Thursday, February 15, 2024

GUEST POST Martyn’s Law and its unintended ecclesiastical consequences

The protect duty proposed under Martyn's Law will place a heavy burden on churches and other religious buildings, argues Augustus Carp.

With the world being the complicated place that it is, we shouldn’t be surprised if good intentions sometimes have bad consequences. Such is the case with an apparently unobjectionable piece of legislation before the House of Lords at the moment, which is causing conniptions and consternation amongst the archdeacons of the Church of England, as well as those responsible for buildings for other religious faiths.

One of the consequences of the Manchester bombing in 2017 was that Figen Murray, whose son Martyn was killed in the explosion, steered some legislation before Parliament to make the owners of premises responsible for the security of their sites, in order to deter terrorist outrages.

The eponymous Martyn’s Law seeks to impose a 'protect duty' on anyone operating premises that can accommodate over 100 people. Although probably not intentional, the legislation catches a lot of churches, chapels, mosques, synagogues and gurdwaras.

The legislation is intended to have minimal costs, maximum benefits and general acceptance, but it’s not turning out like that. It’s clear that the drafters of the legislation have little, or no, idea about the way religious buildings work. The consultation document supporting the legislation says:

For most organisations in scope of a Protect Duty, we propose that compliance would be demonstrated by providing assurance that the threat and risk impacts had been considered, and appropriate mitigations had been considered and taken forward … For organisations at the lower end of criteria thresholds, this would entail simple low – or no – cost preparedness measures such as ensuring that:

  • Staff are trained and aware of the nature of threats, likely attack methodologies and how to respond;
  • Staff are trained to identify the signs of hostile reconnaissance and take appropriate action; and
  • There are plans in place for an organisation’s response to different attack types, which are regularly trained and exercised.

That means training a changing cohort of volunteers to an appropriate standard – which will come at a cost. Proper risk assessments will have to be carried out, and standards agreed for security. What happens if someone attending 6.30 Evensong refuses to be searched? It’s a problem, particularly as the right to attend Church of England services is enshrined in law.

Unfortunately, the legislation is aimed at premises, rather than activities. For the best of reasons, if this legislation is passed unamended, a new industry will be established, to go alongside the existing CRB vetting procedures, where the costs and time involved vastly outweigh the benefits for most voluntary organisations. It will be consultants, training organisations and insurers who will define what is optimal for each establishment, and price things accordingly.

Churchyards are not excluded – so it might be easier for churches to close them to the public, particularly in urban areas. Similarly, closing places of worship other than at times of services will be the cost-effective way forward for most rural churches, which until now have often been left unattended.

Going beyond ordinary health and safety legislation, the introduction of the protect duty places the responsibility and the potential fault on those who might be victims – the clergy and volunteers who run the churches – rather than on the terrorists who might perpetrate an outrage. 

In Britain today, some religious people take risks simply by exercising their faith in public. There are bad actors in the world who would like people to cease exercising their faith in public, indeed to stop exercising it at all. However, terrorising people into private spaces, and all for reasons of public safety, risks colluding with that desire to drive religion, quite literally, out of the public square.

Augustus Carp is the pen name of an occasional contributor to this blog. According to his autobiography, he is the Churchwarden of St James-the-Least-of-All, Kennington Oval.

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