The owners and operators of businesses and public spaces such as concert halls, shopping centres and parks will be legally bound to protect such venues from terrorism under a new statutory duty proposed by the government.
The so-called “protect duty” reflects proposals put forward by the family of Martyn Hett, who was killed in the Manchester Arena bombing attack in 2017.
Home Office officials are to launch a consultation on legally forcing organisations to increase physical security at venues and train staff to respond to terrorist attacks, as well as putting in place incident response plans – and how failure to comply would be enforced.
While the move is likely to receive the backing from relatives of the victims of terrorist attacks, critics raised concerns the plan had echoes of the controversial Prevent duty that requires public sector workers to report concerns about extremism to the police.
Figen Murray, the mother of Hett, 29, who was one of 22 killed when radical Islamist Salman Abedi detonated a homemade bomb at the end of an Ariana Grande concert, has been lobbying the government to bring in anti-terrorism security measures under a “Martyn’s law”.
The security minister, James Brokenshire, said: “Our first priority is keeping the public safe and preventing more families from suffering the heartbreak of losing a loved one.
“The devastating attacks in 2017, and more recently at Fishmongers’ Hall and Streatham, are stark reminders of the current threat we face. We are in complete agreement with campaigners such as Figen Murray on the importance of venues and public spaces having effective and proportionate protective security and preparedness measures to keep people safe.
“Of course, it is important that this new law is proportionate. This public consultation will ensure we put in place a law that will help protect the public while not putting undue pressure on businesses.”
It is understood the Home Office does not expect small businesses and smaller venues to be subject to the plan, rather it would focus on larger spaces.
The public consultation will launch in spring and will seek views from a range of organisations including businesses, public authorities, the security industry and campaign groups. The Home Office will seek views on the proportionality and scope of the duty, and how it should be enforced.
There are currently no specific proposals on how operators of venues and businesses would be penalised if they failed to comply.
Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s shadow security minister, responding to the government plans, saying: “There can be no objection to proper consultation on a duty to protect and we pay tribute to those who have campaigned for this change.
“However, a duty to protect is no substitute for professional policing. Combating the terrorists requires everything from community policing through to counter-terrorism.
“Unfortunately, successive Tory governments axed police numbers and the current government does not have plans to fully restore them any time soon.”
Matt Maer, director of security and resilience for the Canary Wharf Group, the owner and developer of nearly 100 acres of property in east London and elsewhere in the capital, backed the initiative.
He said: “This legislation has the potential to make a significant impact on public security, improving the situation for people as they go about their daily lives.”
Prevent is one of the most controversial aspects of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy. Introduced in 2015, it requires employees of public bodies, including schools, NHS trusts and councils, to report concerns about individuals feared to be at risk of being drawn into terrorism.
Critics have argued the duty places teachers, doctors and social workers under huge pressure, resulting in people being referred to the police for minor, innocent infractions, and that minority communities, in particular Muslims, have been disproportionately affected.
Counter-terrorism officials insist the Prevent strategy in its current form is the best way to reduce the risk of terrorism.
Clare Collier, advocacy director of the human rights group Liberty, said: “Yet again this government is shirking responsibility for its failures. This is an admission that after 10 years in power they haven’t been able to address the problem and are now asking someone else to have a go.
“The government’s counter-terrorism strategy has only served to propagate discriminatory attitudes and handing that strategy over to private companies will see those attitudes deepen. This new legislation is likely to have the same impact as Prevent – creating suspicion, causing division and further marginalisation of targeted communities.”
The government has pledged to restore 20,000 police officers and has committed to increase counter-terrorism policing funding by £90m. The Home Office rejects the idea that the protect duty proposals will discriminate and says it will ensure consistency across industry, with many organisations already putting in place what has been proposed.