Manchester Arena security firm 'not to blame for staff's inaction', inquiry told

Salman Abedi was caught on CCTV wandering around Victoria Station and the City Rooms of the arena for two hours before the attack. Credit: Greater Manchester Police

The firm responsible for stewarding and security at Manchester Arena told the public inquiry it was not to blame if its staff "missed opportunities" on the night of the suicide bombing.

Jonathan Laidlaw QC, representing stewarding firm Showsec, said the firm, "is not seeking to shift blame or to scapegoat" as he named the two junior employees, Kyle Lawler and Mohammed Agha, aged 18 and 19 at the time, who were alerted to suicide bomber Salman Abedi in the minutes before the blast.

Reports of Abedi, all in black and with a large rucksack, looking "dodgy" were passed on to the Showsec stewards around 15 minutes before the blast as the bomber waited for the crowd to emerge from an Ariana Grande show.

But the report was not passed on to the control room, both men telling the inquiry they were "conflicted" and unsure what to do.

Ambulance crews at the scene after the attack

Mr Lawler, paid £7.90 per hour, claimed to have tried to radio the report through to supervisors but could not reach the control room.

Minutes later Abedi detonated his rucksack bomb, murdering 22 bystanders and injuring hundreds more in the City Room at the arena.

Mr Laidlaw said despite some of the "withering criticism" directed at the firm by lawyers for the bereaved families, Showsec did care about security at the arena and were not about "cutting corners" in their operation.

The inquiry heard both stewards were part of a large minimum wage, casual workforce, with their training comprising largely of unpaid, online learning, done in their own time.

Doing such training work for free was "reflective of the practice across the industry" the QC said, and it was not possible to do classroom training due to the casual and seasonal nature of such work.

The Manchester Arena Inquiry has been hearing evidence since September 2020

However, it emerged many of the training modules could be "completed" by a single click, with evidence suggesting workers did not properly absorb the information but simply clicked multiple times to get the training done.

Mr Laidlaw maintained the firm provided industry-standard training and its staff were experienced and equipped to do the job.

He said: "In pointing out that its staff, including Mr Agha and Kyle Lawler, were trained to know what to do when confronted by a suspicious individual, Showsec is not seeking to shift blame or to scapegoat.

"Why Mr Agha and Mr Lawler did not act in accordance with their training must be a matter for the inquiry.

"Showsec's point is that if there were failures on the part of Mr Agha and Mr Lawler then this cannot be attributed to a lack of appropriate training."

The inquiry has been told that it is 'unlikely' CCTV could have picked up the bomber

A pre-egress check of the mezzanine area, a CCTV blindspot where Abedi hid in the City Room, had been agreed between SMG, operators of the arena and Showsec, who they subcontracted to provide security and stewards at events.

But there had been a "breakdown in communication" between the firms about whether and how this was done, the inquiry heard.

Mr Laidlaw said the company was not "sheltering behind excuses" when he said its staff had no lawful means of preventing the bomber entering that area or making his way up to the mezzanine level.

He said: "The sad fact is that the public's unrestricted access to the City Rooms provided an opportunity which was ruthlessly exploited by a terrorist who was perpetrating an appalling criminal act.

"If the bomber had been confronted by a visit from Showsec staff to the mezzanine level as part of the pre-egress checks, or indeed any police officer who ought to have been on duty, we can have no real idea of what he the bomber might have done. "

Mr Laidlaw said Showsec's role, as a provider of "crowd management services" was subordinate to that of the police and SMG and its staff had no right to stop or search anyone in public areas outside the arena, such as in the City Room.

"It's not a matter of passing the buck," Mr Laidlaw added, "or of ignoring its responsibilities. That's a fact and the legal position."

He said Showsec fell short in some areas, such as in its risk-assessment, but this did not cause or allow the attack to take place. And he said there was "no basis" for suggestions by lawyers from families of the bereaved that the firm "put profit before safety".

He said Greater Manchester Police, with their experience in counter-terrorism, should have taken charge of safety at the arena and that a proper risk assessment by police "may well have identified the cracks in a system" prepared by two private firms.

He added: "As it was, Showsec was left to do its best without the support both they and the public were entitled to."

The public inquiry is looking at the background circumstances before and during the attack on May 22, 2017.

The hearing continues.