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Fishmongers’ Hall inquest comment

The lessons of the Fishmongers’ Hall inquest, and the definite bearing that they should have on any proposed ‘Martyn’s Law’, a legal responsibility on venue and site owners for security against acts of terrorism, ought not to be of who should have done what, but of responsibility – and timing, writes Mark Rowe.

Pictured is the north end of London Bridge, on the Fishmongers’ Hall side. Here on Friday, November 29, 2019, after having murdered two people, a terrorist armed with knives and wearing a fake suicide explosives belt, was shot head by armed response police. Something was true as for the 7-7 terror attack in 2005, the Manchester Arena suicide bomb of May 2017, and other acts of terrorism; once the terrorist has set off, armed, it is too late for any building or personnel security.

So it would have been at Fishmongers’ Hall. The inquest heard that ‘since the event, security procedures have changed’; the Fishmongers’ Company carried out a review a fortnight after the attack, and in March 2020 had installed a walk−through metal detector. Before the attack, the Hall did not do any bag searching, nor did it use or consider using metal detectors or similar search equipment (as used routinely at courts, and high-risk places such as the Houses of Parliament), and did not make specific risk assessments about functions on the premises. Staff at the Hall would have had a ‘function sheet’ that for the Learning Together event that the terrorist attended – having been released early from a prison sentence not quite a year before – would have said simply ‘charity’, which Learning Together was (and is). However, that the event guests included prisoners, would make the risk from the event quite different from a pure ‘charity’ one.

Any going over of the security arrangements at the Hall is idle; it will not bring back the dead. We can talk about whether there is an unfortunate human tendency to make good shortcomings after something bad has happened – note also in the photo the anti-ram barriers on London Bridge, as it was the scene of the terror attack of 2017, first by a van used as a weapon and then by terrorists using knives to the south of the bridge, at Borough Market. Those barriers as an ‘asset’ were at hand after the Westminster Bridge attack of March 2017. Why were they not installed before the London Bridge attack a few months later? The official defence at the Borough Market inquest – where the coroner was Mark Lucraft, who also conducted the Fishmongers’ Hall inquests – amounted to; how could they have known beforehand where a terrorist would strike? Quite.

Going over what physical and staff security there ought to be at Borough Market or Manchester Arena or Fishmongers’ Hall – or, once Martyn’s Law, or the Protect Duty, comes into force, as the Home Office plainly wants, at cinemas, supermarkets, cafes, parks and beaches – ought to be in terms of risk, whether of terrorism, or any other crime; thieves, drunks and the anti-social. In the case of terrorism, what is the risk of someone setting off from their home, armed to carry out an act of terror.

Let us imagine what would have happened, had Fishmongers’ Hall had more security. For it had some; it had external (but not indoor) CCTV; the building had access control that was activated by a fob – the terrorist had to threaten to kill someone with a fob to let him out. What if Fishmongers’ Hall had been using at the entrance a ‘knife arch’ or ‘wand’ to detect knives and such metal, and if the terrorist had then been stopped. Who is to say that the attack would have happened on the doorstep, and the two security guards would have been the ones to die? (Perhaps after November 29, 2019 they merited a few more pence an hour.) The terrorist would then have been continuing his attack outdoors, and the first members of the public to confront the terrorist and give time for the alarm to be raised and for armed police to mobilise would not have had the improvised weapons they picked up inside Fishmongers’ Hall, such as a fire extinguisher, and more exotically, a tusk.

In other words, far from extra security at the building entrance saving lives – let alone preventing the attack in the first place – it may have caused more deaths than two.

The onus, then, ought to be on the state – police, prisons, the Probation Service – to manage known terrorists, for in the case of Fishmongers’ Hall and later Streatham High Street, those carrying out acts of terror are already known; indeed, grotesquely, the Fishmongers’ Hall terrorist would still be in prison for years to come, if he had not been let out on licence halfway through his term.

It is idle also to criticise those in authority. The security services, as was known before the Fishmongers’ Hall inquest, have hundreds of investigations at any time and count the ‘subjects of interest’ in the tens of thousands. Also, they – as with any offender management by the state – have to reckon with lies and manipulation from the criminals, who may say what the authorities want to hear. As the inquest heard about the terrorist; ‘he was suggesting that he was reformed, he wanted to put his past behind him, he wanted to be a mentor and go through the rehabilitation process’. Hence the invite by Learning Together to Fishmongers’ Hall.

Buildings, even beaches, have a part to play, putting in place security measures. Yet how can they reasonably (a legal term) be expected to set the proper security, when they have so little to go on; are they supposed to vet every attendee of every event?

Why, then, has the Home Office chosen only to bring in the Protect Duty on building and site managers – regardless of the economic reality that Streatham and other high street shops are struggling to survive? If the Protect Duty will not require any time, money or effort – some training, a risk assessment, things already in place – why impose it? If it will take more kit and staffing, why the requirement upon all, and not on a risk basis?

Why ask more of security people at venues and buildings (and even beaches, if there are any), when the Fishmongers’ Hall inquest showed that the failings that allowed the terrorist to arm himself beyond the point of no return were solely by state agencies? And that the state – whether because of police bureaucracy or because too many agencies are in charge of London bridges – did not think to site anti-ram barriers on all London bridges, at once after the Westminster Bridge vehicle as a weapon attack of March 2017?

Because far from the Home Office wanting to put its own, public sector side of counter-terrorism in order, to best save lives, it cynically wants to look good, in charge, appearing to be doing something about countering terrorism, something to show the public come the end of the Manchester Arena Inquiry.

More in the July 2021 print edition of Professional Security magazine.


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