilt.
The best bits of the AGM were the beginning and end. The first event of the day was a Question Time-style panel, with Chris Huhne MP (Lib Dem Shadow Home Secretary), Dominic Grieve MP (at the time, Conservative Shadow Attorney-General, now Shadow Home Secretary), Michael Wills MP (Government Minister for Human Rights) and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown (useless).
Huhne was impressive – a richer voice and more assured persona than I had remembered previously. Grieve, a former QC, obviously cared about human rights, but I also felt he was a political animal, willing to bend and acquiesce if party politics required (for example, he’s not a massive fan of gay rights according to They Work For You. Wills was a slippery toad, saying he cared about rights (his voting record suggests otherwise), and insisted on a dialectic – talking about “balancing” (though what this balance is, he never expanded on) and “deeply conflicting” concepts. Eventually, he let it slip and admitted that Labour’s outlook was also to bear in mind the “worries” of the British populace – instead of taking a stand, of educating and reassuring these fears, Wills implicitly admitted his government was more inclined to indulge them.
The ID card debate was interesting, in between the usual party politics and sniping which all three MPs engaged in. Huhne and Grieve were smart enough to get to the point – it’s the register, not the card that is the problem. Wills wriggled and squirmed and when challenged about the register and kept mumbling about the benefits – which now do not include fighting terorism: when challenged to name one benefit, the best he could come up with was the fact 30% of free school meals are not taken up, something a national database could reduce by targeting appropriate families. Not only is it laughably desperate, the possibility parents think the meals aren’t good enough never seems to have crossed his mind.
The other main debate was about the Human Rights Act. This was an area, where sadly both Grieve and Wills agreed. There was talk of bringing in an alternative, of “ownership” of a British bill of rights in the HRA’s place, of “strengthening” it. How this would differ from the existing Act wasn’t really covered with just lip service paid to incorporating further rights or other declarations or conventions. when Chris Huhne asked if it was a genuine commitment or mere “camouflage” for a paring back of our rights; he challenged the others to name three additional rights they would include, but neither Wills nor Grieve came forward with any. Out of it all, only Huhne came out with any credit, in my eyes.
The other person who really came out with credit was Shami Chakrabati, who gave the keynote at the end. While her writing and appearances of TV have always shown a fiercely intelligent and passionate legal mind, it’s only seeing her in person do you see the other side – her sense of humour and forthrightness as well shone through. I got the sense she has ruffled a few feathers in her own organisation as well as outside, yet she’s still been highly effective while sticking to her principles and has given Liberty a disproportionately high profile.
Which leads me onto the final part of this (inordinately boring) post – Liberty has only 10,000 members, and barely 150 of them turned up to the AGM. For an organisation that features so heavily in the news and the legal and political scene that number seems very low to me (as far as I can tell, I’m the only person with a blog who attended). Despite what on sight is a very narrow brief, Liberty is a broad church and though the AGM was at times highly procedural, it was also rather educational and illuminating; so if you’re not a member and care about rights in the UK, why not join us? And if you are already a member – see you next year?