The theme of this year’s Unlocking Detention is ‘action’ so who better to hear from than the Freed Voices group. Earlier this week, Mishka from Freed Voices joined campaigners Fred Ashmore and Timothy Gee from the Quakers to lobby the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable. We sat down with Mishka to ask him a few questions about the experience.
Why is political lobbying important to Freed Voices?
It is important for us to lobby MPs because even though we are the Experts, they are ultimately the policy makers. Many of them are interested in detention but don’t know the details. As Mr. Cable said, we can be their ‘ammunition’. We can educate them to understand and change the policy as it is. We also want to target all MPs, not just the liberal ones because every political party put a time-limit in their election manifestos…except one.
Why is political lobbying especially important now?
After the General Election, Freed Voices decided to focus on targeting MPs. We looked at the small majority government and the fact the Immigration Bill is coming next year and thought this was where we could have a big impact. There is also a lot more attention around the issue than before. The Panorama documentary [on abuse in Brook House] also brought a lot of attention. Unfortunately, so have the recent deaths in detention – three in the last month. Change is urgent. I saw this week that Keir Starmer [who we also lobbied] said that ‘indefinite detention will end, it is just a matter of when.’ Well, we cannot wait one, two, three, four years. We need it now. People are dying.
Why is Vince Cable an important person for Freed Voices to meet and persuade that indefinite detention is an issue worth addressing?
Vince Cable is Leader of the Liberal Democrats. Their last two election manifestos have been in line with the philosophy and asks of Freed Voices. Many of Mr. Cable’s colleagues also recently signed the Early Day Motion (EDM) in Parliament about the BBC Panorama documentary. So, we know they are engaged with the issue. But this was an important meeting for us because it is a leader of a political party meeting with us and recognising us as Experts on the issue. We want to develop this relationship for future endeavours. We were not just meeting him for the sake of meeting him. We believe the Liberal Democrats are an important part of the cross-party fight for change on detention.
Who else was there? Why were they keen to be involved?
We were joined by two representatives from the Quakers, Fred and Tim. The Quakers are a faith group that believe in human rights, peace and equality. They have been working on detention a lot over the last year and believe that it is inhumane and inefficient. They are not experts-by-experience but they represent the impact of detention on the community. And that is why it was ideal that they were involved in this alongside Freed Voices. They believe that change is possible and it is worth being a part of that change. It was great to work with them.
What were your objectives for the meeting?
One: to give a strong and clear message to Vince Cable that reform is urgent. Two: to highlight that detention is not an asylum issue, it is a civil liberties and human rights issue. Third (and most importantly): we wanted action rather than more talk and empty, hollow promises. Some decision-makers think that just by meeting experts-by-experience they’ve done their job. No, we wanted him to take the issue out of the room. We wanted direct contact with his parties’ Home Affairs leads so we could work with them on the matter.
What were your expectations of the meeting?
As I said, I was concerned that it would not just be empty promises. And I knew that he is a busy man so we might not get so much time with him. But we also know from the lobbying work we have done that before, that the real work happens now, after the meeting. So I had managed my expectations for the meeting itself.
How did you prepare for the meeting?
Freed Voices always prepare a lot for this kind of thing. We went through the different documents we wanted to give Mr Cable, including the Freed Voices Parliamentary Briefing we have. I also worked with the Freed Voices Coordinator on a script to help guide me. It is always easier when you know what you are talking about and the script is useful when you have limited time to give a strong message to the MP. We also did some work to not feel nervous – to remember I am the Expert – because sometimes these things can go wrong if you are too worried.
What message/state of mind did you want Vince Cable to leave the room with?
Firstly, I wanted him to feel that we are credible group and professional to the extent that he could confidently work with us going forward. Secondly, I wanted him to feel determined and encouraged to work with us to reform the detention system. Finally, I wanted him to realise that we needed more than just his words of support.
How did the meeting go?
Overall, it went very well in my opinion. We had a bit longer than we thought we would with him so we were able to cover everything we wanted. However, a lobbying meeting like this is never a unanimous thing and nothing goes 100% perfectly in this world. The Quakers were very helpful and considerate to give Freed Voices the opportunity to play a major role and lead on the meeting. Essentially, we got what we came for. Now we have to make sure it materialises into action.
What did you lead with?
I started by thanking him for giving us this opportunity and including a 28 day time limit in his election manifesto. I also noted that we were pleased that his colleagues signed the EDM. Then I gave some information about my background and then pushed on with the facts and our policy arguments for change.
How important was it for you to talk about the policy as well as your experiences? Why?
It is very important for me to show that we are competent at speaking policy because it proves that the Freed Voices are a proficient group of genuine campaigners rather than a bunch of cry-babies who crave sympathy or attention, which I detest. I think you have to explain some of your personal experiences of detention so you can prove your credibility to then talk about the policy – this is the concept of Freed Voices as experts-by-experience – but talking about the change that needs to happen is always the most important part for me.
How did he respond?
He obviously has some real interest on this matter. He asked a few questions and agreed with our main points. He also said ‘yes’ to everything we asked for. But it is up to us now to get him to actually push these through. As my colleague Michael from Freed Voices says; “we’re done with lip service”.
How did you feel as you left the meeting?
I felt like we achieved something on the road to change. This is hopefully the beginning of a long-term working relationship with the Liberal Democrats, with their Home Affairs leads’ and with the Quakers as campaigning partners. We are not crazy – we know change doesn’t happen overnight. But I think making these kind of connections with political allies are part of pushing through a time-limit and alternatives to detention. And on a broader level, I think it is important for senior politicians to see experts-by-experience face-to-face, in action, talking policy.
Did you enjoy it?
I enjoyed the day. Now let’s see what he comes back with…