!-- consent -->
Poppy Coburn is a journalist.
On the 22 May 2017, an Islamist suicide bomber by the name of Salman Abedi detonated an explosive vest at an Ariana Grande concert in the Manchester Arena; 22 lives were lost, and the youngest victim, Saffie-Rose Roussos, was just eight years old.
Although security staff were warned that Abedi was acting suspiciously before he detonated his device, no action was taken. According to an official Inquiry into the events of the night, one security guard felt conflicted over taking action because he feared being accused of racism.
I remember the Manchester bombing incredibly vividly. A close friend of my mother lived in the area; her stomach lurched in fear as she tried to contact her knowing that her two teenage daughters were fans of the pop-star headlining the concert.
The callousness and cruelty of Abedi and those who aided him must never be forgotten – and we all have an obligation to look clearly and honestly at the lessons this horrible event can teach us about national security.
That’s why I’ve found the government’s push for the Protect Duty, also known as ‘Martyn’s Law’, so frustrating.
Martyn Hett was a victim of the Manchester bombing, and his family’s desire to prevent another such attack from occurring is both understandable and commendable. But the Government should know better than to push this legislation forward.
On paper, many aspects of the Protect Duty make sense. The law aims to impose a duty of care on public venues, and will operate on a tiered system depending on the size of said venues.
Training of staff is listed as one such duty, with the Home Office giving the example of telling staff members to lock doors to prevent the passage of attackers. First-aid training is also listed (strangely, given that this is already a legal duty).
According to YouGov polling, a majority of Britons (71 per cent) say they would support increased security measures at events with more than 100 people. This isn’t surprising. If you ask people whether or not they’d like to feel safer in public life, they will generally respond in the affirmative.
The point here is that it’s not necessarily true that Martyn’s Law will make people safer; at least, not at a cost many will be willing to accept.
More CCTV will likely be embraced. But mandating the hiring of more staff – which, by the definitions given, includes 650,000 venues – is simply unworkable.
Training is also likely to have a limited impact: as one security expert I spoke to put it, is training going to make a minimum-wage 19 year old security guard confront a suspected terrorist?
Local councils will also gain the power to close down venues on practically arbitrary safety grounds – something that has already strangled British nightlife. The legislation would also necessitate the hiring of low-paid administrative staff, a cost which many will find simply unaffordable.
But the fundamental issue here is not one of cost, nor of efficiency. It’s that Martyn’s Law doesn’t actually address the failings that underpinned the horrors of the Manchester Concert bombing.
After all, security staff were aware that Abedi was acting suspiciously, and failed to intervene despite having been trained.
The push for Martyn’s Law is politician’s logic writ large: “Something must be done, this is something, therefore we must do it.” But, just as Sir Arnold advises Sir Humphrey in Yes, Minister, doing the wrong thing is worse than doing nothing.
As the Shawcross Review notes, the Government’s existing anti-terror strategy has failed to properly grapple with the threat of Islamist terror.
Prevent in particular has strayed far from its original purpose, and has become infected with ideological bias increasingly common in the third sector.
While Islamist extremism is narrowly defined as to include only the most radical Jihadists, while far-Right extremism is defined loosely enough to include reading the Spectator columnist Douglas Murray or watching the classic TV show The Thick of It.
We can see this mission creep in practice through the case of the Christian chaplain referred to the service in 2021 after giving a sermon that mildly criticised aspects of identity politics. Suicide bombers are not being radicalised through the Church of England. It’s another story in some mosques.
It’s vital that the government agencies set up for the purpose of preventing terrorist attacks do exactly that, and nothing more.
A strengthened security service, buttressed by legislative reforms, would help to identify potential terrorists before they can strike. A cultural reckoning that acknowledges that there’s nothing racist about pointing out suspicious individuals – yes, even if they’re from a protected characteristic – is also long overdue.
But it is ultimately the duty of the state to protect against terrorism, and this cannot be done by outsourcing the delicate work of identifying threats to the public.
As the poet Jonathan Swift said: “laws are like cobwebs: they may catch small flies but will let wasps and hornets break through.”
Lawmakers should hesitate before backing ambitious but ultimately futile legislation for the sake of being seen to be doing something, and instead ensure that the strategies that already exist are being properly enforced.