Unintended Consequences of the Protect Duty


A government consultation reveals some significant concerns for churches and places of worship. 

As chair of the Faith Sector Panel of the London Resilience Forum I have a lot to do with London’s Faith Communities’ response to terrorism (see here for my role). So it was with interest that I heard that there was to be a consultation on a new “Protect Duty” to “make the public safer at publicly accessible locations.”

The proposals follow campaigning by Figen Murray, whose son Martyn was tragically killed in the Manchester Arena attack, to introduce “Martyn’s Law” which aims to legislate for a duty on those who own or manage publicly accessible places to take actions to reduce the threat of terrorism. The ‘simple common sense security’ for which Figen Murray calls must be right; but the legislation now being consulted on causes considerable concern.

The proposed legislation has very significant unintended consequences for places of worship. In my view it needs to be significantly adjusted if it is not to give terrorism a win.

Chair of the Faith Sector Panel following the 2017 Westminster Bridge attack

The following reflections are my own, but I am aware that there are significant concerns about the proposals in the Faith Sector in London, in the churches and in the Church of England. I would encourage as many individual places of worship and people from the faith communities as possible across the country to consider and respond to the consultation.

At consultation events it has been clear that a large number of individual responses would be welcome, and indeed will be necessary to effect change to the proposals.

As I am writing this in a personal capacity, in the rest of this post, rather than speaking of “places of worship”, I shall write about “churches”. However, I believe that all I am writing would apply equally to other places of worship.

Churches will indeed be caught by the legislation

It is proposed the duty will apply to “any place to which the public or any section of the public has access, on payment or otherwise, as of right or by virtue of express or implied permission” and which has a capacity of 100 persons or more as a threshold.

The duty could also “include organisations with a number of outlets, below a 100 persons or more venue capacity, across a wide geographical (often national or UK wide) footprint, where there is significant and/or regular public footfall and public engagement, on a routine and often daily basis e.g. high street retailers, supermarkets, betting shops, newsagents, chemists, and petrol stations.”

Further, the consultation states: “We consider that it is reasonable that a Protect Duty should apply to large organisations employing 250 people or more, operating at publicly accessible locations.”

Clearly most churches will come under these definitions. That is a lot of places.

What the proposed legislation requires

The consultation 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 (implemented or plans in place for their progression). 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.”

Vigil in Trafalgar Sq 2017 - As it stands Places of Worship will be brought into the new Duty

Some Problems which the consultation must resolve

The duty will be onerous and costly even though it is supposed not to be

Those measures describes as “no or low cost” will in fact be very costly and onerous.

Training and exercising is costly in terms of time and money. If training and or exercising is to be a requirement then someone who knows what they are doing will need to deliver that, and accredited courses cost. Small organisations will not be able to afford expensive training courses for large numbers of ever changing volunteers. Things which seem simple enough like ‘checking bags at the entrance’ are in fact very difficult for places of worship. Training and policies are needed. As with track and trace for covid there needs to be an understanding of what to do if someone refuses to be searched but asserts their right to attend public worship – a right which is enshrined in law (at least for the Established Church).

Part of the problem is that the proposals use capacity of the building rather than the nature of the event ats the threshold for the duty.

We are used to different risk assessments for worship in a church or for a concert. The police will support a church for a funeral at which there may be trouble.  Although the consultation emphasises that the Duty should be light touch and a “plan relevant to the threat” it will not necessarily be the government, but insurers who will start to require that we have maximised responses against a worst case scenario in every event. If legislation is to apply to churches it needs to be framed to prevent this drift.

Presently anti-terrorism insurance cover is not appropriate for most churches. (And it has not been very good: until recently the most commonly available policy defined terrorism as “an act designed to bring down the government” which would have meant that the last terrorist attack on British soil which would have paid out would have been the gunpowder plot!) Churches may be forced to look at this again if they have a statutory duty to take cognizance of terrorist threats, potentially adding considerably to premiums for church insurance. As the penalties are civil ones and not criminal ones, there is the potential to need to insure against being held liable following an attack.

Responsibility for the duty may not be clear cut

Especially in urban areas church yards form vital contributions to the local area. The duty as it stands would require levels of risk assessment and management for these spaces. True, they are sometimes closed and in the care of the Local Authority; but the increased costs of mitigating against terrorist attacks in churchyards which are open for burials (often those serving more rural communities) would fall to the local church. This is surely an unintended consequence, but it needs to be dealt with.

Specific events can also have uncertain lines of responsibility. During Covid we have realised the lack of clarity about funerals, where responsibility is mixed between the family, the funeral director and the incumbent / PCC.

It will tend to close places of worship to the public

The simplest way to comply with the legislation will be to close access to the public. Many smaller churches which are often simply left open and unattended may feel that this is their only option. If just one church which would otherwise have been open for individual prayer or visiting decides to close as a result of this, the terrorists will have had a major success.

Organizations which depend on volunteers will be given yet more burdens

Most churches depend extensively on volunteers and have very limited resources for paid staff. The proposals are very unclear about the limits of those who would require training. Almost certainly pressure from insurers and fear of inspection will lead to volunteers and paid staff being required to undertake training. For example, “every venue that hosts any event to which the public have access on payment or otherwise, should have at least 25% of their staff CT Awareness Trained. In addition, we propose that every such venue, should have at least 1 on -duty manager who has received the relevant ACT Awareness Training Course (ACT Operational and/or ACT Strategic).” (here, p7)

 Again and again the consultation emphasises that this is intended to be light touch, but it is difficult to see where boundaries will lie in a church context, about who is “staff.” We are all aware that in dealing with risk the tendency is to drift towards maximum mitigation.

The Duty will be imposed on churches of all sorts

Some broader issues

The proposed legislation will have the unintended consequence of giving the terrorists a ‘win’

Terrorism works by fear. Outrages are perpetrated to scare us into doing what the terrorists want or changing our behaviours to suit their aspirations. This legislation in reaction to terrible terrorist acts forces us to change our behaviours in ways which serve their ends and not ours.

Imposing the Duty on churches is disproportionate

We are all aware, and many of us have been involved in different ways, in high profile tragic incidents in which some have died. Many of us were deeply involved in repeated responses, especially in the course of 2017. There are some which do not make as much news. Despite sustained periods of high threat levels in recent times, the number of actual incidents in the UK remains mercifully small, even following 2017. These proposals, at a time when it has recently been possible to reduce the threat level, should be considered especially in terms of churches. Clergy are far more likely to be attacked by their parishioners than by terrorists.

Risk assessment

Clearly risk assessment lies at the heart of discharging the Duty. If this is to be kept proportionate there needs to be more information than the current UK threat level. Just because someone could break in to church during a service and shoot the parishioners, what is the actual likelihood that they will? A church is both theologically and legally a place from which people can come and go freely. To inhibit that is a grave step to be taken not just on the basis of possibility but on weighing probabilities. Police community engagement teams already work with churches to do this whenthey have intelligence. Why is more needed?

Responsibility for tragedy is shifted from the perpetrator to the victims

Going beyond ordinary health and safety legislation, the introduction of the Protect Duty places a responsibility and a potential fault on those who might be victims – the clergy and volunteers who run the church – rather than on the terrorists who perpetrate an outrage. The report into the proposed law states for example (p7) on mitigation of risks by means of security equipment: “It is our belief that the requirement to have a vulnerability assessment and mitigation plan then places the operator of the place or space as the holder of any unresolved risks, and liable for any consequences that might arise.” Churches will feel they need to install CCTV and other measures which currently they largely do not have and would struggle to afford and maintain. Not doing so shifts the blame for a terrorist outrage from the terrorist to the church; to the victim. This is wrong.

The duty removes agency from individuals and organisations

Religious people in general and Christians in particular take risks simply by exercising their faith in public. They choose to do this as part of their commitment to their beliefs. Martyrdom lies at the heart of Christianity, and simply because in the West we have mercifully been able to live in relative openness and safety that does not take this away. The terrorist would like us to cease exercising our faith in public, indeed to stop exercising it at all.

Terrorising us into private spaces is designed to remove a major opportunity of sharing our faith with others and inviting them to join us. The draft legislation risks colluding with that desire in driving religion quite literally out of the public square.

Please Respond

I would urge as many people as possible to respond to the consultation to resist the application of this legislation to churches without major changes.


  1. Jolly hard work, even though I did not even try to answer all the questions. But thank you for highlighting this.

  2. Thank you, Father Luke - consultation filled in expressing concerns as a vicar of 3 rural churches. Of course we can never say never, but the risks to nearly all churches and other places or worship, seem negligible.

  3. Very difficult completing this form which shows absolutely no understanding of places of worship

  4. The gap between the proposed requirements and the reality of churches run by amateur volunteers, mostly elderly, who are not always present even at services is so vast as to render proposals in their present form meaningless.

    I'm doubtful about a document where the "Introduction" is on Page 7

  5. Whilst the threat of terrorism cannot be denied, the scale and likelihood (a fundamental part of any assessment of risk) are not addressed within these proposals. Indeed what constitutes terrorism is not adequately defined, leaving the legislation a hostage to unintended over-application.

    The consultation document is full of contradictory statements or approaches, espousing minimal action on the one hand and all-encompassing scope on the other. Incompatible bed-fellows.

    The questions are very poorly framed, all leading towards what would seem to be a foregone conclusion that all the suggestions should be included, but it is just by who and how to be resolved. Those type of questions are for second stage consultations where the requirements are agreed and it is the detail of legislation or guidance which is in question. Almost impossible to answer meaningfully.

    Turning to places of worship (specifically churches) who has the "Duty to Protect?" - an established principal of H&S legislation is one of duty holders, usually organisations with named responsible individuals, so who are they? Church Councils? Dioceses? Local clergy? Church wardens, Deacons etc.?

    If there is an omission, or a failure, who is responsible?
    How could they demonstrate that they have discharged their duties?
    Who would volunteer with such onerous responsibilties?

    The reference to the red-tape challenge etc. is not pursued - If we look at whom is being protected, is there not adequate legislation already in place (if appropriately used) for example through things such as H&S Legislation (Section 2 for employees (which includes volunteers) and Section 3 for members of the public). So where are the gaps - probably in the public realm, that is to say LAs etc.

    Insurers are risk averse to an extreme, so there will be another industry which will grow around any new legislation. - beware. costs arriving left right and centre.

    Which agency would be responsible for the oversight?

    Would a Parish Church, or place of worship stand on its own (potentially exempt), or woudl it be considered to be part of a wider grouping... ?

  6. In summary, there is already legislation which can cover this, more is not required. What is needed is clarity on what is reasonably practicable , what is relevant, appropriate and proportionate.

  7. Dear Fr Luke,
    Thanks for this. I've had a go at the consultation response, but it's fairly hopeless as it asks no questions about whether the legislation is justified in the first place. I've written to my MP - text below in case you find it helpful as a template.

    Shailesh Vara Esq., MP,
    The House of Commons
    SW1A 0AA

    Dear Mr Vara,

    Concerns about new PROTECT duty

    I am writing to ask you to take an interest in a current Government consultation that proposes new obligations with regard to counter-terrorism on all running public venues, including churches. (The consultation details can be found here: Protect Duty - GOV.UK (www.gov.uk).)

    While the intentions behind this consultation are no doubt of the best, there are widespread concerns within the Church of England that its effects on churches could be very onerous and expensive: putting up churches’ insurance premia and requiring paid-for training which elderly volunteers may not even be willing to undertake. Many churches are fragile organisations that rely on a handful of volunteers, and the new obligations could lead to their closure to the public. All this - to address a risk that, from where I sit with responsibility for three rural churches, seems very low indeed – looks like a sledgehammer to swat a midge. I imagine that these concerns will be shared by other places of worship – and, in general, by those running venues with large capacity and small numbers regularly attending, or who do not charge for attendance, and who therefore rely on volunteers. Information on costs and benefits in the consultation is almost non-existent.

    Further information and church concerns relating to the consultation can be found here: Unintended Consequences of the Protect Duty (frlukemiller.blogspot.com).

    If the effect of new legislation is to increase the public sense of threat, and to lead churches and other venues to close their doors to the public, then terrorism will have scored a victory.

    I would be grateful if you would look into what can be done to safeguard parish churches and similar organisations from burdens that are disproportionate to any demonstrable risk.

    Yours sincerely,

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