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Protect duty: comment

The Protect duty, now out to consultation, is politically cynical; unasked for, by the public, and the general media, let alone the businesses that will fall under it; and most to the point, will not stop a suicide bomber or a terrorist knife attack. Professional Security magazine editor Mark Rowe comments.

The timing of the duty is entirely cynical. It quotes Figen Murray, the campaigner for such a duty, earlier known as ‘Martyn’s Law’; except that for years after the Manchester Arena bombing of May 2017, that left her among the bereaved, the Government took no notice of her campaign; having other things to do, such as Brexit. Only in February 2020 did the Government take up her campaign. While it is understandable that she would want something done, that is no basis for the allegedly ‘proportionate’ response to terrorism, that the consultation document repeatedly proposes.

The duty is cynically being choreographed to coincide with the findings of the Manchester Arena Inquiry, so that the Home Office has something to point to, come the time. Yet it is unnecessary, even by official reckoning. The UK threat level since February has been substantial; that is, lower than it was in the 12 months before the Arena attack.

Terrorism generally even since the 7-7 Tube and bus suicide bombings in London in 2005 brought a new era to terror – whereas the Irish republican terrorism of the 1970s to the 1990s was murderous, it was unlike jihadi terrorism, which was prepared or even welcoming of death, and killing anyone, of any age or background. Again, timing; why was the Protect duty not brought in or even bruited then?

Because, it was recognised that terrorism in risk management terms is of high, even catastrophic consequence if it happens, but thankfully the other ingredient of risk, likelihood, is low. Security regimes have been targeted – such as at airports, after attempted bombings; the Protect duty consultation points out that aviation would not be subject to the duty.

The trouble is, that it is difficult to say that you are against the Protect duty. It’s like saying that you are against doing something to guard against child going missing in shopping centres; or against children following the Highway Code.

But make no mistake, a Conservative Government, which was long supposed to be sceptical of regulation, as burdening business, is now proposing to add regulation – although in the consultation document it is described as ‘light touch’. Bureaucrats always say that; they never say that they propose a ‘heavy touch’. Yet nothing proposed in the duty – training of staff, risk assessment, physical security products such as access control – would actually stop or deter a suicide bomber or knife-carrying terrorist. At most, a security regime at a venue would displace the terrorism act – as the Manchester Arena security set-up did in May 2017.

The proposed duty is of a piece with other impositions by the state, to place blame on an otherwise law-abiding business for a criminal act; such as in data protection, where the hacker is so seldom caught and punished, but the hacked company is fined.

Grotesquely, the consultation document acknowledges that the high street and cinemas are facing an existential threat to their very business survival; but pitilessly will require them to carry out the duty, even though they have slashed their security departments. No matter; what security staff are left will be the ones – as in the duty to not allow money laundering, and bribery – scapegoated if something does go wrong. Even more grotesquely, if a business carries out whatever it has to do, to comply with the Protect duty, that could leave it more at risk of an act of terrorism if that does not take account of actual site risk. It also assumes that counter-terror police – already over-worked, who are not the ones complying with the duty – will be prompt and full with their advice, for the writing of risk assessments.

Either the Protect duty will be a dead letter – making security management a tick-box exercise, whereby businesses sign off what security they already have (pictured; planters doubling as anti-ram barriers outside the intu Derby shopping mall), as meeting the duty; or, it will make businesses train staff in things they will seldom if ever have to know. By comparison, retail and other front-line staff are routinely facing violent and abusive customers, and thieves; which the Home Office in another consultation – about violent retail crime – conspicuously failed to act on. Everyone is daily having to field scam phone calls, texts and emails.

But why should those in authority admit that they cannot do anything about fraud and violent crime, or even such pandemic crimes as dog theft, that’s out of official control, when they can appear decisive by setting a new, albeit unnecessary ‘duty’?


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