Levels of security at conferences have come under scrutiny, after two groups of protesters caused mayhem in Central Hall over the summer. Minimal provisions meant that demonstrators were able to invade both the Church of England General Synod talks and the Plant European Genomics Meeting, threatening the university’s reputation as a conference host.
Only two staff members, one of whom was a student security guard, were on duty when gay rights protesters led by Peter Tatchell burst onto the stage during a Synod discussion. Martin Dales, a lay member of the church body from Malton, was pushed out of the way as the group of ten rushed up from the foyer into the body of the hall. “I knew they should not be going up but I could not really stop them,” he remarked.
Mr Dales condemned the lack of security at the meeting. “The archbishop is a pretty senior figure. If it was a government minister they would have had all sorts of things in place” he told nouse. “There was nothing outside the building, and only the two chaps inside.”
The incident, which happened around 11am on the second day of the July conference, caused the Synod to lose over an hour of business time. “They disrupted a packed agenda,” Dales said.
It is thought that Synod organisers turned the stage microphones off in an attempt to minimise the disruption. An eyewitness described the “verbal interaction” that took place between some Synod members and protesters, regarding the issues involved. Asked to leave by security, the protesters eventually disappeared of their own volition, having spent around half an hour on stage.
Dales continued: “I would have thought it caused embarrassment in the university security department.” He stopped short of blaming Security Services for the chaos, but argued that they should exercise more “forcefulness” when making arrangements with conference organisers, so that adequate provisions are put in place.
A senior security spokesman who was called to the scene of the protest commented: “They just walked in like everyone else. Once they got inside they pulled out their placards.” He confirmed that no access control was implemented at the morning session of the Synod, following decisions made in a meeting with organisers.
Security levels were set according to needs perceived by the Church of England. “It was agreed that it would be a low-scale session. We got the impression that the afternoon would need more provision. He [Tatchell] obviously saw the gap.”
Steve Jenkins, Communications Director at the Church of England National Office said that security had been set “in partnership” with the hosts. “The university did everything we asked of them,” he added. The student security guard on duty at the time was contacted, but declined to comment.
In a separate incident, demonstrators sprayed paint onto walls and technical equipment at the Genomics Conference earlier this month. Central Hall was unusable after the lunchtime raid, which also saw seats being covered in fertiliser. The conference had to be moved to another lecture theatre.
It is unclear if the protesters were in the audience during the morning talks, or entered the building during the recess.
Prof. Ottoline Leyser, who organised the event, said she did not request any “special provision” by security because it was an academic conference. “I was disappointed that the group acted in such a cowardly way” she remarked. “If they had contacted me instead, we may have been able to arrange for them to hand out leaflets or something.”
One individual was arrested in connection with the vandalism. Depending on the police investigations, the university may instigate civil liability proceedings to recover costs.
The security spokesman said a policy of “minimum requirements” is being put in place by the university. These will have to be used and paid by all conference organisers, if their event is seen to involve security risks.