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Don’t just do something

We should be more sceptical of reactive legislation

Artillery Row

The desire to commemorate a tragedy through statutory change is increasingly common in British politics. Complex legislation is framed through the name of the victim, with their families’ leading a well-intentioned charge to change the law — Tony’s Law, Clare’s Law, Andrew’s Law and so on. Politicians are keen to oblige them, often under the banner of “something must be done”. It is at precisely this point that, if legislative scrutiny means anything at all, MPs and Lords should have the courage to put the brakes on.

Terrorism (Protection of Premises) Bill, better known as Martyn’s Law, began making its way through Parliament before the summer recess. It has largely gone under the radar, despite a well-intentioned campaign by people such as Martyn Hett’s mother, Figen Murray. Martyn was one of the 21 victims of the Manchester Arena bombing, and the Bill seeks to place duties on venues and premises to prevent terrorism.

There are provisions within the Bill that are sensible and well-measured, such as ensuring that venues have the right equipment to deal with a terrorist attack.

As a swathe of experts have noted, however, the Bill is unclear in its parameters or aim. It would put onerous burdens on small businesses, charities, and volunteer organisations. Those points have been set out by Jonathan Hall KC, Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, and the Home Affairs Select Committee, demonstrating that the legislation is poorly drafted and has unprecedented overreach potential in Clause 18. The Home Affairs Committee deserves credit for the unpopular stance it has taken here that speaks to the scale of issues in the drafting.

Supporters have argued that the burden or cost on small businesses is non-existent because the training would be free. This, as anyone who has worked for a bar or volunteered for a charity will know, does not reduce the cost to nil. There is the cost in time, especially with a high staff turnover. There is also the well-established principle that increasing training and compliance burdens on volunteers makes them less likely to offer their time.

Murray argues that the Bill is about providing training to venues on how to get safely out of a building. This would not have changed the number of casualties in the Manchester Arena bombing, however, or any other recent terror attack in the UK. What did result in higher casualties was the slowness of emergency service personnel to respond, for which the inquiry criticised them.

This Bill is inadvertently shifting responsibility to the public

The points made by Murray and others are, without any doubt, well intentioned. None of them rebut the fundamental point, though, that this Terrorism Bill will have a negligible impact on increasing public safety and preventing loss of life from the kind of atrocity seen in Manchester. As Hall pointed out, almost all the terrorist attacks in the last twenty years sit outside the scope of this Bill. It has gone largely unremarked that those with significant counter-terrorism training — the British Transport Police in attendance at the Manchester Area before the explosion — also failed to take action and prevent it occurring. This Bill refuses to engage with the reality that if Abedi had been prevented from accessing the Manchester Arena, he would have had little trouble detonating his device on a bus or a tram.

Meanwhile, there are calls for the Bill to add further responsibilities to an already overburdened planning system by requiring all publicly accessible new build venues to consider security in their design. Local councillors will rejoice at yet another judicial review card to deploy alongside rare bat and newt surveys against new developments.

Alongside this proposed Bill, a new grift for retired counter terrorism police has opened up. They may ply their trade giving advice to venues on how to prepare for legislation that is still in draft phase and some years from implementation.

In trying to protect the public, this Bill is inadvertently shifting primary responsibility for preventing terrorist atrocities to the public. We should remember that it was counter-terrorism police who decided not to pursue prosecution of bomber Salman Abedi’s brother, despite stopping him at an airport and finding dozens of Islamic State propaganda materials on his phone as well as photos of him holding weapons. It was counter-terrorism police and the security services who didn’t flag the Abedi family’s involvement with Libyan Islamist militias as serious, or recognise the overall radicalisation risk amongst the Libyan diaspora in Manchester as serious. It was counter-terrorism police who didn’t respond adequately to Abedi’s repeated visits to a convicted terrorist in jail, and the security services who missed a “significant opportunity” to collect “actionable intelligence” just four days before the bombing.

Adequately mobilising the state’s existing powers is key to preventing a repeat of the Manchester bombing. As is increasingly the theme in modern Britain, however, deploying those powers effectively is seen as out of reach. As we lurch from one crisis to another, the only response is further, emotionally driven legislation.

It is little wonder that the families of victims of these crises are desperate to reassert control, grappling with the paradoxically indiscriminate and explicitly targeted horror of terrorist attacks. Trying to prevent that horror from afflicting other families is commendable and righteous. Now it is vital that MPs step away from the impulse at the heart of this Bill, however, and question whether it would really make any of us safer.

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