After a busy week in London, hearing from and talking with people interested in and campaigning for the Protect Duty – a proposed legal responsibility on venues and ‘publicly accessible locations’ (PALs) to protect visitors and staff from terrorism – Mark Rowe feels less able than ever to judge if and when the Duty will become law, let alone what form it would take.
That uncertainty is because of a contradiction. Politically, thanks to the fanaticism of the new Liz Truss regime – its ‘go for growth’, small state, regulation-is-a-burden Conservatism – the Protect Duty appears dead. So do other public policies that propose regulation, such as the Fan-Led Review of Football Governance by former minister Tracey Crouch, proposing a regulator of English professional football. That and the Protect Duty incidentally were part of the Conservative Party manifesto at the last, 2019 general election.
However, to hear at the two-day International Security Expo at London Olympia, pictured, the numerous and authoritative speakers from Nactso (National Counter Terror Security Office), notably its head Adam Thomson; and from the Home Office, the Protect Duty has never been more alive. That is because counter-terror police and the Home Office are at work on detailing what a Duty would look like, and – of more practical importance to security people – a ‘competent persons scheme’.
To be sure, the speakers were unable to give detail that listeners could take back to their employers’ security departments or security contract businesses, and implement. A telling sign of the vacuum, that security consultants, product manufacturers and others are already rushing to fill, came in a slide during Mr Thomson’s presentation – it must have been particularly important because it had a box around it – Nactso does not endorse any product or service, it cannot give any assurance that a training course (for example) will support you in being Duty-compliant. In other words, part of the security industry is seeking to make money out of the Duty years before it happens, and another part of the industry is paying because it wants to do the right thing by anticipating the Duty.
Two and a half years after, on the eve of the covid pandemic, the Home Office announced that it would put the Protect Duty out to consultation, central Government is still unable and unwilling to veer off script and answer questions. How many layers of the Duty there will be – one or more? More requirements for the largest and most at-risk sites? Will there be any exemptions (airports? nuclear power stations, and such places highly regulated already?). As with fire safety, site owners and managers will want to have trust in those brought in to advise – will the ‘competent persons scheme’ cover advisers, practitioners, or both? What training or qualification will the ‘competent persons’ require, and will a new body or an existing one, or no-one, inspect all this? Out of whose pockets will money come to pay for it all? And when will it happen, even roughly?
Mr Thomson did mention that other central Government departments were working on such details, besides CPNI, Nactso and the Home Office. Professional Security understands that major Government departments are indeed sitting down with the Home Office draughtsmen of the Duty, and subject matter experts from the security sector.
As an aside, this shows the futility of calls, persistently heard, that it’s a bad thing that UK private security does not speak with ‘one voice’. A dozen or more Government departments if consulting security people in their field on the Duty – the most important development, potentially, since the forming of the Security Industry Authority 20 years ago – are really each looking for a sound, relevant voice. That is not going to be the same person seated in front of the Department for Health (hospitals), Education (schools and universities), the Ministry of Justice (courts) and DCMS (sports stadia), to name only four.
The Protect Duty, then, is like the saplings in the middle of my back lawn that sprouted in midsummer because in the long drought the grass was not cut. Those saplings, 5cm to 20cm, though they grow maddeningly slowly, will be imposing and fruitful, in time; if, they are given water when needed, and nobody runs over them with a lawnmower in the next couple of years.
On that note, campaigners and practitioners alike speak of a common concern; that they do not want to see a Duty that has been watered down to be of little or no effect.